Pastoral Letter to the Canberra Region Presbytery of the Uniting Church in Australia. 31 March 2020

Dear friends across the Country and Coast, and in the Capital area of the Presbytery:

We write to express our gratitude to everyone who is working hard in the current challenging circumstances, and to offer encouragement to you as you offer ministry to the people in your communities of faith. We are experiencing a time of rapid transition and significant change, from week to week, from day to day. May you be strengthened as you continue to serve in this challenging context.

Like Christian communities right around the world, we are finding new and creative ways to worship, as we gather-apart. We are seeing that people in our congregations and faith communities are continuing to care for one another and stay connected with each other. Most of us are on a steep learning curve as we try to work out what is best for our own congregation in the light of the abundance of resources increasingly available.

As we connect online, we have an amazing opportunity to get to know one another in ways never possible before, as the distance between us vanishes with technology. Ministers, Pastors, and lay leaders in Congregations are now meeting up regularly via ZOOM to share concerns and learn from one another. From Bega to Crookwell, in Gungahlin and Braidwood, from Eden and Goulburn and Jindabyne, in Tuggeranong and Braddon, conversations have been flowing across the internet.

One exciting development in the Canberra Region Presbytery is the way in which our 28 Uniting Church congregations are willingly sharing the talent and expertise God has gifted us. Every congregation has been able to draw their people together in new ways. We have used YouTube, Facebook Live, ZOOM, Facebook groups, emails of PDFs and Word documents, the mobile phone, and Australia Post—an amazing array of options! (You can check out some of the creativity across our presbytery by looking at the Canberra Region Presbytery Facebook page.)

Last Sunday, members of Cooma and Alpine congregations shared in worship for the first time in many years. Rev. Noel Williams, taking the plunge with ZOOM, led the service from an otherwise empty St Andrews in Cooma. What resulted was a genuine worshipful experience, as Bible readers and musicians contributed from their own homes, and Noel preached a very relevant and meaningful message.

People who barely knew each other came into each other’s homes in a shared, good-humoured willingness to help make something new work well. An hour later we said cheerful goodbyes, enriched by a fellowship of the Spirit that knows no worldly boundaries.

The same happened with other groups meeting online for worship. Members of the Tuggeranong Congregation have told of their positive experience on ZOOM last Sunday (see the article contributed). Members of the Weston Creek Congregation worshipped in their own homes, using material sent to them, and then gathered on ZOOM for the after-worship morning tea time. Both groups valued the interactive element available by this platform.

There were a number of people from around our presbytery who shared in the Saltbush Sundays @9service (see the details at https://saltbushcommunity.uca.org.au/news/saltbush-sundays-9/).
Others are using the online resources at a time more convenient for themselves (https://saltbushcommunity.uca.org.au/the-word-around-the-bush/).

As our daily lives are changing to combat the COVID-19 virus, we have the opportunity to engage in new expressions of congregational life. Connecting online means we have new opportunities to study Scripture, listen to good teachers, encourage our children and youth, pray and develop our personal spiritual life, explore music, witness to our community.  

In the mist of the suffering and pain that the world is experiencing, our God has given us a way to prepare for being part of a much-changed world, which will have an unprecedented need for the healing and restorative message of the Gospel.

Maintaining an outward focus is tremendously important. We are called to continue serving the world, even—especially—in the midst of the current pandemic. Kippax Uniting Church is coordinating the Canberra Relief Network (CRN) to create the opportunity for congregations in strategic geographical locations in the urban area to become centres for food relief packages to the Canberra population.

The CRN will provide the food relief packages, and the congregations will be asked to staff the distribution following health protocols for safe distancing and hygiene. This is one of the practical ways that congregations with the needed capacity can be involved in blessing their local communities and beyond. Already Gungahlin and Tuggeranong have agreed to collaborate with the CRN and conversations are underway with more UCA congregations as well as community groups.

Even though our church buildings are closed for worship and other meetings, there are places in our Presbytery where church buildings are being used to provide essential emergency services to homeless and marginalized people. In each place, special protocols to facilitate safe social distancing are being followed very carefully. Monty’s Place in Narooma is still providing take-away meals with these strict protocols in place, both on site and at delivery, to safeguard at-risk members of the Narooma congregation. We thank volunteers like Merrick Willcocks who arranged the deliveries.

Let’s not forget, also, that whilst the COVID 19 Pandemic has captured our focus, many communities in our Presbytery are continuing the struggle to recover from Bushfires. At Narooma, “Flowers for Cobargo/Quaama” has resulted in large numbers of pots of colourful flowers to be gathered and planted to lift to the spirits of residents in these towns devastated by fire in January. We thank folk like Di White and her team.

In Eurobodalla, Duncan McDiarmid has recently commenced in part-time ministry with the Moruya and Batemans Bay Congregations. Thanks to a generous offer from two Congregations in the Sydney Central Coast Presbytery, Duncan will be funded to provide some further community chaplaincy in the region. We are currently exploring ways that other funding might support community chaplaincies in other bushfire-impacted communities on the South Coast.

There are more stories which could be told … but we will leave them for another day. We are greatly encouraged by the commitment and dedication, energy and persistence, faith and loving compassion, determination and sensitivity, that we see and hear and experience in each of the communities of faith across Country, Coast, and Capital. We hope that as we share these stories, you also are encouraged in faith, strengthened in hope, and renewed in love.

So let us continue to live the Gospel, serve one another, and offer compassionate care to our wider communities. In the name of Christ.

Judy McKinlay and John Williams, Presbytery Co-Chairpersons
Andrew Smith and John Squires, Presbytery Ministers
31 March 2020

Author: John T Squires

My name is John Squires. I live in the Australian Capital Territory. I have been an active participant in the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) since it was formed in 1977, and was ordained as a Minister of the Word in this church in 1980. I have served in rural, regional, and urban congregations and as a Presbytery Resource Minister and Intentional Interim Minister. For two decades I taught Biblical Studies at a theological college and most recently I was Director of Education and Formation and Principal of the Perth Theological Hall. I've studied the scriptures in depth; I hold a number of degrees, including a PhD in early Christian literature. I am committed to providing the best opportunities for education within the church, so that people can hold to an informed faith, which is how the UCA Basis of Union describes it. This blog is one contribution to that ongoing task.

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