Every three years the General Assembly of Australia (GAA) meets for a week-long conference to discuss business relating to the federal church. Whereas the various state assemblies focus on governance and state based responsibilities, the federal assembly has supreme oversight and focuses on oversight of matters of worship, doctrine and discipline.

The GAA is comprised of representative ministers and elders from every State Assembly and presbytery throughout Australia. This means that a number of congregations will have been affected this week with their ministers and elders being away all week in Sydney. With assembly starting at 8:45am for prayer and going through to 9pm each day (Monday night to Thursday night), the whole experience can be quite exhausting.

The Presbyterian Church of Australia does not currently offer an executive summary of decisions—although that may well change in the future—but what follows is a list of the “top ten” things of what I thought were a highlight from the 2023 GAA:

  1. Preaching of the Word

The Biblical expositions this year were especially first-class. At the Assembly communion service, Michael Bedros (from Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Strathfield, NSW) delivered a powerful message from the book of Micah on the subject of godly leadership and the Gospel. Likewise, Eugene Hor (from GracePoint Presbyterian Church in Lidcombe, NSW) gave an inspiring series of sermons from the book of Acts at the start of each day. As the moderator said at one point, it was a feast for the soul and we were all very well-fed.

2. Emphasis on Prayer

Another highlight was the focus on prayer. Assembly informally began each day with a prayer meeting between 8:45am and 9:15am before the official business commenced at 9:30am. This meeting was always well attended and is a real sign of the spiritual health and vitality of the assembly. What’s more, the moderator regularly called upon one of his chaplains to pray for the ministry of a particular committee or person.

3. A Focus on Mission

From the opening night of Assembly, there was a decided focus on gospel proclamation and particular, cross-cultural mission. The new Moderator, David Burke, made this a concerted focus throughout the assembly. It also came through the testimony of the many overseas guests as well as ministries within the wider church.

4. Fellowship with Fellow Presbyterians

One of the best things about any assembly—state or federal—is the fellowship with other people. It is a blessing to catch up with old friends, make new acquaintances and even heal estranged relationships. In the sovereign providence of God, it is amazing how many “divine appointments” occur each day in which result in significant conversations. One aspect not to be overlooked is the important of sharing a meal or a coffee together. A price cannot be put upon the value which comes from this type of interaction.

5. A Spirit of Kindness and Grace

Following on from the previous point, the assembly was characterised by an atmosphere of “speaking the truth in love”. Sadly, this is not always the case in the courts of the church. But while the debate was at times robust, it was respectful. In keeping with the moderator’s exhortation, people treated one another with civility and Christian charity as brethren not only made in the image of God but redeemed through the blood of Christ.

6. Partnership with the other Churches

The assembly heard from a number of denominational leaders around the world. Each one was impressive in their own way. Perhaps I should give a very quick snapshot:

  • Rev. Jung Hoon Kim (Presbyterian Church of Korea – Hap Dong). Korea has become a powerhouse of the Gospel. Not only is the church strong in number but it is overtaking the West in terms of sending missionaries around the world.
  • Pastor Solomon Vanuaroro (Presbyterian Church of Vanuatu). The Presbyterian Church of Australia has had a long and treasured relationship with these people. Our commitment especially to the training college at Taula remains strong.
  • Rev. David Bayne (Grace Presbyterian Church New Zealand). This was for me, one of the most memorable presentations. Not only is David a wise and godly man, but the church in New Zealand has, over the past twenty years since it has been founded, experienced something of a revival. Each year it is planting new churches in both the North and South Island. The growth is steady and the gospel vision strong. This is really quite remarkable and something for which to praise God.
  • Rev. Hiralal Solanki (Indian Reformed Fellowship Australia) and Rev. Abhishek Barla (Reformed Presbyterian Church of India, and the Principal of the Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Dehra Dun). Due to Australia’s harsh visa restrictions, the  second report was actually presented via Kevin Murray, the director of APWM National. It is always sobering to hear from believers who are in countries where they are under the threat of persecution and of their faithfulness to the gospel.
  • Rev. Andrew Nugteren (Christian Reformed Church Australia). This presentation was by far the most entertaining. Andrew’s humour was a breath of fresh air late in the assembly. The Reformed Church in Western Australia is stronger than the Presbyterian, but there is a lovely partnership between our two denominations.

7. Resolution on Welcome to Country

One of the most significant decisions of the 2023 GAA was the position taken on Welcome to Country and Acknowledgement of Country. The debate was passionate and in the end decisive. Rather than explain the resolutions in my own words it might be best to simply cut and paste what was decided by the Assembly:

  1. Affirm that in spite of many mistakes and cruelties perpetrated since colonisation, yet much good, notably the proclamation of the gospel, has been accomplished for the benefit of the indigenous population.
  2. Affirm that there is no consensus, even among Aboriginal people, as to the meaning and significance of Welcome to Country and Acknowledgement of Country practices, and that the multiplicity of tribal traditions and boundaries of tribal areas make a consistent practice impossible.
  3. Affirm that the wording of Welcome to Country and Acknowledgement of Country practices almost invariably carries overtones of an indigenous spirituality inconsistent with Christian belief.
  4. Affirm that, as Christians, we have to avoid wording that suggests final ownership of land is vested in people rather than with the Creator.
  5. Declare that Welcome to Country and Acknowledgement of Country practices are inappropriate for public worship where the call to worship centres on God.
  6. Recognising that the past cannot be changed, encourage a positive desire to build bridges and to work prayerfully with Aboriginal people for reconciliation.
  7. Since there is no universally recognised official wording, permit freedom for churches to adopt wording consistent with the Christian world view and to use an Acknowledgement of Country for occasions outside of public worship; with words such as (adapted from the Bush Church Aid Acknowledgement of Country):

We acknowledge the triune God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit), the Creator of heaven and earth and His ownership of all things (Psalm 24:1).

We recognise that He gave stewardship of these lands upon which we meet to the indigenous occupants of the land (Acts 17:26).

We recognise that in His sovereignty, He has allowed other people groups to migrate to these shores.

We pray for civil peace for all people groups in order that the gospel of peace would be freely proclaimed (1 Tim.2:1-2).

8. Church and Nation Paper on Sexuality and Gender

There were a number of discussions surrounding important issues during the assembly, but one of the most significant was the Church and Nation’s six-page statement on Sex, Gender & Marriage. The full document can be accessed here. Considering the growing impact on “gay conversion therapy” legislation, this is all the more important. Speaking of which, Peter Phillips gave an excellent presentation on this matter which included this video from the Victorian government. He did this so we might know how many governments are moving, as a call to prayer.

9. Renewal of the National Journal

The publication of AP (Australian Presbyterian) itself was the focus of some sustained scrutiny, especially as we seek to manage a changing media landscape. As a “house of review” this kind of criticism is always appropriate and indeed, helpful! (Prov. 27:17) A number of new people have been appointed to the committee and hopefully we can grow the ministry’s effectiveness. Please pray for what we do. Ask God to guide our plans and help us as a committee to work together effectively. And please pray for all Committees of the GAA in a similar way.

10. The Leadership of David Burke

Last, but by no means least, the incoming Moderator led the assembly most capably. Not only was the business discussed efficiently but David set the tone for the whole assembly. David’s leadership of the assembly and his warm pastoral approach has definitely raised the bar as to what should be expected in the future.

There is much which I have overlooked and missed, and more could be said. But I hope that this encourages you to see that our denomination is (by God’s grace) tracking in the right direction.

Soli Deo Gloria!

– Mark Powell