Members of Australia’s third-largest Christian denomination, the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA), are meeting online this weekend to keep the Church’s national work ticking over in a post-COVID world.
The pandemic has played havoc with arrangements for the Church’s 16th Assembly meeting – the national decision-making forum where elected members decide the UCA’s national priorities, resolve any burning doctrinal issues, and choose national leaders.
The 16th Assembly meeting will mark a number of firsts.
Assembly dates and locations are set three years in advance, and the original plan was for Assembly members to gather on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast over five days from 16-19 July. The contingencies around COVID meant those plans were abandoned back in January in favour of an online meeting from 16-17 July.
For the 16th Assembly, a reduced number of members (down from 265 to 188) will consider a minimalist agenda – including the installation of a new President, the election of a President-elect and the election of members of the Assembly Standing Committee.
This time around there’ll be no consideration of proposals, which have been postponed until the Assembly can reconvene at a face-to-face gathering, hopefully sometime in 2022.
So there’s no chance of revisiting the 15th Assembly’s historic decision to allow UCA ministers to conduct same-sex marriages.
Notwithstanding the absence of proposals, the 16th Assembly meeting will mark a number of firsts.
Rev Sharon Hollis, former Moderator of the Synod of Victoria and Tasmania, will become the first ordained woman to serve as President since Church union in 1977.
Obviously, the 16th Assembly will be the first national online meeting of its kind and, as such, will be a test of how well the Church’s community building and discernment practices fit into an online setting.
Previous Assemblies have gone for six days and have had a strong emphasis on building Christian community before decision-making in line with Uniting Church’s ‘Manual for Meetings’.
The tradition is for members to sit in table groups in a large hall, join in worship, share meals and discussion together as they consider the business of the meeting.
Questioners line up at microphones and members in the room respond to speakers, questioners and their proposals by holding up orange (warmth to a point of view) or blue (coolness) cards as part of consensus decision-making.
Just how well that community works online for a church whose leadership is dominated by an older demographic will be a significant challenge.
Rev Hollis will play a key part in this, as her job is to chair the meeting. There will no doubt be many requests for speakers to unmute themselves.
The choice of President elect … is a tantalising litmus test of the UCA’s self-image.
But the most interesting choice this weekend will be among the candidates for President-elect – the person who will serve as President from 2024-2027.
This choice is a tantalising litmus test of the UCA’s self-image.
Of the four candidates, three are ministers of a Pacific Islander background.
The Assembly, whose members are overwhelmingly white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant and are part of the Baby Boomer generation, have until now, never elected a person of colour to be their spiritual leader and the public face of the Uniting Church.
Culturally and linguistically diverse candidates for President-elect have presented themselves unsuccessfully on a number of previous occasions.
For a Church that has publicly supported causes like Black Lives Matter and for whom inclusion is a pillar of its identity, this choice of future leader looms as a moment of truth.
Is the UCA ready for a President of colour?
We’ll know this weekend.
Matt Pulford was the lead communicator for the Uniting Church Assembly from 2012 to 2021.