Shortly before the 13th Assembly I was having coffee with an old friend and colleague at Flinders University. She’s a space archaeologist. Yes, that’s a thing – and she’s a world leader in the field. I was trying to explain to her what I’d be doing for the next three years as President of the Assembly. When I got to the part where I told her I was the 13th President and that eight of my predecessors were still alive she finally got excited for me: “There’s only nine of you? In the world? That’s like being an astronaut!”
Like just about everyone, including me, she grasped the bit she could grasp, and was happy for me about that, but couldn’t comprehend the actual role I was about to step into. Even now, having concluded my term, my head and heart are so full of the number and variety of experiences and opportunities that I hardly know what to say to anyone about it. Just in the last few weeks I’ve spoken at a Multicultural Celebration in Sydney, a Ramadan Dinner in Adelaide, and a forum on asylum seekers and refugees in Melbourne. I’ve conducted a funeral on the Darling Downs. I’ve participated in the Coronation and the beginning of the Annual Conference of the Free Wesleyan Church in Tonga; preaching the Gospel to royalty, nobles, heads of state and ambassadors. I’ve written articles for Crosslight and Australian Leadership, and dealt with four requests for Presidential Rulings. I also experienced my first earthquake. All in just three weeks.
Extended like that over three years, it’s been an extraordinary privilege, and I thank you for giving it to me as President of the Assembly.
Although I’ve spent the last 33 years researching, writing and teaching about the Uniting Church’s history and theology, in the last three years the people and communities I have met, the places I’ve been, the challenges that have been put before me, have come together as a unique opportunity to really know you – the Uniting Church in Australia – in all your depth and diversity
I hope to have a lot to feed back to you once I’ve had some time to reflect on the experience. As John Dewey said famously, We do learn from experience; we learn by reflecting on experience. But, ready or not, I need to say something today. What do I have to tell you? I met a minister from one of our partner churches in an airport lounge recently, and after we’d talked about the challenges and joys of his ministry he asked me, ‘How is the Uniting Church going?’ I can at least start by telling you what I told him.
Obviously in the traditional, white mainstream of the church we continue to age and decline. There are some congregations of that kind that are doing well, thriving even, but the vast majority aren’t. However, that’s only part of the story. There is tremendous vitality and impressive growth in many of our Aboriginal and Islander communities – particularly in the north and centre of the continent. The majority of our diaspora congregations are flourishing – growing in numbers, with lots of children, youth and young adults, and many who have recently come to Christ from other faiths or none. Nationally the bare number of youth and young adults is much smaller than it was when I belonged to that category, but the quality of those young people is wonderful. In particular they are richly multicultural with strong relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous young people. Their thirst for authenticity in faith, discipleship and fellowship is inspiring.
I expect we will see a significant numerical reduction in the size of the Uniting Church over the next decade as my generation and my parents’ generation goes to its reward. But the Uniting Church that the Spirit is gathering and nurturing behind us has all the marks of a generation that will have a real and lasting impact on the Australian community in the name of Jesus. Many Australians will come to faith through the integrity of their witness, and the wider society will find it harder to ignore the call to justice, mercy and humility that they put before it.
It really concerns me that the traditional mainstream of the church is so mesmerised by its own decline that it can’t lift its eyes to see the wonderful thing that the Spirit is doing in gathering the church afresh – from the edges. Little wonder our encouragement and resourcing of the emerging UCA is so haphazard.
But in any case, as a matter of principle I don’t think it matters very much “how we are going” in that sense. After all, for us “living is Christ, and dying is gain” (Philippians 1:21).
So, it’s not been to find out “how we’re going” that I’ve devoted myself to getting to know this church as deeply as I can over the last three years – by experiencing as much of our life together as possible, spending time with ministers and lay leaders from every part of our diverse fellowship at every opportunity, conducting a census of ministers and congregations to get some hard data, representing you at international gatherings to see where we fit into the global picture of what God is doing with and through God’s church.
I haven’t particularly been trying to find out “how we’re going”. I’ve been seeking the signs of the Holy Spirit at work amongst us, continually asking myself, on your behalf, What kind of church is God calling us to be? And now, after three extraordinary years, I have something to tell you about that. (This will be the “live version” of my anniversary video that some of you may have seen last month.)
First, God is calling us to be a church which being shaped and reshaped in the covenant between the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress and the UCA. The church is called “to be a fellowship of reconciliation” and nowhere is reconciliation more needed in this nation than between First and Second peoples. Congress, the covenant, sharing property and paying the rent, our new preamble, the week of prayer and fasting, About FACE – we’ve made a start but still have far to go to achieve that reconciliation and deep fellowship in Christ which is “our destiny together”. It’s hard and it’s taking a long time, but it is the kind of church God is calling us to be.
Secondly, God is calling us to be a church which is culturally and linguistically diverse at its core – not essentially British with add-ons from other cultures. The church is called to be “a body within which the diverse gifts of its members are used for the building up of the whole” and that includes the gifts showered upon us through being a multicultural church. To release this diversity of gifts we’ll need to grow the UCA “ethos” to reflect the wisdom of our whole fellowship – giving prominence to faith sharing and outreach, to prayer and Bible study, to the dynamic of church planting and church growth – the stuff that our members and congregations from the Pacific, Asia and Africa know is at the heart of Christian identity. After all, we do describe ourselves as “catholic, reformed, and evangelical”. It’s high time that we made that really mean something again – and the diaspora communities among us are giving the lead. We’ll need to address the Euro-centric assumptions we bring to matters like recognising new congregations, receiving ministers from other denominations, and educating our leaders lay and ordained. We’ll need to address the accident of history that almost all the material resources that the UCA has inherited is in the hands of one cultural-linguistic group, the white, English-speaking community. Nothing easy about this, but it is the kind of church God is calling us to be.
Thirdly, God is calling us to be a church which is oriented towards the growing, flourishing, suffering church of the global south. The church is called to be “an instrument through which Christ may work and bear witness to himself”, like that vital, inspirational church of the global south where most of the world’s Christians now live. Our deepest personal relationships are there already – with our partner churches in the Pacific, Asia and Africa. But our imagination is still captive to the global north – causing us to constantly defer to the insights and agendas that come from Britain and North America. Personally, I’ve begun a “fast” from the theological books from the global north. I’m trying to allow my imagination to be nourished instead by the theology drawn from the life of the church in the global south. It’ll probably prove to be a little uncomfortable, but it is the kind of church God is calling us to be.
Fourthly, God is calling us to be a church which receives its diversity as the precious gift of the Holy Spirit that it is; a foretaste, sign and instrument of “that reconciliation and renewal which is the end in view for the whole creation.” Reconciliation doesn’t mean everyone being the same. It doesn’t mean one version of being human or being Christian replacing all the others. It means people and groups that are different and divided from each other being brought together in Christ to respect, value, trust and serve one another – in all our annoying, embarrassing, frustrating, frightening diversity. That’s profoundly challenging. It’s sharply counter-cultural. But it is the kind of church God is calling us to be.
Thank you for giving me the privilege of seeing for myself that the Holy Spirit is already making us into the church God calls us to be. I turn to the next phase of my ministry encouraged and energised by the wonderful movement for reconciliation and renewal that the Spirit of God has drawn us into.
If being President seemed a little like being an astronaut to my space archaeologist friend, to another friend who was just setting out on a PhD, being President sounded like doing a doctorate. I could see her point. It takes about the same length of time (ideally). It’s an opportunity to explore an area of passionate interest at real depth. You start out with no idea what you’re doing and end up with a strange sense of confidence and calm about the whole thing. And it takes your time, energy, and creativity at the expense of just about everything else in your real life – including your family.
So, in conclusion, I want to acknowledge that my being President has been extremely costly to my wife Heather. I want to thank her for her generosity, her forgiveness, the constancy of her love for me and her determination to ensure that I would have a real life to go back to, in the face of the innumerable ways that I have failed, neglected and hurt her over the last three years of my presidency. She has been indispensable to me as a support, a partner and a reality check in this role – and I haven’t deserved any of it. I think that’s what we call grace.
I also want to acknowledge and thank our friends, especially those who aren’t connected with the Uniting Church (or any church) but who have taken an interest and followed my adventures – primarily so they could give Heather support. You can’t imagine how much that has meant to us both.
I acknowledge also the diverse range of resourcing that has been made available to me by the General Secretary and Assembly staff and, of course, the tireless work of Annette Latham, my PA, who kept it all together even when I’d been away for weeks or when I was involved in things that made no sense at all. In ministry, sometimes “you just have to be there” to get it. And I want to thank my chaplains Michelle, Sandy, and Steve, and my supervisor Tony for your wisdom, care, and counsel.
And finally I want to thank our two dear friends, Sue and Leanne, who sent us a postcard every week of the triennium – 156 of them – crazy, funny, sad, warm, silly postcards – even when the ups and downs of their own lives more than justified forgetting all about us. Thank you. Heather and I return our love to you with all our hearts.
So that’s it. For now, at least. Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.