Things are not sunny at Sunnybank Uniting Church

Sunnybank Uniting Church, a largely Pacific Islander congregation in southern Brisbane, will hold a meeting this Sunday to discuss an attempt by the Presbytery (a UCA regional body) Pastoral Relations Committee (PRC) to dissolve their local church.

In a January 7 letter, the South Moreton Presbytery’s PRC secretary said the PRC wanted to consult about whether the congregation had followed UCA regulations. And “if as a consequence of this consultation, PRC and subsequently Presbytery forms an opinion that you, Sunnybank UCA Congregation, are not capable of and/or unwilling to fulfil your purpose, functions and responsibilities … then the Presbytery will dissolve and cease to recognise Sunnybank UCA Congregation …”

Islander leaders in the congregation (the UCA term for a local church) believe that the dispute dates back to a 2018 vote by the UCA National Assembly to recognise same-gender marriages alongside the traditional rites. In the wake of that decision, Sunnybank joined an evangelical group in the UCA – the Assembly of Confessing Congregations (ACC).

The leaders believe relationships with the Presbytery became difficult after the church joined the ACC, a group that has dissented vigorously from UCA leadership.

More liberal members of the congregation left, but some progressives remained and issued complaints to the Presbytery, according to a timeline written by Lulu-OHa’angana Senituli, the Minister at Sunnybank, who resigned in July 2021. He describes his resignation as an attempt to take the pressure off the local church.

“The hope of the Presbytery and the … Queensland Synod is that this process brings clarity to those issues.” – Andrew Gunton

Andrew Gunton, Moderator (leader) of the UCA Queensland Synod (state council), confirmed the existence of the January 7 letter in a statement to Eternity.

“This letter laid out a confidential process of engagement between the Congregation and Presbytery to seek to resolve significant issues of concern,” he said in the statement.

“The hope of the Presbytery and the Uniting Church in Australia, Queensland Synod, is that this process brings clarity to those issues, and enables all those involved to live, grow and work within the polity and governance of the Uniting Church, and acknowledge one another in love and joy as believers in our Lord Jesus Christ.

“The Presbytery and Synod intend to conduct this engagement with the Congregation with the confidentiality, respect, and care which this situation requires and cannot make any further comment while the process is underway.”

A bold experiment?

It is possible to see Australia’s Uniting Church as being involved in a bold experiment since 2018, attempting to hold together conservative and progressive views. The progressive majority perceive that they are making room for a conservative minority at the cost of not fully affirming LGBTQI people throughout the church.

A Facebook response to an ACC member by the local South Moreton Presbytery makes that vision of inclusiveness clear:The South Moreton Presbytery includes a wide range of Congregations, including those which are ACC-aligned, evangelical, culturally diverse and uphold the traditional view of marriage, and we are committed to working and walking with them all within the polity and good conduct of the Church. “

The late Max Champion, who led the ACC group, would often cite “Neuhaus’ law.” This axiom was formulated by Richard John Neuhaus, the Lutheran-turned-Catholic founder of First Things magazine, “Where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed” – which captures the concern of the ACC members at Sunnybank and beyond.

Following Sentuli’s resignation as a UCA Minister, Sunnybank church announced his appointment as “team leader’ under the title of ‘Director of Mission’”. Senituli’s current role is to “provide strategic leadership to the vision and mission of our church”.

“The reality of my resignation was that I was forced to do so by the relentless pressure placed upon my congregation by the Presbytery … using the discipline process of the church to punish me for the decision of my congregation to become an ACC congregation immediately following the 2018 Assembly decision,” Senituli told Eternity after his resignation.

Parallels with US Church

The Sunnybank story has a curious parallel with the 12,000 member Mt Bethel United Methodist Church in North Carolina, where a similar dispute is playing out. The evangelical church resisted pressure from a progressive bishop to move its minister and employed him, like Senituli, in a lay position. The United Methodists (UMC), a global denomination, will find out this week whether its General Assembly will take place this year or be further COVID delayed. A proposal to split the church is likely to pass.

The equivalence is clear – a church hierarchy pressing the rules and an evangelical congregation feeling under pressure. The difference is that the UMC is discussing a split, while the UCA wants to continue with progressives and conservatives in the same church.

Declaration of interest – during the early years of Eternity, the author also edited the ACC quarterly.