As We Emerge from COVID Lockdown

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,

I have been reflecting on who we are as a people of God as we prepare for the resumption of public worship and service activities, and the reopening of church buildings. Along with the practical guidance you will receive from the Synod Office, I hope the following reflections might also be helpful in your planning for what lies ahead.

Firstly, as government restrictions gradually ease and we look forward to the prospect of being together again for conversations, meals, prayer, and worship, we are filled with hope. Yet alongside that joyful anticipation, we remember at the same time the immense sadness brought upon so many people and families by this pandemic. The loss of life around us and across the world has been heartbreaking. There is also the loss of work, livelihoods, opportunities, and dreams. The toll on the emotional and spiritual wellbeing of countless millions of people cannot be calculated. Very few have been untouched by some form of anguish.

The Hebrew word shalom is often translated as peace, yet the meaning of shalom embraces wholeness, health, and wellbeing. Shalom is also a covenantal word, linking us both to God and to each other. The deeper meaning here is found in relationship, and in actions we take to embody God’s shalom. I ask you to pray with me each day, and especially when you gather again for public worship, that God will comfort and strengthen all who grieve. We lament the profound loss around us, among us, and within us. We long for, so let us also act for, the restoration of God’s shalom within and among all people.

Secondly, as you make decisions in your settings about when and how to gather, please hold the following thoughts in mind. Discuss them, pray about them with each other, and then step out with faith that God will lead and guide you:

  • We are called to be a people who embrace rather than exclude. Jesus reached out to and included among his disciples the rejected and the forgotten. He called those whom others had marginalized. Christ’s example to his first followers was embraced by the earliest Christian communities, who were identified by their openness (Galatians 3:28). Who is my neighbour? (Luke 10:29). The church is called to answer that question anew every day, doing so in ways that seek to demonstrate the teaching of the Lord that ‘the kingdom of God is among you’ (Luke 17:20-21). Our neighbour is the one others walk past. Even during a pandemic, the Church is called to be a people who embrace rather than exclude.
  • We are called to be a people who create community around the risen Christ. This call includes the need to provide a safe place for people to gather. All are welcome in the church that bears Christ’s name. However, there may be times when it is not safe for us all to be in one place, or when the imperative of shielding the vulnerable will mean we gather with measures of protection.

    All are welcome, yes, yet all should be safe. And so, we are called to offer forms of worship, hospitality, and pastoral care, within our walls and beyond them, that recognise this reality. New forms of Christian community have often developed from necessity, in times of upheaval, and those new forms have often become a way of being the people of God for the future. As we look ahead now, may we embrace the opportunity to be creative in how we form community, worship, and offer hospitality. It has been inspiring to see this creativity in action in so many places over the last two years.
  • We are called to be a people of hope within a world of fear. We do this, among other ways, through personal and corporate discipleship that embodies the two points I have highlighted above. When we are a people identified by the desire to embrace all who wish to be included, a people who seek to make a place for everyone even if that means communities formed differently to ensure everyone is safe, we become a witness to the love of God in a world of fear (1 John 4:18). We become a sign of the hope that is in us, namely, that Christ is risen and the fullness of life he has promised is the reality in which we live, move, and have our being (John 10:10).

    When people are confronted by so much division, as well as fearmongering, let’s commit ourselves again to be a people among whom the light of God’s love, and the hope we have in Jesus Christ, shine brightly through the darkness (John 1:5). This will be critical in the days ahead, as the consequences of opening up will not all be promising, as more people become infected and those who are not vaccinated, many through lack of proper access, will continue to have constraints on their lives.  

Finally, please remember and be strengthened by the knowledge that we are not alone. This is not the first period of history during which Christians have been called to find ways to witness to the love of God in a time of widespread disease. The Antonine Plague caused the death of around 10% of the population of the Roman Empire during the 2nd century. As the wealthy retreated to their estates, Christians were known to have stayed in towns and cities to care for the sick because they believed all people were made in the image of God. The Black Death pandemic tested the Christian communities of Europe in the mid-15th century. During the 16th century, there were times when Martin Luther and John Calvin were known to have fostered worship and Bible study at home because smaller gatherings mitigated against the spread of plague; Calvin lived and ministered through five such outbreaks. And so we have a cloud of witnesses who know this road. We are joined to that communion of saints, and we have their example to inspire us.

Above all of course, we are not alone for God is with us. May I make that statement of faith very particular here: you are not alone, and your church community is not alone, for God is with you. We are a people to whom God in Jesus Christ has promised ‘I am with you always, to the end of the age’ (Matthew 28:16).

Please continue to pray, most especially for those who are working across our community at particular risk and for those who feel marginalised, for whatever reason, during this pandemic.

Draw on the resources you are receiving from the wider church, and please call on the Synod Office whenever we can be of help. And remember to pray, for God will not fail or forsake you (Deuteronomy 31:6). May I offer you this brief prayer and invite you to share in it with me during the coming days.

Yours in Christ,

Holy God,
we are never alone
because once there was One who truly was alone,
Jesus Christ,
through whom you endured isolation and lost hopes,
and in whom you overcame an even greater darkness,
so that we may be assured that you are with us, always,
in the never-failing presence of your Holy Spirit,
through whom we name Jesus, alone and from the rooftops,
as our Lord and Saviour.


I note the many helpful contributions to this conversation from our Church and other churches, particularly the papers from Rev. Dr Rob McFarlane and Rev. Dr John Squires. I am thankful for the significant contributions for this Pastoral Letter, Rev. Dr Peter Walker, Rev. Dr Ockert Meyer, Rev. Myung Hwa Park, Rev. Graham Perry and Rev. Dr Matagi Vilitama. 

Renewal – On WhoseTerms?

I was struck this morning by the first stanza of the Gospel reading for the week, from Mark 9.38-41:
‘John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.’

Like so much of the Gospels, the stories included are the incredibly human ones, the stories which are about us, our frailties and our hopes. We can see our own faces, hear our own voices and those of our friends, as seek to follow Jesus on his way.

I can hear myself, see myself, just like John in the gospel story. Like John, we know how things are supposed to work, and this clown is making a mess, a mockery of it all. Acting in Jesus’ name? We have a mission plan, and this was never mentioned!

When we pray for renewal, do we have a fixed picture in mind? Do we see more people like us, gathered in the way we always have, or do we trust God for something entirely new?

When we ask “Lord, renew your church”, are we asking God to simply tidy everything up, or are we asking for renovation?

The last eighteen months has been a rollicking affair, as we have tumbled from church-as-we-know-it, to something entirely different, then round about and back again. Is it possible there is the hand of God, moving us and changing us in all of this? Can we sense the breath of the Spirit, urging us into new territory, not to visit, but to keep going?

What if smaller congregations are the only option for many churches in the next decade?

What if smaller congregations are God’s opportunity? What if we have to change the ways we worship and serve because this season of COVID lasts longer than anyone would like?

Renewal comes when God wills it, not when we plan for it. All our mission plans are as nought, when God acts as God desires. Walter Brueggemann writes in one of his prayers:
We are – by your freedom and your hiddenness –
made sure yet again that you are God…
beyond us, for us, but beyond us,
not at our beck and call,

but always in your own way.

Pray for renewal, please! However, keep your eyes – and hearts – open to how God will answer.

This piece was written for Ruminations, the journal of Saltbush, rural ministry in the Uniting Church.

When Peace is Not Peace

An Address for the International Day of Peace Service; 21st September 2021

I acknowledge and pay my respects to the Gamilaraay people, the custodians of the land on which I stand today. I am aware that we stand on the country of many different First Nations people, and I offer my respects.

I acknowledge their deep spiritual connections to this land and I thank them for the care they have shown the lands and waters on this country over thousands of years.

A political leader tosses a leaden phrase into the sea of white noise which our media has become, calling two others like him “Friends of Freedom”, and barely a ripple is seen, or a splash heard. Ninety billion dollars is spent in one sentence, while billions more are discounted in fewer words, with one commentator observing that it’s not that much in the scheme of things.

At that moment, small businesses, unemployed people and hungry families across our nation dream of the capacity to access such largesse, to gather the crumbs under the table of such excess.

A few faltering heartbeats since Afghanistan was left to the renewed depredations of the Taliban, following two decades of war, and the three nations with memories like goldfish have started trading nuclear weaponry, searching for a new conflict in which to invest.  

Some of the bastard children of so many speeches and so much cliché are the words which begin to lose their shape and, eventually their meaning. Justice looks more and more like vengeance, mercy tastes like haggling, hope feels like wishful thinking, and what has peace become?

The prophets of our Hebrew Scriptures speak of peace in such a way that it is not the absence of violence but, rather, the creation of something essential for human life and flourishing. God’s shalom is not constrained to a lack of gunfire, or screaming, but about deep prosperity, where we can live safely, eat food we have grown and drink wine from the grapes in our vineyard.

These prophets know the world – our world. They know the wealthy and powerful who think only of themselves, the merchants with dodgy scales, those who turn the music up so they can’t hear the cries of those in need, and the false prophets and public servants who whisper blandishments in the king’s ear.

The prophet Jeremiah reminds them, and us:
‘They have treated the wound of my people carelessly,
saying, “Peace, peace,”
when there is no peace.’ [Jer.6:14]

How can we speak of peace and justice when a Tamil family has been imprisoned in our country for years, because they seek life, shalom? How can we speak of peace when even our wealthy nation uses dodgy scales to measure out care and vaccination to our citizens depending on where they live? Our media will gently airbrush Afghanistan’s crisis from our sight, even while the grotesquely misnamed “precision bomb” destroyed a family of seven and not an ISIS terrorist.

Peace is not when we change from Four Corners to Gogglebox; it is when we act to build peace with our neighbour, when we reject the subtle temptation to despair, when we challenge our friend in that conversation when they blame another race, or culture, or faith for whatever problem has surfaced.

I have almost no time for those who would keep the peace at all costs, who close the windows and curtains so that the cries of the hungry don’t disturb their evening meal.

I have all the time in the world for those who will expend everything to create peace:
speaking up,
sitting beside,
waiting with,
listening to,
building patiently,

The One I worship calls me to faithful service. The One I follow blesses the broken, attends to the least, places a small child in the midst of us and proclaims her worth, welcomes the outcast and the stranger. The One who calls me, challenges me to bring the greeting of peace to each home I visit, to each table to which I am invited.

Creating peace with those I love is a task which gives me joy; creating peace with those I would oppose is my calling, our calling as human beings, as people of faith.

I seek to create peace out of the hope I hold, in the One I seek to follow. Wishing has no place here; but peace, founded on hope, shaped by justice and seasoned by mercy, is a covenant for a world starving for life.

Say No To Peace[1]

Say ‘no’ to peace if what they mean by peace
is the quiet misery of hunger, the frozen stillness of fear,
the silence of broken spirits, the unborn hopes of the oppressed.
Tell them that peace is the shouting of children at play,
the babble of tongues set free, the thunder of dancing feet
and a father’s voice singing.

Say ‘no’ to peace if what they mean by peace
is a rampart of gleaming missiles, the arming of distant wars,
money at ease in its castle and grateful poor at the gate.
Tell them that peace is the hauling down of flags,
the forging of guns into ploughs, the giving of fields to the landless
and hunger a fading dream.

Peace be with you always.

[1] Brian Wren, Praising a Mystery © Oxford University Press, 1986

Radical Hospitality

It is convenient, for the sake of political argument, to perpetuate the stereotype of churches as gatherings of middle-class, middle-aged, mostly white, suburbanites on a Sunday morning.

It polarises the argument when the identified group – “the Church” – is simple to define, thus making the issue about compliance, or not. There are “people who attend” and, therefore, people who do not.

It may be convenient, but it is also a myth.

The stereotype fails to reflect the diversity throughout our church, and many others. This diversity is not just cultural, it is social and structural. This means that any conversation engaging with mandatory vaccination for faith communities needs to understand that we are as diverse as the communities in which we live and work.

The Uniting Church, like many other faith traditions, is deeply engaged in our communities. Our congregations run op shops and food banks, kitchens and play groups, community gardens and homework centres. Worship is the central act of our existence, but certainly not the only one.

When we talk about our congregations, our membership is far more comprehensive than Sunday worship and morning tea. 

The church, at its best, exists for others, and especially those for whom the journey of our lives is difficult. During the pandemic, life has become more difficult for many.

At this moment, we are funding support ministries across the state for people still recovering from previous disasters – drought, bushfires, and floods. During the pandemic we are providing finance to university students and hampers to the communities of Dubbo, Wilcannia and Goodooga.

We have Parish Missions around NSW and the ACT; ask Wesley Mission, or Wayside Chapel, or Exodus Foundation who belongs and who does not. What does it mean to ask someone in need if they are vaccinated, before we offer a meal, or shelter, or safety?

The social justice arm of our church, Uniting, is engaged in aged care, as well as foster care, early learning centres, working with young people in need, with people who are differently abled, and with First Nations communities. The Medically Supervised Injecting Centre in Kings Cross is part of our Church’s life and ministry.

The cultural diversity of our community is echoed in our congregations. People gather for worship in Tongan, Mandarin, Fijian, Armenian, Korean, Swahili, Samoan, Indonesian, Cantonese, Tagalog as well as English, and these communities are growing. The next Moderator of our Church in NSW and the ACT is a Tongan Australian woman, Rev. Mata Havea Hiliau, reflecting the breadth and depth of our church.  

We are working hard – and together – on communicating that vaccination is critical for everyone. We are using social media, emails, video links and worship services to emphasise the need for vaccination across our whole church. We have identified many of the cultural challenges before us, and that has been recognised by our state politicians, as well as our congregations.

For many of these communities, church is not just Sunday morning, but community at its most inclusive and comprehensive. Mandating vaccination needs to be understood through cultural lenses as well as political and health-based ones. There have been social media campaigns by some religious fringe groups, using faith and scripture in unhelpful, even destructive, ways, to undermine the need for vaccination.  

For churches like ours, this is not some facile political argument about freedom, but about the radical shape of hospitality when we follow Jesus. We serve at cost to ourselves; we exist for the sake of serving others. 

Once again, at our best, everyone is welcome. How we create a safe place for everyone is always a challenge, but that does not make the need for hospitality any less vital. We are absolutely committed to keeping people safe through vaccination and all the pandemic protocols.

However, the breadth of our churches, and the critical service they offer in our communities, require a more nuanced approach as we emerge from this phase of lockdown.

Our churches understand – perhaps better than most – the need to protect the vulnerable members of our community. We are committed to working with the government and other services for the sake of everyone around us.

We are profoundly committed to those whose lives are at risk, whose voices are silenced, whose hands appear empty. To these neighbours our door is open.  

Worth Remembering

Many of us are brought from a simmer to a slow boil, as eleven o’clock chimes each morning. Medicos, politicos, journos and others talk in numbers and percentages about life, death and underlying conditions, while pundits of all shapes and abilities on media – social and otherwise – offer angry comment. 

Mostly, we remain frustrated, waiting in our homes and nowhere else. Part of our frustration is that we are unsure of what comes next, of where this season ends, and what life – and church – will look like on the other side of this. At our worst, we want someone to blame, because powerlessness and isolation are not good comrades. 

Deeper, there is the sadness for those who are emotionally or physically affected. The growing cases in south-west Sydney and the western part of our state are not statistics, but friends, colleagues and family. They are not them, they are us.

We worry too about our church community. People with whom we would share and sing are reduced to a matchbox on our screens. Together is altogether not.

Through all this, Afghanistan, Haiti, climate change and women’s safety are almost airbrushed from our screens because our gaze is fixed on this one thing.

In the face of this turbulence, it is easy to forget who we are. Our response is that we become self-absorbed, worrying solely about our health, our safety, and that of our immediate family.

We become focused on QR code compliance and masks and urban boundaries which have never mattered until now. It is hard to see beyond our own immediate constraints.

An essential part of our discipleship is remembering. On each occasion when we celebrate the bread and wine of the eucharist, we are commanded, remember me. The central act of our shared life calls us to remember the crucified and risen Christ.  

Remembering calls us back to ourselves, to who we are called, by Christ, to be. The awe-inspiring news that we are crafted in the image of God; the reminder that at our best, at our most average and at our worst, we are still loved by God. The astonishing promise that God’s mercy and hope address each frailty and failure, and articulate each time we bless others in our turn.

This is why community is so valuable. On the occasions when it is difficult to recall our hope, our faith, there are others who break the bread and share it with us, inviting us to rediscover our value and our call. We are re-membered, regathered by the community as we tell the stories of how Christ has acted, and is acting now. 

We have congregations across the Synod who are helping people in their communities to discover hope in Christ, or to remember it. People are being offered food parcels, or phone calls, hampers are being carried to isolated communities and congregations are partnering with vaccination hubs to support everyone who calls through.

Our Ministers are being vaccinated to encourage our church community and posting it on social media – #loveneighbour – and our parish missions across the Synod are engaging in vaccination and meals and community support for isolated people of all ages.

Our university chaplains are providing pastoral support to overseas students, offering financial support to many in need. I am pleased that the Moderator’s Fund is being used in several places in our Synod, in a disaster where there are no fires, floods or drought, but plenty of people struggling.

Remembering, under the urging of the Holy Spirit is about our decision, about our faithful following of Christ. In seasons like this one, the Spirit reminds us of the One who has died and been raised, which is the reason we serve – and proclaim – in the world around us.

I am praying for our church, for all our congregations and communities, parish missions and service agencies, for our presbyteries and for our Synod.

We are in this challenging time, this pandemic, with the living God. We will serve, and proclaim, offer forgiveness and mercy, and live out justice. We will remember the one who calls us, who is always faithful.