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'  ( 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.