The Uniting Church acknowledges that the Church is able to live and endure through the changes of history only because its Lord comes, addresses, and deals with people in and through the news of his completed work. Christ who is present when he is preached among people is the Word of God who acquits the guilty, who gives life to the dead and who brings into being what otherwise could not exist. Through human witness in word and action, and in the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ reaches out to command attention and awaken faith; he calls people into the fellowship of his sufferings, to be the disciples of a crucified Lord; in his own strange way Christ constitutes, rules and renews them as his Church. [Basis of Union, Para. 4]
We are an Australian Church.
We assert this with passion from the very marrow of our bones. A Church formed in, and for, the Australian community. In our next breath, and in our more candid moments, we ask ourselves what on earth this might mean, given the dramatically altered contexts from conception, to birth, to our fifth decade.
The certainty our grandparents and their parents apparently felt, about what it means to be Australian, has changed remarkably – and wonderfully – since three protestant churches first considered Union almost a century ago.
It is not only the cornucopia of culture and language which infuses and enhances our community and our Church, or the technologies which transfix us with their imagery and sound, or the diversity of voices we are hearing – with many more to attend to – of age and gender and education and background.
We live in a community where some of our friends are five generations absent from a worshipping congregation; a community which bears the scars of abuse and arrogance and pious judgment from many who name themselves as followers of Jesus. Our community is suspicious of our integrity, and we dare not be surprised.
I have been ordained for thirty years and so often we reflexively turn to the programme, plan, or guru, to guide us to a better place. We manage ourselves into models of mission and wonder why they wither after a rigorous season, especially when we have worked so hard and frequently paid so much? We look to our own fear, our own survival and misremember the witness, invitation and grace which welcomed us in the first place.
We have only to look at the current federal political disarray when the disregard and abuse of women, coupled with diseased male entitlement are seen as “issues to be managed” and not as illnesses to be confessed, diagnosed, and cured.
We cannot manage our way through this, or out of it. We cannot perfect our mission plans, or so distil our theology to a pristine purity that our problems will be resolved. We may well have sufficient property and financial resources, and the administrative skills to organise them, to fund creative ministry placements.
However, do we have the intrinsic hope – the wherewithal – to invite people to discover their life in Christ? Are we faithfully deliberate to challenge them as we walk together? How do we identify each other for the tasks of ministry across the life of our Church?
At our last Synod in Session, we declared our need to grow in faith and depth and numbers; we agreed that we need to be better formed for ministry – lay and ordained, congregation and individual – in order to better exercise our discipleship; we re-affirmed our focus on people in the first third of life, to welcome and engage them in the mission of the Church; we asserted that Makarrata is critical to our integrity as Australians, to listen and listen again to our First Peoples; we again identified the crisis of climate change as inimical to all our world and thus, the need for all our world – and our Church – to act.
Notwithstanding the importance of these decisions, and our need to adapt to the needs of our transforming community, we cannot begin with a more acute strategic plan. We begin with Christ.
We proclaim Christ, crucified and risen. We exist and we grow because of what God has completed in Jesus Christ.
We proclaim, bear witness, and through the mercy of God in Christ, we join as disciples, not for the survival of our Church, but for the sake of the world.
Which is why ministry formation is so critical in the life of our Synod – indeed, our whole Church. The Period of Discernment has misled us to think that being formed for ministry is an individual endeavour, focused frequently on ordination, or that discipleship occurs in isolation. This has led, in some places, to a selective sense of call, identified by what an individual believes she, or he, hears. Call is affirmed by community as well as an individual.
Comfort and peace are rarely the biblical measure of a disciple’s call. The Spirit moves across the Church; the call to ministry is about being discipled to the one who has nowhere to lay his head.
Discipleship is about the community of faith, as we are formed for ministry of all shapes and sizes, together. This discipleship is ongoing, as Paul consistently reminds us; ordination, or eldership, or becoming a pastor does not complete it, rather these are simply a mark of the journey on which we have been called – as one body.
Ministry Formation has continued to develop for those who are candidating for ordination, including formation panels and developing facets of regional formation in areas outside metropolitan Sydney. There are indications of the benefits for candidates, for their placements and for the presbyteries.
We intend to grow the formation of discipleship across our communities of faith – congregations, universities and colleges, schools, aged care communities – wherever disciples may be found. This has been hindered by our “COVID season” but we are stepping back into that conversation once more, engaging Ministers in placement to explore how we might best form disciples across our Synod.
This, of course, is integral with how we proclaim and worship, how we carry our witness to Christ and how we invite – and offer hospitality – to any who seek it.
The task of Ministry Formation is to keep our focus on the main thing: making disciples of Jesus Christ for the sake of the world+. Immediately this cannot be solely about ordination, but incorporates each of us, called, welcomed, and witnessing to the risen, crucified Christ.
The dilemma we often name is the changing community around us. The temptation is that this distraction becomes the pole to which the compass needle points us, rather than the one to whom we are discipled. We assert our faith that in each circumstance Christ is not only present, but that it is Christ’s work of which we are a part, and not our own.
There are significant challenges before us. Our Uniting Church structure was designed for another season, and for a human capacity which currently exceeds us. Our presbyteries and several of our congregations are not as the Constitution – or we – imagined and we need to understand how we are being formed by the Spirit of God for the context in which we worship, witness and serve. Self-preservation is neither a hallmark of the gospel, nor is it practical.
Essential to being Moderator is the responsibility to remind the Church who we are called to be. We are holding this first stanza of our Synod in Session in the light of Easter. Where might we imagine, even believe, that the risen Christ is calling us? This is not about mechanics, but about how we discern the song of the Holy Spirit in a Synod which is so often pragmatic, rather than hopeful.
This cannot be decided by demographics, or by the financial generosity of wealthy congregations and presbyteries. How will we have the necessary conversations about trying new models of ministry which need seed money, or realising stranded property assets into more fruitful ones to resource new imperatives for mission?
The challenge of serving the rural communities, which is close to my heart, is almost overmatched by that of caring for Sydney and Canberra’s growing edges. We dare not measure our effective ministry life by the security of our congregation, whatever its size.
I have seen parables of resurrection in our church. When our Auburn Congregation proclaimed for me the wonder of Easter in worship which resounded in my soul and when a woman, ten years clean after a decade in hell, talked about those who were kind to her and walked beside her to new life at our Medically Supervised Injecting Centre.
Several of our Parish Missions are bywords in our community for hope and salvation at their most profound. Our school leaders are talking articulately with the Synod about the safety of each other, and climate change and mental health and want to talk more.
We are accomplished at talking ourselves into irrelevancy, when we are responsible to proclaim the gospel. We are here because of Christ, alone.
Recently, an established journalist wrote to me, identifying the Uniting Church as a compassionate church which wanted to have a conversation with our community, rather than lecture, and one which did not always fit the stereotype of what people expected from the church – if they expect anything at all.
As the COVID season began, I stated that I believe that we are supposed to be here, as challenging as it is. It is our task to trust and follow Christ and to invite others to do likewise. Our hope is found in the completed work of Jesus Christ; we worship, witness and serve only because of that. We are ideally suited for this season in our world, by God’s grace.
Carlo Carretto once wrote “how baffling you are, O Church, and how much I love you!” This might well be a meme for many, if not most, of us. I look each day, in prayer, in wonder and in frustration, for the signs of Jesus Christ “constituting, ruling and renewing us as his Church.” As this second stanza of my placement as Moderator has begun, I give thanks for our Church and for the Synod in which I serve.
May the risen, crucified Christ bless you for the season ahead.