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Uniting Church withdraws support for ACCESS Ministries SRI program in Victoria

NEWS | Kaley Payne

Thursday 2 July 2015

The Uniting Church in Victoria and Tasmania has withdrawn its support for ACCESS Ministries, the only authorised provider of Christian Special Religious Instruction (SRI) in Victorian public schools.

Uniting Church (UCA) leadership says it should not affect individuals or church congregations who still wish to volunteer with ACCESS to provide SRI in public schools.

ACCESS told Eternity today that it had “worked hard to respond with grace to the requests, but the result – while disappointing – was not unexpected.”

In September 2014, the Uniting Church presented a list of five demands to ACCESS Ministries, requesting changes to its implementation of SRI in Victoria.

The church wanted a commitment to changing governance practices in ACCESS that allowed for greater participation by the church in decisions on SRI policy; better communication between ACCESS and the Uniting Church; input into the development of teaching materials; removal of a compulsory payment requirement to be a partnering church; and greater involvement in the training of Uniting Church SRI volunteer instructors.

The Uniting Church’s task force on the issue had given ACCESS until 31 May 2015 to respond to their requests.

Yesterday, the Synod said that there had not been an “adequate response” to those requests. From 1 August 2015 the Uniting Church will no longer be a supporting church of ACCESS.

“[The Standing Committee] has ultimately discerned that it is no longer appropriate for the Uniting Church to be formally involved with ACCESS,” said Dan Wootton, Moderator for the Uniting Church in Victoria and Tasmania.

In a statement, the Uniting Church said that while ACCESS Ministries had markedly increased its communication to supporting churches and expressed interest in starting discussions about training of SRI instructors with the Uniting Church’s Victorian theological education centre, the Centre for Theology and Ministry, the church had not seen a commitment to changes to governance that would be more inclusive of membership participation.

It also expressed significant concern with transparency in the development of “sound SRI materials”.

“Part of the ACCESS report indicates that writers and editors have been drawn from a number of churches; however, neither the General Secretary nor UCA ACCESS members are aware of any formal requests. There is also no awareness or indication from ACCESS of the selection of educational/pedagogical criteria for writers or of an evaluation panel for same.”

The Uniting Church had previously been the equal-largest contributor of funds to ACCESS Ministries from its 12 supporting churches. In 2013 UCA contributed $40,000 to ACCESS, one third of all contributions from churches, though a small part of the organisation’s budget for SRI of over $1 million. But despite UCA pulling out, ACCESS Ministries CEO Dawn Penney says that she trusts the needs of the program will be met.

“The value of SRI is widely recognised by students, parents, schools and the wider church. As always, ACCESS Ministries depends on individual and local churches for support both financially and in people resources as we partner together to deliver programs,” said Ms Penney.

ACCESS Ministries has the support of 11 other denominations in Victoria, including the Anglicans, Australian Christian Churches, Baptists, Churches of Christ, Salvation Army, Lutherans and Presbyterians.

ACCESS Ministries spokesperson Rob Ward told Eternity in 2014 that he estimated about 10-12 per cent of Access Ministries’ 2500 SRI instructors were from the Uniting Church. Mr Wootton says the withdrawal of formal support for ACCESS “in no way reflects on the extraordinary commitment of many church members who have faithfully taught SRI and CRE for many years.”

ACCESS CEO Dawn Penney sent a letter today to ACCESS supporters, saying that while the nature of the relationship with Uniting Church will change, “we are confident that individual UCA members and many local UCA congregations will continue to engage in supporting both the delivery of SRI and Chaplaincy programs to hundreds of Victorian schools.”

Speaking directly to Uniting Church members across Victoria and Tasmania, Mr Wootton said, “If you want to keep volunteering with ACCESS Ministries, please do so. Your ministry is valuable. The decision of the Standing Committee does not affect the involvement of individuals or congregrations that choose to contribute to local SRI programs.”

UCA is also reconsidering its involvement with chaplaincy in state schools, a program also run through ACCESS Ministries. A task group on UCA’s involvement in chaplaincy is expected to report to the Uniting Church of Victoria and Tasmania Synod in 2016.

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