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,
Shalom,
Simon

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.

Amen.


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,
hopefully.

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.

For Afghanistan

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest.

– Psalm 22.1-2

To you, the God of earth and heaven,
we turn, in grief, and pray.

For the peoples of Afghanistan,
facing terror once again,
haunted by the serried ranks of ghosts
from interminable invasions and wars,
desperate for hope,
hungering for peace;
Lord, in your mercy,
Hear our prayer.

We weep at what we have seen
in these last weeks and months;
we are heart-struck
with what we fear will happen now.
We have nowhere else to turn, but you;
and so we cry out:
halt the violence,
restrain those who would seek vengeance,
shelter those most at risk;
Lord, in your mercy,
Hear our prayer.

We confess the arrogance of empire
– Mongol, British, Russian and American –
which has spawned generations of brokenness
amongst the rubble of injustice and war.
Forgive us, we pray,
for the destruction we have wrought,
falsely determined that we knew what was right.
Forgive us for our failure to offer the Afghan peoples
what they most sorely need;
Help governments, including our own,
to act with integrity for those who have served us
and those who seek refuge within our land;
Lord, in your mercy,
Hear our prayer.

We pray, especially, for women and girls,
who have most to fear from the Taliban’s return.
Endow them with further courage and wisdom,
to endure what is to come;
to create hope where none seems evident;
to sow justice in what appears barren ground.
May they know their inherent value and worth
especially when days are darkest;
Lord, in your mercy,
Hear our prayer.

May the leaders of the Taliban
and all who cast their lot with them
realise the inherent and abiding evil
of vengeance and violence.
Cause them to govern with the possibility of justice
and the realisation that each and every person
is valuable in the eyes and heart of God;
Lord, in your mercy,
Hear our prayer.

Crucified and risen Lord,
Our prayers arise,
accompanied by our groans,
may your Spirit move where we have failed,
for the sake of those most in need this day
and in the days to come.
Lord, in your mercy,
Hear our prayer.

We pray in Jesus’ name.
Amen.

PreachFest 2021

Welcome to the inaugural PreachFest, an offering on behalf of our Uniting Church, to the whole of the Church, as we celebrate, and seek to elevate, the art and call of preaching.

I welcome you from Gadigal Land, country of the Eora nation. On behalf of our Church, I pay my respects to the elders past and present, for the way they have stewarded the creator’s good creation, the lands and waters under their care.

I extend that respect to other indigenous people past and present, and to those lands on which you all gather. I pray that this care will continue into the years ahead, hoping that our creator will continue reconciling all things to himself in Jesus Christ.

James McAuley invites each poet and thus, each preacher,

Take salt upon your tongue.
And do not feed the heart
with sorrow, darkness or lies:
these are the death of art.

We are nourished by Scripture, by the Holy Spirit, then music and poetry and words and wonder and our lives.

The extraordinary technological improvements which enable us to broadcast this festival live and online, to record it and offer it to Congregations and communities, do not always serve us well.

We have begun to trust the marvel of the medium and not the wonder of the message.

We live in a world where the image is vital, the screenshot, which flicks across our retinas and, almost immediately, is gone. Shazaam helps us to capture the snippet of music we like for the moment; TikTok testifies to the trimming of our attention spans – and our memories – to the equivalent of a goldfish.

We have fallen into the trap of believing that preaching is an archaic, or even obsolete, gift in our Church’s life. Thus, we have reflections, or testimonies, or “talks”, with none of the discipling, or risk, of a sermon crafted to remind the disciples of Christ who we are called to be. Our liturgical response of “anyone can do this”, neglects the vital diversity of gifts endowed by the Holy Spirit for all the aspects of the Church’s life and mission.

These are not the only challenges before us. We have taken Barth’s supposed dictum, updated, about a bible in one hand and a tablet in the other, and have become so immersed in the media cycle, that preaching is at risk of becoming a political polemic and not the gift the Church – and our community – so desperately need.

Scripture is not one option among many, it is the first option, each and every time. We hold it carefully, with respect and joy.

Some of us have stayed securely in the past, nestled in the brilliance of Calvin, the rigour of Wesley, the challenge of Spurgeon. However, there are preachers now, like the mob we have gathered for this festival, like Rutledge and Lischer and Curry and Brueggemann and Lose and Taylor (have a listen to Raffel the new Anglican Archbishop!), all of whom will remind you of the call of Jesus Christ to bear faithful human witness in our world.  

Les Murray reminds us, tongue firmly planted in his cheek

Prose is Protestant-agnostic,
story, discussion, significance,
but poetry is Catholic,
poetry is presence.

Preaching is not just reading out something written by another, it is living out the proclamation of the living God, whose kiss of life has created us, and whose breath now breathes through us.  

We are, each and all of us, called to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ. Those of us, called to preach, do so in a public way, as a prophetic offering to the community of faith.

We are not called to convert, or to save. These tasks are entirely – and thankfully – the movement of the Spirit of the one about whose life and death and resurrection we preach. We are called to bear witness – in our proclamation and in our lives. The significance of our words must be echoed by the integrity of our character, in humility and mercy.

R.S Thomas goes to efforts to keep us suitably humble

I see them working in old rectories
by the sun’s light, by candlelight,
venerable men [and women], their black cloth
a little dusty, a little green
with holy mildew. And yet their skulls,
ripening over so many prayers,
toppled in to the same grave
with oafs and yokels. They left no books,
memorial to their lonely thought
in grey parishes; rather they wrote
on people’s hearts and in the minds
of young children sublime words
too soon forgotten. God, in [God’s] time
or out of time will correct this.

Our proclamation must always point to Christ, crucified and risen. That is our calling.

I note that there are experienced preachers, ordained and lay, gathered here and in Canberra and online, as individuals and in regional hubs; there are preachers in waiting, those apprenticed to a community of faith, and preachers who are discovering their call.

I welcome those preachers from other traditions, including those who will be teaching and leading us.

All preaching begins in prayer, so let us pray.

One of Those Days

It was not just one of those days, but one that helps define who we are as church, and how our discipleship is shaped for the task before us.

That particular Thursday began as many Thursdays do, but middled – and ended – not with a whimper, but a bang. Sometimes in the Synod offices, we are “just getting the job done”, as we seek to serve the Church, as the Church serves the community, but fanfares are not always the order of the day.

First stop was St. Stephen’s, in the heart of the city, opposite Parliament House. I sat in the front row of one of our most beautiful, “churchiest” churches, between a doctor and a past NSW Premier and federal Foreign Minister on one side, and three recovering drug users and the Executive Director of Uniting on the other.

We celebrated two decades of hard core, high quality, care and justice, as the Medically Supervised Injecting Centre was recognised as a lifesaving, life-changing institution at the heart of Kings Cross. The testimonies – of the three men on my right giving thanks for their lives, of a Liberal and Labor politician in furious agreement, of doctors Marianne Jauncey and Ingrid Van Beek in passionate service – all bore witness to a hope in action driven by Rev. Harry Herbert and our Synod, which has changed thousands of lives, politics and a community.

We hung our banner of hearts across the facade of Parliament House and danced down Macquarie Street, returning to our other work.

As I landed in the Synod Office, we welcomed student leaders from our schools. More than twenty senior students, chosen by their peers, had come to discuss the issues which they had elected as important – consent, climate change and the environment, and mental health registered as their top three.

This was an opportunity for me and some other members of our Synod to engage with the considerable capacity of these students, as they wrestled with confronting problems which beset them and everyone else in our community.

They were not hindered by their surrounds but, rather, energised by the opportunity to have their views expressed and challenged. When they were asked what it means to be part of a Uniting Church school, even those students from other faiths were able to name their sense of being welcomed, of engaging in education, faith and issues which are important to them. Almost everyone talked of the diversity – of faith, of opinion, of experience – and they attributed that to being part of the Uniting Church.

We have children in schools of all styles across our Synod; they are not the church of the future. They are the church now, and we should celebrate them as such. The gifts offered by all teachers, by chaplains, by parents, by our children need to be treasured.

As our schools’ event drew to a close, I hustled down Pitt Street to an Iftar meal hosted by the Affinity Intercultural Foundation, convened by a man who calls every friend “cousin”.

This was a meal within our community, for Muslims and as many friends as they could fit in the room. My table had a judge, a politician, and two members of the armed services. We sat near politicians and broadcasters, journalists and sportspeople, as we considered what it means to be a diverse, creative community. We wrestled with justice for refugees and Australians trying to come home, from India and other countries. We voiced concern about labelling, even blaming, specific groups of people because of their belief and background.

Iftar is not only a meal as part of the season of Ramadan, it is often hospitality at its best, where difference and shared hopes are held together.

This story of my Thursday is a story of our Uniting Church; engaged in conversation with our community, often over a coffee, or dolmades. It is meeting with politicians and priests, or those ensnared by the challenges of life, or emerging from its injustices. We know that Jesus met with people living in all aspects of his community and, at our best, we seek to do the same.

We are called to be in the midst of things. It is here that we bear witness to our hope in Jesus, and offer that hope to others with whom we share our lives. As disciples of Jesus, we are in conversation with our community, articulating hope, embodying justice.

Every day.  

Moderator Report to Synod

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.

God Comes Close

In a dream, wrapped in the swaddling bands of confusion caused by Mary’s pregnancy, Joseph hears God’s comfort and direction as to what to name their child. And Matthew, with customary editorial license, reminds us of Jesus’ pseudonym and purpose, “Emmanuel … God is with us”.

In the shadowed mystery and wonder of the Christmas story, we find ourselves relieved and thankful that God is such a God as this. The delight of a newborn baby, even in these fearful circumstances, is joy incarnate. We sing Emmanuel.

Yet Emmanuel seems to slip from our vocabulary as we read further into the gospels. We bias one side of the scales, to speak only of Jesus’ earthed humanity, or elevate him beyond our laughter and fears and grumpiness to a hologram. Neither is sufficient.

The sacrilege of God’s behaviour is in breaking all the rules, to defy and surpass the expectations of what a God – our God, any god – is supposed to be and do. To assert that God is born, as we are all born, that God lives and stumbles and serves and loves and laughs and grieves, moves us into the depths of the promise cracked open in Joseph’s dream and Mary’s faithful acceptance.

In this season, of all our recent seasons, this promise of God is vital. We have been meeting and worshipping on screen or, perhaps, at double-arms’ length and wonder if we will ever shake a new friend’s hand again. Our singing is constrained (unless we’re barracking), and we are wary of holding those who have lived (and we have loved) longest for fear of infection. We have seen the suffering across our world, acknowledging the danger of being close.

In these difficult days, we proclaim Emmanuel.

It is not simply COVID 19. The viruses take many forms and are equally infectious: social distance caused by mistrust; endemic violence blamed on race and gender and sexual orientation; callous disregard for the world which God created in love and joy.

Because of these, and in their midst, we assert Emmanuel.

In our churches, disciples can lose hope, as we struggle to discover the rhythm of this new journey. If worship is not how we have known it, then what might it be? If we cannot break and share the bread in the manner known and loved, then how? Can we stand shoulder to shoulder in prayer for our world, and if not, who are we?

Precisely here, we preach Emmanuel.

Easter is history’s darkest moment, before the startling light of resurrection. The resurrection will always bear the signature of the cross. We need it to be so.

God not only knows the struggles through which we live, but has also suffered. More than that, we assert with hope and profound thanks that God is with us in each moment. Easter is not a theological maths problem, solved by God’s clever calculation.

Easter is God’s engagement, beyond expectation, even beyond hope, entirely in prodigious love.

The brokenness of Friday is Emmanuel at its most necessary, most wonderful and most awful. The Word is framed in wood.

Friday is God in solidarity with us, in injustice, or suffering, even when caused by our own hand. Solidarity even with those whose hands hold the nails.

Saturday’s silence is the waiting that people experience all the time; waiting for COVID – or other – test results; waiting for justice, or for hope; waiting for the struggle, or grief, to end.

Sunday is always more than we expect: death defeated, life proclaimed. Forgiveness for all who seek it. Mercy to quench all those who thirst. Christ’s resurrection transforms history and creation, and each of us.

Hold this promise carefully, offer this hope gently, because many live in Friday’s grasp, or Saturday’s hiatus.

Jesus’ first words in Mark’s Gospel “the reign of God has come near” are most completely true at Easter. On Friday’s cross, in the silence of Saturday and when the triumph of Easter is revealed, God, in Christ Jesus, has come close.

Here, wonderfully, from Jesus’ birth, and life, and death, and life, we sing Emmanuel.