Sunnybank church is dissolved, Presbyterians and Free Wesleyans offer help

The Sunnybank Uniting Church in Brisbane’s south is no more, leaving 300 members of the Congregation looking for a new church home.

It is an overwhelmingly Pacific Islander church, about 95 per cent islander, and most recently led by Lulu-OHa’angana Senituli, a Tongan minister.

David Baker, ex Moderator (state leader) of the Uniting Church in Queensland, was asked by the local Presbytery (the name for the regional councils of the UCA) to chair the meeting which dissolved the Sunnybank Church.

The ex Moderator outlined the reasons the South Moreton Presbytery took the drastic action to close the local church in a pastoral statement issued following the meeting.

“I acknowledge this cherished church community and their long and Spirit-filled history”

On “March 26, a special meeting of the South Moreton Presbytery voted to dissolve the Congregation of Sunnybank UC based on their discernment that the Congregation was incapable and unwilling to fulfil the responsibilities of a Congregation, specifically in relation to following the requirements for calling a minister, meeting to transact the business that belongs to the Congregation.

“I acknowledge this cherished church community and their long and Spirit-filled history, whose people love and serve the Lord Jesus Christ. I write to join with you in prayer for everyone who has been hurt, saddened, aggrieved, or confused by these events. And I write with determined hope that God has set a path forward for every one of us, and we must only prayerfully and humbly walk it, step by step.”

Exiled from the Sunnybank Uniting building, a mostly Pacific Islander gathering met at Acacia Ridge Presbyterian Church last Sunday afternoon. Phil Strong, the Presbyterian Moderator of Queensland, preached on Psalm 46, “God is our refuge and strength, a present help in times of trouble.”

The Presbyterians and the Free Wesleyan Church have offered help. But the leaders of the Pacific Islanders tell Eternity that they want to stay in the Uniting Church as long as they can, believing they abide by the church’s aims.

There are distinct ideas about what has led to the Sunnybank church closure that different groups of people hold. Perhaps the simplest explanation is in the Moderator’s statement that the local church (called a “Congregation” in the Uniting Church) did not follow church regulations in seeking a new minister.

Sunnybank needed a new minister because a series of complaints had been made about Senituli. He resigned as Minister in 2021, believing that he had become a lightning rod for protests and that stepping down might take the pressure off the church. The church then employed him in a lay role as “convenor of ministry functions”.

A church split by misunderstanding and views on marriage

Over some years, the Sunnybank Church had become more and more Islander and more conservative.

Sunnybank is a story not only of a church changing in ethnic make-up and theology but also of groups of people feeling they were disregarded. Pacific Islanders feel that the Uniting Church structure has disregarded them. For example, a formal complaint has been lodged against one Presbytery Official, who the Islanders allege spent time talking to the small Anglo group in the church rather than them. Eternity records this not to say there was anything deliberate on the part of this official, but to record what people feel.

On the other hand, changes in the church were accelerated by a group leaving, mostly but not only Anglo, numbering around 30 or 120 depending on who you talk to.

Some people unhappy with the changes in the church stayed and continued to engage with the Presbytery. The largely Anglo group who left – or in some small measure stayed – are the second group with a story of a church that changed and from which they had felt left out.

The Pacific island group believes that the split began when the Uniting Church adopted a same-gender marriage rite alongside traditional marriage in 2018. In response, the Sunnybank Church Council voted not to have same-gender weddings on the property and to join the conservative group, the Assembly of Confessing Congregations (ACC).

They believe that people with a more progressive view on marriage within Sunnybank began to raise complaints with the Presbytery. In this account, people with more progressive ideas were shocked that Sunnybank had taken the conservative route.

On the other hand, for the small Anglo group in the church to be perceived as co-operative in their relations with the wider Uniting Church while Pacific Islanders are seen as uncooperative, has stung.

Both groups feel aggrieved by the other

In this church dispute, it is very unfortunate that one group is mainly white, and the other group is almost entirely Pacific Islander.

The islander group allege a racial disparity.

For example, they view the presence of security guards at the meeting the Presbytery held at the church building to formally dissolve the Congregation, followed by a final worship service, as disrespectful.

Eternity is not charging anyone involved in the Sunnybank dispute with being racist but is simply reporting how some actions are perceived. Some members of the Anglo group have also made charges of “reverse racism,” of being disregarded and left out. Perhaps one way of putting it is that both the Pacific islander group at Sunnybank and the largely Anglo group that left are aware that their differences are held by two groups that consist primarily of two particular ethnicities. Both groups feel aggrieved by the other.

Having discussed Sunnybank both with members of the Islander groups and some who left, it is striking that both groups share a common feeling of being not listened to, picked upon and othered. Both groups are mourning the end of their local church. This loss is deeply felt by both groups.

The Pacific Islander group at Sunnybank believe that the two rites of marriage settlement in the Uniting Church is something they are being forced to respect. People with theologically conservative views believe that same-gender marriage is a sin. There are those on the left who hold that the UCA should move to a fully affirming position.

Eternity asked to clarify whether a new minister for Sunnybank would have to accept the two rites of marriage decision – known as R64.

“‘R64’ is not a theological teaching,” David Baker tells Eternity. “It refers to the 15th Triennial Assembly’s decision to recognise two statements of marriage which was made after a significant period of discernment. This was consistent with the Assembly’s powers and responsibilities under the Constitution and all Ministers of the Uniting Church are expected to comply with and respect the Assembly’s decisions and guidance.”

What does “respect” mean in this context? In the parallel discussion in the United Methodist Church, it is common to identify “compatibilists” and “non-compatibilists” among both conservatives and progressives. These designations refer to those okay with including people they disagree with on sexuality issues in the same church/denomination and those who wish the others were not present.

Can non-compatibilist congregations remain in the Uniting Church?

Does the level of respect required mean that those who are non-compatibilist no longer belong in the Uniting Church?

Readers should note that the South Moreton Presbytery includes the thriving evangelical NewLife church and several of its church plants. NewLife holds to traditional marriage.

The particularly outspoken nature of the ACC on sexuality is likely part of the Sunnybank issue. NewLife as a member of the evangelical “Propel” network in the UCA, is conservative but less likely to antagonise the hierarchy.

In Sunnybank’s case, the difficulty the two groups had in communicating with each other may also have played into the heated nature of the local dispute.

In working out what to do next, the members of Sunnybank need to work out whether the degree of respect required for the R64 decision is something they can live with.

The Islander group wants to remain a part of UCA

Representatives of the Pacific Islander group say they want to stay in the UCA, believing that they fit in the church described in the Basis of Union, the foundation document of the UCA. They are asking themselves whether they could form a branch of another ACC church in the denomination.

The Islander group explained that church membership is established by a local congregation’s church council. Surely, they ask, it would have been in order for the Sunnybank people to have been transferred to other congregations before their church was dissolved. They feel the uncertainty. “Who holds their membership now?” they cry.

When this question is put to ex Moderator David Baker, he tells Eternity, “Receiving people into UCA membership, baptism and confirmation into membership is the responsibility of the Congregation. Once received as a UCA member, that membership is recognised by the whole Uniting Church. Regulations clearly provide for existing UCA memberships to be held by the Presbytery in circumstances where there is no Congregation to hold people’s membership and to do so as a transitional arrangement until the person concerned finds a new place of membership.”

The Sunnybank situation is still fluid. The offers of help from a local Presbyterian church and the Free Wesleyan Church provide one possibility. Does Sunday’s meeting at Acacia Ridge begin a permanent exile or a temporary one? Will the Sunnybank people simply move to another Uniting Church?

“This could be the first ACC church plant,” Hedley Fihaki, national president of the ACC, tells me. Encouraging a Congregation to set up outside the Uniting Church would be a big call for a group that has spent the fourteen years since it was formed in 2006 urging conservatives to stay in the denomination.

Author’s Comment

I have watched the confessing church battles in several denominations for over 20 years. There are lessons from the sexuality war in The Episcopal Church (TEC), the Anglican church primarily based in the United States. Of the evangelical and Anglo-Catholic local parishes that left TEC, many of the ones who did best were the ones who left property behind without a legal fight – or only a brief one.

Choosing to focus on preaching the gospel rather than a legal fight worked for many churches. Taking a ten-year view, if the Sunnybank Pacific Islanders cannot see a way to be happy in the Uniting Church, they would be better off to leave as amicably as possible.