Address of the retiring president to the 13th Assembly

Monday, 21 May 2012

Delivered by the Rev. Alistair Macrae at the 13th Uniting Church Assembly.
Grand Chancellor Hotel, Adelaide
Tuesday 16 July 2012

"Everything will be OK in the end. Everything is not OK. Therefore it is not the end."

(Quote taken from 2012 film Exotic Marigold Hotel).

A better summary of the eschatology of the Basis of Union you will not find.

A statement of 'the promised end'. A realistic assessment of the way things are in a world sustained by grace and distorted by sin. And a restatement of the Christian hope for the ultimate reconciliation and renewal of God's creation.

Along with the worldwide Christian Church we are in a time of fundamental transition, with all its challenges and opportunities.

We should continue to ask what Christians have asked in every crisis: What is possible, even in the valley of the shadow of death, in this liminal, uncertain space, for those who trust that the shepherd God can provide water in the desert, bring hope out of fear, liberation out of paralysis, life out of death?

In March this year, along with other Australian Church leaders, I spent 10 days based in Israel-Palestine hearing various perspectives on the apparently unstaunchable wounds in the land of Jesus. We listened to representatives of many parts of what one leader called 'the dysfunctional family of Abraham'. Each described what the world looks like from where they live; competing narratives, each internally plausible and reinforced daily by events. One community's wall of security and protection is to another, a symbol and device of oppression and occupation. As they say: "where you stand determines what you see, who you listen to determines what you hear."

Those verses in Ephesians 2 struck home with new power: 'But now, in union with Christ Jesus, you who used to be far away have been brought near by the death of Christ. For Christ himself has brought us peace by making the Jews and the Gentiles one people. With his own body he broke down the wall, the barrier, that separated them and kept them enemies.' (Ephesians 2:13-14)

In the early church, and ever since, believers confronted by massive barriers, have recalled the mystery of faith which we intone every time we gather at the table of the Lord: "Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again!" A crack in the wall appears and the light of hope shines through again. New worlds of possibility open up and fire the hearts, minds and imaginations of believers.

Let me just list a few things in shorthand that I'd rate as issues of national importance relating both to "not-okayness" and to chinks of hopeful light.

One sign of not-okayness is the fact that, in the past three years, in most of our Synods instances of debilitating conflict have sapped much time, energy and trust. People have been hurt, those directly involved and their families and communities. Those tasked with trying to resolve the conflicts have borne heavy burdens. Conflict is part of any community and churches are no exception. I believe it is time we had a National Standing Appeals Panel, mandated, resourced and equipped to play a role in mediation and resolution of conflicts to ensure consistency and quality. We need to develop some early intervention strategies that address issues of conflict before they escalate into situations in which mediation and restoration of relationships becomes problematic. And it is time I believe to commit ourselves to the practices of restorative justice, which seem so consistent with gospel values, to assess and amend our current complaints and disciplinary processes to reflect that approach.

We need to develop clarity on the DNA of the that whenever people encounter the Uniting Church in whatever manifestation (councils, agencies, schools) they will find some consistency of values and message. Late last year I visited all UCA schools in WA where the Synod, in collaboration with its Schools, passed a new preamble for the school's existing Constitutions which describes them unashamedly as part of the mission and ministry of the UCA and its values. I'm encouraged to see this attempt to rejoin word and deed, worship and mission, prayer and praxis in many places across the Uniting Church.

Evangelism/faith-sharing - mainstream churches need to be reminded that conversion, that fundamental reorientation, re-centring of lives to God is still fundamentally important. In churches like ours, the religious life has sounded more like a bit of lifestyle tinkering rather than a fundamental shift in our heart and our head. That is, lives transformed by the Spirit, centred in Christ and oriented for mission.

Discipleship formation - if the values of God's reign are as strange as they appear – forgiveness, humility, justice-seeking, peace-making – then we will need to be deeply grounded in this alternative vision.  The Economy of Life document passed by the last Assembly is a superb theological vision of abundant life for this planet and I welcome the resources that UnitingJustice is producing to help embed this vision in our church.

We will need to know the scriptures, we will need to be taught the spiritual disciplines of prayer and discernment, we will need to make a high priority of gathering for worship and formation in Christ. We must not underestimate the power of the dominant culture to determine our default settings.

The National Young Adult Leaders Conference which I co-led with the UAICC Chair, reinforced my belief that we need to give increased resourcing to discipling our young people. Elenie Poulos introduced the participants to the remarkable Statement to the Nation of 1977 and challenged them to produce a contemporary social Statement. That's going to be shared at this Assembly and I commend it to your attention. It was interesting that the focus of the young adults was not "what can the church do for young people" but "what is this church's vision and how can we be part of it?"

Likewise the annual School of Discipleship is resourcing young adults to be biblically and theologically literate and equipped for mission and discipleship. In the spirit of the UCA, Christ-centred, Spirit-empowered, mission-oriented.

The Preamble was the single most significant outflow from the last Assembly and is now part of our Constitution. The challenge is now to get this into the consciousness of our members. We have a unique perspective to offer as our nation contemplates something similar in the Australian Constitution.

I have spent a significant proportion of my time in Aboriginal communities this past three years, and am acutely aware of the vast gap in living standards between first and second peoples. The Assembly, along with UAICC and the Northern Synod have continued to advocate, in relation to the Northern Territory Intervention, for meaningful consultations with Elders and leaders of Indigenous communities for constructive ways forward in relation to the many challenges they face. We have been disillusioned and angered by the cynical exercises in faux consultation employed by Government and its agencies and the continuing paternalism that characterises Government relationships with the First Peoples. No-one denies the need for action but top-down, one-size-fits-all template approaches disheartens the communities that are functioning well and yields few positive outcomes for communities with deep and complex issues. We hear Rev Djiniyini Gondarra's call, at the passing of the Stronger Futures Legislation, to a period of mourning.

In recent email correspondence with a colleague who teaches at Nungalinya College: "There are the practical – and highly emotional – disruptions to each and every class when children or grand-children of our churchgoing students' suicide. I have not taught a week in my four years without at least one death within the family circle of those students. Most weeks it's two or three."

On a positive note there are signs that the Preamble might herald a new and mature stage in the relationship between Congress and the whole church which can only benefit Christ's mission through this church. And the energy and faithfulness being put into bible translation in Aboriginal communities is inspiring. The very act of translating the scriptures is to my mind the most exciting contextual theology happening in the Australian church.

It was exciting to be part of the initial round of conversations with Congress communities about the meaning of the Preamble. May there be many more.

I have a new appreciation of the increasingly multicultural character of our church. NCYC provided a vision of what we are becoming with a bigger than ever proportion of Indigenous, 2nd Gen and international participation. The test of our maturity as church will be how far and how quickly we can move from being merely multi-cultural, which is a matter of fact, to becoming genuinely cross-cultural in our practice whereby the missional, theological, liturgical and cultural wealth of our various communities can flow through the whole church. For some in these communities it
feels like there is an invisible wall which prevents the full participation in the life of the Uniting Church. Let us pray that Jesus Christ, in whom there is neither Jew nor Greek, enhances our capacity to recognise that wall and to begin dismantling it.

Social advocacy is an issue that continues to occupy the Assembly is asylum seekers. I've twice visited Christmas Island to resource and inform our continuing advocacy for the welfare of asylum seekers. How lamentable has been our national response to this international refugee crisis and our reluctance to take our share of the burden of care for displaced people. It is a complex issue with no easy solutions but ask our neighbours and they will tell you Australia's response has been curmudgeonly and ungenerous. Compare our current response to refugees with our post war responses and the signs are that our national heart has hardened. It was a delight to cooperate with the Anglicans to provide a chaplaincy service to the detainees, the government and security staff and the residents of Christmas Island. Thank you for your support for that Appeal. The first Chaplain was our own Rev. Christine Senini and the current Chaplain is Rev Malcolm Bottrill, also a UCA Minister. I commend that ministry to your prayers and on-going support.

I long for the day when we will place ministry resources, in the spirit of John Wesley, where they are needed most, rather than where they can be afforded. Wouldn't it be great if we could manage our considerable resources to place ministry agents in every detention centre, in the most stressed Aboriginal communities, in the least resourced remote and rural regions, in the urban wastelands on the outer fringes of our major cities? May the light of Christ shine and be embodied in every dark place.

I rejoice in the formation of the Australian Church Gambling Task Force, largely an ecumenical initiative of Uniting Care, to support legislative reform to protect problem gamblers and their dependents.  Our response is like that of the young David with his 5 smooth stones against the heavy artillery, the might, influence and deep pockets of the Gaming Industry's lobbying power with their $20 million fighting fund to protect their interests at the expense of gambling addicts.

The work of Frontier Services - faithful imagination in action, embodies today, the Galilean Christ's awareness of the needs of those on the fringe of the crowd. In this centenary year we give thanks for a century of care and we pray for the strengthening of this remarkable ministry. I lament the lack of clear political vision on these and other issues.

Individuals remain capable of great generosity but the language of public life has lost the character of generosity and the largeness of spirit that created the best of Australia's institutions and brought reform to the worst is disappearing. More than ever we need the vocabulary and practice of the great Christian social tradition to sharpen our analysis, to soften our hearts and generate humane and creative solutions. I am alarmed by the level of vitriol and personalised attack in political debate.

Inflammatory words can be catalysts for violence in disordered minds. Let's challenge this trend before it progresses from character assassination to something worse.

It is a delight to welcome our friends from the China Church Council, following our trip to meet with them. We will hear more about this relationship during the Assembly meeting. The walls separating China from our part of the world are breaking down and the Christian church surely has a role in developing friendships and increasing understanding across political and cultural walls.

This year also marks the 100th anniversary of the Presbyterian Church in Korea and we are delighted to be hosting a delegation at this Assembly of friends from the Presbyterian Church of Korea and the Presbyterian Church of the Republic of Korea.

We continue to pray for the nation of Fiji and in particular for our friends in the Methodist Church in Fiji.

I acknowledge with thanks the great work of Uniting World in fostering these important relationships.

Traditional forms of ecumenism are under pressure here and around the world, and we are beginning to see new expressions that the Spirit is bringing to manifest Christ's will for a reconciled church. It remains part of the UCA DNA that ecumenism is not something we do, it is part of who we are. I can report that in terms of formal ecumenical networks and councils right through to local initiatives we continue to contribute significantly in moves to challenge the sandal of Christian division and to explore paths to greater understanding and partnerships in Christ's mission.

I have participated in wonderful national events: the three Ministers Conferences, National Christian Youth Convention, the National Young Adult Leaders Conference, the National Conferences of particular cultural communities in the UCA which are becoming increasingly significant gatherings. These Conferences are not Councils of the Church but we need to find ways to integrate their wisdom and energy into the life of the wider church.

The President usually gets invitations to congregations for special occasions when everyone is bright and shiny, the A-Team is on worship and people are on their best behaviour. But I have wondered on occasions if we are in danger of losing connection with the catholicity and apostolicity of the church in our gatherings. Some of the markers of our continuity with the church in time and space have practically disappeared in some places and the local and the contemporary seem the only note. The broad horizons of Christianity have closed in. I have been at baptisms where some alternative to the Apostle's Creed has been used. Why not use a contemporary creed and one that links us with the church catholic across time? I have been at celebrations of Holy Communion that are scarcely recognisable in terms of the meal at the heart of Christian life for 2000 years. Friends, we have only got two official sacraments in our church, let's not mess with them. Is it so hard to keep them aligned with the church ecumenical and historical; and contextual and contemporary? That's what we do every time we preach from ancient scriptural texts.

I started with reference to the separation wall in Israel-Palestine. Some of the subversive work of the graffiti artist Banksy is still visible on this crude canvas. (Show pictures)

What distinguishes hopefulness from mere optimism is the central Christian claim of resurrection. We are 'prisoners of hope'. Not hope for mere institutional survival but for the ultimate victory of love over hate, peace over violence, hope over despair.

This last Banksy image of a curtain being drawn back makes me think of the stone being rolled back from the tomb.

Finally some words of thanks:

Terence Corkin in particular and the Assembly staff in general for their support, encouragement and resourcing of this role. We are very well served indeed by our Assembly staff.

  • Members of the Assembly Standing Committee who have been my community of reference these past three years.
  • The Assembly Officers, Terence, Gregor and Andrew for their wisdom and support
  • The Synod Moderators with whom the President forms a community of sharing, prayer and mutual support
  • To my PA's, Michael and Sue, whose admin support and friendship I have appreciated so much
  • To my chaplains, Ji and Jenny, whose prayers, encouragement and wise theological, spiritual and pastoral counsel sustained me.
  • To my children, Tess, Paddy, Hamish and Fiona, for their love and support for me and Clare.
  • To Clare, my beloved, for keeping the home fires burning, for putting out the occasional domestic fire during my frequent absences, for making homecoming so attractive, for your many prayers and gestures of love. In the words of RS Thomas: 'To my wife, all I have, save the love that is not mine to give'.
  • And finally to you, the Uniting Church, for entrusting me with this role. Please forgive my mistakes and omissions and any words or actions that have been unworthy of the church or the gospel.

You gave me the privilege of seeing a broad cross-section of this church and I have been blessed with so many glimpses of God's Kingdom, God's new creation, in and through the worship, witness and service of this Church. While we are a flawed church nevertheless God's grace is so often manifest and I encourage us all to remain committed, faithful and imaginative as we participate with God until that blessed day when the walls of separation will be no more and God of our crucified and risen Lord will make all things new.