Ramping up the rhetoric, generating guilt and provoking panic: the failed strategy of conservatives in the UCA (part III)

Concluding my exploration of reactionary conservatism throughout the 42 years of the Uniting Church. In part one, I looked at the formation of the church in 1977, and EMU (the Evangelical Ministers of the Uniting Church, later renamed to the Evangelical Members of the Uniting Church (EMU). In part two, I considered the Reforming Alliance (RA) and the Assembly of Confessing Congregations (ACC), through to the present, with the formation of Propel.

VI. Conservative theology, the ACC, and CALD communities

From time to time, I hear the claim that goes something like, “lots of ethnic congregations disagree with the Uniting Church position on sexuality”. This is often applied to Pacific Island communities, referring to churches with their roots in Tonga, Fiji, Samoa, and a number of other islands in Oceania. It also applies to some Korean-speaking congregations.

One simple reason for this is historical: when Western churches sent missionaries to the Pacific Islands, and to Korea, the people that they sent were inevitably filled with missional zeal, conservative pietism, and intense desire to convert the people amongst whom they were living and ministering. The type of Christian faith that they brought with them, that they taught and advocated, and that was adopted by the people of the islands where they were based, was from a particular cultural context, which was conservative, evangelical, and in many cases, pre-critical.

Thus, the churches that they planted and that grew up in Korea and the Pacific Islands held strongly to conservative, evangelical, and even fundamentalist perspective on faith. That has carried over into the churches in Australia from those various Islander and Korean communities. Indeed, in those very cultures, pre-missionary understandings were often quite different from what we now hear as being from those cultures.

The same kind of rhetoric has been applied to these CALD communities (CALD = culturally and linguistically diverse). The dominant theological stance is conservative. The claim is made, from time to time, that people from these communities are leaving the church. In droves, it is sometimes said. Once again, the rhetoric is over-reaching; the numbers are highly exaggerated; the tactics are based on inaccuracies fed by fear, fostering division.

And the theological positions of people within these various CALD communities can no longer be stereotyped as being all the same, all conservative, all anti-homosexuals, all believing that the Bible is inerrant. There is, now, actually a wide range of opinions, perspectives, and theologies amongst these CALD communities. They are as diverse as any other part of the church, with all shades of theological commitment reflected.

After many generations of life in Australia, it is clear that people within the various CALD communities, like people within mono-Anglo church groups, have grappled with biblical interpretation, have sensed how traditional culture might be critiqued, and have realised that life is filled with diversity. They have adopted the Uniting Church’s commitment to an informed faith. It is not just a black-and-white situation. And that is part of the wonderful diversity that can be found within the Uniting Church.

On the commitment to an informed faith in the Basis of Union, see https://johntsquires.com/2018/08/15/what-i-really-like-about-the-basis-of-union/

I am proud to have many colleagues in ministry from non-Anglo origins, who have negotiated the pathway of being a “hyphenated” personality, straddling the culture of their place of origin and the culture of the place they now live. They serve with faithfulness. They know how to critique their culture of origin, how to critique their culture of current living, and how to apply these insights to biblical interpretation, theological exposition, pastoral care, and missional engagement.

I have been a member of the last two Assemblies. In debates on the floor of both Assemblies, the wide spread of theological positions advocated by members of the various CALD communities has been clearly evident. There is a diversity of voices within CALD communities. Not everyone in those groups accepts and repeats the conservative rhetoric about the crisis in the church, the decline of numbers. Indeed, most CALD communities hold fast to the Uniting Church as their faith home. They are not leaving in droves.

I have talked about this with a number of people who have worked, in different Synods, with people from many of the CALD communities. They know the diversity. They know the resentment of those who adopt “divisive, splintering tactics”, at some National Conferences, and in the public arena. Some CALD leaders attempt to speak to a wider audience as if they are speaking for all members of their ethnic community, and indeed all cultural groups across the UCA. They do not, and I have been told that this has been made clear in many sessions of various National Conferences.

The recent foray into Tonga is a case in point, when some leaders of the ACC went to the General Conference of the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga (FWC), to raise their concerns about the UCA, citing the 2018 decision about marriage, and to raise the possibility that there might be a breaking of relations with the UCA. The renegade UCA people in leadership in the ACC did not succeed in this task of fomenting dissension. The leaders of the FWC have issued a statement explicitly repudiating the claim that the relationship has broken.

See my post on this issue and the divisive tactics employed at

https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/30/dividing-the-unity-splintering-the-connections-more-acc-agitation/

The current dominance in leadership, and in membership, of individuals from certain CALD communities, simply reflects the ineffective nature of their strategy in the church at large. It seems like cultural expectations are, in some situations, being used to sway adherence to a particular, narrow, theological dogma. I know of a number of locations where ACC leadership has explicitly sought to recruit whole CALD faith communities to their cause. That is a really sad way of operating.

VII. In conclusion

It is clear to me that the Uniting Church is firmly committed to being welcoming and inclusive, acting with integrity and grace. The President has signalled this with her 15th Assembly theme of abundant grace, liberating hope. (See https://johntsquires.com/2018/07/31/abundant-grace-liberating-hope/)

However, more recent statements by the ACC have exposed its theology as exclusionary, wrath-driven and judgemental. In my mind, it would be good if these advocates of “orthodoxy” were to have a different narrative.

There is clearly a place for an articulate, thoughtful, informed theology which is both conservative and evangelical. I don’t dispute that. I have always valued such voices, in the scholars I have read, the students I have taught, and the colleagues with whom I work and interact. Good conservative theology makes a valuable contribution to the life of the church.

However, the way that the case has been argued by some conservative leaders, the rhetorical strategy of crying doom and gloom, or worse, in an attempt to reverse decisions, does not provide a constructive contribution to the church. And in recent times it has descended into ugly rhetoric (“the UCA is apostate”, for instance). That’s counterproductive.

I yearn to hear conservative church leaders speaking in a way that highlights the GOOD news, that offers the GRACE of God, that models the INCLUSION of the Gospel and invites people into an EXPLORATION of faith, as is evident in the New Testament texts. This is the positive model of leadership which does well for the whole church.

Too often over the years, conservative leaders—and especially, more recently, the leadership of the ACC—have spoken to highlight JUDGEMENT, offering FEAR as the motivation for seeking repentance, and modelling the EXCLUSIVE character of a holy huddle which is entirely convinced that it, and it alone, possesses THE TRUTH about God.

We need to move away, once and for all, from these ineffective and disrespectful strategies.

We need to proclaim the good news!

******

For earlier parts, see

https://johntsquires.com/2019/07/25/ramping-up-the-rhetoric-generating-guilt-and-provoking-panic-the-failed-strategy-of-conservatives-in-the-uca-part-i/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/07/25/ramping-up-the-rhetoric-generating-guilt-and-provoking-panic-the-failed-strategy-of-conservatives-in-the-uca-part-ii/

For my musings on the DNA of the UCA, see

https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/18/the-dna-of-the-uca-part-i/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/18/the-dna-of-the-uca-part-I/

For the 1985 affirmation that the Uniting Church is a multicultural church, see https://assembly.uca.org.au/mcm/resources/assembly-resolutions-and-statements/item/1688-we-are-a-multicultural-church

For the 2012 statement on One Body Many Members: Living faith and life cross culturally, see https://assembly.uca.org.au/obmm

For overviews of the matter of sexuality within the Uniting Church over four decades, see https://assembly.uca.org.au/images/PDF/SexualityandLeadership_DocumentingtheHistory.pdf

https://www.southmoreton.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/Same-gender-marriage-the-UCA-journey-rev1018.pptx

Ramping up the rhetoric, generating guilt and provoking panic: the failed strategy of conservatives in the UCA (part II)

Continuing my explorations of reactionary conservatism throughout the 42 years of the Uniting Church. In part one, I looked at the formation of the church in 1977, and EMU (the Evangelical Ministers of the Uniting Church, later renamed to the Evangelical Members of the Uniting Church (EMU).

In this part, we look at the Reforming Alliance (RA) and the Assembly of Confessing Congregations (ACC), through to the present, with the formation of Propel.

III. The Reforming Alliance, sexuality and leadership

Evangelical Members of the Uniting Church (EMU) had become active in prosecuting the view that the Uniting Church did not have an adequate view of scripture and did not hold strongly enough to the classic understandings of faith from the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.

The doctrinal stance of EMU is set out at

http://www.confessingcongregations.com/emusite/All%20About%20emu/Doctrinal%20Statement.pdf

After some individuals who identified as same-gender attracted offered themselves for consideration as candidates for ordained ministry, the focus of the conservatives turned more intensely onto the matter of sexuality.

Already in the 1980s the Assembly had established a Task Group on Sexuality, exploring the issues raised by EMU and then RA. There is a good summary of the work of this group, and the ensuing two decades of discussion of sexuality, at https://assembly.uca.org.au/images/PDF/SexualityandLeadership_DocumentingtheHistory.pdf

The Reforming Alliance was established in response to the 10th Assembly’s decision in 2003, not to make a statement opposing the ordination of people who are in a same-gender relationship. RA had fought against the reasoned articulation of “an informed faith” in relation to scripture and sexuality. It advocated a conservative, perhaps even fundamentalist, approach to scripture, which was the dominant paradigm in some denominations, but had never been the way that the UCA had approached biblical interpretation.

For a summary of the doctrinal position taken by the Reforming Alliance, see http://www.confessingcongregations.com/resources/reforming-alliance/

After the decision of the Assembly in 2003, there was a resurgence in rhetoric warning that the church would die, that this latest decision would mark the end of the Uniting Church. The rhetoric was steadily inflated. The strategy seemed to be to induce guilt about the future of the church, with the hope that this would result in an overturning of the decision. It did not. Some people left the UCA. Some congregations split. Ministry and Mission continued apace. The UCA continued on.

IV. The ACC and marriage of same-gender attracted people

Persistent debate has continued since that time, with conservative evangelical advocates across the Synods arguing against the agreed UCA position. There have been particularly strong groups in Qld and SA.

After the 11th Assembly in 2006, a special summit of the remnants of EMU and the relatively new Reforming Alliance established a new organisation, the Assembly of Confessing Congregations (ACC) within the Uniting Church. The battle continued into the present time. The rhetoric continued, and intensified, as the obvious lack of impact in the strategy became more evident. The generation of guilt was magnified, but to no avail. The church has continued.

So, what we see today is playing out the four decades of the UCA where disenchanted conservative evangelical pietists have resisted the moves towards “an informed faith” which thinking Methodists, Congregationalists and Presbyterians all saw as a key commitment within the Uniting Church. The ACC has been waging an ongoing battle against this position for 15 years, but the majority of the UCA has always been engaged with the processes of critical thinking and fresh words and deeds which the Basis of Union holds as a key value.

In recent years, the ACC has swerved even more to the hard right; it speaks in tones even harsher and unflinching, compared to RA and EMU. The extremes of the theological position of the ACC can be seen on their webpage at

http://www.confessingcongregations.com/uploads/acc027_confess_a5_ncov_imp_hr.pdf

and its most recent statement, expressing its hard line about sexuality, is accessible at

http://www.confessingcongregations.com/uploads/acc027_sexuality_a5_new_cov_lr.pdf

The rhetoric of the ACC has become increasingly inflamed. Accusing the UCA Assembly of being “apostate” is excessive and ill-judged. Claiming that the ACC itself is “the true Assembly” is hyperbolic overreach. The ACC is becoming smaller and less effective. It has employed tactics which are nasty and ugly. Its leadership, and membership, are increasingly drawn from specific sections of the Pacific Island and Korean communities, not from the wider church. Other CALD leadership across the board differentiates itself very clearly from the ACC rhetoric and tactics.

The recent foray by ACC leadership into Tonga, to convince the Free Wesleyan. Church of Tonga to break off relationships with the UCA Assembly, is a case in point. Publicity shared by the ACC since that conference has been completely inaccurate, deliberately inflaming.

(see https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/30/dividing-the-unity-splintering-the-connections-more-acc-agitation/)

I will explore in more details the issues involved with CALD communities and conservative theology in a third part to this blog.

 

V. A new conservative voice: Propel

And now, there is a new movement within the Uniting Church: Propel. It describes itself as “a new national network of evangelical leaders, congregations and agencies in the Uniting Church in Australia” and promises that its members will “seek to be a positive renewal movement within, and for the life and mission of the church.”

Propel declares that it has been formed because of “the significant pastoral and mission disruptions experienced in many places leading up to and since the decisions of the 15th Assembly of the Uniting Church”, and affirms that it will offer leadership related to “the historic, orthodox faith and mission” of the church. (See https://www.propelnetwork.org.au/)

Propel is the latest manifestation of a minority conservative protest thread which has run through the life of the Uniting Church, all the way from the time of church union in 1977 (and before).

I think Propel wants to position itself differently from the ACC and its precursors. (And rightly so!) Propel claims that it wants to “positively network together for mutual encouragement and resourcing – prayerfully, strategically and passionately pursuing the great commission.” Those are fine sentiments, and if the movement is able to hold to these positives, that would be good.

I am not entirely convinced that this new movement within the Uniting Church is actually needed. What is to stop the aims of Propel being achieved within the current structures of the church? And the clear naming of the recent decision about marriage as an issue of differentiation, ignores the fact that the Assembly did not insist on any one minister or congregation holding to a particular view. The Assembly recognised the integrity of two different views, and affirmed each as equally valid within the Uniting Church.

However, one of the NSW leaders promoting Propel writes, “We will stand firm in the faith, stand aside from that which is not, and move forward in mission with limitless power and resources in the Holy Spirit.” The phrases “stand firm, stand aside” contain code words which have been used often throughout 2018, to indicate a stance of rejecting the decision of the 15th Assembly regarding marriage. They have been spoken and written often by ACC leaders and members over the last year. To differentiate from these extremists, surely other language needs to be used?

Propel looks to me like an attempt by more moderate conservatives to distance themselves from these ugly reactionary tactics. But it is still at odds with the fundamental convictions of the UCA. The Basis of Union affirms that we hold to an informed faith. It values critical and contextual engagement with scripture. It values the recent insights of science, literature, history, psychology, medicine, and other modern disciplines. The ACC runs far from all of these foundational affirmations of the UCA. They are fast running out of options for being faithful members of the Uniting Church.

And let’s hope that Propel does not catapult itself headlong into the same dead end.

For part I, see

https://johntsquires.com/2019/07/25/ramping-up-the-rhetoric-generating-guilt-and-provoking-panic-the-failed-strategy-of-conservatives-in-the-uca-part-i/

For my musings on the DNA of the UCA, see

https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/18/the-dna-of-the-uca-part-i/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/18/the-dna-of-the-uca-part-ii/

In addition to resources noted above, there is an excellent overview of what has been produced on the matter of sexuality within the Uniting Church over four decades, at https://www.southmoreton.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/Same-gender-marriage-the-UCA-journey-rev1018.pptx

Ramping up the rhetoric, generating guilt and provoking panic: the failed strategy of conservatives in the UCA (part I)

“My anecdotal feedback from contact with ACC and other evangelical congregations is that at least 3000 people have left since the 15th Assembly. Sadly, many members have just drifted away in hundreds of congregations, one, two, three or four at a time, perhaps some not even noticed, or worried about by ministers and leaders.”

So writes a leader from the Assembly of Confessing Congregations in their latest magazine, ACCatalyst. It seems to me to be a massive overreach in rhetoric, an attempt to generate a feeling of guilt amongst the faithful across the Uniting Church. “Look what terrible things have resulted from your decision about marriage”, is the implied message. I don’t know how the figure of 3,000 has been calculated. Inflated overestimates, I reckon.

It is also an inaccurate representation of the current situation. Personally, I know of some people in the context where I currently minister who have been upset by the decision. They have all received follow-up from pastoral carers, or myself as minister. Some have left, others are “hanging loose”. I spoke just two weeks ago with one person who had left the UCA last year because of the decision about marriage. He and his family are happily attending a church, geographically more convenient and theologically more suited to their views. I suspect there are more such stories amongst those who have left the UCA.

I know also of a number of Congregations where people have decided to come along to the Uniting Church, to take part in worship and fellowship, to align themselves with this denomination, precisely BECAUSE the Assembly made the decision that it did! I would not say there are 3,000 such people—in fact, I have no idea how many such people there might be—but I do know that there are, most certainly, a number of such people, who have JOINED the UCA since last July!

In talking with colleagues, who have similar stories, overall, of some small number of departures, as well as some stories of people joining, my sense is that the impact on numbers in the UCA over the past 12 months is small. Very small. And for most of those, there is another church, another spiritual home, where they have been welcomed. So it is not as bad as the ACC leader makes out.

This kind of scaremongering rhetoric is familiar and well-worn. I seem to have heard something very similar after each “controversial” decision relating to sexuality that has been made within the Uniting Church. Each time a decision was made, after much care, thought, prayer, and discussion, the noises about people leaving the church in droves have been heard. Each time, it is claimed, the Uniting Church is about to divide and die. And each time, we know, the church goes on, continuing to gather for worship and fellowship, maintaining its faithful witness in society, and providing loving service to people in the community.

The thread of a disenchanted reactionary minority, puffing and panting with an increasingly excessive rhetoric about the imminent demise of the church, has run through the Uniting Church for four decades. And we are still here. And still strong. The experience of the most recent Synod meeting I attended in Sydney attests to this: There was a significant contingent of younger members; in fact, we were told that one third of the members at this Synod were attending for the first time. Not all of them were “young”—but this in itself testifies to a strong commitment to the church across the board.

Why is it that we have had this irritant reactionary stream throughout our 42-year history?

I. The formation of the Uniting Church in Australia

When the Presbyterian church decided not to adopt the “one in, all in” approach that the Methodist church was utilising, in the voting about church union, the foundation was laid. Less involvement in the new denomination from Presbyterians, with their valuing of critical thinking and academic resourcing of thoughtful preaching, meant that, in some places, there was a higher proportion of Methodists, with their emphasis more on personal piety and evangelical fervour, within the new Uniting Church.

Had the Methodist Church allowed for more conservative dissidents not to join—as the Presbyterian and much smaller Congregational Churches did—the conservative thread in UCA history would have been much smaller. And the new church could have developed an even stronger focus on contextual theology, actions for social justice, and moving into the post-Christendom era. But such was not the case.

There was, to be sure, noise back in the 1970s to the effect that the new church was a rearguard action against declining numbers. Most often this came from disenchanted conservatives, frustrated at the fledgling church’s failure to stand for an understanding of the Bible as the “inerrant, infallible Word of God”. The church was going to die, they maintained, because of this failure.

However, the new church refused to die. It has continued on throughout the ensuing four decades of the Uniting Church. It remains the third largest denomination (counting by the census numbers) in Australia. True, like all other mainstream denominations, overall numbers have been falling. There is nothing different about the Uniting Church in this regard. Yet the UCA continues apace.

In those years since 1977, we have seen, one after another, the Evangelical Ministers of the Uniting Church, which in the early 1980s was renamed to Evangelical Members of the Uniting Church (EMU); then in the early 2000s, the Reforming Alliance (RA); and, in more recent years, the Assembly of Confessing Congregations (ACC).

The family resemblance is very clear. Each of these organisations advocated for a regressive conservative position on matters of morality (largely, sexuality) and veered towards a flat, literalist reading of scripture. They each made lots of noise about these issues but made little or no headway in achieving their aims. And, over time, the reactionary rhetoric has become more defensive, more rabid, more overreaching.

II. EMU, the Bible, and women in ministry

The ACC and RA are the children of EMU. What was Evangelical Members of the Uniting Church started as Evangelical Ministers of the Uniting Church, formed in South Australia out of a concern about the so-called “liberal” tendencies dominant in the Uniting Church. Over time, the SA group grew with branches formed in other Synods, and then a national organisation emerging.

In the early years of the church, various evangelical members and ministers had opposed the church’s commitment to equality and mutuality, specifically arguing against female ministers. In my first parish, for instance, in 1981-1983, I worked hard with parishioners and members of other nearby UCA congregations who held to that view and argued that the UCA was doing the wrong thing by ordaining women.

I was a member of a Synod working group later in the 1980s that produced resources addressing the issue of mutuality in ministry, and the ordination of women, in direct response to evangelical members pushing the counter position. I know that women in ministry in the UCA continued to experience discrimination and marginalisation into the 21st century.

EMU was strongly focused on the issue of biblical authority. (This stance has been used to undergird the claim that the Bible does not support the ordination of women). The doctrinal statement crafted by EMU had strong resonances with the general conservative evangelical assertion that the Bible was inerrant, infallible, and completely authoritative, even though the founding documents of the UCA had explicitly not included such terminology.

For a summary of the doctrinal position taken by EMU, see http://www.confessingcongregations.com/emusite/All%20About%20emu/Doctrinal%20Statement.pdf

On the commitment to an informed faith in the Basis of Union, see https://johntsquires.com/2018/08/15/what-i-really-like-about-the-basis-of-union/

As is clear in its founding document, the Basis of Union, the Uniting Church was formed with a commitment to the mutuality of men and women in ministry; indeed, all three denominations had already ordained women in the years prior to church union. Dr Julia Pitman has traced the long history of ordaining women in the Congregational Church—since 1927, in fact! — see https://www.insights.uca.org.au/reviews/read-this/small-church-big-step-for-women

Dr Avril Hannah-Jones provides a fine overview of the ministries of women in the predecessor denominations. She notes that the Congregational Church ordained Rev Winifred Kiek in 1927; Rev Dr Coralie Ling, a deaconess, became the first woman to be ordained in the Methodist Church in 1969; and Rev Marlene Thalheimer was ordained as the first female minister in the Presbyterian Church in 1974. You can read about these women, and more, at https://revdocgeek.com/2013/06/22/women-in-the-uniting-church-by-a-partial-prejudiced-ignorant-historian-to-quote-the-immortal-jane/

Indeed, the issue of the ordination of women was clearly and strongly affirmed in a UCA paper produced in 1990; see https://www.unitingjustice.org.au/society-religion-and-politics/uca-statements/item/download/947_0ff250e12a2db30ecf2027d7a831e979This has been a consistent practice of the church since 1977.

I clearly recall rhetoric from the 1980s to the effect that ordaining women would see other churches stop talking to us and the life of the Uniting Church would shrivel. Those churches continued to talk to us, and the Uniting Church continued on unabated.

I remember being a member of a Presbytery which had one curmudgeonly old member who regularly voted NO whenever anything to do with women in ministry was considered. He should not have been allowed to do this, as it was inconsistent with UCA policy. Fortunately, his ilk has all but died out, at least amongst clergy and lay leadership.

(… to be continued)

For online articles which reflect on the creation of the UCA and its core commitments over the years, see:

https://journeyonline.com.au/features/three-became-one-christ/

https://revivemagazine.org.au/2017/06/22/making-a-bold-statement/

https://sa.uca.org.au/new-times/40th-anniversary-reflection?

https://crosslight.org.au/2017/05/21/union-not-easy-step-many-congregations/

https://assembly.uca.org.au/about/uca

https://assembly.uca.org.au/component/k2/item/2609-forty-years-forty-days-forty-hours#prayer-1-revisiting-our-inauguration

For my musings on the DNA of the UCA, see

https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/18/the-dna-of-the-uca-part-i/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/18/the-dna-of-the-uca-part-ii/

On the threshold, in a liminal space

Over recent months, Elizabeth and I have occupied what might be called a liminal space. Liminal spaces are the places of transition, from one place to another.

We have moved states—indeed, we have travelled the length of the continent, relocating from a Perth suburb just a few kilometres inland from the Indian Ocean, to a suburb in Canberra, in the anonymous territory that is hiding in the midst of the undifferentiated eastern states (at least, that’s how the sandgropers of WA view them).

We have moved house, to a residence that the church has recently purchased. That meant packing everything into boxes in WA, then waiting for delivery to the ACT, where we then unpacked everything and found new places for each item, each book, each piece of furniture.

We have also changed jobs, in association with this domestic move. We have each ended the work that we have been doing in Western Australia in recent times—for Elizabeth, a year-long Intentional Interim Ministry in a Congregation, and some months of resourcing of the Presbytery Pastoral Relations Committee; for myself, two years of restructuring and rebuilding the educational offerings and formation processes within the Synod. That has meant a series of farewells with colleagues in WA.

We are now both settled into congregational ministry—for Elizabeth, in a regular placement, and for myself, as an Intentional Interim Ministry in a Congregation which has experienced a series of challenges in recent times. That means introductions, getting to know new people, and sussing out the key issues in each place. This is a challenging place for us each to be!

And this week, we are both “trainers-in-training” at a course on The Fundamentals of Transitional Ministry. This is part one of a two-part course, auspices by the Interim Ministry Network (based in the USA, but taught with an Australian accent for the Australian context by our colleague, Rob McFarlane). You can see more about this network at http://imnedu.org/

Part One of the course is subtitled The Work of the People. Part Two (scheduled for June) is subtitled The Work of the Leader. The two courses complement and inform each other.

The Basis of Union of the Uniting Church articulates a commitment to this process of change and transition. Obviously the motif of “a pilgrim people on the way” (para 3, also para 18) is a key motif, and the Basis refers explicitly to persevering through the “changes of history” that we experience (para 4). There is great encouragement for us to develop creative new expressions of church in another obvious phrase, referring to “fresh words and deeds” (para 11). So this should be fundamental to the way we operate as a church.

It is clear that Ministers undergo a process of change and transition in moving from one placement to another: moving through ending in one community, and leaving behind the ministry exercised there; to joining a new community and coming to understand and appreciate the context within which ministry now takes place. (And then, of course, exiting the community at the end of the period of ministry.) As well as all of the learnings, adjustments, developments, readjustments, further learnings, reshaping and continuing developments that are inevitable within the course of a good ministry placement.

Alongside this, the Congregation or faith community has work to do, and this is recognised in the second course. This work entails a series of tasks, which the Intentional Interim Minister is charged with overseeing and stimulating. These are summarised quite succinctly as dealing with understanding heritage, refreshing leadership, relational connections beyond the community, developing missional identity, and committing to the agreed future. That’s quite a lot of work!

So, all of these changes that we have experienced in recent times—changes in jobs, changes in residence, changes in location, and changes in the faith community to which we are connected—all bring challenges with them. We are in what anthropologists and sociologists call, a liminal space.

The word liminal comes from the Latin word līmen, which means “a threshold”. Technically, that is the place that marks off one space from another. Its origin was the strip of wood or stone at the bottom of a doorway, which was crossed in entering a house or room.

The thresh is the place where one treads as one enters a room. So the threshold, is where you put your foot as you walk into a new room or new place.

So, we are on the threshold, in a liminal space.

Anthropologists define liminality as “the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of a ritual”. It is the moment when participants no longer hold their preritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the rite is complete.

During a rite’s liminal stage, participants “stand at the threshold” between their previous way of structuring their identity, time, or community, and a new way, which completing the rite establishes.

The concept of liminality was developed in the early twentieth century sociologists. It was applied particularly to religious rituals marking the movement of a person from one stage to another. We can see this in the traditions of the church: for instance, Confirmation as a move into adulthood, Marriage as a move into long term partnership, and, of course, Baptism as the movement into life outside the womb, in the world as we know it, and Funerals as the move into life beyond death, life in the world beyond that as we currently know it. These are liminal moments for all human beings.

More recently, usage of the term has broadened to the political and cultural arena, alongside the religious or faith area. So it is a useful concept to be applied to the places where we are ministering and the changes that are among place, or need to take place, within those communities.

During liminal periods of all kinds, the experts tell us, “social hierarchies may be reversed or temporarily dissolved, continuity of tradition may become uncertain, and future outcomes once taken for granted may be thrown into doubt. The dissolution of order during liminality creates a fluid, malleable situation that enables new institutions and customs to become established.”

[I found this on Wikipedia, which references the source as Agnes Horvath, Bjørn Thomassen, and Harald Wydra, Introduction: Liminality and Cultures of Change (International Political Anthropology 2009). Accessed 18 March 2019.]

That means, then, that we are facing opportunities at this moment, in the liminal space—opportunities to dissolve traditions, opportunities to reshape practices, opportunities to cast doubt over long term certainties, opportunities to lay down new patterns of functioning that will be healthy, life giving, and resilient in the longer term. Now that’s a set of challenges to be met!!!