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.