Sunday, September 26, 2010

New beginnings

The local Uniting Church congregation where I worship has undergone a significant renovation. Presenting a somewhat forbidding and unwelcoming face to the world ('abandon hope all ye who enter here' may be a tad harsh!) and difficult for anyone infirm or disabled to enter, the old church has undergone a transformation. Hopefully the building now more effectively communicates the inclusive welcome of the gospel that community seeks to share. Anyway, yesterday marked the first Sunday back in the church after a few months worshipping in the adjacent Hall. Fittingly, the return to the church building coincided with a service to celebrate one (adult) baptism and four confirmations. A group of us lead an 9 session program (5 week night sessions and one weekend away) for 10 young people. We discovered a paucity of contemporary resources and cobbled together various sessions ourselves (leadership team included four Ministers and a lay Chaplain so something would be wrong if we couldn't come up with something half-decent!) but it's got me thinking - what 'information' needs to be conveyed in such a process? how might such an experience of Christian community offer opportunities to get to know God better rather than merely learn about God...Anyway, it was a great occasion and an encouragement to all present about the call to 'turn to Christ', to reorient, realign our lives regularly to the weird and wonderful way of Jesus.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

New government

What a wait, let's hope it will be worth it! It may be true that the Gillard government will struggle to claim a 'mandate' for much but the clear message from the Australian people is that we want principled and consultative leadership from the new government.

Listening to the decision yesterday afternoon and the decision making process of the Independents, I was reminded of the Uniting Church’s inaugural statement to the nation back in 1977. It clearly outlines what we will be seeking from this new government. It encapsulates our social values and indicates what informs our wide range of community services and underpins our advocacy. Amongst other things:

“We affirm our eagerness to uphold basic Christian values and principles, such as the importance of every human being, the need for integrity in public life, the proclamation of truth and justice, the rights for each citizen to participate in decision-making in the community, religious liberty and personal dignity, and a concern for the welfare of the whole human race.

“We pledge ourselves to seek the correction of injustices wherever they occur. We will work for the eradication of poverty and racism within our society and beyond. We affirm the rights of all people to equal educational opportunities, adequate health care, freedom of speech, employment or dignity in unemployment if work is not available. We will oppose all forms of discrimination which infringe basic rights and freedoms.”

That for me sums up our approach. I will be writing to the newly formed government to advise them of our eagerness to work with them on these crucial indicators of health, justice and well-being in the Australian community.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

World Communion of Reformed Churches

Had the pleasure of living-in with 500 Presbyterians for 9 days recently! Under the theme ‘Unity of the Spirit in the Bond of Peace’ 500 delegates representing churches in the Reformed family from around the world gathered in Grand Rapids Michigan in June. The new World Communion of Reformed Churches unites two international networks into one body representing 80 million Christians from 108 countries. Previously the Uniting Church was a member of one of the merging bodies, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches. The Uniting Church was represented at the nine day meeting by 6 delegates. Our little Church’s influence was evident from the beginning when the new body adopted a modified form of the Uniting Church meeting procedures and was trained in them by Jill Tabart and Terence Corkin. Cross-cultural worship, daily bible study, workshops and various working groups on issues of theology, mission and justice marked each day, not to mention more references to Calvin than I've heard in m ylife untilnow! A highlight was a day dedicated to the history of the interaction between First and Second peoples in the USA, featuring a very powerful presentation from a Native American leader followed by a cultural festival, worship and celebration. I was struck by the wide theological and cultural diversity within the Reformed family. This new church family will be similar to all church families I am familiar with, and indeed, most human families – diverse, messy, but nevertheless capable, by God’s grace, of remaining united by the transcendent love of God and through shared participation in God’s mission of love to the world in and through Jesus Christ. The main issues emerging for the new body’s work include a focus on a new just and sustainable ‘economic architecture’. The WCRC will meet in full council every 7 years.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Powered by the sun

Coincidentally this week I had two solar energy experiences. At home we had our shiny new solar panels installed on our roof then connected to the grid. A meter displays how much power is being generated and inspires visions of lower energy bills. Very satisfying (even though we had to wait nearly a year from time of ordering and payment to installation).

And on Sunday I spoke/preached at Bentleigh Uniting Church at a service to dedicate their new 6KW system. It was an excellent occasion. They are reporting significantly reduced power bills and a greater level of energy awareness. A simple energy-audit showed them how to make immediate savings. It's something every congregation, agency and school should consider doing.

I'm going to try to put up the talk/sermon on this site (not sure quite what catagory it fits into - but it was in the 'proclamation' slot in the service). Apart from the obvious environmental pluses for such a scheme, I like solar panels as a metaphor for prayer and worship and any activity that fosters a sense of the presence of God. God's grace and love pour forth constantly to sustain creation, seeking an answering love. What God looks for in us is an attitude of receptivity, openness to the blessing of God. The grace of God becomes the power for mission in Christ's name and way.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Opposition leaves Christian values behind

The policy announcement today by the Federal Opposition in relation to asylum seekers is disappointing in the extreme. Here is a media release we've put out today. I'd encourage you, if you feel the same way, to express your view, to your local MP.

'The use of asylum seekers for political point-scoring has now reached a new low. Leaders of the Uniting Church in Australia are horrified by the most recent remarks and policy announcement by the Opposition.

The President of the Uniting Church, Rev. Alistair Macrae said, “While the shock jocks who enjoy whipping up a frenzy at the expense of vulnerable people may find Mr Morrison’s language appealing, it is inappropriate to be developing public policy that takes ‘aim’ at people.”

“The image of a stable, peaceful and democratic government armed with bows and arrows aimed at defenceless people seeking freedom and protection is callous, violent and extremely irresponsible. It is a shocking demonstration of how deep the Opposition is prepared to sink in order the harness a few votes,” said Rev. Macrae.

“Mr Abbott and Mr Morrison, who both proudly proclaim their Christian faith have lost sight of the core of that faith – ‘love your neighbour’ and ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’. They have failed to demonstrate any commitment to one of the Judeo-Christian tradition’s most enduring directives – ‘welcome the stranger’.

“Mr Abbott and Mr Morrison have abandoned not only Christian values but basic human decency in a return to policies which punish already vulnerable people. The Rudd Government put an end to Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) and Bridging Visas without family reunion because it was the right thing to do. These old policies of the previous Howard Government caused harm and the Opposition knows it.”

Rev. Macrae said, “Asylum seekers whose claims for refugee protection have been granted have a right to be with their families, away from the persecution they were fleeing.”

”Refugees who have suffered torture and persecution, and those who have had family members disappear or been murdered or imprisoned may not be well enough to work or to work for the dole.

“We are talking about people who often need to be treated for such conditions as post-traumatic stress and severe trauma.

“Callous and punitive policies such as this are not the mark of a fair, decent and progressive country.

“There is nothing to fear from reaching out a helping hand to those in need. In fact, when Australia has acted with decency in the past, we have been repaid many times over. We have helped many people fleeing from persecution and conflict in the past – East Timorese, Kosovars, Vietnamese, Jews – and our society is now richer for their presence and their legacy.

“We can only hope and pray that our politicians rediscover some basic human decency, and quickly, before more lives are unnecessarily destroyed,” said Rev. Macrae.'

Thursday, May 6, 2010


The Uniting Church in Australia has warned that Tony Abbott’s denial of Australia’s discriminatory past promotes a disturbing and socially divisive doctrine which could erode historical facts of national importance.

Uniting Church President Rev. Alistair Macrae said the comments made by the Leader of the Opposition revealed a very selective reading of our nation’s history and ignored Australia’s legacy of Indigenous and migrant discrimination.

“If Mr Abbott is claiming that Australia has had a fairer, more diverse and more easy-going past than the ‘black armband view’ of our history then he needs to demonstrate that with facts and not just rhetoric,” said Rev. Macrae.

National Administrator of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress, Rev. Shayne Blackman said Mr. Abbott’s view that Aborigines were ‘sometimes’ treated cruelly is a gross understatement of an attempt to rewrite the history books for political gain.

“It is a fact that Indigenous Australians were often cruelly treated, until relatively recently forced into hostile places and even massacred. We see the results of this today in the range of tragic Indigenous socio-economic outcomes in this nation.

“If Mr Abbott believes that these tragic events happened only infrequently I challenge him to engage with the broader Indigenous community who are still suffering the lingering effects of our nation’s legacy towards its original inhabitants.

“In this election year people want leaders who can demonstrate moral fortitude, truth and a commitment to learning from the past to enact policies that will deliver just, equitable and prosperous futures – not attempting to rewrite history for political persuasion,” said Rev.

Rev. Macrae said “It is unarguable that Australia has a history of discrimination especially towards aboriginal people. It is also a fact that racially based discrimination continues to overshadow Australia’s long and rich dimension of peaceful and fruitful cultural and linguistic diversity. While we cannot change the past we need to accurately describe it in order to work for a more just and equitable future for all Australians.”

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Ernabella Church Restoration

Last week I had the privilege of being in Ernabella for 5 days leading to a service of dedication of the renovated church on Palm Sunday. Ernabella (Pukatja) is a 5 hour drive south west of Alice Springs. A Presbyterian mission started there in 1937 and the church was built in 1952. Some years ago it fell into disrepair and, because of its damaged asbestos roof, was declared unsafe. Since then the community has worshipped outside adjacent to the church building. With the oversight of the Ernabella community, and the help of a government grant, numerous volunteer church work parties, some amazing work by Northern Synod staff and volunteers from different states, the renovation is now complete. It was great to see the church packed to overflowing on Palm Sunday with locals and many vistors from around Australia.

I'd been invited to go up a few days earlier to lead some bible studies because the commuity there wanted to prepare spiritually for the big day so that not only the building was renewed. We had a great few days of fellowship, study, sharing, prayer and worship.

It became clear to me that Ernabella has a more positive 'mission story' than some other indigenous communities. It was ahead of its time in terms of early commitments to honouring the language and culture, solidarity in land rights and other justice  issues and developing local leadership and responsibility. It was clear that there remain deep and respectful relationships between the local church community and those who came to serve there over the years.

Ernabella has had its share of struggles and challenges over the years. In my Palm Sunday sermon I noted that Palm Sunday was probably a better day tomark such an occasion than, say, Easter Day. Palm Sunday has that note of festivity and celebration as Jesus arrived in Jerusalem. But there is also the note of future struggle and threat. At Ernabella last week both elements were present. A strong celebration of the past and hopefulness for the future. But also an awareness of the challenges facing indigenous people in this country in general, and the particular challenges facing the Pitjitjanjara people in the present.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Uniting Church condemns shameful Opposition comments

President of the Uniting Church in Australia, Rev. Alistair Macrae has condemned the recent comments by Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and other Opposition members concerning the acknowledgement of traditional Indigenous ownership of land as ignorant and destructive.

Tony Abbott has criticised Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and his Ministers as engaging in “tokenism” and unnecessary political correctness when they acknowledge traditional owners while speaking at functions.

Rev. Macrae said, “such comments reveal a concerning level of ignorance about the significance and function of the regular acknowledgment of the traditional owners of land. They are extremely unhelpful in building bridges between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

“Mr Abbott’s comments give tacit approval to others to make ignorant and racist comments which can only unravel the goodwill that exists between so many Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

“The acknowledgement of traditional owners at public and community gatherings is the least that we can do in the light of the invasion by Europeans and the consequent dispossession experienced by Australia’s First Peoples. Hopefully such acknowledgments represent substantial commitments to reconciliation and spur the community to engage with more than words. For the Uniting Church in Australia, repeating that acknowledgement in an attitude of deep respect whenever we gather serves to remind us that we are committed, together with our Indigenous brothers and sisters, to the on-going work of reconciliation.

“The attitude of some members of the Opposition is deeply disrespectful. We look to our politicians to provide leadership for a better Australia but these comments display no evidence of a commitment to such leadership. They are disappointing and offensive,” Rev. Macrae said.

“The Uniting Church in Australia is grateful for the relationship we have with our Indigenous brothers and sisters. We remain committed to working together for a better Australia – a country that can admit the mistakes of the past and look ahead to the future with hope and pride.”

Monday, March 1, 2010

Christmas Island Detention Centre

I’ve just returned from a Church leader’s delegation to Christmas Island for a ground level view of how asylum seekers arriving by boat first experience Australia. The spike in boat arrivals in Australia in the past 6 months represents the tiny tip of the massive worldwide refugee crisis. Countries in other parts of the world are looking askance at what they regard as a mean-spirited Australian response to the crisis. Compared with many other countries we are simply not carrying our share of the load.

Our delegation also wanted to explore how the churches and other religious communities in Australia might join with other voluntary and not-for-profit groups and caring locals to help humanize the strange and artificial world of Christmas Island Detention Centre.

My response to what I saw and heard is mixed. The concerns consistently expressed by the Uniting Church about the very existence of an off-shore detention centre were reinforced. Such a place should not exist. Australia has a legitmate right to manage its borders but the policy of processing the arrivals’ bona fides at a remote offshore location in an environment resembling a high security prison compound is unjustifiable. Christmas Island is a four hour flight from Perth and a mere 300km from Jakarta. The Detention Centre is a compound carved out of the tropical forest with high, razor-wired fences capable of carrying 50,000 volts of electricity.

To be fair the Government is trying, with some success, to change practices within the facility to render it less like a prison and more like a transition camp. Minister Evan’s seven core values include respect for ‘clients’ (not ‘detainees’) high on the list. The shift is worthy if not yet consistently realized. Just six months ago the detention Centre housed around 600 asylum seekers. Last week the number approached 1800. This escalation of arrivals is due largely to the war in Afghanistan and the huge number of displaced Tamils in Sri Lanka. The sheer logistical challenges in accommodating, feeding, clothing such a large and culturally diverse group of people cannot be underestimated.

Of most immediate concern are the 90 or so young people referred to as unaccompanied minors. These children are 18 years and below and they have arrived here on their own. Some carry deep scars of painful memories, others bear the burden of expectation of the families and communities who have pooled together precious resources to send them on a journey of hope and promise. All exist in a limbo of longing for a visa, their passport to hope, and of homesickness and loneliness that comes from being separated from loved ones with no immediate hopes of reunion. Given that Christmas Island Detention centre will be there for a while at the very least these young people and the other children with their families should as a matter of course be accommodated in a community placement on the mainland.

The asylum seekers are not criminals. Nor are they queue jumpers - where they come from there are no queues. Nor do they enjoy luxurious accommodation on Christmas Island, far from it. The facilities are adequate but rudimentary. It is not a place that I would want anyone I care for to stay. It is a liminal, betwixt and between place where fear and hope cohabit. It is a holding-pen housing people who know they cannot return (unless they are forced to by failing security checks) but who cannot dare to hope for too much from this country to whose big-heartedness they have appealed.

We heard many stories in our short stay. Those who have arrived more recently, especially those from countries whose visa applications are processed relatively quickly, are on the whole buoyant and positive. The Department of Immigration aims at an average of 90 days (it’s currently 110 days) to assess whether asylum seekers meet the international criteria for refugees – ninety-five per cent achieve this. Then there is a security checking process. For the Tamils from Sri Lanka this is taking considerably longer and some of the people we met had been in the Detention Centre for more than nine months. It was disheartening for them to see groups of people who had arrived months later receiving visas and leaving for the mainland, their own prospects uncertain. We urge that more resources be invested to expedite these checks more quickly.

Let’s not allow this humanitarian crisis to become once again a cheap political plaything. There is a legitimate place for border protection. And there is a compelling humanitarian case for ensuring that people fleeing persecution and seeking safety here be treated expeditiously and humanely.

Let's keep campaigning for closure of this facility as soon as possible, and in the meantime, for the immediate implementation of a policy that all children and family groups be housed on the mainland while their applications are being processed

Monday, January 4, 2010

Maintain Melbourne water restrictions

Today's newspapers reported that the Victorian Government is poised to relax water restrictions in Melbourne. The rationale is that soon extra water for Melbourne will be flowing through the contentious pipeline (taking water from rural Victoria) which will tide us over until the incredibly expensive and power-hungry desalination plant comes on-line. Why, asks the Minister, should Melbourne residents have harsher restrictions than some other parts of the State? This is an incredibly short-sighted approach! It seems clear that the weather patterns are fundamentally changing. The prospect of full dams anytime soon appears remote. From my observation, Australians have generally accepted (and embraced!) that we need a whole new mindset when it comes to our appreciation and use of this resource. We are planting different types of gardens. We mulch more. Domestic consumption of water has dropped significantly without any real drop in standard of living. Our showers have less flow through the rose - are a bit shorter.  We make considered decisions before we flush. My own family's water consumption has halved without  much effort at all. Many of us have installed water tanks to catch some of the rain. We are told that domestic rain collection makes a neglibile difference. Maybe so in net quantities. But it reflects a dramatically changed mindset - a different attitude to water Now when it rains we are drawn to the back porch to enjoy the phenomenon - maybe walk outside with upturned faces and give thanks. Relaxing the restrictions is wrong-headed at so many levels. It will send a message that our water issues are not serious. That we only occasionally need to tweak our lifestyles rather than make deeper shifts in attitude and practice. Let's send a message to rural Victorians and say no to any change at this stage - don't further deplete rural Victoria of its precious water by activating the pipeline. And let's send a message to our leaders that urban Victorians are more committed to a new approach to water than they seem to credit.