Mark the Word – Summer 2013

Summer 2013

Letter to the Moderator

Uniting our Future – Discussion with Presbytery

Church Council Update

Church Service Times

Christmas Bowl Appeal

Editorial

“Dear All

The full horror of the Bombing at Peshawar has not really been publicised. Please could you strongly consider supporting this Fund Raising initiative for the victims by the Australian Association for Pakistani Christians (AAPC). (November 30, 7pm, at St John’s Anglican Church, Toorak. More details here).

Seventy children were orphaned, 20 of whom need to be accommodated in an orphanage. Injuries were horrific including to Kashmala, a beautiful 16 year old young woman who lost her right leg and sustained severe injury to the other leg.

Come and support us – the Pakistani Christian community is under greater pressure than ever and is reeling, but not defeated after this abomination. Hope to see you there!

Blessings, Janette”

This email was sent to me by Janette, who is both a near and dear neighbour of mine at Willsmere, and also office manager and parishioner at St James Old Cathedral West Melbourne, so her church is a neighbour of Mark the Evangelist as well.

The bombing at Peshawar was widely reported as an attack on Christians for no other reason than their faith. Read The Guardian report

I think this fundraiser is timely and focuses on the helping the victims, not fury about the perpetrators. It seems to me to raise the wider issue of what we “ordinary people” do when faced with injustice – or any situations beyond our control.

We can raise money and awareness, we can take issue in a reasonable but forthright way, and we can debate and discuss to ameliorate the loss and pain.

This unusually difficult issue of your newsletter has examples of all these responses. It all serves to show the effort that goes on behind the scenes, not just on particularly difficult issues, but every day to keep the wheels of Mark the Evangelist turning.

On your behalf may I thank Craig and members of the Church Council, particularly Heather Mathew, Alan Wilkinson and Ann Wilkinson, whose contributions have been most welcome to this thought-provoking issue of Mark the Word. (And Rod Mummery for yet again simply getting it online!).

Finally, Christmas is in our sights, and we aim to bring you a much happier, special celebratory newsletter in mid-December. You still have a week to contribute! I hope this music from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio may put you in the mood …

Peace, love, happiness,
Suzanne Yanko

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Letter to the Moderator from Rev Craig Thompson

15 October 2013

Dan,

I write in response to your “letter to the church” of October 9, received by all congregations, presbyteries and agencies in the Synod and, presumably, widely read in worship services on Sunday October 13.

It was a difficult letter to read – or more to the point, to understand – as it was not clear whether you intended to make an apology on the part of the Synod leadership and others involved in the accumulation of debt, or were expressing regret for the events which have brought us to this place. To be sorry that something has happened and to be sorry for it having happened – implying some culpability – are quite different things, and it is not clear in your letter which of these you intended. No one doubts that the Synod’s officers regret that the church finds itself in its present circumstances; it is the “why?” which is the pressing concern. The demand for “blood” – “who?” in place of “why?” – is rightly rejected, but it has been rejected in Synod communications in such a way that we have had all Lamentations and scarcely a hint of Jeremiah. This imbalance, characteristic of much of the publically presented theology of our church, is sensed well by those who hear it. Quite simply, while it is undoubtedly true that “we are all hurting today” this is not felt in the wider church as a reconciling truth. It cannot be heard as a reconciling truth because our situation has largely been presented through the Synod’s “pastoral response” as being along the lines of having suffered an accident or a natural disaster, such that no one is accountable and it is only to God that we need to be reconciled and not to each other.

I understand that you have sought to tread a very narrow line between the official position that “no single person, committee or presbytery is entirely at fault in this situation” and the demands from the wider church for a giving of account. Strictly speaking, in terms of the processes under which, we tell ourselves, we operate, no single individual, committee or council can be held accountable. We seek to be a conciliar church and the decisions regarding Acacia College from its conception to its closure (and since) passed through all the required channels. Strictly speaking, each congregation, through its freedom to participate in (or, at least, nominate for) the various councils of the church, had a role in the decisions which led to the investment in Acacia College and the resolutions concerned the incurred debt. And yet it is also the case that there are significant imbalances in the decision-making and regulatory processes of the church. There is a relatively small group of people who have the time, wherewithal or favour to move in the leadership circles of the church which sign-off on projects like these. It is also the case that congregational and presbytery decisions are generally regulated by Synod policy in a way which does not apply in reverse. In the case of my own congregation, a recent large defrauding of Hotham Parish brought significant criticism from Synod officers, the demand (not met) for the sacking of Hotham Mission’s Director and the punitive withholding of Parish funds by the Synod. The fraud was perpetrated by a clever criminal under the nose of a negligent auditor – all hidden from the Parish leadership – but the Parish (now the congregation of Mark the Evangelist) leadership was held to account for the loss and continues to bear the blame. By contrast, in the case of Acacia College the losses happened in broad daylight, and no one is to blame. These imbalances are replicated in many stories of different scale throughout the Synod’s (region) dealing with the Synod (office), and a sense of cover-up in communication with the wider church does not help. (Why, for example, has the full text of the President’s ruling not been communicated to the wider church with its interpretation by the Project Control Group, but only the legalese of its conclusion? It’s just not a good “look”). The decision to insulate Synod reserves and the ministries they fund from the debt-reduction funding has further exacerbated a sense of “us” and “them” in the church, communicating as it does that what the Synod funds from its capital resources is more important than what local congregations fund from theirs. In any particular instance this may be true but as policy it is not, even if it is all God’s work.

On the imbalances which led to the current strategy for delivering ourselves of the debt, there is the matter of how long it took to advise the church of the size of the debt, and then gather to deal with it. My own disengagement with the Synod and its meetings in recent years – for which I am now sorry – was largely on account of a sense that most things which mattered had already been decided prior to the meetings which were to confirm them. Despite the fact that budgets and visions and reviews and such things are presented for consideration and confirmation (or otherwise), it is typically either beyond the competence of such a council as the Synod to assess properly or – more importantly – to propose alternatives in the space of a Synod or Standing Committee meeting. In the case of the proposed divestments, the Synod officers who presented it had the benefit of months of focussed work and in reality had only to wait until the Synod meeting needed to end and a decision needed to be made for the initial proposal to be accepted largely intact. Many other much more nuanced approaches might have been developed had the matter not been left to debate on the Synod floor, for disparate voices on the Synod floor cannot construct a financing model. The “Synod” (meeting) did not, then – in any real sense – decide that this was way the way to go; the Synod office’s structuring of the problem and processing of the debt-reduction proposal were such that there was nothing else to be done but to acquiesce to the current funding model. (Mutatis mutandis, the same might also be argued for the investment in Acacia College in the first place). I cannot help thinking that panic and fear of exposure ruled the day in the approach taken by Synod leadership in dealing with this and that we are now bearing the pastoral cost, in addition to the monetary cost of the debt.

This process aside, the mantra which drove the hard push for a quick decision and rapid payment of the debt was the size of the interest bill which is required to be paid. We discover now that the actual cost of divestment may be as much as $21million, four times the maximum interest which would have to have been paid on the debt for two years (and in fact, more, as the interest burden would be reduced over the two years). The economic rationale of this is staggering. Given the cost of this particular approach to covering the debt, it is mind-boggling that the process of debt extinction could not have been extended over a longer period in order to allow for a much more nuanced and economically informed treatment of the debt. Are we so unfree as to not to be able to shift our divestment plans on this, even now, as the scope of the impact of the divestment becomes ever clearer? And the cost, of course, is much greater than the dollar value: the distraction of Synod personal and local ministry by the impact not only of the debt but of the way it is being handled is very high. The loss of credibility on the Synod’s part will also prove very high. This, in connection with the impact of the divestments on local income, will likely see the benefits of the highly questionable “future sustainability fund” itself largely consumed by the consequent reduction in Mission and Service contributions. Every reduction in mission and service giving – of which the Synod may expect there will be many – will consume the interest income from the new liquidity fund. We may end up being no better placed than we were before the $7million+ was lost, for all the pain suffered in the meantime.

The view from the pews, and probably most pulpits, is that a proper accounting has not yet been forthcoming. The sense “out there” is very strong that serious mistakes were made by Synod leadership in the lead up to the Acacia college closure, and continue to be made in the process towards extracting ourselves from the present predicament.

This week’s final reading from the preaching of Jeremiah speaks on failure and forgiveness in two ways relevant to our situation. The first is the experience that “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge” – an evocative image for interpreting our present situation and the tension between the Synod and the Synod. I do not think that anyone would like to see in our present situation a quick application of the verse which immediately follows this one, but that’s Jeremiah for you! The second, more important aspect of Jeremiah’s declaration concerns the new covenant. The text as it stands is all very “theological”, in that it speaks explicitly of a covenant between God and his people. Such a reading, while it has its place, risks limiting the significance of the new covenant to the “spiritual” relationship between God and the people. The new covenant must also have an impact on the relationship between the people themselves, as brokenness in this relationship was part of the critique which Jeremiah’s preaching brought to Judah. We continue to relate to one another through law carved in stone – Regulations, Risk Management, Resolutions, Councils, Project Control, Strategic Reviews – and so our hearts are cold. I wonder what Jeremiah’s heart-law, taking into account everything else of which he reminds us, would look like in the life of a church like ours, at this stage. Whatever the forthcoming “all church strategic review” might deliver to us, it will not likely be such heart-law. Strategies and reviews are stone-law. Yet such a reconciliation is what we need; we need a new covenant between the Synod and the Synod. And, if Jeremiah is right, it will involve judgement, confession and forgiveness on a much wider scale than will be comfortable for many of us. There is no new covenant without Babylon.

Dan, I do not envy you in the role you are having to play in all this; the ministry I anticipated exercising in my new placement is also now being significantly reshaped on account of the divestment decisions, although I have the benefit of being only “the messenger”. Doubtless you have also not needed yet another epistle to wade through; it is just that, after holding off from weighing in on all this for so long, I felt that I could not not write it.

You have my thoughts and prayers.

Yours in Christ,

Craig Thompson
Congregation of Mark the Evangelist
North Melbourne

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Divestment of Two Gatehouse Street Properties Under ‘Special Circumstances’
Church Council Discussion with Presbytery Liaison Team on Key Issues

Church Council met with Robert Elkhuizen (Presbytery Minister Administration) and Simon Watters (Chair Presbytery Resourcing Committee) on Thursday 7 November. Yarra Yarra Presbytery had appointed liaison teams to meet with all affected congregations and Robert and Simon were the Mark the Evangelist team. To lead into this discussion, a set of key issues was identified on behalf of Church Council and shared with Robert and Simon in advance. This summary report follows the issues raised.

  1. Why were the Acacia College assets sold for so little? Somewhere in the large volume of material sent out a figure of $8.7 million was mentioned.
    As neither he nor Simon had this information, and as this relates to Synod Standing Committee decisions, Robert suggested it was appropriate for Mark the Evangelist to ask the General Secretary for an answer to this question.
  2. How did Standing Committee reach the conclusion that an additional $21 million needed to be realised under the Special Circumstances to cover the cost, among other things, of the relocation of affected congregations? When was this decision taken by Standing Committee? In the spirit of transparency which was followed for the Synod discussions in May, please may we receive a copy of the proposal made to Standing Committee (that is, the grounds) for this decision. Is this purpose an appropriate use of ‘Special Circumstances’? For example, the Assembly President’s Ruling did not consider reserves for future ‘bail-outs’ to be appropriate. When now referring to the Synod resolutions, why is the term ‘net of costs’ added to the amount to be raised before the special circumstances process is to be discontinued?
    Again, as neither Robert nor Simon are on Synod Standing Committee, they suggested we need to ask the General Secretary for a copy of the $21 million proposal to Standing Committee and for answers to the other questions raised by this issue.
  3. As requested by email, we would like the grounds (the ‘narrative’) for the PCG recommendation to be shared with us, please. We wish to see the way in which ‘Equal weighting was allocated to mission and to commercial considerations’ (G.S. letter of 9 October 2013) in our case.
    Robert noted that there clearly were different views of ‘mission’ in different parts of the Synod. Not being part of the UOF Project Control Group, he did not have access to the grounds upon which Mark the Evangelist divestments were recommended. Here again Robert suggested it would be appropriate to put this question to the General Secretary as Standing Committee was responsible for all of the Uniting Our Future divestment decisions.
  4. How does Mark the Evangelist access the ‘income replacement’ to be provided by the Property Board for five years? In our case we expect that to take the form of the annual interest (4%) for five years on the return on the sale of the two Gatehouse Street properties to enable the congregation to start again from square one with the planning for the sustainable development of the Curzon Street site.
    At the beginning of discussions on this issue, it was reported that Mark the Evangelist only that day had received an email from Simon Spitz of the UOF Relocation Team which indicated that they were gathering information to inform the income replacement proposals for affected congregations. Although the Relocation Team were asking about rental income, during the discussion it was suggested by Robert that the focus for Mark the Evangelist should be the ‘cost of changing direction’. It was suggested that Church Council should respond to Simon Spitz along these lines.
  5. What suggestions might Presbytery wish to offer as we consider the next steps for us to deal with our (unusable heritage) symbol of a dying Uniting Church in North Melbourne?
    Robert explained that Presbytery did not see its role as offering proposals to Congregations. Rather the Liaison Teams were intended to help congregations deal with the consequences of divestment, help them identify a way forward, and work with them over time to help them realise the course of action they have determined. For example, Robert suggested that the Church Council could work with the congregation to look at options for the future. He suggested that a starting point could be to envisage where the Congregation including Hotham Mission want to be in 5 years time. That is a task in which Paul Stephens could provide assistance as Presbytery Minister Mission and Education. He reassured Church Council that business plans and property development proposals by Mark the Evangelist would be supported by Presbytery.
  6. We have a number of specific questions on where we go from here:
    1. What assistance will be forthcoming from Synod Property Services in relation to the proposed property development at Curzon St?
      Robert recalled that, during the second PCG conversation with Mark the Evangelist, Paul Walec had offered that Synod Property Services (of which he is Director) would be prepared to assist with the development of a revised approach for the Curzon Street site. Mark the Evangelist would need to approach Property Services directly to discover what that assistance might cover and who would be expected to pay for it.
    2. When can we expect such assistance from Synod Property Services? Who is to initiate it, and how? Timelines are important, as the congregation may decide that to have to wait so long would be too long, and seek other funding or accommodation solutions.
      Robert suggested that Property Services will be the only body who can answer this question. He suggested that the initiative lay with Mark the Evangelist and it could make a move whenever it feels it is ready to do so. Robert had consulted with Property Services, who had indicated that they had the resources to begin work with the congregation whenever we made the request.
    3. Will the congregation be dealing directly with Synod Property Services, the Presbytery or some other committee or person? Who will determine the order of business in this process, including the viability or attractiveness of any proposal? Or will we be following the standard PAIS/BOMAR project governance structure, process and systems with which we are already very familiar?
      Robert thought that we would follow the standard Property and Insurance Services (PAIS)/BOMAR project governance structure, process and systems. In that process, the congregation will determine in the first instance the appropriateness and viability of the new development concept for the site. As part of the project governance system, as applications are progressed the congregation would consult with the Presbytery Resourcing Committee to gain their endorsement. With that support, applications would proceed to Synod Property Services for consideration and recommendation to the Synod Property Board.
    4. Given that the Wesley proposal is the model touted to be emulated for MtE, how did that process work, who worked on it, and what else can MtE discover about it before we ourselves commit to a similar model?
      Robert acknowledged that the Wesley project is quite different from the Mark the Evangelist site given the latter’s significant heritage status. However either Property Services or members of the Wesley Project Control Group would be the people to ask these questions of who was involved and how did it work.
    5. What expenses will be involved in this process, and who will be responsible for them – both Property Services’ own expenses, and any other expenses, noting the expenses incurred to date on the former approved restoration and renewal project?
      Robert suggested that this question of expenses and who will be responsible needs to be discussed with Property Services. However during the discussion it became apparent that this could be closely linked with the income replacement issue raised in point 4 above.
    6. Is the congregation bound to commit to any plans proposed by Property Services?
      Robert indicated that in his opinion the short answer is no. The initiative will always lie with the congregation.
    7. Should the Congregation decide not to proceed with renovating the church, instead selling up Curzon Street and re-accommodating ourselves and UCHM otherwise,
      1. who would bear the costs of such a sale?
        Robert thought that the costs of such a sale would come out of the sale returns.
      2. would BOMAR sharing of the property sale proceeds apply? Might this be regarded as a special case which the Synod itself has forced because of the impact of the Gatehouse street divestments? In such a case, shouldn’t all the proceeds flow to MtE without Synod netting yet another $2 million share?
        Mark the Evangelist would first need to establish its missional vision, after which it would be in a position to go to BOMAR with a proposal, keeping in mind that BOMAR did resolve on 8 June 2010 to exempt Mark the Evangelist Parish Mission from BOMAR PSP rules in relation to the restoration and renewal of the Mark the Evangelist church and site.

Discussion continued after Robert and Simon left the meeting. Church Council decided on several steps including:

  • Church Council will write to the General Secretary, raising the questions to which the Liaison Team were not in a position to respond. We will copy this to Yarra Yarra Presbytery and request their endorsement.
  • Included in the Report to the Congregation, there will be an invitation to interested members of the congregation to discuss the issues raised in small discussion groups. Group meetings have been arranged for Tuesday the 26th at 7.30pm at the Langmore’s and on Wednesday the 27th at 10.00am at the Wilkinson’s. Please let Wendy or Ann know that you would like to participate. The outcome of these discussions will be reported back to the next Council meeting on 5 December for consideration and for possible inclusion in the letter to the General Secretary.

Ann Wilkinson
Craig Thompson
Alan Wilkinson

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Church Council Update
Church Council met on 7 November and reports as follows.

  • Uniting our Future has been a major focus for Church Council and the congregation has been kept informed. Representatives of the Yarra Yarra Presbytery, Robert Elkhuizen and Simon Watters attended the 7 November Church Council meeting. A report of that meeting will be available at the Congregational Meeting on 24 November. Church Council also decided to arrange two or three small groups during the week beginning 25 November to enable discussion of the issues raised in the report. Church Council also decided to write to the General Secretary raising a number of broader but related issues. This letter will be available at the Congregational meeting on 24 November.
  • The above discussion was the main agenda item, resulting in several matters being postponed until the December meeting of Church Council.
  • It was agreed to add additional signage to the notice board in Curzon Street indicating the location of the Hall.
  • The document Focuses for Mission and Ministry for 2014 (formally Vision, Mission and Goals) will be presented at the Congregational Meeting on 24 November.
  • The Budget for 2014 was approved for distribution to the congregation in readiness for discussion at the Congregational meeting on 24 November. The Council noted the Hotham Mission draft budget which will be finalised at the next HMC meeting. Any variations will be brought to the congregational meeting on 24 November.
  • It was decided to postpone the election of 3 new Church Councillors until the New Year. Nominations will be called in early December with an election on 2 February.
  • Finance and Property Committee. A number of resolutions were received from the committee. Most were deferred for consideration at the December meeting. It was resolved to authorise the withdrawal of up to $25,000 from the UCA Funds Management Cash Portfolio to maintain adequate funds in the Parish operating account in November and December 2013.
  • Peter Rayner has advised that he will step down as Chair of the Finance and Property Committee at the end of the year.
  • Restoration and Renewal of NM Uniting Church Centre
  • Church Council resolved that the Project Control Group will go into abeyance until further notice from the Church Council.

Church Councillors* welcome your queries and feedback on any of these or other matters.

* Gaye Champion, Belinda Hopper, Wendy Langmore, Gus MacAulay, Heather Mathew, Rod Mummery, Tim O’Connor, David Sutherland, Craig Thompson, Alan Wilkinson, Ann Wilkinson.

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Notice re Church Services

Advent 4 (Dec 22): a service of Advent readings and Carols
Christmas Day: Worship at 9.30am

All other December and January services will be as normal, at 10am

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Christmas Bowl Appeal for 2013
Editor’s Note: Happily, this newsletter ends as it began: with ecumenical effort for good, as Heather Mathew explains:
Christmas Bowl LogoThank you to all who contributed generously to the Christmas Bowl in 2012!
With the help of the Christmas Bowl, Act for Peace project partners assist more than 1 million people living in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, the Pacific & Australia.

What is the Christmas Bowl?
The Christmas Bowl is the Christmas appeal of Act for Peace, the international aid agency of the National Council of Churches in Australia and a member of the global ACT Alliance.

The Christmas Bowl began in 1949, when the Rev. Frank Byatt placed an empty bowl on the table during Christmas dinner and asked his guests to contribute the cost of their meal, in order to support refugees escaping the devastation of World War II.

Today, the Christmas Bowl continues to be an ecumenical church appeal, with more than 2000 churches from 19 denominations getting involved around Australia. Each church brings a varied history of place, experience, and theology, but we share a common faith and belief that the future of Christians in Australia lies together.

Together, churches raise almost $2.5 million annually through the Christmas Bowl, which provides much needed assistance to people affected by conflict and poverty around the world.

This year, Mark the Evangelist’s appeal in support of the Christmas Bowl will be launched on the first Sunday of Advent, 1 December. Individual donation envelopes will be available for your use. On Christmas Day, the offerings at the worship service are donated to the Christmas Bowl.

Please consider how you are best able to support this wonderful ecumenical appeal.

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