Thursday, June 28, 2012

Oodnadatta baptisms

Recently I had the privilege of spending a few days at Oodnadatta at the invitation of Auntie Denise and the Uniting Church Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress in SA and the local church community. If you're travelling from down south you head towards Alice Springs until you get to Coober Peedy, hang a right then drive for a couple hours more. It seems the Spirit has been moving up there and through the remarkable ministry of Pastor Julia a number of young people wanted to be baptised. We had a few evenings gathering for worship, teaching and fellowship on the church 'block'. There's no actual church building, just a piece of land in the middle of town with a stage some lighting, a keyboard and a PA. Seems to be enough!

But where to do the baptisms? No problem, Julia replied, 'we brought a pool'. So on Saturday morning we erected a pool. I think the Chinese cousin of the person who designs Ikea instructions did them for this pool!

 We've got a pool, where's the water? Ah, the local fire truck does a couple of trips to the local bore.

And the candidates? Those ancient words move me deeply every time: 'May the Lord open your ears to receive God's Word, and your mouth to proclaim God's praise'.

And then the sacrament itself. I'd been expecting about 20 candidates but after 20 I looked up and the queue had extended as another 10 young people decided to put their trust in the One who makes all things new. Thanks be to God!

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Art, theology, beauty, creativity

On Maundy Thursday I opened a community art exhibition initiated and hosted by Bairnsdale Uniting Church. The theme to which local artists were invited to respond was ‘spirituality in everyday life’ which drew excellent contributions from sculptors, photographers, painters, quilters, woodworkers, banner-makers and more. 

It is encouraging that more and more churches are rediscovering the place of the arts in the life of faith. It is fair to say the relationship between Christianity and the arts is deeply mixed. Christian faith has inspired sublime artistic response in a wide variety of arts – music, the visual arts, drama, liturgy, poetry and so on. 

But sadly, in Protestantism in particular, with the exception of music (and even here I think of the ‘wee frees’ objection to musical accompaniment to singing in worship), there has often been indifference, even hostility towards the arts. This is reflected in the austere architecture and furnishings of many Protestant churches where visual adornments are minimised in order to focus attention on the Word.

The Welsh Anglican clergyman and poet RS Thomas, wrote:
Protestantism – the adroit castrator
Of art; the bitter negation
Of song and dance and the heart’s innocent joy –
You have botched our flesh and left us only the soul’s
Terrible impotence in a warm world.


My clearest memory of the advent of the Uniting Church in 1977 was the arrival of colour into church. Overnight, Ministers no longer wore black Geneva gowns but sported white robes garlanded with coloured stoles. My mother, a dancer in her professional life, started strutting her stuff in the sanctuary of our post-Presbyterian congregation. Members of the congregation were nearly as shocked as her children! Mum subsequently danced at the baptisms of our children. Recently, in her ninth decade, she resumed this ministry, with some others, in her local congregation. 

I remember my first visit to a Baptist monastic community near Geelong. I was struck by the amount of artwork in their worship place, the enormous investment of creativity and care that they invested in the aesthetics of the worship space in its construction and furnishing. In the statement of their core values ‘beauty’ was high on the list. That was confronting but deeply evocative for one raised with an essentially puritan sensibility towards the arts.
This ambivalence towards beauty and the arts reflects various influential themes in the Judeo-Christian traditions.

The monotheistic revolution introduced by Judaism brought with it heightened sensitivity to the danger of confusing created things with the Creator – ‘idolatry’ was regarded as the great sin. Episodes of destruction of religious art (iconoclasm) have dotted church history. The monotheistic fascination tends to be less with nature and its beauties than with human beings, the future of the ‘elect’ and what is in store for them. To be sure, the arts have survived even in this theological environment; but often the Church has left the arts to one side, not regarding them as elements essential to Christian piety.

Further, most streams of Christianity carry an ascetic (as opposed to aesthetic), pleasure-denying dimension that tends to suppress beauty and cultivates fear of desire.

Those rare theologians who have reflected on beauty relate it to the very nature of God. The Christian idea of beauty emerges from the understanding of God, the holy Trinity, as a community of love whose life is one of shared joy, regard, delight and fellowship. Creation bears the marks of beauty of its Maker: God saw that which God made and declared it good. And the doctrine of the Incarnation surely challenges dualistic and ascetic dimensions of Christianity by affirming God’s commitment to that which God has made: ‘Good is the flesh that the Word has become’ (Brian Wren)

The divine image in human beings is reflected, among other ways, in the creativity of human beings. ‘Beauty is intrinsic to the life of faith because it is a feature of the divine image which has been distorted by sin and restored by redemption.’ (Darley). Could we think of salvation as the restoration of the human image in Christ, the recovery, perhaps, of an original beauty?

Beauty is not something we consume but must ponder, receive and allow to shape us. Artists are communicators of truth, conveying messages and meaning. 

Churches need to find ways to give the arts space to do their own work as they engage with testimony of scripture and with the wealth of Christian tradition in order to ‘hear a music that you would never have known to listen for’ (Seamus Heaney).  Our churches can benefit from the extraordinary integrative power of the arts, their ability to reunite the intellect with the other facets of our human make-up – our bodies, our wills, our emotional life.

As western churches face the enormous challenge of how the faith ‘once delivered’ is going to be shared in a society increasingly alienated from the institutional church and increasingly ignorant about the Christian faith, to neglect the arts’ potential to convey the beauty of God and the gospel, and to affirm God’s gift of creativity, would be curious, perhaps irresponsible.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Slaves of hope

I'm mindful of all my colleagues in ministry preparing liturgies and messages at the heart of the Christian year where the art and craft of their weird and wondrous calling is exercised like at no other time. They will weave ancient words and rituals with contemporary insights, words, actions, mindful of their particular context. In the course of these few days there will be light and shade, words, silence, symbolic actions. They will call us to introspection in the shadow of a cross, and they will call us to consider our complicity in the sort of evil that can crucify love. And they will call us to lift our gaze away from ourselves to the horizons of hope opened up by the story of God's victory over violence, ignorance, fear and evil.

On Sunday morning worship leaders in every church will shout the ancient Easter words - Christ is Risen! And we will respond, He is Risen indeed! And we will all pray for the faith to believe it. Because that faith makes us captive to hope. It's what helps us get out of bed each morning. It's what helps us have a word for despairing or grieving people who can see no light shining for them, knowing that 'them' is 'us' at times. It gives us something to say at those gut-wrenching funerals when there seems to be nothing to say. It helps us keep chipping away working and praying for the kind of world we believe God is looking for - a kinder, gentler, more just world.

To my colleagues in ministry, the strength and peace of the crucified and risen Christ be yours as in word and action you remind us why, in the end, we are captive to hope. May you be aware as you announce the goodnews on Easter Day that you are part of a rising chorus of tenacious, defiant  hope being proclaimed as the sun rises around the world.

Monday, January 2, 2012

First Australians, constitutional change and the UCA experience

The Uniting Church embarked on a journey of truth-telling in relation to Indigenous peoples with a formal apology in 1994. It committed to work together for justice and equality within the church and the wider Australian community. Over the years, we have achieved much and we have also failed often. But we continue to work together for a better future, and so it was that five years ago the Indigenous part of the Church initiated a process to have the truth of their histories told, and our commitments clearly stated, in the Constitution of the Church.

In 2010 the Uniting Church became the first major Christian denomination in Australia to formally acknowledge, in the Preamble to its Constitution, Australia’s traditional owners. The Uniting Church Constitution now acknowledges the pre-existing relationship of Indigenous people with the Creator God, and the Church’s complicity with the colonising forces in dispossessing the First Peoples from their land, culture and spirituality.

It is out of these experiences that we welcomed the announcement of the Federal Government that a referendum would be held on the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in the Constitution. We were delighted to hear that, in principle, the idea had bipartisan support and that a High Level Panel, comprising Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, would be formed to consult with the Australian people and explore the options for amending the Australian Constitution.

It was, therefore, concerning that the Coalition’s Indigenous Affairs spokesman, Nigel Scullion, and Shadow Attorney-General, George Brandis, have made recent comments about the future of Constitutional reform for Indigenous Australians. Both the timing of the statements and their content appear to be deliberately designed to destabilise this vitally important endeavour.

For the last twelve months, the High Level Panel has engaged with both Indigenous and non-Indigenous members of the public – people genuinely interested in seeing the process of reconciliation furthered for the benefit of all Australians. Mr Scullion and Mr Brandis seem determined to undermine both the achievements and the overall goals of the Panel. Their comments are disrespectful to the thousands of Australians who have faithfully attended the 84 community consultations and those organisations and individuals who together made over 3500 submissions. Many Indigenous people have participated in these consultations – let us hear their voices before stating pre-determined views.

Mr Brandis and Mr Scullion appear to be trying to derailing an issue that goes to the very heart of who we are as a nation, solely for the purpose of political point-scoring. Both have been outspoken in their opposition to the inclusion of anti-discrimination provisions and the ability for the Government to make ‘special laws’ for Indigenous Australians in an amended Constitution. These statements serve only to generate fear and misunderstanding amongst the broader public. Section 51(xxvi) of the Constitution – which presently allows for governments to make laws for Australia’s First Peoples – has been flagged in the High Court of Australia as a perilously ambiguous aspect of our founding legal document. Amending this section would simply serve to clarify the pre-existing law-making powers of the government, and to strengthen the insights of the anti-discrimination legislation already in place.

It is appropriate that Constitutional recognition should follow the moving apology to the First Australians delivered by the then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in February 2008. That apology had much in common with the classic form of Christian confession which is, in effect, not so much an act of guilty hand-wringing as an act of telling the truth to God about the glory and shame of our lives; and seeking help to deal with the consequences upon others, intended and accidental, of our attitudes and actions.

Concerns have been expressed that in the current process too much time, money and energy might be spent on ‘mere words’ and that such resources would be better spent on addressing endemic aboriginal disadvantage. That is a salutary warning. Nevertheless, words remain important. As one aboriginal Elder said during the Uniting Church debate, ‘you whitefellas write your law, your story, in books. We want to be acknowledged in your sacred Law book’.

Amending the Constitution is a vital step forward in recognising and honouring the identity and history of the First Peoples. It will benefit both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians alike, by allowing us as a nation to move beyond the shame and distrust that has characterised relationships of the past. Opposition to changes that have not yet been announced are based on ignorance and speculation, and is indicative of opinions that are driven by ideology rather than evidence. Such speculation will only add to division and undermine the reconciliation and justice needed in this country.