“Living with COVID”—the shameful cry of our “leaders”

We are at a critical moment in Australia, as we watch the beginnings of the Omicron phase of the global pandemic here. And we are being told to

Prime Minister Morrison says that we need to “keep our nerve, keep calm and carry on”, and that “we want to stay safely open so the economy can continue to grow and people can get jobs”. NSW Premier Perrottet advises that we must “move away from fear” and “take on more hope and confidence”. Again and again, day after day, we hear advice that we must now “learn to live with COVID”.

“Living with COVID” is a sly, misleading, devious slogan. It belies the fact that whilst many are “living with COVID”, there is a regular stream of deaths each day, as the chart below shows (Victoria on the left, NSW on the right). Think about those 74 deaths from COVID in NSW and Victoria that are tabled on that chart, from the last 12 days.

Think about those 2,146 deaths across the country that have been attributed to COVID since March 2020.

How many grieving spouses does this represent? How many children, siblings, parents, cousins are mourning? How many neighbours, lifetime friends, extended family members will be amongst those impacted? And how many medical and hospital staff are being hit emotionally by the persistent recurring patients deaths that they experience?

Many are living with COVID, but also many are dying from COVID or grieving because of COVID.

“Living with COVID” reminds me of the slogan that the prophet Jeremiah punctured: “peace, peace”. He says, “They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace. They acted shamefully, they committed abomination; yet they were not at all ashamed, they did not know how to blush … We look for peace, but find no good, for a time of healing, but there is terror instead” (Jer 8:11-12, 15).

Those words can apply to the Prime Minister, the Premiers, the “leaders” that bleat that this is just “personal responsibility”, the “leaders” that abdicate their responsibility to lead, to mandate sensible restrictions, to model good practice, to advocate for the most vulnerable and exposed in the communities they allegedly “serve”.

We can deal with the current situation in a much better way than abdicating everything to “personal responsibility”.

“See, I am letting snakes loose among you, adders that cannot be charmed, and they shall bite you, says the Lord” (Jer 8:17). As it was then, so it is now.

2021 in review: celebrations, learnings, and hopes in Canberra Region Presbytery

Throughout the year that is now drawing to a close, the Canberra Region Presbytery Co-Chairs and Presbytery Ministers have joined with leaders from Synod and the 12 other Presbyteries in our Synod, for a regular monthly online meeting.

These monthly meetings have been held since early in 2021 (in 2020, we were meeting weekly, then fortnightly, to deal with the unprecedented stress of COVID-19 and the restrictions that were brought in). These meetings have been invaluable for maintaining contact and support across the leadership of all Presbyteries during the challenging times of the COVID-19 pandemic.


We were asked to comment on three questions—and we thought we would share our responses with people across the Canberra Region Presbytery, as our final message for 2021. The three questions are: What are some things that have been celebrated in 2021? What are some things that have been learned in 2021? And What are some things that we are hopeful for 2022?

Here’s what we shared.

Some things we celebrated: We celebrated milestones in the lives of a number of Congregations: Goulburn 150 years, Weston Creek 50 years, Kippax 50 years, and Gungahlin 25 years; and we celebrated the establishment of two new congregations, Parkesbourne—Merrilla, and Woden Valley.

We celebrated the fact that Presbytery is drawing alongside Rise Ministries to support a fresh expression of church in a disused church building at St Aidan’s Narrabundah (now called Rise Sanctuary)
In other words, we celebrated faithful worship, witness and service in a number of locations, each quite different, across the Presbytery.

Some things we learned: We had two online presbytery meetings that were theme-focussed—one on advocacy, one on chaplaincy—and one in-person meeting with consideration of mission. These meetings provided stimulus and resourced the thinking of Presbytery members, and we hope that this will flow on into the discipleship of individuals and the mission of Congregations.

We also learned about ways we included folk who are spread over a wide distance in ministry training, Code of Ethics and Code of Conduct workshops, Sacraments Refresher sessions, Bible studies, Presbytery meetings, and other sessions, via ZOOM. The changed circumstances with restrictions on moving around or even gathering have opened up such opportunities, making these offerings more accessible across a wider audience.

See https://canberra.uca.org.au/dates-events-and-publications/viewpoint-spring-2021/ and https://canberra.uca.org.au/dates-events-and-publications/viewpoint-summer-2021/

Some things we are hopeful for in 2022: We are hopeful about the mission planning process for the Presbytery that will take place in 2022. We are also hopeful about what might emerge as we develop our work on how we use property to resource mission.

We are hopeful for growing interconnection, mutual support, sharing of resources and talents. We are hopeful for the future because of a more educated laity taking on leadership and seeing new ways of doing and being. We also sense that there is a changing feeling about letting go; more of us are willing to let go and embrace change in what is coming in the future.

We are thankful that through the concerns and challenges of 2021, we have seen the continuing faithfulness and grace of God amongst us. We are thankful for all those in ministry and congregations who have expressed their discipleship in acts of encouragement, kindness, generosity and care for others.

As we move into the time of the year when things become hectic, pressures rise, and events multiply (as they do each and every year—not just during COVID!), may we know the abiding presence of the Spirit, the peace of the one whom God sent to proclaim peace, and the joy of the news that God is active and at work in our world!

Ross, Judy, Andrew, and John
Canberra Region Presbytery

December 2021

West Papua, 60 years on (remembering 1 December 1961)

The Indigenous people of West Papua have been struggling for independence from Indonesia since Indonesia’s invasion of the territory in 1962. Since that time, Indonesia’s occupation of West Papua has resulted in ongoing human rights abuses from Indonesian security forces, massive deforestation and destruction of the land for resource extraction, racial discrimination against Indigenous Papuans, mass displacement of Papuans from their Indigenous lands as refugees and internally displaced persons, and the systematic destruction of a Papuan identity.

2021 is a significant year as it marks the 60th anniversary of the first raising of West Papua’s symbol of independence, the Morning Star Flag. Sixty years ago the Nieuw Guinea Raad (New Guinea Council) raised the Morning Star flag alongside the Dutch flag across West Papua for the first time, on 1 December 1961.

The event was a milestone in West Papua’s ongoing path to national self-determination, which had begun when the Netherlands registered West Papua with the United Nations as a Non-Self-Governing Territory in December 1950. The self-determination project was short-lived, however, with West Papua being invaded through Operation Trikora by Australian-backed Indonesian forces.

The Morning Star Flag continues to be a powerful unifying symbol for West Papua’s struggle for economic, social and political self-determination. Raising the flag in Indonesia carries a prison sentence of up to 15 years. West Papuans, as Melanesian people of the Pacific, continue to stand defiant against Indonesia’s fictitious claims to their land and identity.

(The flag is used by the Free Papua Organization and other independence supporters. It consists of a red vertical band along the hoist side, with a white five-pointed star in the center, and thirteen horizontal stripes, alternating blue and white, with seven blue stripes and six white ones. The seven blue stripes represents seven customary territories in the region.)

The Pacific Conference of Churches, with the Papua New Guinea Council of Churches, has strongly condemned the institutional racism against the indigenous npeople of West (Tanah) Papua and the increase of Indonesian militarisation in Papua that comes with this. PCC General Secretary, Rev. James Bhagwan and PNGCC General Secretary, Rev. Roger Joseph, have stated that the oppression of Papuan people underlines the need for an urgent investigation of ongoing abuse of

Human Rights, the Economic, Social and Cultural and Political rights of West Papuans, by the United Nations.

In 2019, the WCC Executive Committee released a statement of concern and solidarity for West Papua, a supporting the church leaders’ joint appeal for a comprehensive political dialogue, and calling on the Government of Indonesia to allow access to human rights organisations and journalists. The statement also invited all WCC member churches “to pray and act in support of the witness of the churches in West Papua – and that of PGI, PCC, and CCA – for justice and peace in the region.”

(The Uniting Church in Australia is a member of the Pacific Conference of Churches and the World Council of Churches.)

Map courtesy of the ABC

Sadly, the Australian Government has been notably silent on the issue of violence and human rights abuses in West Papua, being bound by the controversial 2006 Lombok Treaty to respect Indonesia’s “territorial integrity”.

The theme of this year’s flag raising is Youth Rize for Land Rights. In the words of West Papuan activist Cyndi Makabory: “What resonates for me with the theme is young people are the leaders of today not ‘tomorrow’, what I’m seeing in West Papua and outside of West Papua is that youths are mobilising and propelling movements”.

There are a number of West Papuans who are active in the Canberra City Congregation—they play together in worship, as some were members of the popular Black Brothers band (see https://asiapacificreport.nz/2016/09/20/west-papuas-black-brothers-message-to-png-musicians-stay-committed/). Elizabeth “discovered” them when she was ministering in the Canberra City Congregation in 2017. They include Benny Bettay and Willem Ayamiseba.

You can read the remarkable story of courage and tenacity of one of the West Papuan leaders, Benny Wenda, at https://www.freewestpapua.org/info/benny-wendas-story/

For people of faith in Australia, the continuing injustices seen in this near neighbour merit attention and prayer. We yearn for justice, we seek to see oppression end in West Papua.

*****

I have prepared this post in conjunction with Jack Johnson, regional organiser of the Free West Papua Youth—Australia Team, and a member of the St Columba’s Uniting Church, Braddon, in the ACT.

Compassionate carer, non-anxious presence, listening ear, relationship-building companion: the ministry of the Chaplain

The November 2021 meeting of the Canberra Region Presbytery of the Uniting Church in Australia met on 20 November. We had identified that the focus for the meeting would be Chaplaincy. Across the Presbytery, there are nineteen people (stipended, salaried, or volunteers) in ministry in hospitals, prisons, universities, and aged care centres, as well as community chaplaincy, disaster chaplains (on standby), and defence force chaplains.

Jean Shannon, the minister in placement with the Sapphire Coast congregation, began the meeting with a very pertinent devotion. Jean has previously served as a chaplain to the Canberra Hospitals, and as an ordained Deacon, has a strong commitment to ministry beyond the gathered community of faith, in the wide community.

In opening the meeting with a devotional reflection, Jean offered some thoughts about her understanding and practice of chaplaincy. She noted that chaplains “hear the small voices and see the invisible ones”. She went on to claim that the fundamental element in the act of listening, for a chaplain, is not so much to hear the voice of the person speaking, but “to listen for God—to listen for your God”.

Andrew Mead is the chaplain to the Canberra Hospitals; he was invited to offer a keynote address on Chaplaincy to the meeting. Andrew made reference to the contributions on their particular form of chaplaincy that many of the chaplains in the Presbytery have made, in their articles that have been collected in the most recent issue of Viewpoint, the Presbytery magazine.

See https://canberra.uca.org.au/dates-events-and-publications/viewpoint-summer-2021/

In speaking about chaplaincy, Andrew identified that it has both a pioneering role, moving beyond the space occupied by the congregation; and a representative role, firmly connected to the life of the church, not independent of it.

Andrew noted that chaplaincy exists simply to offer an experience of the good news of Jesus Christ through relationships with people. It is a calling to be a sign and instrument of the reign of God instigated by Jesus, demonstrating a realm of love, reconciliation, and justice (drawing, here, on words from the UCA’s Basis of Union).

Chaplains, said Andrew, do not change the world; rather, they make an impact on people, one by one, through their caring, listening, and relationship building. The hope is that such relationships make a difference in ways that matter, as individual transformations build into communal change.

Andrew noted that organisations which have chaplains expect well trained, credentialed ministers, consistent with the expectations of other positions, who are also well-attuned to the spiritual dimensions of life. Thus, chaplains need to be both formed for ministry by the church and equipped for work within the formal structures of their employing organisation.

Andrew offered the picture of a chaplain as an icon: a visible representation of the spiritual dimension of human life, literally embodied in the being of the chaplain. When a chaplain is present with a person, there is the possibility that such a deeper insight might emerge for the people that are being engaged by the chaplain.

Within the Presbytery, work has been underway to provide a longer-term, substantial response to the impact of the bushfires of 2019–2020 in the south coast region that is served by the Presbytery. A position description has been approved for a South Coast Community Chaplaincy role, hopefully to commence in early 2022. Funding for this position has come from the Moderator’s Appeal fund, as well as the Mount Dromedary Parish, two other Congregations within the Presbytery, the Presbytery itself, and some individuals wishing to support this ministry.

Andrew noted that governments now recognise the value that is provided by “non-clinical mental health support”, and so this opens the way for such a form of community chaplaincy as is being proposed. It is a good recognition of the value of “religious services” or “spiritual resources” in a society that some say is becoming more secular and opposed to religion. In this instance, the opening for ministry is significant.

What does a chaplain offer? The art of being present, in peace and steadiness, is a gift to people in need; the chaplain offers an anchor in the midst of all that is going on. Calming the mind and spirit, fostering a quiet which can end the inner clamour, and offering a non-anxious presence in the midst of anxiety, are all deeper dimensions that chaplaincy can offer.

Chaplains seek to listen deeply, to hear the sources of resilience and wellbeing within the other person, accepting them just as they are, allowing these elements of the person’s inner strength to emerge in their own time. Chaplains seek to enliven the biblical stories as myth and symbol, to resonate with our spirituality. As relationships are built, a ripple effect can be seen from the work of the chaplain outwards to others.

During COVID, Andrew noted that some chaplains were refused entry to their institutions, and told to go home. For others, they were part of a small group of people permitted entry to offer care. In hospitals, the sense of suffering has been amplified and magnified for patients and their families. The impact on staff has been huge; there has been a slow erosion of the resilience of staff, eating away over 20 months of intense crisis. Andrew recounted a recent time which was, for him, the most critical experience of crisis that he has had in years of chaplaincy.

In such contexts, chaplains connect with human need in unexpected ways, maintaining the affirmation of the Gospel, as expressed in John 1: “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it”.

Presbytery Co-chairperson, Ross Kingham, then invited people in the session to a time of prayer, noting the intense cost of pain bearing, as carers carry much in them selves as they relate to those they encounter.

Members of the Presbytery were given time in small groups; each one was focussed on a different form of chaplaincy: hospital, prisons and indigenous, university, aged care, community and disaster response, and defence force chaplaincies. Reports back from these groups showed a strong commitment to ensuring the presence of the church, and of spirituality, in each of these contexts.

Chaplains engage with the emotional needs of hospital patients and visitors—and staff. They bear the pain of people and offer the hope of the Gospel. They relate to people undergoing major and significant life changes in aged care, and walk with them on that journey. They provide friendship to students in a new and unfamiliar university environment, as well as engaging with the intellectual curiosity of students as they explore religious issues.

Chaplains in defence settings encounter trauma and moral injury. Chaplains in prisons sit with people in major crisis moments, in what may be an alien environment, facing huge personal challenges. And as chaplains in community and disaster response settings enter into relationships, they both respond to immediate presenting needs, often in time-critical ways, as well as ensuring that they are attuned to deeper issues which may manifest as the relationship develops.

The connection (or sense of disconnection) that chaplains may feel in relation to the church as a whole, was one issue that was identified for careful attention.

For myself, as I listened to the devotions, the keynote address, and the reporting-back from the discussion groups, a question formed in my mind. What if all disciples,,whether ordained or lay, saw the importance of exercising a chaplaincy-like “ministry of presence” in their daily lives?

The Uniting Church has established two forms of ordained ministry: Ministers of the Word, called to minister with the gathered community (preaching the Word, presiding at sacraments, and offering pastoral care), and Deacons, called to minister with the scattered community (being the presence of Christ in the places of everyday life).

By analogy, we might press the challenge to those faithful people who “belong to church” and faithfully participate in worship on a regular basis. When they come into the gathered community (Sunday worship, Bible Study or fellowship groups), they participate in the ministry of the Word. But that is a relatively small percentage of time for their whole week. Perhaps one hour, perhaps four or five, maybe even ten or so hours—out of 168 hours in every week.

What of the other time during the week? All those people are “in the community”, amongst the scattered community, day by day, in their regular lives. What if each and every disciple of Jesus sought to be that compassionate carer, that non-anxious presence, that listening ear, that relationship-building companion, in ways that invited those people with whom they encounter to see them as “a sign and instrument of the reign of God instigated by Jesus, demonstrating a realm of love, reconciliation, and justice” in the ways that they speak, act, and relate to those people.

And—lo and behold—one comment towards the end of the report-back session made exactly that same point! As disciples, we are called to be chaplains—to live the love of God, to enact the justice of God, each and every day.

If the kingdom of God is ever going to happen on earth … (John 18; Christ the King Year B)

A dialogue sermon written by Elizabeth Raine and delivered online by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires at Tuggeranong Uniting Church and at Canberra Aboriginal Church on Sunday 21 November, the Festival of Christ the King.

*****

Today is known in the lectionary as Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday. It is a relative newcomer to the liturgical calendar, arriving only in the early twentieth century. Apparently this was because at that time, many Christians in Mexico were suffering religious persecution from their anti-religious government, and secularism was rapidly gaining the upper hand both there and in Europe.

In 1925, to counteract this, the Roman Catholic Church declared this day as a worldwide celebration of the kingship of Christ over every earthly power. Its timing at the conclusion of the Season after Pentecost was fixed both by Vatican II and the subsequent Protestant developments of the lectionary, including our own UC in Uniting in Worship.

With the rise of secular atheism, people are more likely nowadays to pledge allegiance to political and consumerist organisations than they do to kings or the politics of God as revealed in Scripture. These Scriptures make clear, as does the ministry of Jesus, that God’s politics are not identifiable with those of democracies or typical kings.

In this scene from John, we hear Pilate asking Jesus the question “So you are a king?” I wonder: what does this mean about Jesus? What sort of a king could he be?

A: I know what sort of king he is! Remember when we were children, we imagined whatkings would look like, from all the stories we heard as children. A king or queen sits on a throne, has very fine robes and a crown made of gold and precious jewels. People bow down before the feet of the king in these stories. And look at how people act around the Queen! In her presence, they bow and curtsey.

B: Well, I don’t think Jesus is that sort of king at all. Where in the bible does it talk about Jesus having a throne, or jewels, or fine robes, or a golden crown? Falling at the feet of Jesus is a very different encounter. His feet are dirty and bloody, his body broken and beaten, his head bowed beneath the a crown of thorns. Jesus was executed by crucifixion, which was saved for the worst criminals and political rebels. Jesus at the end looked broken and defeated, and is definitely not what we might imagine as a king.

I think this scene is deeper than that. Pilate wants to know if Jesus sees himself as king of the Jews. PiIate might be thinking of thrones and crowns, but Jesus isn’t. He is thinking of something quite different, I am sure. I can see it now: Pilate, the messenger of the earthly kingdom of Rome facing off with Jesus, the messenger of God’s unearthly kingdom.

A: I hear what you are saying, but are you sure about the unearthly bit? After all, Jesus was pretty intentional about challenging the earthly empire and the corruption in authority. Look at him when the widow gave everything, he was exposing systems that were oppressive; and what about when he turned over the tables at the temple? That would have infuriated the temple priests, men who were in the pay of, and appointed by Rome itself, at the time.

B: He did say his kingdom wasn’t an earthly one.

A: On thinking about it, maybe being king of an unearthly kingdom means you act differently when you ARE on earth. Look at Jesus when he entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey, allowing the crowd to shout out Hosanna (which means save us), and acclaim him as a king. His allowing the crowd to shout seditious things at him, would have made him a target not only of the temple priests, but of their Roman masters. Jesus must have known such actions would lead to him being arrested.

B: Hmmm, I see what you are saying. That is a very interesting idea. It is unfortunate that over the centuries, the subversive message of this unlikely king has been somewhat lost. So on the one hand, we have Jesus, the king who: * refused to allow fighting * would not grant prime posts to cronies * would not live in a fine house * refused to hate enemies or plot their downfall * mixed with the common crowds without any sense of royal dignity * refused to play political games to increase his power * did not dress in fine robes, or wear a jewelled crown.

A: But in reality, one the other hand, Jesus is pictured as a heavenly King with a worldly majesty: * who was painted in crowns and fine robes * who was given features similar to earthly monarchs * in whose church was created courtiers and princely representatives * in whose name people blessed their armies as they attacked the cities of their enemies * and of whom the church taught that the next time he came things would be very different as he would subdue the earth and put all opposition under his boot.

B: Well, that does raise some tricky issues. Today on the festival of Christ the King, I think it is important that we think about this. Which kind of King do we want to be worshipping? Will the real Jesus please stand up?

 A: I have been reading about this actually.

B: You? Reading?

A: Yes, me. Now stop with the smart answers. I have been reading Bruce Prewer, who suggests that we grow like the thing we worship. So who do we want to resemble? The king of power, commanding armies, destroying enemies, with fine robes as depicted by artists at the church’s instigation throughout the centuries? Or the king who mixes with common folk, who says put away your sword, who works to free the oppressed, who welcomes the stranger, who eats with sinners, who overturns the tables of the money changers, and who forgives the people responsible for his death?

B: Wow, that is a great way of looking at it. Do we want to be at the edge of our communities our in the middle of power? We don’t know what the future of our world will look like, but surely the kingdom of God shouldn’t have fear or hate or oppression in it.

A: That’s right. If the kingdom of God as Jesus saw it is ever going to happen on earth, then every interaction, every decision, every moment and every place we find ourselves in must be seen as an opportunity to experience God’s reign in our lives, and to share the blessing of God’s reign with others. We need to turn our faith into a life-transforming practice, rather than just an intellectual assent to some ideas about God.

B: For Christ to truly be King in our world, Christ must be King in every individual lives in such a way that God’s peace and justice, God’s love and grace, will constantly flow through us, God’s people, into the world – one moment, one interaction and one transformative step at a time.

A: Surely Christ is the King who turns all of our human notions and illusions of power squarely on their heads. What the world defines as weakness and failure, Jesus shows is the real power rooted in love, bathed in grace, and covered with mercy. He is the one who redeems that which seems unredeemable and the one who loves those who appear unlovable.

By his death, we are offered a way to wholeness and the kingdom of God, a kingdom where love is so powerful that forgiveness is offered to all; where the hungry are fed, the naked are clothed, and the poor and the sick are cared for. In standing with this kingly Jesus today, we can fight racism, classism, homophobia, poverty, discrimination, and homelessness.

B: Yes! We can start to work to make the systems of injustice just, and work to overturn the powers of corruption and darkness. We don’t know what the future of our world will look like, but the kingdom of God doesn’t include fear, hate, or shutting down.

We must answer the call of Jesus which hasn’t changed in 2000 years—“Follow me to a kingdom where domination and oppression have been overcome, where the basic human needs are met, where all dwell in harmony with God and each other.”

A: Now that sounds like a king and a kingdom worth working for.

B: Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?”

A: Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” (John 18:37)

*****

B: Loving God of power and justice and peace, in our broken world we seek a new order where there is courage to speak truth to power;

A: we seek a new order where there is mutual support in church and community;

B: we seek a new order where there is abundant time for healing;

A: we seek a new order where there is peace and freedom for all. Amen.

What does it mean to be Protestant in the Contemporary World?

A guest post from Geoff Dornan, for Reformation Sunday (31 October)

*****

I want to do three things in this article. I want to ask three questions. First, what is the essence of Protestantism? Second, what is the connection between Protestantism’s essence and what is often understood to be itsbedrock doctrine: justification by grace through faith? Third, what does it mean to be Protestant in our contemporary world, entrenched as it currently is, in arbitrary unreason?

The essence of Protestantism and the Protestant Principle

I would make a bet that most Protestant Christians when asked what being Protestant is about, would answer, “not Catholic”. That was my experience as a child, when I saw that being Protestant carried an essentially negative identity: something that you were not. Creatures of history, we Anglo-Celtic Australiansin particular, read Protestant identity through a sectarian lens, in large part because of the Anglo-Irish conflict of our ancestors. But we need to be able to understand Protestant identity positively, for what it offers in modern times.

And so, to the first question: what is the essence of Protestantism? The answer is both simple and complex.The simple answer is this: protest. That should be no surprise. The word protest sits within the very term Protestant. For those who have a smattering of knowledge about the Reformation of the 16th century, you would know that this ethos of protest was triggered by the practice of indulgences in the then sole western Church, the Catholic Church.

Indulgences were an expression of late medieval piety and ‘coincidentally’, a “nice little earner” for the Church, not to mention a few colourful personalities among the leadership. For example, in 1517, an indulgence to fund the rebuilding of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome – one that promised lavish spiritual benefits for the subscribers – was marketed especially successfully in Saxony by papal “pardoners”.

Not to be outdone, Archbishop Albert of Mainz also promoted the same indulgence and demonstrated his ample entrepreneurial skills, skimming off his own cut.

The mechanics of the indulgence were quite simple. In return for good works such as going on pilgrimage or making charitable donations, indulgences (from the Latin, indulgentia – permit) were believed to set asidethe “temporal punishment” that was due, because of God’s just character, after sin itself had been forgiven.

These transactions were also transferrable to the dead, shortening the suffering of souls in purgatory. It was like a metaphysical tax for sin, which released you from having to pay the consequences – time in purgatory – for that lover, addiction to alcohol, or dodgy financial transaction you may have had.

But there is more to it than this since the protest about indulgences was not just a one-off thing, but rather reflects the very soul of what Protestantism really represents; its DNA.

Paul Tillich
(1886–1965)

Paul Tillich, the German clergyman who fled Nazi Germany in 1933 and ended up in North America, becoming a leading theologian, wrote in 1931 an article called the “Protestant Principle and the Proletarian Situation” (Tillich, The Protestant Era; London, Nisbet & Co Ltd, 1951, pp.237–259). In that article, Tillich made the point that while institutional Protestantism may have a “use-by date”, the ethos that it represents, the ethos of protest, may outlast it.

Tillich proceeds to analyse what this ethos of protest is about. In a nutshell, he says, it includes two points: the first, the Protestant obligation to build justice and love in a resistant world, to build the kingdom of God in a world that denies it.

The second aspect is more subtle, and because of its subtlety, more difficult: the Protestant reservation. What he means by this, isscepticism or doubt about human beings and the cultural, political, and of course religious structures which we build around us.

And the reservation is this: that we claim too much for ourselves, that we over-reach ourselves, that we pretend to represent absolute truth in our world, whichcan always be only ambiguous, always be just relative, always be contingent. In Tillich’s thought, there is targeted in the crosshairs, fundamentalist and authoritarian movements – political and religious – that claim absolute mastery, unqualified power, because they and they alone, apparently ‘possess the truth’.

What is it about the human condition, Tillich asks, that predisposes us to need to claim a monopoly on the truth? Tillich understands that we humans long for the final word, from someone, from anyone; we long for the definitive truth. People hang, literally hang on the words of politicians, scientists, and pastors, slavishly repeating their latest thoughts.

Tillich tells us that the Protestant Principle, pushes back at that, the Protestant reservation asserts that the only absolute truth is this: human beings can never attain absolute truth, that “the final word” is always with God and only with God, and will only be revealed to us at what Catholic theology refers to as the “beatific vision”: when we directly see and relate to God after death or at the end of history.

Tillich argues that claims to understand, to represent the entirety of truth, are delusional and dangerous, that such claims are disastrously tied up with the will to power. And so, he writes, “The Protestant Principle is the prophetic judgement against religious pride, ecclesiastical arrogance and secular self-sufficiency”.

Justification by faith through grace

The second question I want to ask is how does this ethos of protest fit with what the apostle Paul’s idea concerning justification by grace through faith? (Romans 3:19-28)? The answer is not difficult. You may recall that Martin Luther, the father of the Reformation, was an Augustinian friar. What marked his personal journey was a gnawing insecurity and anxiety about his unacceptability to God: a common question for philosophical and theological thought of the time.

Statue of Martin Luther (1483–1546)

Luther’s reading of the book of Romans fell like a thunderclap, awakening him to the realization that he was made acceptable to God by the work of Christ alone. In short, it dawned upon him, that he was already justified before God, by God.

This insight about our acceptability to God, because of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, achieves two things. The first, is that it serves as the great leveller, it exposes, uncovers the bloated claims we make for ourselves, the intumescent platforms upon which we stand. Put another way, it goes to the very heart of the problem of the human condition.

Driven by anxiety – a universal human experience – the insight that we are acceptable to God and accepted by God, potentially does for people what it did for Luther: frees us from the pathological need to prove ourselves, the neurotic drive to dominate, the narcissistic behaviour that uses others for our purposes.

The teaching of justification by grace, assures us that “it is not all about us”, that we can get over ourselves and the anxieties that we carry. Justification by grace is the antidote to the human behaviour of over-reach. The second, is that we are not only freed from our individual and collective anxieties, but equally and most importantly, free to really live.

The eminent German theologian, Ernst Käsemann put it this way: “Where we no longer have to strive for our salvation, and no longer need to fear external powers, we become free for other people, for whom we otherwise at most, only find time and attention as allies or opponents.” He adds, “the one who is liberated from himself…perceives his neighbour”. (Käsemann, “On Paul’s Anthropology”, Perspectives on Paul; London, SCM Press, 1971, p.30)

What is then the connection between Tillich’s Protestant Principle and Paul’s idea of justification by grace through faith? They both encourage a genuine and realistic sense of ourselves, a deep humility about our identity. The Protestant Principle warns against the will to power and the doctrine of justification by grace, relieves us of the need to aspire to such power.

Rethinking Ourselves

And so, to the final issue: what does it mean to be Protestant in the contemporary world, a world marked by the peril of unreason?

In my lifetime, I have experienced what I refer to as the increasing dogmatization of Protestantism. This is due to at least two factors: the decreasing literacy of Protestant Christians about their own identity, but additionally in these dogmatic times, reason is failing across the board, and people submit to superficial, perfunctory explanations for complex changing realities.

During my 5 years in the United States (1999-2004), that which concerned me most was the distortion, subversion of evangelical Protestantism, as it rapidly became the religious tail of a conservative Republican Party worldview.

More recently, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, has shown itself to be headed in the same direction for different reasons, truncating the breadth of Catholic Social Teachings to emotive narrow issues, in particular opposition to Roe v. Wade (1973), a landmark decision of the U.S. Supreme Court regarding a woman’s right to abortion.

In Australia, organizations like the Australian Christian Lobby, an evangelical body whose very name misleadingly suggests it speaks for the broad church, pursues a not dissimilar but marginally more moderate agenda.

In this new disturbing situation, Luther’s insight into Paul’s justification by grace through faith, and Tillich’s Protestant Principle, ask us to be cautious about faith’s creeping dogmatization and predisposition to authoritarianism.

The danger is two-fold: first that we fail to acknowledge the limitedness of our faith interpretations, we claim too much for ourselves, we overreach ourselves. But secondly, we idolatrize Scripture and Doctrine with a quasi-sacramental weight, forgetting that truth transcends all human fixation, even the letters of a sacred book.

Protestantism then, is not just about “not being Roman Catholic”. It is, positively speaking, about challenging all fundamentalist claims to absoluteness, in a world where social, economic, political and religious power increasingly do just that. The deep, deep insight of Protestantism is as Martin Luther put it in one of his better moments: “Christian theology, like everything else, is only ever partial. Total faith and total theology are impossible because we are only human.”

*****

The Rev. Dr Geoff Dornan is minister in placement at Wesley Forrest Uniting Church in Canberra. This article was originally written in Spanish and published in Revista Latinoamericana de Teologia through the Central American University in El Salvador.

Pastoral Letter to Canberra Region Presbytery, October 2021

“Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another” (Heb 10:25). That’s a verse that has often been quoted when discussing the importance of worship—and, in the past 20 months, when thinking about whether we can worship together in the church building.

As we consider a return to in-person worship and fellowship, let us hold the exhortation to “encourage one another” alongside of the importance of “meeting together”. There are a few guiding principles that would be good for us to hold in mind.

1. We have all experienced stress and anxiety for the past few months—indeed, for the past 20 months. Let us be gentle with each other. Let us remember, in each interaction that we have, that we are all bruised. Some might feel close to being broken. Some might feel traumatised by news from the past period of time. Some might feel that they have been very lonely for some time now. Some might have been ill, or known people that became very ill, during the lockdown. Some might be grieving or remembering past losses.

Let’s try to bear all of this in mind, with each conversation that we have with others, as we seek to encourage one another.

2. Each person returns to in-person worship and fellowship with different expectations. Some might be incredibly excited. Some might be cautious and hopeful. Some might be wary, very worried about being back in a larger group of people. Some might be resenting the decision to return while there is still significant community transmission of the virus. Some might be angry about not having been able to see their friends for the past few months.

Let’s try to bear all of this in mind, with each conversation we have, with each step that we take to ensure that we can worship together safely.

3. Not everybody will be returning to in-person worship and fellowship. Just as we have found ways to remain connected online while in lockdown, so we need to remember such people and continue practices that ensure that they know that they are still an integral part of the community of faith within your Congregation.

Let’s make sure that in leading worship, people online are acknowledged and encouraged as well as people gathering in the building.

4. If you have a Minister or a Pastor who leads your community, please remember that they have been working incredibly hard in the most recent lockdown, and indeed over the whole of the past 20 months. Holding a community together, providing clear-headed leadership, offering inspiration and encouragement in the regular weekly sermons, all in a different situation that none of us have experienced before—this is testing, draining, exhausting.

Let’s be patient with our ministry leaders, pray for them, care for them, and hold them in supportive ways.

5. For each person who serves on Church Council—and especially for the Chairperson and Secretary of your Church Council and the Chairperson, Secretary, and Treasurer of your Congregation—this has been an equally difficult and challenging period. Making decisions about when to regather in person, completing the COVID Safety Plans, explaining the decisions to members of the Congregation, all of this is difficult.

Let’s continue to hold our lay leaders and office bearers in prayer, and let’s remember to thank them for all the difficult discussions they have had and all the hard decisions that they have made during this pandemic. They, too, need encouragement.

6. Remember that your community of faith is more than just the people that you would see, most weeks, on a Sunday morning. There are people “on the fringes” and people “in the community” who look to your Congregation and identify that as the church for them. You may not have seen them for many months. They are most likely still around.

Let’s remember such people and work on rekindling contact with them, developing deeper relationships with them, showing them that the way that we “love each other” is exactly how we really do “love them” as well.

7. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking, or saying, something like, “it’s great to be back to normal now”. For a start, we can never “go back”; we always are “moving on”. And then, we have adapted our routines and adopted new practices over the past 20 months, and we shouldn’t—and cannot—simply drop all of them, all of a sudden.

We have taken up some new things that will stand us in good stead into the future. We don’t yet know that the pandemic is over; we may well have more lockdowns, there may well be drastic rises in infections and hospitalisations, and even deaths. We all hope not. But we do not know.

So let us hold on to hope for the future, without throwing away the lessons and learnings of the recent past. That’s the encouragement we need to give each other.

Ross Kingham and Judy McKinlay, Presbytery Co-Chairs; Andrew Smith and John Squires, Presbytery Ministers

Bearing the mark of the divine: remembering with Families and Friends of Drug Law Reform

Every year in late October, the Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform hold a ceremony to remember loved ones who have died because of drugs. Since the ceremony was first held in 1996, it is estimated that over 20,000 people have died because of drug overdoses.

The ceremony takes place in springtime in beautiful Weston Park in Canberra. The location, beside a memorial on a stone under a locust tree (Robinia pseudoacacia), was chosen for the first ceremony in 1996, because of its particular associations for the family of one of the members of FFDLR, whose brother had died earlier that year.

The blossoming locus tree under which the memorial stone lies is a potent symbol for the event: an expression of hope in the midst of remembering and honouring those who have died.

Each spring, the locus tree is in blossom

Bill Bush, Chairperson of FFDLR, notes that “these avoidable deaths have ballooned out to at least 20,000 people since that first ceremony. Then, as now, opiate overdoses have been the main cause.”

“The make-up of those who have died”, Bill advises, “has changed from generally troubled young people trying to cope, pushing boundaries and risk-taking, as young people have always done, to include older Canberrans who, in desperate search for inadequately provided pain relief, have had recourse to illicit substances. There are those who in desperation to shed themselves from a dependency have taken their own life without the aid of any drugs.”

The ceremonies have brought out of the shadows the promise and worth of those who have died and enabled grieving families and friends to draw aside the curtain of shame and stigma with which an unfeeling society has shrouded their loved ones. You can read some of the addresses given over the years at https://www.ffdlr.org.au/remembrance/

Every year, a local politician speaks at the ceremony—this year it was Peter Cain, MLA for Ginnindera, who chairs the Select Committee considering the Decriminalisation Bill. In addition, a family member of someone who has died speaks—this year, Janine Haskins, whose 23 year old daughter, Brontë, was driven to believe that the only relief available to her was to take her own life. She bore witness to a tragic sequence of events leading to the death of Brontë.

This year, also, I was invited to preside over the roll call of names of people who are being remembered, and to speak as a representative of people of faith. Here’s the address that I gave.

*****

I thank you for the invitation to share some thoughts with you this day.

I acknowledge the Traditional owners of the land on which we are gathered, the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, and I pay my respects to their elders, past and present, and to those emerging within community.

I also acknowledge those who have died and who we remember today and offer my condolences to those who loved them, particularly the newly bereaved.

(We then shared in a time of silent remembrance, as people recalled their loved one they were remembering.)

Today, as we remember, we recognise that we come to this ceremony from various walks of life, with various experiences, perspectives, and understandings. Our insights about life, our understandings of life in this realm and beyond, are varied. Some of us participate in rituals and in communities that help us to make sense of our lives, and of death, when it takes place. We recognise and value that diversity in our midst today. All are welcomed into this shared moment of remembering.

I join with you today as a representative of people of faith, for whom the loss of life of a loved one is a special moment. It stands as a moment for remembering, grieving, giving thanks for a life, mourning the loss of relationship and connection. No matter what faith tradition, each religion marks such a moment with a sensitive rite of passage, as the person deceased slips away from our reality, into another reality beyond. We gather to remember, grieve, recall with thanks, and comfort one another.

In this time of remembrance today, we mark again those moments of passage for our loved ones—those we have named, and countless others not here named—who have taken that pathway into the beyond. We bring out of the shadows the names and faces, the joys and griefs, the achievements and the unfulfilled hopes, of those who have gone from us.

I join with you as a Christian minister, from a faith community that holds firmly to the conviction that, whilst death is the end of mortal life, it marks a new beginning in our relationship with God. We do not know with clarity and assurance what form that new relationship takes; but we hold with hope to the belief that this life is not the totality of our human existence.

In this time of remembrance today, each of us, in terms of our own personal commitment of faith and hope, grieves the loss of a loved one, yet affirms our hope that their reality, now, has taken them away from the grip of whatever caught them, surrounded them, and led them to the point of death. Beyond those shadows, we hold to the belief that our loved ones live in the light.

And I join with you as a member of the Uniting Church, which has a commitment to stand in support of those who have been bereaved in this situation. In recent years, the Uniting Church has developed the Fair Treatment campaign, in which we join with over 60 partner organisations, and many concerned individuals, to affirm that our policies and our laws must not stigmatise and marginalise the most disadvantaged people in our community. This is a vitally important commitment. (See https://www.fairtreatment.org)

The man who shapes the perspective of the world that I adhere to and seek to follow in my life is the man from Nazareth who sat, befriended, listened, questioned, encouraged, challenged, enriched, expanded horizons. This man from Nazareth would not validate the harsh, uncaring, depersonalising course of action that many of your loved ones have experienced as they grappled with drug dependency, suicidal ideation, or the intensified pain that came with age and disability.

By trusting in the way of the man of Nazareth, I place my faith in the positive and hopeful dimension of humanity. That man, Jesus, affirmed what the sages of old had long declared: we human beings are made in the image of God. Our very beings “radiate the glory of God”, to use the ancient scriptural terminology.

At our own creation, the breath of God was breathed into us, infusing our being with all that God is, all that God offers. Our very beings contain within them the potential to be life-affirming, world-embracing, in hope-filled living, in loving relationships, in caring compassion. Each human being therefore needs to be accorded dignity and respect, as a person bearing the mark of the divine, with the breath of the divine inspiring and enabling our very being.

In my understanding, this high view of humanity undergirds the work of the Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform. A commitment to the value of each individual human life informs the advocacy, the research, the educational work, the relational support, and this annual remembering, of this so-important organisation. We are made in the image of God. We have within us the capacity to be our very best.

Let us continue to hope, to love, to work, to care; to advocate, to persuade, and to rejoice, in this work.

*****

*****

In 1999, the Rev. Gregor Henderson spoke at this event. He said then:

It is not right to treat drug users as criminals, as outcasts, as people who are beneath compassion and love.

It is not right that people die from drug dependency, in alleyways or parks, in living rooms or hospital casualty wards.

It is not right that people die from unintentional overdoses, from highly toxic mixtures of drugs, from shared needles.

It is not right that people die when new approaches and treatments are available but governments lack the courage to permit them.

It is not right that society has been unable to find better ways of caring for drug users and moving them towards rehabilitation.

It is not right that some, the real criminals, profit from the importation and sale of illicit drugs.

It is not right that people, especially young people, are exploited mercilessly by the Mr and Mrs Bigs of the drug trade.

It is not right that parents of young drug users have great difficulty in finding help for their sons and daughters who are using drugs and for themselves as they want desperately to help them.

It is not right that parents are forced to break the law by allowing their drug-using offspring to inject safely at home in preference to throwing them out on the streets.

Surely it is time for a much bigger dose of compassion in relation to illicit drugs.