Monthly Archives: July 2009

The face of Jesus…in grease

The face of Jesus seems to pop up everywhere these days. The latest is from my birthplace, Harrogate, in a greasy baking tray.

You can read the story in the local paper, but for the pic you’ll need to go to that bastion of truth, The Sun.

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No sex please, we’re preambling

The recent Assembly hasn’t generated a media frenzy; after all, it wasn’t about sex. But Christopher Pearson has written a critical piece in the Weekend Oz on both the process and the decision to alter the preamble of the Uniting Church Constitution to recognise the place of Indigenous peoples, and to recognise that God was revealing Godself to them prior to European colonisation.

And as Al points out—this isn’t the end. The Church’s processes require consultation with synods and presbyteries. The Assembly doesn’t act unilaterally in questions of the Constitution.

The whole thing is at the 12th Assembly website, but it’s so important I’ve reproduced it here:

The Uniting Church President, Rev. Alistair Macrae, has responded to the opinion piece,  ‘Questions over God’s place in the Dreaming’ that appeared in the Weekend Australian on July 25.

Response to Questions over God’s place in the Dreaming

It is clear from a number of inaccuracies in Christopher Pearson’s piece ‘Questions over God’s place in the Dreaming’ (July 25) that he was not present at the meeting of the Uniting Church 12th Assembly last week. The Assembly considered a recommendation from a special Task Group to include a new Preamble to the Uniting Church Constitution, with explicit reference to the mixed legacy bequeathed on Indigenous peoples by Christian mission. 

This Preamble was overwhelmingly supported by members of the Assembly and, according to Uniting Church processes for constitutional change, will now be referred back to the State Synods and Presbyteries for further consideration. 

Pearson asserts that the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress “used its special procedural privileges to stifle debate”. This is not true. In fact the Congress explicitly told the Assembly that the gathering was a safe place for discussion. 

It is true that at one point members of the Congress asked to leave the meeting for discussion because they felt the environment was not safe for them because the integrity of their Christian faith was being challenged. But they left in order that the rest of us could continue to say whatever we wanted to say. At a number of points Congress leaders emphasised that they weren’t interested in guilt or shame. Rather, they were interested in a truthful statement of the mixed legacy Christian mission has left their people. 

Aboriginal Christians are endeavouring to hold together two realities in their experience – the truth of their convictions about and experience of Jesus Christ, and the enduring power and place of their traditional law, traditions and ceremonies. In recent conversation, Rev. Dr Djiniyinni Gondarra, a prominent theologian and tribal Elder from Arnhem Land, told me that “Jesus Christ affirms some parts of our traditional culture and judges other parts just as he does with any culture”. 

From an Indigenous perspective, Christian mission has, with rare exceptions, tended to condemn Indigenous practice and spirituality wholesale but failed to apply a similar critique to the dominant European culture.   

The Preamble states that God was here before European arrival. This would seem obvious. God the Creator is ubiquitous and presumably is self-revealing in many ways. The Christian claim that God is ‘fully and finally’ revealed in Jesus Christ is affirmed in the Preamble and by members of the Congress.  

When the Congress Chairperson, Rev. Ken Sumner, told the Assembly, “Sometimes we struggle to see God in you” it was nothing like a claim of ‘moral superiority’ as Pearson claims. It was a gentle rebuke considering how the Church’s complicity in policies of assimilation, child removal, etc., have had such a destructive impact on Indigenous peoples in this country. 

Pearson quotes Peter Sutton’s new book, indicating that the traditional aboriginal mindset does not include notions of “remorse, conscience or feelings of guilt”. If this is true then this precisely reflects the deep Christian influence on members of Congress! They have absorbed the core Christian teaching about remorse, responsibility, confession and amendment of life for themselves; and are asking the wider Church to practice its own disciplines with regard to the harmful impacts of European colonisation on Indigenous people. 

Pearson’s claim that “Christianity has always taught that its revelation was entire and whole and perfect” cannot go uncontested. Such a grandiose claim goes far beyond Christian orthodoxy. St Paul’s famous words are more apposite: “When the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face”. 

That is, even though the Christian church claims ultimacy and finality of God’s revelation in and through Christ, human apprehension of truth is always limited. The Uniting Church’s foundational document, the Basis of Union, reflects its Reformation origins, “…since law is received by human beings and framed by them, it is always subject to revision in order that it may better serve the gospel”. 

Throughout history great evil has been perpetrated when the church has failed to distinguish between its limited understanding and the mind and will of God. Good theology brings deep humility to its task. 

If Christopher Pearson had been present at the meeting many misrepresentations in the article could have been avoided; and some important challenges in his piece given more attention. 

For there certainly are significant questions for the church’s Indigenous and non Indigenous members to grapple with: at what points does God’s revelation in Jesus Christ affirm or challenge values and practices in all cultures? Without idealising one culture or demonising another, how can we arrive at a shared account of ‘truth’ (in this case the truth of the mixed impact of Christian mission on Indigenous peoples) in ways that offer a sure foundation upon which to build further reconciliation; and to deepen understanding and partnership? 

Rev. Ken Sumner’s words, that “together we can be a free church,” remain with me. Jesus said: “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free”. The Uniting Church has embarked on a journey of truth-telling in relation to Indigenous peoples which began with a formal apology in 1994 and which still has some way to go. 

Many people, but not all, in this nation breathed a sigh of relief when Kevin Rudd uttered words of apology and truth on behalf of the Federal Government 14 years later. I hope and pray that members of the Uniting Church will continue to work and pray for ways and words to lay a foundation of truth that will set us free, to address more effectively the massive challenges facing Australia’s Indigenous peoples, and to identify and overcome the significant obstacles to meaningful reconciliation in this land.

Rev. Alistair Macrae
National Assembly
Uniting Church in Australia

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Fools say…

Sermon for 26 July 2009

As we listen for the Word of God,
let us pray:
God our maker,
you formed the world and all that is in it,
and you desire all people to share its plenty;
help us to look for the possibilities you bring,
that we may be fed by your justice,
for the sake of Christ. Amen.

2 Samuel 11.1-15
Psalm 14

Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God.’

That’s Psalm 14.1, today’s psalm. Interestingly, it’s also the first line of Psalm 53, which is nearly identical to Psalm 14.

These are strong words. Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God’.

Who are these people who deny God ‘in their hearts’, people that Psalms 14 and 53 call ‘fools’?

They aren’t automatically people who find it hard to believe that there’s a God. There are people who have intellectual problems with believing in God. Are they the people whom Psalm 14 names ‘fools’? Not necessarily.

Karen and I once lived a couple of doors away from an old man who has since died. He’d emigrated to Australia from Greece, and set his family up in a farm in central Queensland. Drought and poor prices had combined to drive them off the land.

This experience had left this formerly devout Greek Orthodox man to stop believing in God, and declare himself an atheist. In fact, he loudly declared himself an atheist to anyone who would listen. He had never forgiven God for what had happened. Every time we spoke to him, he talked to us about God, the God he couldn’t forgive.

Can you get the disconnection? He said he didn’t believe in God, but he couldn’t let God go. It seems to me that he had a relationship with God. He was angry with God!—very much like Job in the Old Testament.

Psalm 14.1 says, ‘Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.”’ This old man said, ‘There is no God’ with his lips, but he didn’t say it in his heart. He still had a relationship with God. It was turbulent, it was troubled, it was conflicted. But he would not, could not, let God go. I saw him holding on to the God he couldn’t believe in, in his demand for God to be fair. It was possible to see something of God in him, even when he couldn’t believe.

So who are the ‘fools’ who say ‘in their hearts’ there is no God? Some of these fools are atheists. Some of them are Christians. Continue reading

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More of the same?

A thought-provoking reflection by Alison Atkinson-Phillips on the current Assembly meeting. I don’t agree with it all, but it’s well worth reading (for more stories, go here):

Sunday, 19 July 2009 04:57
As he presented the report of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress to the Uniting Church’s 12th Assembly on the evening of July 16, the Rev. Ken Sumner said that, while the Uniting Church is a wonderful church, it could be a great church.

I agree. But recent events suggest we’re not yet ready to step up.

Over the last few days of the Assembly meeting, I’ve heard lots of conversations about who the Uniting Church thinks it is as a church.

We say we are a church that values and takes seriously its covenantal relationship with Congress. Yet when a leading minister of the Congress shared honestly and with great vulnerability about the importance of the new preamble to the constitution, and challenged the Uniting Church to put aside its need to debate and discuss every last detail, Assembly did not hear him.

I hope the new preamble will go through and that we will congratulate ourselves for being a church committed to reconciliation. But what would it have meant if Assembly could have simply accepted the version approved by Congress at its meeting?

We say we are a church that values diversity, creativity and the input of lay people. Yet, as far back as I can remember (I’m a relatively young member of the church) our president has been a middle-aged (depending on how you define that), middle class, educated white cleric. And today the church decided the next president would be made in the same image.

The Rev. Dr Andrew Dutney will no doubt make a good president. He is intelligent, insightful and humble. In fact, I think each of the four people who were nominated as president-elect would have brought something good to the role.

In a way that’s not the point. Just as the nine months of pregnancy are helpful to form a person as a parent, the three years spent as president-elect are there to allow the person to be formed by God for the role. We have to trust God will do that work.

As we left the Cato Lecture on Saturday night, we started talking about the architecture of the University of NSW — in particular the tree imagery that ran through the building at the top of the main walkway. The conversation then led on to architecture more generally and the idea that, just as a community can form a building, the building then starts to form the community.

It’s a pertinent idea also when you’re thinking about the shape of an Assembly meeting. What would the meeting have looked like if the Cato lecture was on the opening night, instead of the president’s sermon? What would the meeting have looked like if Assembly considered its key directions for the next three years before undertaking any other business? What would the meeting have looked like the Chair of Congress co-chaired the meeting?

I think it’s also a relevant metaphor when thinking about choosing a new President for a church.

Just as the community of faith chooses its President, that choice has an impact on the way that community is shaped in the years to come. It’s not just about what the President says or does or even how they act. It’s about what they look like and what meaning they create in the world.

As a young-ish, non-ordained woman in a leadership role in my synod, what meaning would it give to the way I thought about the church and my place in it to see a non-ordained woman as president? And what would it mean for the way the rest of the world saw our church.

Of course, the female nominee for president-elect was Rosemary Hudson Miller, who is part of my local church congregation and is a valued mentor and friend. But my disappointment at the result of the ballot was not so much about her. As the current President, the Rev. Alistair Macrae, rightly said, for those not chosen there is a mixture of disappointment and relief. Being President of the Uniting Church is not a cushy job.

I would have loved to have seen Rosemary elected as President. I would also have loved to have seen the Rev. Jason Kioa elected as President, because of the meaning that would have had for all the non-white people in our churches, and particularly the Tongan community.

I would have really, really loved to have seen the process of discernment in our synods and presbyteries mean the nominees on offer reflected who we are as a church: a church that values lay people, a church that recognises the leadership of women as much as men, a church that says it is multicultural and committed to justice and reconciliation, as well as a church that values scholarly inquiry.

Of course, it’s a risky thing to comment on the process of discernment the church has just undergone when I am not part of it. I have attended this Assembly as part of the media team. I haven’t taken part in every discussion and every session. Nonetheless, as a member of the church I have taken seriously the debates I have heard and the challenges offered by Mr Macrae in his opening sermon as President, by the Rev. Shayne Blackman and the Rev. Rronang Garrawurra from Congress and by the Cato Lecturer Daniel Smith-Christopher.

I suspect the reason many people voted for Dr Dutney was because they have been inspired and challenged by what he has to say about the Basis of Union. Which is great.

The church is richly resourced by deep theological thinkers who can challenge us. And we love it.

I also love nothing better than sitting around with a glass of wine having deep meaningful conversations about the world and my place in it. Often such conversations feel like they are solving the problems of the world. But if I have too many such conversations, or if they go on too long, I just won’t get anything done. In fact, I’m likely to end up drunk and not making much sense but deluded that I sound fabulously entertaining and insightful.

When we begin again the process of discerning those people we might nominate as the next president-elect, let’s put down the bottle of wine, shut up and listen.

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Trade Justice

I want to mention a few things about Assembly…I’ll talk about some highlights soon. However, I had to leave early with a flare up of an old back problem. It should be ok soon, but I’m just taking it easy.

I was happy to see that UnitingWorld’s Trade Justice paper was adopted yesterday. It challenges free trade, neo-liberalism and “market fundamentalism” and provides a biblical and theological basis for the church’s education, representation, advocacy and action. It says the benefits and burdens of increased economic interdependence have not been equally shared. “Globalisation has had uneven effects: while some have enjoyed increased prosperity, the poorest are often left behind.”

The Uniting Church’s Pacific partners, including churches in Samoa, the Cook Islands, Tonga, Fiji and Rotuma, Nauru, Tuvalu, Kiribati, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, had expressed concern that their communities were being harmed by globalisation and marginalised in the international trade system.

In March, UnitingWorld joined other civil society leaders to meet with Australian parliamentary and government leaders in Canberra to ask for a fair go in trade talks with Pacific nations. UnitingWorld Director the Rev. Dr Kerry Enright said the Australian and New Zealand governments were operating like free trade evangelists and it appeared that only civil society groups such as the church were presenting alternative views. He said, “UnitingWorld supports economic development but believes it needs to have its place within the wider Pacific Christian cultural context, not undermining it.” Pacific culture had powerful adversaries, he said. The Australian Government agenda was dominating negotiations, undermining a Christian worldview.

Here is the document:

Trade Justice

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I wish…

This Dave Walker cartoon has a context. I wish it applied to me—I can’t even keep my pencils arranged neatly!


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Greet death unafraid

Sermon for 12 July 2009

As we listen for the Word of God,
let us pray:
God our refuge and strength,
you call us to give ourselves to Christ,
whether life is long or brief;
ground us in your love
and anchor us in your grace,
that we may find peace and joy
in knowing you;
this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Ephesians 1.3-14
Mark 6.14-29

I imagine John the Baptist in his cell, listening to the sounds of revelry and carousing at the party not too far away in Herod’s palace.

I know that’s a stretch; perhaps he was too far away to hear. But perhaps he knew it was going on anyway.

If John knew it was going on, he also knew his bible. He knew that kings’ feasts were dangerous affairs. Perhaps he thought of the story of Queen Esther; the wife of the Persian emperor, and he had told her three times,

What is your request?
It shall be given you,
even to the half of my kingdom.

When kings make such extravagant promises, their pride means they will do what they have said. That can make for an unpredictable situation. Herod must also have known the story of Esther, because he made the same promise to his step-daughter

Ask me for whatever you want,
and I will give it.
Whatever you ask me,
I will give you,
even half my kingdom.

But what’s a king to do when his bluff is called?

In the story of Esther, it meant that Haman, who was plotting against the Jews, was hanged.

In this story it means that John, who had been proclaiming repentance to the people, was beheaded.

These feasts are no respecters of persons.

So John may have heard the party, he may have heard about it. Or not. But whatever the truth, the time came when he knew he was going to die. I wonder how he faced death?

Perhaps the soldiers came into the cell with a drawn sword and a nervous look on their faces. After all, John was a prophet, a man of God. Killing a prophet isn’t the best assignment. But you’re only doing your duty, right?

I wonder how John faced death?We’ll never know. Mark’s Gospel isn’t interested in answering that question. But the question remains: What’s it like, facing death? Continue reading

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Grace sufficient

Sermon for 5 July 2009

As we listen for the Word of God,
let us pray:
Jesus, friend and Lord,
we limit you by our notions;
help us to go wherever your Spirit leads,
knowing that your power alone
keeps us on the road of faith
now and for ever. Amen.

2 Corinthians 12.2-10
Mark 6.1-13

There’s a different gospel going around these days, and it’s the gospel of ‘success’. The believers of the success gospel may wear the name of ‘Christian’, but they are confused about just what is Christian and what is not.  Some years ago, I was a chaplain at the University of Queensland. A student there said to me, ‘God doesn’t back failures.’  ‘If that’s the case,’ I said, ‘then God isn’t backing me.’  I’ll happily admit to being a failure.  My friend was merely repeating a slogan that’s going around the church traps, and soon realised that things were much more complicated than the slogan suggested.  God doesn’t back failures?  God backs failures, losers, lepers, prostitutes, prodigals and tax collectors (remember that when you fill in your tax form this year).  God backs the faithless, the cowardly and the weak.  God backs us.

Let me anticipate things a bit—I’ve been looked on as a failure by some people. I mean, who else but a failure would leave a lucrative career in medicine to become a minister? But I don’t feel like a failure. The thing is, we don’t know what failure is. Or success, for that matter.

God backs the people we call ‘failures’, because God gives them grace. God backed the apostle Paul—Paul, who started life as a persecutor of the Church. Some people never trusted him. But God entrusted a great ministry to him.

We may not realise it, but Paul wasn’t all that successful in having his ministry accepted. We may think of Paul as the greatest figure of the first century church, striding through the Roman world, establishing churches here, there and everywhere, acknowledged by one and all as the great Apostle to the Gentiles.  Actually, Paul had one or two enemies.  Well, that’s not quite true.  It’s probably safer to say that Paul only had one or two friends.

He was hard to get on with; in particular, it seems he had a troubled relationship with Peter. He also went through a number of partners in ministry, as he obeyed Jesus’ word to go out by twos—there was John Mark, Barnabas, Silvanus, Sosthenes, and Timothy.  And they’re just the ones we know about.

(A word to the wise: of all the believers in the New Testament, Paul’s the one you’d probably least want to invite to your next party.)

Continue reading

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Clog Dancing

I saw an article about clog dancing in The Yorkshire Dalesman today. I remember dad talking about it as something that happened in his childhood, and I wondered what it was like.

I realised that YouTube would likely be a place I could see what it’s like. I wasn’t wrong!

While my late dad would enjoy this clip immensely, I can see why clog dancing didn’t survive into the swinging 60s, when we left England…

If you can last to the end of the clip, a thousand days off purgatory!


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Agnus Day—lectionary humour

The Agnus Day comic strip often tickles my sense of humour. Here’s its take on the Gospel for this Sunday, Mark 6.1-13 (click to enlarge):


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