Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Attend school or else...!

Last week I met with the Minister for School Education, The Hon Peter Garrett, to follow up a letter I had written him weeks before. In the letter I expressed the concern of the Uniting Church in Australia at his announcement on 18 October that social security payments will be suspended if parents are assessed to be “not doing their part to get their child to school.”

While sharing concerns for improving educational engagement by Indigenous children, we are aware that such punitive approaches to school attendance have not worked elsewhere. In the report released by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) and the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) “What works to overcome Indigenous disadvantage”, published this year, the authors note (p.3) “a review of evidence from seven rigorously evaluated programs that linked school attendance with welfare payments in the United States found that sanction-only programs have a negligible effect on attendance, but that case management was the most critical factor.”

The Report identified from a review of the literature, respect for culture and different learning style were considered to be important for engaging Indigenous families in school readiness programs.

The Minister's speech acknowledged that what works in favour of school attendance are the following factors:
• a strong relationship between school and community;
• well prepared and well supported teachers;
• following students through with Personalised Learning Plans; and
• what’s been referred to as a “culture of high expectations”.

We are concerned that the additional punitive measure he announced of cutting social security payments may actually retard the impact of the above measures and increase financial hardship for families penalised, with financial hardship being identified in the AIHW and AIFS report as one of the factors that serves as a barrier to school attendance (p. 2).

I attended this meeting with my colleague Peter Jones, General Secretary of the UCA's Northern Synod. Peter was not only a teacher in a previous life, but worked in senior positions in the Northern Territory Education Department and has deep connections on the ground with Indigenous communities in the Territory.

The Minister listened respectfully to our position but wouldn't move on the basic policy direction. We left him with a well researched 13 page paper prepared by UnitingJustice supporting our call for a reconsideration of a policy we consider to be discriminatory and very likely to be ineffective in achieving its aims.

What is more difficult to measure is the long term impact on Indigenous communities of once again being on the end of paternalistic and punitive approaches to achieve desired outcomes.

Monday, December 5, 2011

China Christian Council meets the Uniting Church

I returned last week from a visit to the China Christian Council (CCC) with a delegation of Uniting Church leaders. We went to sound out a possible formal relationship with the CCC akin to the partnerships we have with 36 other churches, mainly in the Pacific and Asia. China is a country with whom we have historic mission links and, of course, the relationship between China and Australia generally is becoming increasingly important politically and economically. Increasing migration from China to Australia, growing Chinese involvement within the UCA and a shared history of being uniting churches added impetus to our visit.

Our delegation included two leaders from our Theological Colleges, two leaders from Uniting Church community services, two Uniting Church Chinese Ministers, the Director of UnitingWorld and me. Our program concentrated on meetings with the CCC leadership, visits to three theological seminaries, CCC community services staff and the Amity Foundation.

Amity is an NGO Development Agency of the CCC. It also runs the largest printing press in the world, with a staff of 500 it publishes 10 million bibles per year. On visiting the massive printing works I recalled reading books in the 1970's about people smuggling bibles into China. Now the Bible is going out in large volumes across the world from China! I was presented with an limited edition bible marking the 80 millionth bible printed by Amity - that copy will be on display at UnitingWorld.

We also visited a number of congregations in Shanghai, Nanjing and Beijing. One of the churches was called, memorably to my Australian ear, in translation, 'No Worries Church'!

The CCC describes itself as 'post-denominational'. It regards itself as a uniting church and embraces a range of traditions including mainstream Protestant churches as well as Seventh Day Adventist, Pentecostal and Indigenous Churches! They are determined not to replicate the divisions of the Western Church. When I asked about their doctrinal core they said they basically used the Bible, and the Apostle's and Nicene Creeds. It was formed in the 1950's but during the Cultural Revolution (1966-80) churches were forced to close and Christians gathered secretly. One conservative estimate is that there are now 23 million Christians in China and growing rapidly. Open evangelism seems still somewhat restricted but local leaders attribute the church growth to personal witness and to an intentional approach to discipling and educating new Christians. We have much to learn from this church.

What might they gain from a closer relationship with a church like the UCA?  They have a desperate need for more pastors to serve in the growing church so theological education is a priority. They are interested in possible links between CCC seminaries and UCA theological colleges, as well as possible service collaboration between the CCC Social Service Department and UnitingCare. There is also the possibility of volunteer placements through UnitingWorld and the Amity Foundation.

We hope that a similar delegation from the CCC will visit the UCA next year to coincide with our trienniel Assembly meeting.

Oh and we did squeeze in a bit of sightseeing but that's another story...
Photos by Rev Ji Zhang

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Long-term health costs of extended mandatory detention of asylum seekers

Yesterday I spoke at the launch of a new report urging Australians to consider the long-term consequences of asylum policies.

This report by the Yarra Institute for Religion and Social Policy, and commissioned by Good Shepherd Australia, estimates the long-term health costs of extended mandatory detention of asylum seekers. For the first time in Australia, it does so by applying innovative costing approaches developed in the Netherlands.

It is now well established that lengthy periods in detention cause significant mental health problems for asylum seekers. The Howard Government recognised this in 2005, when it agreed that 25 of the 27 detainees then remaining on Nauru should be brought to Australia. This was after doctors had diagnosed serious mental health conditions.

More generally, a study of detained asylum seekers in Australia found that more than one third of those detained for more than two years had new mental health problems in 2006-07. This was ten times the rate of mental health problems for those detained for less than three months.

There is good evidence that such trauma causes long-term mental health problems. The new report estimates the lifetime health costs of such trauma. On conservative estimates – that trauma sufferers will have lifetime mental health costs 50% more than the average – the report shows this will cost an additional $25,000 per person.

In recent years, more than 80% of detained asylum seekers have eventually been successful in settling in Australia. This means that such additional health costs have to be met by the Australian health system, and Australian taxpayers have to pick up the tab.

The Australian immigration system already has extensive health checks for migrants seeking to come to this country. One of the key reasons is to protect public expenditure on health and community services. It is ironic that another element in current immigration policy – mandatory detention – has the direct effect of increasing public expenditure on health and community services.

So as well as the clear moral and humanitarian basis for deep concerns about current asylum seeker policies and processes here is a financial perspective about long term costs of current practices. This is in addition to the already established very high cost of detaning asylum seekers compared with community-based processes.

Tuvalu in crisis

Australia’s neighbour Tuvalu is in a fight for its life.

As reported in the Fairfax newspapers this week Tuvalu faces an immediate crisis in the form of a severe and protracted drought. This tiny Polynesian country, whose name means ‘eight standing together’ (the eight islands and atolls that comprise the nation), has a population of just over 10,000 and just three days of water left. A state of emergency has been declared by the Tuvalu gGovernment and requests for immediate assistance have been sent to Australia and New Zealand.

The Uniting Church in Australia is in partnership with Christian Church of Tuvalu and in close contact with church leaders in Tuvalu. Its leaders report that the southern island of Nukulaelae is most severely affected by extreme shortages of water and locally produced food. The Church Secretary reports has reported that ‘the coconut tree tops have started falling off, breadfruit trees are dead, banana plantations are dried up and the traditional pulaka pits are rotten because of the drought.’

In the capital city, Funafuti, the government has sealed all the water catchments and water is being rationed to at 20 litres per day per household. The Australian Government and the Red Cross are responding with rehydration packs for the hospital, emergency supplies of drinking water and desalination plants to help our neighbours survive this immediate threat.

However this immediate issue cannot be considered without acknowledging the longer term threats to life in Tuvalu and neighbouring Kiribati.

The Prime Minister of Tuvalu Willy Telavi reported to the United Nations in New York that his nation would not survive without international assistance. ''It's mostly climate change” he told the General Assembly.

The highest point on Tuvalu is only 4.5 metres above sea level so it has long been vulnerable to natural events like king tides. But with rising sea levels associated with climate change, the future prospects for sustainable life on Tuvalu are bleak. The rising sea is contaminating underground fresh water tables and no rain has fallen in months despite this being the rainy season in Tuvalu. The long term weather forecast predicts dry weather for months to come.

A recent Pacific Islands Forum Leaders meeting called for urgency in addressing to the major issues of climate change mitigation and adaptation. The Pacific Conference of Churches has called on Governments to address the issue of resettlement and to assisting the people of Tuvalu to resettle in other places, including Australia, in the event that Tuvalu needs to be evacuated.

Australia and New Zealand are responding with emergency measures to address to current crisis but must also respond to the longer term crisis.

One desirable response from the Australian Government would be to offer a guarantee of special immigration status to the people of Tuvalu in the likely event that the country becomes unviable for human habitation. ‘Eight standing together’ will soon be not enough and Tuvalu is looking to its neighbours to stand with them in this critical time as they deal with drought today and possible inundation in the future.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Football, problem gambling and the moral high gound

I love sport of all kinds - tragic, I know. I deplore the position taken by the AFL and NRL in opposing changes in gambling legislation designed to address problem gambling.

I consider sport to be an overwhelming net plus in terms of the health of our community whether participation is through playing, watching, joining a club, umpiring, officiating, selling pies and hot dogs to raise money for the club - whatever - all good! But I deplore the ubiquitous presence of the gambling industry in sport as they try to purchase community credibility while gaining significant income from the vulnerable. How dare they claim the high moral ground in this issue?

I applaud the way sporting organisations are starting to tackle sexism and racial discrimination. Why would they now 'drop the moral ball' and oppose legislation designed not to outlaw gaming, but to make it safer for people who are addicted to it?

It rings hollow when major football leagues cry poor about potential loss of revenue. Haven't the football codes recently had a windfall of extra funds from renewed television rights? Let's hope some of those funds will find their way to resourcing sport at community level rather than add to the already grossly inflated pay packets of football executives. If financial stringency is an issue that's where I'd look first rather than securing income sources from the vulnerable.

Sport can flourish in our communities without being funded through the misery of addicts and their families.

These reforms are not a tax, but an opportunity for problem gamblers to set limits for themselves before getting carried away by their addiction. They only require gamblers to set limits for themselves of how much they can afford to lose.

Through the work of UnitingCare agencies, we are daily dealing with the human consequences of problem gamblers losing the paycheque on high-loss machines.

Australia has the greatest number of high-loss pokies in the world and for our clubs to base their business model on this fact is wrong and needs to stop. We (well a lot of us anyway) love our football clubs here in Australia. It’s time for them to return the love and say no exploiting problem gamblers.

Please urge your local members of Parliament to support gambling reform. If you are a member of an AFL or NRL club give them a call and express your view.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

West Arnhem reflections

Between Jabiru and Maningrida
I've just returned from a week in West Arnhem Land with Ken Sumner, chair of the Uniting and Aboriginal Islander Christian Conference, and Lindsay Parkhill (who works with the Northern Regional Council of Congress and Frontier Services) as our guide. I've been to East Arnhem a few times but never West. Our main ports of call were Jabiru, Goulburn Island and Maningrida. Ken and I assisted in commissioning 9 new pastors for ministry in their local contexts in two memorable services, the highlights of which were the 'testimonies' of the pastors and Ken's tea and damper holy communions.

David, the Community Minister in Maningrida, at the Commissioning Service
 I've returned exhausted, only partly from sleeping four nights on floorboards of a house or on hard ground in a tent. Those foam mats seem thinner and thinner the older I get! The other reason is that visiting such communities makes me feel like an alien in a parallel universe. For a change, I experience vulnerability and powerlessness. I don't understand the language - I speak one and a bit, most indigenous people up that way speak 3 or 4 languages plus English! I don't know the protocols and often feel awkward and gauche. I keep wanting to ask 'what's the plan? what's happening?' realising that I'm seeking some sort of control. I learn to relax, let go, wait and trust what will emerge. 

We had many conversations - culture, theology, family, politics, ministry. At one level the situation in these communities seems bleak. There are very few jobs. School attendance is low. In one place we witness episodes of anger and aggression.

There is mixed response to the Federal Government's Northern Territory Intervention. The construction of new housing is long overdue. Some communities welcome the extra police presence, but in one place where there are now 3 police there was previously none, and no great need for them.

But the overwhelmingly negative aspect of the Intervention is suggested by its name. Once again it is a 'top-down, one-size-fits-all' approach. For communities functioning well it marked yet another instance of disempowering paternalism. We heard the lament that has been the consistent response from NT Elders - governments must abandon the 'template' approach and develop regional approaches grounded in significant consultation with local leaders. Everybody wants better outcomes in health, education, community safety, employment, housing - but the issues and priorities are not the same in every place.

A classic case in point is the decision to move resources away from 'homelands' to selected 'hubs'. It smacks of being driven more by financial and ideological motives than good outcomes. The research and anecdotal evidence is clear that education and health outcomes, for example, are significantly better for children in the homelands than children in townships.

The Northern Territory Government's policy of teaching in English only, rather than bi-lingually, has recently been slightly modified. It needs to be scrapped altogether according to educators. Not only has it resulted in significantly reduced school attendance, the consistent research indicates that bi-lingual education achives much better results, even in English!

We witnessed two very heartening things. It is 'ceremony season' in Arnhem Land and it is clear that traditional custom, law and ceremony are alive and well. Has this been a continuing thing or is there something of a renaissance happening? I don't know. Indigenous people need to live biculturally and I suspect there is a parallel here with bi-lingual education - that young people grounded in their our culture and language will have stronger confidence and identity from which to engage and participate in mainstream culture to the extent they choose.

We also experienced the vitality of Christian community in the North. While facing many challenges, they have a deep spirituality, a hunger for scripture and a love for God that makes my own look insipid. There is interesting conversation between Christianity and traditional spirituality and an emerging indigenous theology that will continue to challenge the received Christian tradition and enrich the whole church.

Commissioning service at Warruwi, Goulburn Island
 Overall it was an inspiring and unsettling week for me. Inspiring because of the faith and resilience of people who, by any measure, continue to do it hard in the 'lucky country'. Unsettling because, as part of the Christian community which bears a mixed legacy in its ministry amongst aborginal people, I need to ponder how to be involved in healing the damage without, even with the best intentions, making things worse.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Visit to Jeju Island Naval Base

Last week at the invitation of the Christian Conference of Asia I participated in a church leaders' solidaity visit to Jeju Island in South Korea
The main focus was to witness the ongoing resistance of residents of Kangjeong village at the southern tip of Jeju Island to the construction of a Korea-United States Naval Base in the area and to understand the concerns about this development. We were accompanied by representatives from the Korean National Council of Churches who organised our itinerary.

During the visit we visited Kangjeong Village, participated in worship with the community, saw first hand a confrontation between about 150 villagers and 150 police, met with Christian leaders, visited the Peace Park and participated in a community Candlelight Vigil.

During the visit we identified the following concerns:

1. Militarization. The proposed Jeju Island base would constitute an additional military base outside the mainland of the Korean Peninsula. Jeju, like Okinawa, will represent an expansion of the geopolitical influence and military control of the USA, countering China's growing economic and military influence in north-east Asia. The new Aegis fleet being prepared will add to the arms race taking place in this region. Jeju Island will potentially become a target of military attacks from contending powers in the region.

2. Destruction of environment and community. Kangjeong is a farming and fishing village and the naval base will destroy the livelihood of the farmers and fisherfolk of the area. Residents will be dislocated and social problems will emerge. The marine environment will be severely impacted. In Jeju there are rare plants, animals, corals which led to the designation of Jeju as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. These treasures will be threatened, possibly lost.

Environmental scientists claim that no credible environmental impact studies have been conducted. There is clearly a need for such study and a need for the results to be available for scrutiny. We also saw an urgent need for a comprehensive social impact study.

3. Concerns about Government policy, processes and Police presence. We heard reports that among the villagers more than 90% are opposed to the Base. Authorities claim a mandate on the basis of a meeting with a small non representative group at which only 80 of the 1800 villagers were present. In a democratic nation, a proper consultative process must be followed in any major decision like this one.

We observed an overwhelming police presence and were concerned about the intimidating nature of this presence. I got caught up myself in the confrontation but thankfully the potential violence was contained on this occasion. We are also concerned about cases of arrest and fines. We read an article saying "about 15 villagers have been charged with obstruction of official business and 3 are in jail. 14 villagers have been sued for 290 million won in damages".

Not everyone is opposed to this Base. In fact we met with a group of leaders from a very large Korean Church who support the construction as a necessary component of South Korea's defence.

It might be fanciful to expect that the Korean Government will stop this construction having already invested so much in it. But there is a gathering local and international momentum developing against it.

It made me wonder, again, how different our world might be if we invested as much time, energy and money into exploring paths that lead to peace rather than war.

Monday, August 1, 2011

'Messy Church'

I met this morning with Lucy Moore who is the face and the animating spirit of a 'movement' called 'messy church'. Its impetus is the desire to create environments for worshipand faith development that are child friendly and accessible to people who are alientated by traditional forms of church.

The term 'Messy church' evokes three quite distinct reactions within me:

For the Presbyterian in me, for whom orderliness, not cleanliness, is next to godliness, it sends a shiver of apprehension up my spine. Messy church is surely an oxymoron! When God created the cosmos God brought order to the chaos that was there. Messy church sounds like it is a campaign of the evil one to create mayhem and disorder in God’s house!

The second reaction is the opposite. Isn’t messy church a tautology? Aren’t things going to be messy almost by definition when you get a bunch of sinners together and throw the living God into their midst? Eugene Peterson's definition of church comes to mind: groups of sinners gathering here and there. Of course it will be messy. And if you’ve got kids, instant messiness, if it’s a healthy environment for kids.

My third reaction is one of excitement – cautious excitement because once a Presbyterian….Wouldn’t it be good to be part of a church where messy and messed up people like you and me don’t have to pretend we’re more together than we are. Where we can have environments to lament and complain, to encourage and aspire, to express our thoughts and emotions, to play and laugh and weep in the presence of God and God’s people. That sounds messy. It sounds hard. It sounds fun. And it sounds authentic. And isn’t that what we long for in the church?

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Creation, carbon and christianity

Recently the Federal Government signalled their intention to implement a regime to ‘put a price on carbon’. The Uniting Church, through me as President, and UnitingJustice and UnitingCare, welcomed that announcement. I know there will be some of our members who take a different view. In my travels I have encountered some UCA members who don’t believe in human induced climate change.

But our position on this is consistent with our previous commitments and with the broad consensus amongst the scientific community. When the Uniting Church was inaugurated in 1977 we pledged, in our Statement to the Nation that looks increasingly ‘prophetic’, that we would be ‘a voice urging the protection of the environment and the wise use of the earth’s resources’. More recently, the Assembly climate change statement 'For the Sake of the Planet'  (http://www.unitingjustice.org.au/images/pdfs/issues/living-sustainably/assembly-resolutions/11_asc_climatechange2006.pdf) articulates our concerns and commitments in this regard. We are becoming freshly aware of God’s call to human beings to be stewards and carers of the earth.

The Government’s package is a positive step towards a clean energy future for Australia. As Christians, we believe that God’s will for the earth is for renewal and reconciliation, not destruction by human beings. Surely decisive action on climate change is one of the great challenges of our time and should be front and centre in the prayer, thought and action of all who worship the Creator of all.

UnitingCare has carefully scrutinised the compensation package, especially its impacts on the poorest members of our community, and believe they are adequate.

Some argue that the price on carbon has been set too low or that critically important products such as petrol have been exempted However, it is an important start. What is needed internationally is a change of mind-set towards sustainable living. As a wealthy country Australia has an obligation to show some leadership in this regard. If countries like ours dither, especially given that we are the highest per capita greenhouse gas emitters on the planet, how can we expect other countries to take up the challenge? These days the commandment to love our neighbour surely must extend into this debate. I hope this signal from the government can act as a spur and encouragement to further research and development in the use of renewable energies.

The other particular perspective we carry into this discussion arises out of our close partnerships with churches in the Pacific for whose countries climate change and rising sea levels threaten their very existence.

So while it seems the $23 price is perhaps on the low side it has to be seen as the first step towards achieving our committed task of an 80% reduction on 2020 emission levels by 2050. This will help to ensure that Australia makes a fair contribution to addressing global warming.

Hopefully it will also release significant funds to support low and middle income households, protect jobs, drive innovation in clean energy projects and technologies, and support farmers who want to protect the land for future generations.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Ministers Conference Alice Springs

Last week about 60 Uniting Church Ministers gathered at St Philip's College in Alice Springs for a Conference focussing on two themes: 'ministry in a time of transition' and 'life for indigenous Australians in the Centre'. It was a very rich program. If anything we probably had too much 'input' and not enough processing time but I suppose indigestion is better than starvation!

The input on the local theme came from a variety of people ranging from a public health professional citing heaps of statistics and research about aboriginal health (some positive trends for life expectancy, infant mortality etc and shocking statistics and stories on the social and health effects of alcohol abuse), some Pitjitjinjara women reflecting on their life, a Pitjitjinjara man telling his story of renal sickness and urging the church to support the campaign for more accessible dialysis treatment in the Centre, hearing about a retreat centre in Alice called 'campfireintheheart' which offers retreats combining the riches of the Christian contemplative tradition with indigenous spirituality; we heard from a Lutheran pastor who has been chaplain to the town camps in Alice for 15 years - most of what he does is conduct or attend funerals...

During the week we were there the Federal Governent's 'consultation' about the Northern Territory Intervention came to Alice. It seemed the locals didn't know about it. A few from our group attended the hearing and were not impressed. The Northern Synod will soon be reaching out to the wider church asking us to do what we can to draw attention to the debilitating aspects of the Intervention (including the name!).

Jenny Tymm's input on ministry in 'liminal' times had many resonances with the local theme. In many ways the First Peoples in many parts of this land inhabit liminal space - this uncertain, difficult historical space between 'invasion' and the prospect of reconciliation and justice. 

(Photos by Rev Ji Zhang)

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Australian Churches Gambling Task Force

Yesterday I attended the second meeting of the Australian Churches Gambling Task Force. Representatives from about 15 different Australian Churches, including some Heads of Churches and heads of their community services agencies, gathered to finalise the objectives and strategies of the Task Force. There is a strong sense of unity amongst the group recognising that there is a 'once in a generation' opportunity to introduce much needed reform into gambling in this country. The focus of the campaign is to support the legislation being developed by the Government as part of their pre-election agreement with Andrew Wilkie, to legislate to protect problem gamblers from 'high-intensity' electronic gaming machines.

Chair of the Australian Churches Gambling Taskforce, Tim Costello, said mandatory pre commitment for high intensity electronic gaming machines will help problem gamblers who want to help themselves by putting consumer protection measures in place to make poker machine gambling safer. The reforms will mean that consumers can choose how much they are prepared to gamble. The press release indicates that “90,000 problem gamblers losing an average of $21,000 each a year, gambling in Australia is a huge issue and more power needs to be given to the consumer so they can set their loss limits. 600,000 Australians play poker machines on a weekly basis, and around 200,000 of this group are people who have a moderate or severe problem with gambling. Mandatory limits allow people, in a sober moment, to say: ‘I can’t afford another $300 this month.' Each year thousands of children suffer because of the impact of someone’s poker machine gambling, with problem gamblers each affecting at least one child and adversely impacting on 10 others."

“The social costs of problem gambling are high, with relationship breakdown, mental health issues, unemployment, debt and financial hardship, theft and social isolation contributing to costs estimated at $4.7 billion a year,” Rev Costello said.

At least forty per cent of club’s profits come from people addicted to gambling. This explains why the gambling industry has invested so heavily in a fear campaign to oppose reform that would be laughable if it wasn't built so heavily on lies; and if the issue wasn't so serious in terms of damage to problem gamblers and their dependents. I notice that the National Rugby League, which also has an interest in maintaining its revenue on the backs of addicted gamblers, has joined the campaign to discredit and undermine reform.

I hope the Churches and their members, and all members of the community concerned about the social damage caused by these dangerous machines, will contact their local members to express support for these much needed reforms.

Secretarial and infrastructure support is being provided by UnitingCare and soon there will be a website with information and suggestions for action.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Feasting in Tonga

I'm just back from attending the annual Conference of the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga. Coming so soon after being with Presbyterians (Church of Scotland) the contrast could not have been greater. In their own distinctive ways, both were great experiences of this diverse community called the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. The singing of Tongans is well known and its beauty is not exaggerated. The 9 day program included spaces for many choirs to share the fruits of their labours. The Conference concluded with a 5 1/2 hour session including 6 seeches and 12 choir presentations. The climax of that session involved all of the choirs and the rest of the gathering (2000 people) giving an unaccompanied rendition of the Hallelujah chorus! The other remarkable feature of the Conference was that the program is punctuated by great feasts, twice a day, provided by various  communities within the Church. Sit down banquets for 2000 people. At one level it seemed excessive but I was assured that the communities regard it is a real gift to be able to provide such hospitality.Various attempts over the years to reduce these have met firm resistance from those who provide them!

This is the largest church in Tonga by a stretch but if the recent appearance of many new Mormon churches is any indication the balance may be shifting. Parts of the Conference were live telecast on TV and radio including the election of the President (front page headlines the next day in the newspaper), the coming year's placement of Ministers, the Queen's address and the ordination service.

There was a big emphasis on fundraising. One day was given over to mark the 145th anniversary of Tupou College for which over $1million had been raised in a special effort campaign. The choir night on the Saturday raised over $100K using the confronting method of sticking money onto the dancers skin. I danced myself, with the Australian contingent, but don't think my moves raised much money!

The Uniting Church in Australia has many Tongan members who come from this church and contine to stay closely connected. We are receiving increasing leadership from ourTongan members and Ministers and currently 5 of our mission volunteers work with the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga. It's a very important relationship - hope I can get there again next year.

In the meantime I need to work on a few more dance moves and practice the tenor line in the Hallelujah chorus - I reckon it will be as close as I ever get to singing in the heavenly choir.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Church of Scotland Assembly reflections

Last week I attended the Church of Scotland Assembly.Here are a few unsystematic, non-comprehensive reflections:

  • the daily worship was unashamedly traditional Presbyterian - unaccompanied metrical psalms, beautifully worded formal prayers, thoughful reflections by the Moderator. Not sure if worship is usually so traditional or whether it reflected the preferred style of the Moderator who conducted all worships. It may also have reflected the marking of the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible from which we read exclusively during the week.
  • singing 'Your hand o God has guided' prior to the sexuality debate. It set a wonderful theological basis for the subsequent discussion. The refrain lifted the roof: 'One Church, one faith, one Lord' said it all - goosebump stuff!
  • the respectful tone of the sexuality and leadership debate even though they were mainly debating whether or not to set up another Task Group.
  • the various formal receptions for guests in exotic locations!
Common themes with Uniting Church
  • how to address ageing/declining membership and ministry profile
  • size and sustainability of Presbyteries
  • justice and community concerns (including Israel/Palestine)
  • sexuality and leadership
  • emerging church
Quirky things

  • proposals are called 'deliverances'
  • youth delegates can speak but not vote
  • the presence of the Queen's represenative, the Lord High Commissioner (this is clearly a State Church)
  • the grand formal entrance of the Moderator each day
  • the electronic voting/counting system
  • I appreciated the strengths of the 'parliamentary process' although came away more attached to our concensus processes, especially at voting time.
  • mobile phones have to be switched off (not just to silent), saw no laptops (and only the odd surreptitious i-pad)

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

An unexpected crucifixion

Wandering through Glasgow's wonderful Kelvin Grove Art Gallery last week I noticed a darkened room featuring one very large work - Salvadore Dali's Cucifixion. A small reproduction of this work had hung on my father's study wall and to see the original brought back many memories as well as a fresh appreciation of a very fine work. Painted in 1951 the Gallery purchased the piece in 1952 for a then considerable 8000 pounds. Apparently there were large street demonstrations protesting the acquisition - so much to spend on one piece of art! The work also attracted much theological response, both appreciative and critical. Must do some research on that. At some stage a fanatic who clearly hated the depiction slashed and tore it which can be seen if you look very closely. Perhaps the most notable feature of the painting is the perspective. The viewer looks down on the crucified Christ. His face is not visible, just the top of his head. The cross is clearly planted in the earth (the Bay of Lligat, apparently, is the scene depicted) but spans to the heavens. It is a cosmic Christ. There are no nails securing him to the Cross, his body appears unblemished by the violence. Apparently Dali wanted the work to celebrate the beauty of Christ, more, I suspect, in the tradition of John's gospel, than Mark's.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Church of Scotland signals 'trajectory' on gays

This past week I've been representing the Uniting Church as a guest of the Church of Scotland Assembly. The most anticipated item on the agenda was  a Report from a 'Commission on Same-Sex Relationships and the Ministry'. The catalyst for setting up this Committee was the decision of a Presbytery two years ago to induct into a parish placement a Minister who was in a same-sex relationship.

They Commission produced an excellent and very fair Report, building on previous Reports on Human Sexuality (available on the Church of Scotland website). They also extensively surveyed all Presbyteries. In the end the main choice they put to the Assembly was to guide the proposed Theological Commission either to work towards a Report supporting the 'traditionalist' position; or a Report considering 'a lifting of the moratorium on accepting for ordination of persons in a same-sex relationship'. This second option was supported as was a proposal to allow the induction into placements in the next two years of Ministers and Deacons who were ordained before May 2009 who are in a same sex relationship.

The debate was vigorous but respectful and very well handled. The Moderator rightly insisted that there be no applause when the decision was announced out of respect for those for whom the result was a disapppointment. Todays headlines were predictably 'Church of Scotland gives green light to gay Ministers' which somewhat overstates the result. When the Theological Commission reports back in two years time, if they recommend change to the current practice, the decision, if supported by the Assembly, will be referred back to the Presbyteries for concurrence through a mechanism called the 'Barrier Act'. In this instance it seems likely, according to the survey in the current Report, that any fundamental change would fail to receive the necessary support. There will be many around the world taking an interest in how this 'mother church' to so many Presbyterian churches around the world, deals with this issue.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

National Ministers' Conference Vanuatu

Last week 42 Uniting Church Ministers gathered in Vanuatu for the first of a series of three National Ministers Conferences to be held this year. The Conference was hosted by our partner church, the Presbyterian Church of Vanuatu, and its congregation at Mele, just outside Port Vila. We started with a reception dinner, along with local church leaders, at the home of the Australian High Commissioner, Jeff Roach. The following day the Conference opened with a colourful 'challenge' by the warrior, pictured, which thankfully morphed into a greeting. We were all then draped with luxurient garlands. This spirit of welcome and hospitality would continue throughout the week.

The program comprised of sessions helping us reflect on 'ministry in a time of transition' led by Rev Jenny Tymms. Then we had a series of inputs from local church and political leaders throughout the week. And we tried to allow enough time for delegates to rest and explore the area. Mele is right on the coast and snorkelling around the coral reefs was a popular recreation.

Early feedback indicates that participants found the experience very worthwhile. Apart from the stimulating input, and opportunities to reflect on this 'odd and wondrous calling', the chance to develop collegial friendships from across the country was appreciated.

Our thanks to Uniting World for all their work with local arrangements and especially to our hosts. I understand that the third of these Conferences (Adelaide in October) is fully booked so any Ministers in placement who want to participate in one of these great events will need to hurry to register for the Alice Springs Conference in July.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Trashing sermons

This past weekend, due to the cancellation of a four day event, some blessed discretionary time opened up. What to do? Time for a purge! Hard rubbish collection is due in our suburb so time to get rid of accumulated junk that has survived the 'will I ever need you again?' analysis for way too long.

The depths of the attic space revealed dusty boxes. Letters to and from my beloved from the early days? Hard man that I am, my purging mood might have prevailed but my marriage would surely not survive such a unilateral decision. Another dusty box reveals sermons and liturgies from my early years in this 'odd and wondrous' calling. I pick through a few and wonder whether any of the sermons were still 'preachable'. Hmm, maybe not.  I don't notice any fundamental shift in my theological orientation (my neurotic side wonders whether I am 'stuck') but they are the reflections of a younger person. I decide, with some reluctance,  and a distrubing lack of ceremony, to put them in the recycling bin with no sense that they are recyclable apart from the neat little cards these hard-wrought words are written on.

I am surprised how easy it is. If there are fifteen years of sermons in that box those little cards add up to nearly a million words, 150 hours of speaking and many times that of preparation. One tilt of the hand and into the rubbish they go - quite salutary. Good riddance to an anachronistic form of communication?

Without getting into the debates about the efficacy of preaching, my decision was based on a growing conviction that good preaching is essentially contextual. It is the (hopefully) faithful attempt to communicate the gospel (Word) in a particular time and place so that it becomes God's living Word. Bultmann referred to preaching as an 'event' and I think this explains my growing reluctance to publish sermons. I've been tempted, when asked for a copy of a sermon, to reply 'sorry, you had to be there'.

At one level such a response sounds deeply pretentious. But at another level it preserves something fundamental about this form of communication that seems so anachronistic, namely, the immediacy, particularity and the contextuality of God's address to us. The words written on my old sermon cards could not be used again. Some of them made me wonder and wince. I could only pray as I tipped them in the bin, that at the time, the Spirit was hard at work, using my feeble, faltering words, to bring good news, bread, not stones, to hungry people.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Even the dogs

I've just returned from five days in the Amata community in the APY Lands - a township about 100kms south of Uluru. A couple of nights before this photo was taken (communion on the Sunday morning) we had done a bible study on the story of Jesus encounter with the Syrophonecian (gentile) woman (Mark 7). She asked Jesus to heal her daughter and he responded tersely 'let the children be fed first, it is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs'. She responds to the racist-sounding comment with: 'yes, Lord, yet even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs'. And here we were gathering around the Lord's Table waiting to be fed the children's bread and the camp dogs were everywhere, hovering under and around the table, poised to pounce on any crumbs that fell. I hardly needed to preach that morning!

It was an amazing week. We gathered each evening in or around the church for bible study. I'd prepared maybe 20 minutes of input but after translation it probably took 45 minutes. Paul Eckert is a brilliant translator. We've worked together a few times now and he has taught me so much about using 'translatable language'. I've realised how much abstract language I use and he has helped me be more concrete - story and image-based. It's actually changing the way I speak and preach generally but that's another story.

After the 'input' time it was opened up for response and sharing. The depth of sharing was extraordinary and often we didn't finish til around midnight. I felt more aware than ever of the vast cultural, social and economic gap between our worlds but the language of faith, aided by excellent translation, at times spanned the distance and afforded glimpses of another world.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Pilgrimage to Living Water

Last weekend I had the pleasure and privilege of leading the very first (hopefully of many nationally) 'Pilgrimage to Living Water' Retreat with members of the Presbytery of the Downs (Uniting Church in Queensland). These pilgrimages have been designed by the Spiritual Direction Network of the Uniting Church in response to the Assembly theme 'Living Water, Thirsty Land'. I was a little apprehensive about leading a retreat with such a theme in that particular context. Within the bounds of that Presbytery are some of the worst-affected areas in the recent catastrophic floods. A significant amount of time had been dedicated in that Presbytery meeting to storytelling and debriefing about the impacts of the floods and also the responses of the church at various levels to help assist people materially and spiritually.

But on advice from the Presbytery Minister we persevered! I am not a trained retreat leader and by temperament I tend to be more of a 'fidgety activist' than a 'contemplative'. But I needn't have worried. They were very open to the theme and to the spaces for reflection, prayer, exercise and rest that the retreat offered. We journeyed through 6 'stations' culminating at a creek at the bottom of the glorious campsite at Cunningham's Gap. The highlight for me was the use of Rob Gallagher's stunning icon specially 'written' for the pilgrimages. I understand that to consecrate an icon it needs to be present at a celebration of the eucharist as it duly was. After a brief introduction to icons and how they might nourish our prayer and reflection (new to many) we then followed the icon from station to station engaging with it in various ways. We used 'lectio divina' (sacred reading of scripture), music, silent prayer, sharing in small groups and at the final station, reaffirmed our baptism. Personally I found it a deeply helpful exercise in experiencing anew the presence of the living God in a way that was deeply personal but experienced in community.

My thanks to our Spiritual Direction Network and also to the wonderful people of the Downs Presbytery for their hospitality and their openness to new (and very ancient!) ways of encountering God.

Now I'm off to the photo place to make multiple copies of the icon. Many of the participants want either to introduce it to their own congregations, or to have their personal copy to aid their prayer.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Northern Territory Intervention

On Monday evening I attended a 'Conversation' with 7 aboriginal Elders from the Northern Territory at the Law School of Melbourne University, organised by 'concerned Australians'. To a packed auditorium (400 people) the Elders shared about the impacts on their communities of the Federal Government Intervention. Earlier in the afternoon Malcolm Fraser and Alastair Nicholson had released an 'eminent persons Statement' calling on the Government to fully reinstate the Racial Discrimination Act in order to prevent further pain in these communities. I, along with Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress leaders, was a signatory to this Statement. The Elders also released a Statement of their own. 

Both statements can be found at: www.unitingjustice.org.au 

The Conversation was deeply moving as various Elders, including Rev Dr Djiniyini Gondarra from Elcho Island (pictured), described some of the social, cultural and emotional impacts of the Intervention. Whatever the original intentions of the legislation, the communities in many cases have experienced it as a return to the old racist and paternalistic approaches of the past.  The main issue seems to be the arbitrary 'template' approach by he Government to aboriginal communities. Some communities have been functioning extremely well while others are struggling. The policies do not distinguish - it's one size fits all. 

The original catalyst for the legislation, we were told, was the 'Little Children are Sacred' Report. Very few of the recommendations of that Report have been taken up and the call by its authors to proceed with a cautious, measured and deeply consultative approach, has been ignored. No-one is denying that some aboriginal communities need assistance. What is being called for is a genuine partnership between government and community leaders in order to find the most effective approaches to health, welfare, employment, education etc in very diverse communities. This does not seem too much to ask!

Perhaps future advocacy in this matter should focus on urging the Government to get the 'Little Children' Report off the shelf, read it and actually follow its recommendations - starting with a commitment to genuine and consultative partnership with communities.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Church response to Queensland Floods

I spent last Friday at the Queensland Synod being briefed about the Uniting Church response to the Queensland floods. It's still difficult to get an overall picture because the church and church people are involved in all manner of responses. Donations to the National Appeal are coming in very strongly from individuals and congregations and other parts of the Church. I just heard today, for example, that the SHARE Appeal of the VicTas Synod is sending $100,000 to the Appeal which is fantastic. Uniting Church agencies like Lifeline are making their singular contribution. Donations to their Community Recovery Program have so far raised over $340,000.This program is designed to provide support to individuals and communites affected by such disasters. Local churches in flooded areas have been used to house people whose properties have been inundated. Congregations have sent clean-up parties to help with the heavy (and smelly!) task of removing sludge and slime from flooded homes. Frontier Services Patrol Ministers have been brought in to badly affected areas to offer their presence and their trauma expertise. Strategies are being developed to make sure the ministry of the church remains in these areas long after the media have left because the recovery and rehabilitation will take a long time. The other message I received loud and clear in Queensland was that material donations at this stage are not helpful. In fact they present more problems than they address. Agencies currently don't have the capacity to collect, store, sort or distribute the goods. So for those wanting to help, financial donations are still the most effective way to do so.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Starting the year with The Law

Fresh back from a fortnight of summer holiday at the beach my first official 'work' function was to attend (and participate in a modest way) the Opening of the Legal Year service at St Paul's Cathedral here in Melbourne. Assorted church dignatories processed in behind the cathedral choir with the congregation consisted mainly of be-wigged judges, lawyers and various members of the legal profession as well as some 'legislators'. I've attended this service a number of times over the past decade or so. In fact a few years back I was the guest preacher -surely one of the most intimidating congregations  your average preacher is likely to experience! Sadly the service conflicts with the secular opening of the Legal Year at Parliament House and the Catholic service at St Patrick's. I understand there is an Orthodox equivalent as well. Time the church ecumenical got its act together on this one! Anyway, the service itself was very formal and dignified, as one might expect, the preaching was erudite but accessible - all good. But it was yet another experience, which I have had with increasing frequency, of anachronicity (if there is such a word), when I wonder what I am doing attending this or that civic function as a church representative. It's not that I have anything at all against praying for those who work in our core social institutions, commending them to God. But the whole 'feel' of such an event was of a bygone age when the church was at the centre of culture and blessed and prayed for the communities life (all good) but also received some sort of validation of its own role and relevance. There can be a sort of social co-dependency develops which the church, at least, needs to wean itself off, in order to re-position itself on the edges of culture, where often, it has done its most faithful work.