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.

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.