Historical Reference Committee

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

The work of the Historical Reference Committee is carried out by an enthusiastic group of archivists, historians, writers and church members who are dedicated to the preservation of our Church’s heritage, both written and physical.

In November 2011 the Committee, consisting of the Synod Archivists or a representative of the Synods and the Executive Committee, met in Canberra for its triennial meeting to report on the progress of the Archives in each of the Synods, discuss matters of mutual concern, and to ratify the work of the Executive Committee. The Committee was concerned that there has been no representation from the Queensland Synod at its last three triennial meetings. It has recently been informed that the work of archiving in the Queensland Synod will be undertaken by the Librarian from Trinity Theological College. It is hoped this will mean their future participation at the triennial meeting. The Committee affirms the value of this meeting, which highlights the range and diversity of achievements and brings together people of similar interests.

The Executive Committee is drawn from the Synod of NSW/ACT and meets 3-4 times a year. There are currently seven members. As three of its members come from Canberra, the meetings alternate between Sydney and Canberra.

At its November meeting, the Committee was disappointed to hear that to date there has been no action taken on resolution 5 (a), (b), (c), (e) and (f) of the 2008 Triennial Meeting of the NAHRC to the 12th Assembly regarding electronic archiving. There was concern that if the electronic infrastructure is not put into place as soon as possible this will have adverse implications for both the Assembly’s and the Synod’s archives. We have been informed by the General Secretary that a budget now exists so that this resolution can be acted upon over the next three years.

The Committee has written an important document called Church Properties and Heritages Issues.  This document is intended as a useful guide for Congregations and Presbyteries should they be in a situation where they have to consider the future of particular properties. It has been presented to Assembly Standing Committee with the suggestion that it be commended to the Synods.

The Committee has developed a second document titled What are the Archives of the Uniting Church? It is planned to have the document translated into as many languages as possible with the purpose of helping Congress and Multicultural Congregations understand the importance of good record-keeping and depositing records with their respective Synods, especially those records that may have legal ramifications such as property records.

The Committee would like to draw attention to this year’s Centenary of Frontier Services and the Bicentenary of Methodism in Australasia in 2015. We encourage Synods, Presbyteries and Congregations to celebrate these important occasions and are willing to provide resources for these celebrations.

The Committee is giving consideration as to what information needs to be digitised. A start has been made with the Assembly Standing Committee’s working papers and Minutes and the working papers and Minutes of the Triennial Assembly Meetings. This has been done commercially and is proving cost effective as the papers can be fed into a commercial scanner. However with older records that need to be handled with care and scanned page by page it is a very expensive process and so we are exploring alternative ways to have regularly accessed records made available electronically.

A number of our Archives have had to relocate since the last Assembly, including the Archives of WA, NSW and the Assembly Archives. The premises for the SA Archives at Black Forest have been upgraded.

The Assembly and NSW Archives move was necessitated as a result of the lease of Burnside’s home ‘Eskdale’ expiring. The Assembly Archives were at first moved into the Pitt St offices and the unprocessed boxes into storage. When the Assembly moved to the 10th floor the drastically reduced space meant another move, this time to the Centre for Ministry, working again in close cooperation with the NSW Synod Archives.

Databases of all Assembly holdings have been updated to show the whereabouts of the records. Of some significance are the 120 type 1 boxes processed and consigned to the Mitchell Library.  Included among these are the first records deposited of Uniting Justice, Multicultural/CrossCultural and Assembly Communications records.

Other records that have been processed include Defence Force Chaplaincy papers dating back to Union; the Committee of Ecumenical Affairs (now Christian Unity Working Group); the Commission on Liturgy; UnitingCare (formerly Community Services Australia) and the Church Polity Working Group. The Historical Reference Committee acknowledges the faithfulness of the many people, some who have served on Committees/Working Groups since Union, who continue to contribute their time and talents to the work of the Assembly.

Work on Frontier Services material including manuscripts, maps and architectural plans, audio/visual material and transcripts has also been completed and sent to the National Library. As Frontier Services/AIM will celebrate their centenary this year, there has been much interest in and research of the records.

We still hold a number of boxes of artefacts that the Mitchell Library will no longer accept. They have been photographed and are awaiting decisions on their future. The most significant pieces have found homes on display at the Assembly office in the city.

The NSW Historical Society and UnitingWorld have donated a scanner that has the capacity to scan negatives, transparencies and slides which will be used to create a photographic library. Audio and visual tapes have been sent to the National Film and Sound Archive who have the expertise to both digitise and preserve the originals.

Some 200 boxes, the majority of which have detailed descriptions, have been sent to Ultimo Storage Document Centre. A program of retrieving the boxes to be sorted and indexed is underway and the Archivist’s hours have been increased for the express purpose of clearing the boxes from the storage centre.

In 2011 the Archivist had the pleasure of attending the launch of the revised edition of Margaret Somerville’s book They Crossed a Continent in Darwin and a reception given in her honour at Admiralty House by the Governor-General. Margaret, who is 99 years old, still lives on her own at Rockdale and is remembered with great fondness by the children (now well into their 70s and 80s) of the Methodist Overseas Mission on Croker Island who were part of the ‘great trek’ across Australia during the Second World War.

The Archivist will travel to the Cook Islands in April/May by invitation of the General Secretary of the Cook Island Christian Church. She will assist with organising documents and recommending processes for the management of the Church’s historical resources.

The Committee would like to thank the retiring Chairperson Rev Dr William Emilsen, who has chaired the Committee since 2003, for his contribution to the life of the Assembly. The Committee also expresses its gratitude to Dr Andrew Thornley who has been the Secretary of the Committee since 2006. Both William and Andrew will continue to serve on the Committee as Executive members.  We thank other retiring members Rev Dennis Towner and Rev Sang-Taek Lee for their insight and commitment to the work of the Committee.

Mrs Christine Gordon
Assembly Archivist

Rev Dr William Emilsen 
Chairperson NAHRC





Responsible to:   The Assembly
Reporting arrangements: The Assembly and the Standing Committee.
Mission Statement: To advise the Assembly and the Standing Committee on historical and archival matters of significance to the Church.

1.   To oversee the care and collection of all records of the Assembly and Assembly Agencies;

2.   To co‑ordinate the cataloguing of Assembly archival material;

3.   To circulate advice throughout the Church on appropriate methods of keeping records, in the light of modern archival techniques;

4.   To negotiate terms of access, care and preservation of Assembly and Assembly agency records with any approved repositories;

5.   To consult with Synods:

  • on the designation of buildings and sites of national importance to the Church, and advise on relationships with conservation bodies;
  • on the collection, maintenance and cataloguing of records;
  • on the appropriate policies regarding matters of historical importance;

6.   To foster interest in the Church's heritage, and encourage research and publication on the history of the Uniting Church in Australia and its parent churches;

7.   To draw attention to significant dates, events and people in the history of the Church and its parent churches, so that appropriate resources can be provided;

8.   To negotiate with appropriate bodies on the funding of historical activities and conservation.


The responsibilities include:

  • focusing the activities of the agency on the vision of the Assembly as a whole;
  • advising the Assembly and/or the Standing Committee on policy matters within their area of responsibility;
  • making policy decisions where the Assembly or the Standing Committee has delegated authority for certain policy areas, either through the agency mandate or by resolution;
  • assisting the Assembly Archivist and any other agency staff in the implementation of policies determined by the Assembly and/or the Standing Committee;
  • ensuring that appropriate pastoral support is offered to agency staff members;
  • participating in cross‑agency projects and teams established by the Assembly.

Power to appoint:

  • To establish working groups for special tasks related specifically to the mandate.
  • To make recommendations to the Standing Committee to establish other working groups for special tasks related to but not part of the mandate.
  • the appointed archivist of each Synod or another person appointed by the Synod;
  • five persons from the Synod of New South Wales and the ACT area, of whom one will be designated as Assembly archivist, appointed by Standing Committee; these five persons and the chairperson comprise the Executive of the Reference Group;
  • power to co‑opt up to two additional persons to ensure appropriate competencies, representation and development of new leadership.


Membership of the Reference Committee:       
Chairperson, from the Synod of New South Wales and the ACT area (appointed by the Assembly);

  • the appointed archivist of each Synod or another person appointed by the Synod;
  • five persons from the Synod of New South Wales and the ACT area, of whom one will be designated as Assembly archivist, appointed by Standing Committee; these five persons and the chairperson comprise the Executive of the Reference Group;
  • power to co‑opt up to two additional persons to ensure appropriate competencies, representation and development of new leadership.

Approved by the Assembly Standing Committee, March 2009