The scene from Acts which is offered by the lectionary this coming Sunday (Acts 10:44–48) reports what occurred in Caesarea after an impassioned speech to Gentiles, by the Jewish man, Peter (10:34-43). What takes place in this scene needs to be understood in the context of the speech just given, and indeed in terms of the whole span of events recounted in this volume.
As its particular theme, it employs “the impartiality of God” (10:34), a scriptural theme (Deut 10:17; Job 34:19; Wisd 6:7; Sir 35:13-15). This theme reinforces the message of the vision (10:11-16) which rebutted the levitical holiness motif and validated table-fellowship as being consistent with divine impartiality, a key aspect of God’s nature.
This divine impartiality is especially evident in Jesus, who can be affirmed as Lord of all (10:36). Peter interprets the life of Jesus as the action of God, who anointed him, was with him, raised him and made him manifest (10:37-43).
Peter affirms the apostolic witness (10:39,41; see 2:32, 3:15, 5:32) and the prophetic witness (10:43; see 2:25-31,33-35, 3:18,21-25, 4:25-26); once again, Luke has him make the exaggerated claim that “all the prophets testify about him” (10:43; see 3:24). These prophets testify to “the forgiveness of sins” which is essential to the proclamation (2:38, 5:31, 13:38).
Jesus has been “ordained by God” to be the eschatological “judge of the living and the dead” (10:42), a concept which Paul will later express (17:31; cf. 24:15). The speech thus comprises a consistent exposition of God’s activities in Jesus, extensively in the past as well as (briefly) in the future.
2 Spirit, come!
The response to this speech is both unequivocal and not unfamiliar when the spirit falls on the Gentiles (10:44-48). At the beginning the spirit had instructed Peter to accompany the messengers from Cornelius (10:19-20) and initiate contact with this household of the Gentiles in Caesarea; at the conclusion of the speech to this group “the holy spirit fell upon all who heard the word” (10:44).
The spirit, of course, was an important element in the ancient Jewish worldview. The creation story of the Hebrews affirmed that creation took place when “the spirit moved over the face of the waters” (Gen 1:1–3). Moses and the elders whom he appointed as judges were filled with the spirit (Num 11:16–17, 25) and judges were filled with the spirit (3:10; 6:34; 11:29; 13:25; 14:6, 19; 15:14).
Prophets were anointed by the spirit to declare “the word of the Lord” for the people of their time (1 Sam 19:20, 23; Isa 11:2; 59:21; 61:1; Ezek 2:2; Joel 2:28–29; Micah 3:8; Zech 7:12, referring to “the former prophets”). Indeed, the servant of the Lord himself is guided by the spirit (Isa 42:1).
This coming of the Spirit had happened before, and it will happen again, as the story of Acts continues. But there is something striking and significance about this story of the coming of the spirit.
This has happened before. The spirit has twice filled the messianic community gathered in the Jewish capital, Jerusalem (at Pentecost, 2:1-4, and subsequently, 4:31). When the spirit is poured out on the Gentiles (10:45) in this gentile capital, it is already known that this is an act of God (2:17).
In both previous cases, God had acted through the spirit in relation to Jews. That this current outpouring of the spirit, outside of Judaea, amongst Gentiles, is still an act of God, is emphasised by a series of narrative comments. The Jewish believers present express surprise at “the gift of the holy spirit” (10:45), but the reader already knows that such a gift is from God (2:38, 8:18).
They hear the Gentiles “speaking in tongues” (10:46), a phenomenon already experienced as a divine event in Jerusalem (2:11). Peter draws this connection when he interprets the event: they “received the spirit as we also [did]” (10:47; see 2:38). Peter and his fellow Jews thus “exulted God” (10:47; see 5:13).
Indeed, the Spirit had come to these Gentiles after a striking sequence of events had taken place. Peter had a vision whilst praying in Joppa, that he was no longer to keep separate at table (10:9-16). No longer were Jews to eat separated from Gentiles. God had declared all foods clean (10:15), so separate table fellowship was now overturned. Peter receives this dramatic change to the status quo—and he faithfully acts on it.
Peter and his companions in Joppa share at table with the men from Cornelius (10:23; 11:4-11) and then, when they have travelled to Caesarea, with the household of Cornelius and those who were baptised with him (10:48; 11:12-18). Indeed, the very point of the vision seen by Peter is to establish an inclusive, all-embracing table fellowship in the Jesus movement, open to both Jews and Gentiles, from this point onwards (11:3).
This is a moment when the old is overturned, and the new is implemented. It is a strong moment of transition for the early church. From this time, the good news spreads amongst Gentiles; to the extent that it does, indeed, reach “to the ends of the earth”.
Baptism ensues (10:48; cf. 2:38). The deepest significance of this moment for Luke is identified as being that “the gift of the holy spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles” (10:45). That God has acted even on the Gentiles signals that the ‘turn’ which has been anticipated since 8:4 has come about in a fulsome way.
The author’s interpretation of the events that have taken place in Caesarea draws them into close relationship with the interpretation of Jesus which Peter has given (here, and in earlier speeches in Acts). The impartial God who has acted through Jesus (10:34-43) is the same God who declares all things clean (10:15), who shows this to Peter (10:28), who gifts Gentiles by pouring out the spirit (10:45), and who is exulted by the people (10:46). It is language about God which interprets the significance of the narrative at each key moment.
The consequence of this dramatic event is noted briefly: “they invited him to remain for some days” (10:48b). Table-fellowship with Gentiles and the breach of the food rules was considered to be the inevitable result of God’s actions (see also 11:15–18). Such hospitality continues to be one of the key markers of the church.
This blog is based on a section of my commentary on Acts in the Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible, ed. Dunn and Rogerson (Eerdmans, 2003). I have also explored the theme of the plan of God at greater depth in my doctoral research, which was published in 1993 by Cambridge University Press as The plan of God in Luke-Acts (SNTSM 76).
The Uniting Church is part of the one holy catholic and apostolic church – we see ourselves as just one part of a much larger whole. We do the things that other denominations within the church do: we gather for worship, preach the Gospel, care for the needy, witness to our faith, and connect with communities.
We have many organisations that cater specifically for pre-schoolers, school students, people with disabilities, theological students, adult learners, Indigenous people and aged and infirm people. We have chaplains in hospitals, schools, industry, and the defence forces. And we have congregations in many places across the continent.
When we worship, we feel connected with the people of God of all denominations across the globe. When we witness, we bear testimony to the faith shared by Christians of many varieties. When we reach out in service, we act in solidarity with people of Christian faith, people of other faiths, and people of goodwill of any stripe, in our communities and across the globe.
We share in the call to be missional, universal, set apart, and unified, as God’s people together. Or in more traditional theological language, we are part of the ‘one, holy, catholic and apostolic’ church.
But we believe that we have some distinctive elements to contribute to that larger whole. Our identity as the Uniting Church in Australia is marked by ten distinctive features.
I In Ecumenical Relationship
When the Congregational, Methodist and Presbyterian churches joined together in 1977 to form the Uniting Church in Australia, they declared that this union was both in accord with the will of God, and that it was a gift of God to the people of God in Australia.
Since then, the Uniting Church has been a church which is committed to working ecumenically with other Christian denominations. That commitment is one very important aspect of our identity as a Uniting Church. We belong to the National Council of Churches in Australia and the World Council of Churches, where we co-operate with many denominations.
Nationally, we have participated in ongoing conversations with other denominations (Anglican, Lutheran, Greek Orthodox, and Roman Catholic). At the grassroots level, our ministers participate in local ministers’ associations in hundreds of towns and cities across the nation. Some Congregations share buildings with other denominations; some worship and serve together, especially in rural towns.
We are an ecumenical church.
II In Covenant with First Peoples
A very important dimension to being the church in this country is that we are a church in Covenant with the First Peoples of Australia. From its earliest years, the Uniting Church has been involved in actions which express our solidarity with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Older members will recall events at Noonkanbah Station in the Kimberley in 1980, when Uniting Church members stood in solidarity with the traditional owners, the Yungngora people, against the mining of their land.
The Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress (UAICC) was established in 1985, and a Covenant between the UAICC and the UCA was implemented in 1994. This Covenant recognises that working for reconciliation amongst people is central to the Gospel. This gives expression to our commitment to shape a destiny together.
In 2009, the Preamble to the UCA Constitution was revised to recognise the difficult history of relationships between the First Peoples and the later arrivals, as Second Peoples. In 2018, we agreed to support a Makarrata process to give a clear national voice to First Peoples, and to support a national Treaty. Our present relationship is one which seeks to ensure that we commit to the destiny together which we share as Australians. The Assembly fosters ongoing work in this area through the Walking Together as First and Second Peoples Circle.
We stand in covenant relationship with the First Peoples.
III A Multicultural Church
In the same year that the Congress was formed, the Uniting Church declared that it is a multicultural church, which rejoices in the diversity of cultures and languages which are found across Australia. The Basis of Union recognises that we share much, as Australians, with people of Asia and the Pacific. The Uniting Church has maintained strong relationships with churches from these regions, as well forging new links with churches in Africa and the Middle East.
The Statement to the Nation, issued in 1977, acknowledged that the Uniting Church seeks a unity that transcends cultural, economic and racial distinctions. Within Australia, there are at least 12 national conferences based on regional groupings and people from 193 language groups who belong to the Uniting Church.
Each Sunday, worship takes place in Uniting Churches in 26 languages from cultures beyond Australia, as well as many indigenous languages used in worship by first peoples across our church. We have learnt the importance of moving from “enjoying each other’s foods”, to conversing at a deep level about the hopes and expectations we bring from different cultural experiences. We have learnt that we need to be intercultural in our relationships.
Through UnitingWorld, we maintain partnerships with churches in Asia, the Pacific, Africa and the Middle East. We are truly a multicultural church. Through the Relations with Other Faiths Working Group and the Seeking Common Ground Circle, the Uniting Church has been active in developing relationships with other faith communities. We have had a long and fruitful Dialogue with the Jewish Community, and participate in a number of other interfaith Dialogue conversations. We are firmly committed to constructive interfaith relations.
We continue to develop as a church in deepening relationships with many cultures and faiths.
IV All the people of God
The Uniting Church is a church which values the ministry of all the people of God and seeks to order itself in accordance with the will of God. Our Basis of Union affirms that every member of the church is engaged to confess Christ crucified, and every person is gifted by the Spirit to engage in ministry in their own particular way. We are a church that values the ministry of each and every person.
Throughout the life of the Uniting Church, we have held our structures and forms of ministry accountable to ongoing scrutiny. Alongside the Ministry of the Word, to nurture and guide Congregations, we have introduced the Ministry of Deacon, to focus attention on people living on the margins. We have introduced the Ministry of Pastor to recognise the giftedness of lay people, and that sits alongside the Ministry of Lay Preacher (which we have had since 1977), and the more recent accreditation of Lay Presiders in many locations.
We have also undertaken important conversations about membership and the relationship of Baptism to Holy Communion. We now have a clear commitment to an open table when we gather for The Lord’s Supper: all who are baptised (whether adult or child, whether confirmed or not) are welcome to share at this table.
We are a church which values the ministry of all the people of God.
V Women and Men
The Basis of Union makes it very clear that we are a church which is committed to equality and mutuality of women and men in ministry. Even before 1977, the three previous denominations had ordained women to ministry. This is a very strong distinctive, especially in the Australian scene.
Since 1977, many women have stood on an equal basis alongside men, as Ministers of the Word, Deacons, Elders, Church Councillors, Lay Preachers, Lay Presiders, Chaplains, and Pastoral Carers. We value the insights and experience of women in each and every way that we seek to “be church”—as we gather to worship, as we witness to our faith, as we serve the wider community.
Both lay and ordained women have served in leadership positions across all councils of the Uniting Church, from Church Council Chairpersons to Presbytery Chairpersons, to Synod Moderators and Secretaries, to the Assembly General Secretary and President. Many couples minister together as husband and wife. Gender equality is most certainly part of our identity.
We are committed to mutuality and gender equality in every part of the church.
Another contribution that the UCA has made has been to highlight the importance, when we gather in council, of being open to the Spirit, and seeking to discern the will of God. We live this out in our councils by practising a process of consensus decision-making. The Manual for Meetings sets out the various elements that are involved in making decisions by discernment: a time of information, a time of deliberation, and a time of decision-making.
The infamous “coloured cards” are only one small part of the whole. The focus is on listening to the Spirit before we speak, and striving to find a way forward that most, if not all, people can see as the will of God for the church. This way of decision-making, which originated in the UCA, has now been adopted by the World Council of Churches and a number of its member Churches.
We are a church which deliberately seeks to discern the movement of the Spirit in our midst.
VII Professional Standards
Over the last 20 years, the Uniting Church has developed a firm commitment to strong professional standards, for Ministers as well as for lay people who exercise leadership in the church. Our commitment to professional standards emerged initially in response to the problems of sexual misconduct within the church. A whole section of the Regulations is now devoted to this.
Since 1999, all Ministers have been expected to adhere to a Code of Ethics, and this has most recently been revised to provide a Code of Ethics Ministry Practice for Ministers and a Code of Conduct for Lay Leaders. Ministers and Pastors undertake regular training in aspects of this code, in ethical ministry workshops.
Since the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, we have intensified our efforts to ensure that our churches are Safe Places, valuing everybody, honouring integrity, avoiding negative and hurtful behaviours.
We are a church which values integrity and clarity about our ethical standards.
VIII Open to explore difficult issues
Over 40 years, the Uniting Church has shown that it is a church which is prepared to engage in difficult discussions about contentious issues. Our Basis of Union commits us to learn from the insights of contemporary scientific and historical studies, and affirms that we remain open to correction by God in the way we order our life together.
In the early years of the Uniting Church, debates about Baptism were the focus of great controversy. Infant baptism had been an integral part of the worship practices of each denomination which joined the Uniting Church, but Ministers and Elders Councils were receiving regular requests for baptism by adults who had been baptised as infants but had come to a personal faith later in their lives. After debates stretching through the 1980s and 1990s, the Uniting Church has developed a clear set of protocols to cover such requests.
Another area of enduring controversy has been that of human sexuality. There is a wide diversity of opinion within society relating to such matters, and this diversity is present within the Uniting Church. Once again, from the 1980s though into the present era, lively debates regarding human sexuality have taken place in the various councils of the church. We have worked through difficult decisions about sexuality and leadership, and then about sexuality, gender, and marriage. We continue to learn, explore, and adapt.
In dealing with such issues, we have learned how to debate with respect and integrity with ongoing conversations looking to employ a “Space for Grace” process to encourage respectful, empowering, and inclusive decision-making.
We seek to be a church that engages in the difficult discussions with honesty, transparency, and hopefulness.
IX Advocating for Justice
The Uniting Church inherited from its predecessor Churches a strong commitment to advocating for justice for all. Many Uniting Church congregations and members are actively committed to serving those people who find themselves on the margins of society. This commitment was clearly articulated in the 1977 Statement to the Nation and it has been evident in many actions undertaken by Uniting Church members over the decades.
The Uniting Church has joined in common cause with other groups and organisations in society, in advocating for a welcoming attitude towards refugees; in lobbying for a fair and just system of caring for people who are experiencing poverty and homelessness; in seeking equity for workers in their workplace; and in many other issues. The Assembly Working for JusticeCircle, brings together people who are strongly committed to this avenue of ministry.
A regular stream of policy documents and public resolutions point to a clear and unbroken commitment to seeking justice for all. Each federal election, we are provided with resources that encourage us, as people of faith, to consider the implications of our votes in the life of the nation.
We are a church which is strongly committed to justice for all.
X Environmental Sustainability
In like manner, the Uniting Church has always been a church which honours the environment and supports a sustainable lifestyle. Although such matters are firmly on the radar of the public now, they have long been integral to the identity of the UCA. Once again, the 1977 Statement to the Nation flagged such commitment. A series of subsequent documents attest to the ongoing determination of the church to live responsibly, in such a way that we minimise the damage we cause to the environment in which we live.
Our partnerships with Churches in the Pacific have intensified our awareness of the negative impacts that are resulting from climate change. We know that we need to act now, to reduce the threat. Each year, we experience catastrophic consequences from more regular and more intensified “natural disasters”—fires, floods, drought, cyclones. Just as we provide pastoral support in these situations through Disaster Response Chaplains, so too we maintain advocacy with governments, urging them to set policies which will turn us away from the trajectory of yet more environmental disasters.
Locally, many Congregations and individual members of the UCA are seeking to implement practices that will reduce their carbon footprint on the planet. We know that we owe it to future generations, to live responsibly in the present.
We are a church that lives, acts, and advocates for a sustainable environmental future.
You may have some thoughts about what I have articulated above. You may have thought, “what about …?” – something that I have overlooked, that you see as important. You may have some questions about how I have described some of these elements. I encourage you to talk with others about how you respond. Together, we are the Uniting Church!
When we look back over history, and explore it in the traditional framework that we use to mark the periods of history, people of the Christian faith see a large watershed around the time of Jesus.
Traditionally, we have marked this watershed by using the letters BC and AD—Before Christ, and Anno Domino (“in the year of our Lord”). Those letters stand us in good stead, however, when we reflect on the past year. The years prior to 2020 are BC years; we consider them to be “Before COVID”.
But then, from early in 2020, and spreading rapidly across the globe through the months of that year, we experienced a major disruption. COVID interrupted familiar patterns, forcing everyone to refrain from gathering together, pressing upon us all the imperative of using technology to connect, inviting us to provide pastoral care, worship, learning opportunities, and social gatherings in the virtual space online.
The disruptions of this time were extensive, reaching widely and deeply into our familiar patterns. From late 2020, then, we have been living in the years we can mark as AD: After the Disruption. Things are different. Events have made things different. Society has learnt to function in different ways—use the check-in app, sanitise, maintain social distancing, count numbers on the space, practice good personal hygiene, stay at home if you are unwell, or vulnerable.
People in the church have also learnt to function in different ways. We check in when we arrive for worship. We gather to worship and do not sing or hug. We support the church financially by online giving, not by “passing the plate”. We participate in regular learning opportunities online, and engage with people who are geographically quite distant from one another. We continue to offer worship in hybrid ways, both in person and online.
We continue the provision of worship resources in hard copy or via email to people who are vulnerable or frail. We have adapted to having morning tea after worship, served by people wearing masks and gloves, with individually-packaged food. We may not like all of these changes, but we recognise how important they are to ensure the safety of all our people.
When the Canberra Region Presbytery met on 20 March, we heard from the Secretary of Synod, the Rev. Jane Fry, who urged us to consider the new things that are emerging out of this change. “COVID erupted into society, and the church, bringing chaos”, Jane observed, “and we know, from scripture and history, that God works best through chaos.”
So what has been taking place in this time of chaos, as we move from BC (Before COVID) to AD (Anno Domino)? What changes have we recognised to be important? What new things is God doing in our midst, as a result of the chaotic disruptions of COVID. We explored various ideas during the Presbytery meeting conversation with Jane Fry.
Traditionally, we have ensured that stipended ministry is offered in places that can afford them; the challenge, now, is for us to move to a model that places community chaplaincy in an area with significant need. Work is underway on this exact matter, as Presbytery considers how to provide grater ministry resourcing in the South Coast regions which have been impacted so greatly by the bushfires.
We noted the importance of continuing our pastoral care of ageing people who have been faithful over many decades. The Synod Secretary affirmed that, and invited such groups to consider, “what is our legacy for the future?” Rather than “keeping the lights burning until we all done”, how might ageing congregations best envisage “how do we serve as midwives to the future?”
Relating to people outside the church is another challenge, and opportunity, facing us as the Uniting Church. The dominant voice for “Christianity” in the public arena has, for some time, expressed very different perspectives on many matters, when compared with the way the Uniting Church operates in society and what we value in our communities. How do we strategise to provide a stronger voice, in our distinctive tones, into those public conversations?
How do we leverage off the many assets that we have, as church, to ensure that mission and ministry are resourced and developed? What place does the “rationalisation of property” play in this process? Whilst church properties in the ACT have, in effect, a “zero dollar value”, nevertheless we are stewards of many properties—how do they figure in the ways that we foster our core activities as the people of God?
So, lots of important and helpful questions have been raised. How do we respond to them and work through them, is the challenge for the coming time.
As we head into the future After the Disruption, I personally yearn for a church where active discipleship is the key marker of membership; grace is the benchmark of who we are when we gather in community; the heart of the Gospel is known to be justice for all, where we work towards that goal for all people; and we take seriously those fearsome words that we pray all-too-easily, “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.”
Footnote: many people will know that I have long operated with the scholarly convention to refer to “Before the Common Era” (BCE) and “Common Era” (CE), as this offers clearer respect to our Jewish brothers and sisters and avoids the sense of Christian supercessionism in our language. But, for the purposes of this reflection, I have reverted to the old BC—AD language. It seems to fit.
Now that 2020 is behind us, and 2021 lies ahead of us, we are beginning to consider how we might deal with the aftermath of the pandemic. The SARS-CoV-2 virus has spread around the globe, bringing the COVID-19 disease to millions of people—including some that we may know personally.
We have been dealing for many months now, with the lockdowns, restrictions on gatherings, inability to travel, loss of worship and fellowship times, greater vigilance with hand washing and social distancing. Coping with all of these factors requires careful attention, and patience.
One thing is for certain: life is going to be different post-COVID. For my part, I reckon that we will be pushed back to living our lives much more locally. Whilst we see the pandemic still raging in so many countries around the world, in Australia we have been fortunate to have been spared the very worst of the situation. It has felt bad, but (excepting those grieving for the loss of a loved one from COVID-19), it has been nowhere as bad as it has been for many millions of people in other countries.
For us in Australia, I would think that there will at least be regional connections that will be possible in the good times, and hard lockdowns that may come in the difficult moments. There will be minimal international travel for many more months (even years) yet, and limited interstate travel, fluctuating from time to time between “open borders”, limited travel, and “hard borders”.
We know we won’t be controlling the spread of the virus and the rate of infection until vaccinations have been rolled out; indeed, that assumes that current vaccinations will be effective against the newly-emerging variants of the virus.
So what is clear, is that nothing will “stay the same” for any real length of time. We will be shifting and shuffling week after week, for at least another year. We will just have to adjust and accept this. We have these shifts and changes in recent ones, with the Avalon and Berala clusters in Sydney, and now the Holiday Inn cluster in Melbourne.
These changes and adaptations will apply to our daily lives in society, as much as to our church lives in congregations and faith communities.
As I was thinking about this a few days ago, I started reading a newsletter from one of the NGOs that Elizabeth and I support—an organisation that works in the poorest and most needy countries of the world. It does good work: bringing fresh water supplies and sustainable “climate-smart” farming methods to local communities, developing local industries that will provide support for families, providing medical and psychological support to strengthen the mental health of communities, responding to crisis situations in countries with poor infrastructure, and (for the past year) offering guidance in appropriate COVID-safe practices.
The pandemic has hit us—and it has hit others around the world. But as we reflect on how we have been impacted, let us remember that people who are poor and vulnerable have been hardest hit by the impacts of the pandemic. Here are some key examples.
Hand hygiene. In the poorest tier of nations, 3 out of 4 people do not have immediate access to clean water and soap. How do they do their “20-second hand wash singing Happy Birthday” multiple times each day? (See the discussion by the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention at https://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/hygiene/ldc/index.html)
Job insecurity. Half of the world’s workers (1.6 billion people) rely on jobs in the informal economy. They don’t have job security with equitable pay and conditions. When the pandemic hit, many of the people saw their jobs either disrupted for a time, or closed down. (The World Bank provides statistics on this and other aspects of the global economy at https://datatopics.worldbank.org/jobs/topic/employment)
Medical services. Over 40% of all countries have fewer than 1 medical doctors per 1,000 people and fewer than 4 nurses per 1,000 people. By comparison, the figure for Australia is just over 20 doctors and 12 nurses per 1,000 people. (The data is based on World Health Organisation statistics; see https://www.who.int/data/gho/data/themes/topics/health-workforce)
Poverty. And, as a summary headline, this NGO estimates that the pandemic will mean that another 163 million people will be living in poverty by the end of this year. Add to that, the impact of the other huge and long-term crisis that we are facing—climate change—will push yet another 132 million people into poverty by the end of this decade. These are very sobering statistics.
If we really do “love our neighbour”, as Jesus commanded us to do, we will be concerned not only for the neighbour who usually sits beside us in church, and the neighbour we pass at the local shopping centre who is homeless and asking for money … but also the neighbours who are hit hard because they live in nations where poverty, violence, unemployment, and poor hygiene are rampant — neighbours for whom the past year has been even more difficult and challenging.
We can assist by supporting UnitingWorld, Act With Peace, UNICEF, UNHCR, Oxfam, TEAR Fund, Red Cross, Medicins Sans Frontièrs, or our choice of another reputable organisation that works on the ground in third world countries. It’s an integral part of being faithful followers of Jesus.
Every year at this point of the year, the last Sunday in the season of Epiphany, we read the story of Jesus on the mountain, when “his clothes became dazzling white”, and—quite amazingly—Moses and Elijah appear alongside him (Mark 9:2-8). This is a story which pierces the constraints of history, which gathers three greats of the faith together.
Alongside this story, on each of the three years in the lectionary cycle, we read a companion story from Hebrew Scripture. This year, we read a story about Elijah—the moment when he passes the mantle of his prophetic leadership to Elisha, and “ascended in a whirlwind into heaven” (1 Kings 2:1-12). This story also breaks open the constraints of how we normally see life, as the whirlwind whisks Elijah into the heavens.
Both stories are pertinent for the times we are living; both stories are relevant to the context of a global pandemic, rolling lockdowns, restrictions on social gatherings, and constraints on “life as normal” (at least as we knew it up to this point in time).
Both stories invite us to look carefully for those moments when things suddenly look different from what we were expecting. We had become so accustomed to life with no limits on travel, no constraints on gathering, shaking hands and hugging, eating together without a second thought, visiting friends and family in other suburbs, other cities, whenever we wished. All of those things have changed over the last year. Life is different. Our patterns of behaviour are different. Life looks very different.
Both stories invite us to undertake a process of discernment; to perceive how the heavenly realm is breaking into the earthly realm; to sense how the barrier between heaven and earth is opened wide. That’s the special gift of these stories at this time of the year, as this season of Epiphany draws to a close. Where is God, in what is happening to us now?
In Celtic Christian spirituality, such moments when we perceive just how different things are, are called “thin places”. The thin place offers an opportunity to glimpse a different dimension, to review the regularity of our lives, to grasp a vision of the deeper things of faith, to sense a deeper reality in the midst of the mundane.
Now, describing the onset of a global pandemic as a “thin place” is a big call. We need to be careful about how we describe an event that has resulted in millions of deaths, caused deep grief to many millions of people, stretched already over-stretched medical resources to breaking point, ensured that hundreds of millions of people will have long term enduring medical conditions well into the coming decade (and beyond), and upturned the way of life of almost every human being on the planet.
But could it be, that in this moment of challenge, overturning established patterns, reshaping familiar practices, reimagining ways of living—could it be that this was in fact a “thin place”, a moment when a force from beyond breaks into the mundane, when heavenly realities reset earthly patterns?
The stories in our readings this week invite us to consider how this might be.
The story of the Transfiguration tells of the moment that Peter, James, and John perceived Jesus in a new way. No longer did they see him as the man from Nazareth. In this moment, they see him as filled to overflowing with divine glory. He was not simply the son of Joseph; he was now the divinely-chosen, God-anointed, Beloved Son (Mark 9:7).
Jesus brings the heavenly realm right to the earthly disciples. They had the possibility, in that moment of time, to feel intensely close to the heavenly realm, to stand in the presence of God. They symbolise the desire of human beings, to reach out into the beyond, to grasp hold of what is transcendent—to get to heaven, as that is where God is (see Gen 28:10-12 and Deut 30:12; Pss 11:4, 14:2, 33:13, 53:2, 80:14, 102:19; although compare the sense of God being everywhere in Ps 139:8-12).
But how were they then to get to heaven, the perceived dwelling-place of God?
Elijah. The story of Elijah, known to these Jewish men from their religious upbringing, hearing the stories of scripture, offers one possibility. The account in 1 Kings 2 indicates that it might, indeed, be possible for a human being to go straight to heaven, to be with God. This was the experience of Elijah.
Elijah did not die; he was simply whisked up directly into heaven. He had a “get out of gaol free” card, as it were; go straight to heaven, do not pass the moment of death, go straight to heaven. If it was possible for him—could it not also be possible for us?
Elijah, on the mountain, standing beside the shining, dazzling figure of the transfigured Jesus, represents this possibility. Were the three followers of Jesus thinking about this possibility as they saw Jesus, transfigured, alongside Elijah?
Moses. Standing next to Elijah, however, was Moses. And Moses represents another, very different, way of gaining access to the presence of God. It was to Moses that the commandments of the Torah were given. It was to Moses that every tiny detail, every instruction and regulation and commandment of the Torah, was given, so that he might pass them on, in turn, to the people of Israel.
Following the way of holiness and obedience that was set forth in the Torah, was another way by which faithful people might gain access to heaven, the dwelling place of God. Obedience to the Law was the pathway, in this case.
Those who would diligently and scrupulously keep all the commandments which Moses had instructed, would find their pathway to heaven set forth with assurance. Such people would be finding heaven as their place of destiny, after they had achieved fulfilment of the laws. (Perhaps the claim of the rich man in Mark 10:17-20 reflects this kind of understanding.)
Were the three followers of Jesus thinking about this possibility as they saw Jesus, transfigured, alongside Moses? Did they envisage a pathway to heaven through their faithful obedience to all the prescriptions of Torah? After all, Jesus had explicitly affirmed those who keep the commandments as “not far from the kingdom of God” (Mark 12:28-34).
However, the larger story of Jesus, told in the various accounts created by the early evangelists, makes it clear that, for Jesus, and for those who follow him, neither of these pathways are, in fact, the way to gain access to the heavenly realm where God dwells.
Jesus. For Jesus, in contrast to Elijah, ascending into heaven in order to be with God, and Moses, advocating adherence to Torah in order to be with God, the aim is to bring the kingdom of heaven, and all that entails, into life on earth in the here and now.
“Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” ( Mart 6:10) is what Jesus is said to have instructed his followers to pray. His was a mission, not to enable his followers to ascend into heaven, but to bring down to earth, from the heavenly realm, the rule of God.
The moment of being transfigured, for Jesus, was a moment that signalled the gracious presence of God on earth, amongst the creatures of God’s creation. The transfigured Jesus, shining forth the glory of God on the mountaintop, symbolised the possibility, for his followers on the mountain, and for his followers in subsequent times and places, that they might have the glory of God shining from their lives in the here and now.
For us, today, as followers of Jesus in own time, that means that we are called into a commitment to serve others who are around us, to work for justice for those we encounter, to seek to do what is right here and now, to love our neighbours—immediate and far away—as we love ourselves and love God and God’s ways.
As we do this, we might realise that keeping the law offered in the covenant with God is integral to our discipleship; and whilst we fix our vision on the ultimate goal (heaven—the kingdom of God—the vision of God’s way—whatever we might call it), the work that we undertake in the here and now is actually the full realisation of that ultimate goal.
As the story of Jesus itself indicates, the way that Jesus took to realising the reality of heaven on earth is through submission and death. The Apostles Creed affirms that Jesus “descended to the dead; on the third day he rose again”. Jesus models the pathway of dying to self in order to rise as a new self. All of this takes place within this life, for the sake of this life.
Following Jesus. The story of the transfiguration of Jesus is surrounded by teachings which highlight this central element for his faithful followers. Immediately before ascending to the mountaintop, Jesus states that “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (8:31).
He follows this with a clear word of commission to his followers: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (8:34-35).
Soon after the transfiguration, after returning to the level plain, Jesus repeats his words, that “the Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again” (9:31), and then offers a variant of his central claim on his followers: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (9:35).
And for a third time, some time later on, Jesus declares, “we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again” (10:34-35), followed, once more, by clear instructions to his followers: “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all” (10:43-44).
This is what it means to perceive the glory of God in our midst in the transfigured Jesus, and to commit to follow him in all of life—here, now, in the present. And this story invites us to look at our present times with new eyes—to see the glory of God in our midst in unexpected and enlivening ways!
The city where I live, Canberra, has a regular annual festival. Each year, a large section of a central park is planted out with bulbs, around this time of the year. Lots of tourists come in September, joining with many of the residents of Canberra, to enjoy the festival known as Floriade.
The bulbs that have been planted grow, silently and stealthily, throughout winter, so that when spring arrives, they are fully grown plants, ready to burst into a display of spectacular colours—in time for hundreds of thousands of people to walk through, enjoying the display.
That’s not going to happen this year. The ACT Government wisely decided that it would not be sensible to plan for a large, crowded event in September—with the uncertainty that crowds of people would be able to gather, even in the outdoors.
So they have implemented Floriade Reimagined. Bulbs have been offered to community groups, to be planted at dispersed locations right around Canberra. Those bulbs are to be planted in locations that are visible from the road. Now, in September, people are able to drive around Canberra and enjoy the displays of flowers in many community locations. (See https://floriadeaustralia.com)
Alongside this, in the southern part of Canberra, there has been an annual festival in Tuggeranong, called, quite appropriately, SouthFest. This has been based around the Tuggeranong Town Centre in past years, with many stall lining the streets, and a festive atmosphere pervading the day.
But SouthFest, alongside Floriade, has also been reimagined. And that’s where the Tuggeranong Uniting Church comes into the picture. They took their annual Spring Fair, and in 2019, gave it a strong sustainability focus. This year, they once again reimagined that that spring fair would look like. And so, SpringFest was born.
Now, in September, the Tuggeranong Uniting Church is surrounded with colour, as the bulbs burst into flower.
And this church, along with the Yarralumla Uniting Church (pictured below), is on the visiting list for Floriade Reimagined.
And Tuggeranong Uniting Church, under the enthusiastic and energetic leadership of Elizabeth, along with a fine team of dedicated volunteers, has partnered with SEE-Change to have a modified, downscale (but still very much appreciated) SouthFest happening, in the grounds at Erindale. The sustainability focus of 2019 was kept and expanded in SpringFest 2020.
SEE-Change, a local sustainability group, ran a series of workshops, in the community garden and the community hall, on topics relating to sustainability: composting, worm farms, bee keeping, and reducing plastic.
Meanwhile, in and around the church auditorium, the Red Dove Pre-Loved Op Shop was selling second hand clothes, the church was offering Devonshire teas and BBQ sandwiches, the Girls Brigade were selling delicious cakes, reuseable bags to replace single use plastic bags were on sale, as was a wide range of potted plants, and there was a Beeswax stall and assorted other goods for sale.
Why, the COVID Fairy was even in attendance (ensuring that all COVID Safe precautions were being adhered to). And she brought Senator Katy Gallagher along, to open the proceedings!
Floriade has reimagined itself. SouthFest has reimagined itself. COVID-19 has been the impetus. Tuggeranong Church has reimagined how it can partner with community groups to provide an enjoyable and inviting community event.
Can the church as a whole, similarly, reinvent itself? Can we take the stimulus of the present time to move out into the future with renewed creativity, imagination, and community engagement? Can we demonstrate that we are capable of the spirit of the times—reimagination?
It has been six months since we were propelled into the new world that we are living in at this time. Restrictions on gathering, imposed because of the rapid and worrying spread of the corona virus, meant that we had to cease, with very little notice, all of our in person gatherings.
The time since then can be characterised by two important words. One word is Challenge. It has been a challenging time for many. The challenge of needing to find ways to continue worship, in different ways from what we had long been used to. The challenge of knowing that people continued to be hungry, living below the poverty line, some without a place to shelter each night—and that our usual ways of serving them needed to be drastically changed.
The challenge of not being able to meet in person for a cup of tea and a good chat, and the impact that this has on our own mental health. The challenge of being distant from family, unable to visit them, or have them visit us.
The second word that characterises this time is Innovation. In each of these areas, we have seen great examples of innovation happening, right within our own communities of faith. We have adopted online worship—by ZOOM, by Facebook, by YouTube; we have set up personal sanctuaries in our homes, and made use of worship resources prepared and delivered directly to us, whether by email or by post or by hand.
We have seen innovation in the ways that take-away meals have been prepared and distributed to those who are hungry, and how we have found the telephone and the internet to be wonderful tools to ensure that we remain in contact with all of our friends and family members.
The ways we have met the challenges and created innovative responses is clearly seen in the series of videos with people in our Presbytery that have been made for our two online Presbytery meetings this year.
Our sense, as Presbytery leaders, is that the health of our churches is strong; the commitment of our people is deep; the expertise of our ministry leadership—lay and ordained alike—is growing; and the possibilities for the future remain hopeful. Hard work, prayerful reflection, compassionate concern, and openness to exploration are the hallmarks of our Congregations.
Our Synod leadership switched into a strongly collaborative mode from the very start of this period. Weekly meetings with leaders from Presbyteries right around the Synod, and regular guidance notes which provided links to key government and health resources, were immensely helpful in the early months. The ongoing collaboration of our leadership has been of benefit to every Presbytery and every Congregation.
We have been able to maintain a community of learning amongst those who had started the Mission Shaped Ministry course last year, and a good cohort of people has just completed that course. We are encouraged, also, to see the establishment of a Community of Practice amongst people from the Inner North Congregations, and we pray that this group will share hopes, see visions, and implement plans, for a renewed witness on the inner north area of Canberra.
Of course, we are acutely aware that pandemic struck so soon after so many communities were just beginning the slow and painful task of regathering their lives after the devastation of the bushfires. People were looking to rebuild their lives and, in some cases, their homes; the pandemic struck deep into this enterprise. The pain and despair of many communities is something that we have been working together to address. It has been made more complicated by the pandemic. But it is very heartening to see how organisations, congregations, fellowship groups, and individuals have all pitched in to assist.
So, we rejoice in these signs of robust life across our Presbytery. We hope that you share our sense of confidence in what lies ahead, because of the evidence of how we have responded over the past six months.
We encourage you to pray with us for people caught in painful traumatic memories; for people offering assistance and support to those who have been impacted by fires; for communities where the road to recovery is long and slow.
Pray too for those for whom the past months have brought new experiences of feeling isolated and lonely, depressed and discouraged or brought loss and grief. Pray that the healing power of the Spirit may renew and refresh all those who are suffering in some way and reassure them that they are the beloved children of God.
We encourage you to maintain hope, to continue offering compassionate care to the people of your faith community and to your local community. We challenge you to seek new ways of sharing the Gospel, seeking to offer fresh expressions of faith to those in the places where we each live and work.
We are grateful for all the signs of faithfulness and hope in our midst, and we look forward with confidence to discovering who God is calling us to be, and what the Spirit is leading us to do, in the days ahead.
Judy McKinlay and Ross Kingham, Presbytery Co-Chairpersons
Jared Mitchell, Presbytery Deputy Chairperson
Andrew Smith and John Squires, Presbytery Ministers
We got an email from the church office last week. It said that “worship services are resuming” in our church building. There was much excitement! It has been so many months since we have been able to be in our lovely church building, with all our wonderful friends, for times of worship.
It would be great to see our friends again in person—and to share in the prayers and the singing when we all gather together—and to hear our minister in the flesh once again. It seems like it has been such a long time since we have been able to do this.
Don’t get me wrong, it has been great to hear her speak each week online; but there is nothing quite like being there, in person, with all the others in the building, to soak up the atmosphere. It’s like a weekly “hit” that keeps me going for the next week. It’s not the same, online. Not quite the same vibe, the same buzz. Ah well …
Anyway, after cheering was heard throughout the household about this great news, we read on through the rest of the email. “Back to normal”, we had thought. “Back to what we used to do.” Hmmm. Maybe—maybe not.
It seems that worship will not be quite like it used to be. No single service, for a start. There are going to be three services each Sunday morning, staggered by 45 minutes. So we need to book in advance for the one we want. 8:30 for the early birds. 9:15 for those who want the regular time slot. And 10:00am for those willing to have a slow start. OK, not a bad idea. But we won’t all be together. That’s a bit sad.
And each service will be just 30 minutes long. That feels like a rip-off. What, not a full hour? This will take some adjusting to get used to, I reckon. Anyway, we registered for the 9:15 slot. Trying to get back, as much as possible, to “normal”. It will be great to be there, back in church!
Except then another email came back, saying that the 9:15 service was already full. How could that be? Our church easily seats over 200 people (well, if you make sure you fill up each pew and set out some extra seats down the aisles.)
Seems that we can’t have more than 30 people in the building at any one time. There’s talk about 4 square metres and 1.5 metres apart and social distancing and so on. You know, the stuff that the PM and his chief honcho medical advisor guy have been talking about. In church. In our church. Who would have thought it?
So we are now going to the 8:30am service. Harumph. But better than waiting until 10am, I guess.
And the email also said, please arrive 10 minutes before the scheduled time, and queue outside the east door. What is that? I have been going to this church for years now, and have always used the south door, the one that opens right onto the street. Something about not confusing those arriving with those leaving, making them use separate doors. Oh well, if that’s what it takes ….
And, then, the email said, when you get the the east door, you will be allocated seat numbers, and you will need to go directly to those seats—do not stop to talk to anyone else, do not mill about in the foyer. And that we will find that the seats are arranged in a different way inside, so we will not be able to sit in our usual spot. Wow! Now that will be quite different! Sitting in a different place! That will be hard. And I can’t imagine church without all the catching up with people beforehand. That’s a bit of a downer, really.
And the email also said, “no singing”. Seriously: “no singing”! How will church be church, if we can’t all sing together? It is going to be one weird experience, I reckon, in that building, all sitting apart from one another, not singing—not even hugging our friends when we see them, no chance to say hello. It will be weird.
And then, the last straw: “when the service ends, please remain in your seats until you are asked to leave, then move straight to the south door to exit the building”. To keep people entering separate from people departing. How anti-social is that!
And there is more: “Please do not congregate on the footpath, or in the car park, after the worship service. Please leave the site as quickly as possible.” No morning cuppa. No chat with friends in our small group. No hanging around in the kitchen to scab extra goodies for the week. No socialising. None at all!
It won’t be church, will it? Not really church. I fear that we are in for a rather sterile experience. And we will have to use the hand sanitisers when we come in, and when we go out. Aargh! I hate the smell of that stuff! But no hand sanitising, no entry permitted, we are told. So there’s no question about it. That’s just the way of things everywhere, these days.
So, off we go. In to church. Then back out again. Will it be worth it? We’ll give it one go. And then, if it is not any good—back to looking at services online, I guess. Ah well. Such is life.
(… the views expressed in this piece come from a fictional character, solely the product of my imagination …)
“Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you.” So the second (extant) letter to the Corinthians ends (2 Cor 13:11-12).
“Greet one another with a holy kiss” is also how Paul instructs the Corinthians in his first letter (1 Cor 6:20), as well as the Thessalonians (1 Thess 5:26) and the Romans (Rom 16:16). (The same instruction appears at 1 Peter 5:14). These five verses all indicate that first century worship was not just sitting formally and watching what went on at the front; it was interactive, engaging, personal.
What do we make of this instruction to kiss one another? Many people in churches that I know have interpreted “holy kiss” to mean “warm handshake”—so the “passing of the peace” has been shaking hands with as many people as possible in the Congregation. In some smaller gatherings, even, making sure that you shake hands with everybody present!
Well, not any longer. No more handshakes—not in church, not at the door after the service, not anywhere in society. COVID-19 has put paid to shaking hands for quite some time yet.
Other people have take a more literalist line of interpretation. A kiss means, well, a kiss! If not a lip-to-lip kiss, then, at least, a lip-to-cheek kiss. Yes, I have been in church gatherings where my hairy unshaven cheeks have been kissed. And even, when my hairy-encircled lips have planted a kiss on the cheek of another worshipper. I confess.
But not any longer. No more person-to-person contact; especially not any contact that involves the lips! COVID-19 has put paid to the socially-approved form of public kiss, for quite some time yet—if not forever.
One of my colleagues, Sarah Agnew, suggests that the best way to translate the reference to a “holy kiss” in these five verses, is by referring to a “holy embrace”. That understanding is premised on the fact that the Greek word which is translated as “greet” in these texts, contains elements of making personal contact which are both interpersonal (greetings) and also physical (the word can be used to signify hugging or embracing). See https://www.academia.edu/28243257/A_call_to_enact_relationships_of_mutual_embrace_Romans_16_in_performance
Given that, then, on each of the sixteen times that Paul instructs for greetings to be given to named individuals in Romans 16, he may well be saying something like, “give them a hug from me”. Such relationships were personal and intimate.
This rendering takes us to the heart of community—and to the centre of our practices during the current situation with COVID-19. The ancient practice clearly envisaged that physical contact was involved. The current situation proscribes any form of physical contact. It is just too risky.
Physical contact, in the intimacy of either a kiss (on the cheek) or an embrace (with the upper body), is now, we are told, not advisable, given the way that infectious diseases such as COVID-19 (or, indeed, the common cold—which is itself a form of a coronavirus) are spread.
How do we reconcile these current guidelines with the scriptural injunctions? Do we ignore current guidelines (and keep on meeting together) because “the Bible says…” ? Or, do we turn away from strict biblical teaching (and stop our gatherings), because of contemporary concerns about the pandemic?
Of course, we do not put our heads in the sand. We acknowledge the sense in the guidelines being proclaimed across society. We listen to those with expertise in infectious diseases and medicine. We refrain from physical contact. No kissing. No hugging. No handshakes. We look for alternatives to signify that we are greeting one another.
We aren’t yet meeting in person for worship. It will be some time before most Congregations are able to do this. But when we eventually do begin to worship in person, and it comes time to pass the peace, we might face the other person, place our right hand over our own heart, and say, “peace be with you”. That avoids direct physical contact, but incorporates a direct visual interaction.
Another option would be to clasp our hands together and place them in front of our chest, in the “praying position”, and then, as we face each other, bow in greeting.
A third option—one perhaps only utilised in a very distinctive liturgical setting—could be to “bump elbows”, using the recommended social alternative to “shaking hands”. But that option would need to be employed with care! And it may not be to everybody’s liking, to be sure.
Which brings me to singing. “Make a joyful noise to the Lord!”, the psalmist instructs us (Psalms 66:1, 95:1-2, 98:4, 6, 100:1). Sing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs”, an early Christian writer exhorts (Col 3:16). “Be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ”, another letter writer directs (Eph 5:18-20).
So how do we interpret these passages? Do we adopt the same literalist approach—the Bible says we must worship, the Bible says we must song, so that’s what we must do! (Yes, I have heard this said, even in current times.) That is not really a satisfactory approach.
Of course, the same dilemma confronts us here. Just as direct physical contact is not advised in the current pandemic situation, so singing in a group of people is also deemed to be out of order, in the understanding of health professional and medical advisors.
Research clearly indicates that singing contributes to the spread of infectious diseases. Singing spreads droplets in aerosols which are expelled from a person’s mouth as they sing. They can carry the virus a significant distance and remain suspended in the air for some time after they have been expelled from a person’s mouth. A cloth mask is unlikely to be enough to provide protection as people sing together. This article canvasses the issues:
So in the case of singing, as with physical touch, we need reinterpret our scripture in keeping with what we know about the spread of infectious diseases. We might have to be content with listening to a recording or watching a video of a favourite hymn or song being sung. One suggestion I have seen is to invite people to listen, then to share with a couple of other people what you have heard, what has connected with you, as you listen.
Another suggestion is to invite people to tap into their own wells of creativity, and after listening to the song, write or draw their own response. That could be in the form of a prayer, a modern psalm, an impressionistic artwork, a poem, a sketch drawing. The possibilities are endless.
There’s another central aspect of worship that will need significant attention and careful consideration in the time ahead. Before we actually start meeting in person for worship, a decision will need to be made, in each local community of faith, with regard to holy communion.
We know that any action that involves direct physical contact is risky. We know that multiple touching of the same object is highly risky—it provides many more opportunities for a virus (any virus, not just COVID-19) to be passed from person to person. When we regather for worship, we will not be “passing the offering plate around”; it is too risky.
In the same way, we need to,consider carefully what we do when it comes to offering the bread, passing a plate of bread, drinking from the cup, or passing the small cups.
That’s a matter for future consideration. If anyone has any clear ideas or knows of useful guidelines in this regard, I would love to hear from you!
It has been many months since we have been able to “live as normal”. For some people, the extended period of drought was already providing challenging circumstances last year. Then, for many people, the bushfires came tearing into their lives six months ago. Their lives were turned upside down and that turmoil has continued. Life has not been the same since then.
We watched as the fires spread across many of the regions in our Presbytery, and even threatened the southern suburbs of Canberra. Many, many people have been impacted—in the lives lost, in the destruction of homes and properties, in the fears and anxieties that grew as the fires spread, in the disruptions to the lives and livelihoods of many communities, and as the memories of past experiences swam back into view.
Then we all experienced the horror of watching the early reports of people around the world who were suffering, and some dying, from a new, previously unknown virus. In swift succession, we saw the WHO declare a global pandemic, the death rates in a number of countries rise exponentially, the first cases of death from COVID-19 in our own country, and then our Government issuing orders restricting gatherings.
We have not been able to live “life as normal” during these months of restrictions on gathering. It has been a time of change, and challenge. Many people have learnt new skills, as we began to realise the possibilities that ZOOM, YouTube, Facebook, WhatsApp, and other online platforms can provide. Many congregations began gathering-apart through one of these means. At the same time, we have continued to worship and care for one another.
Many of us have lamented the loss of face-to-face meetings. We have not been able to have coffee and catch up with friends, or family. We have not been able to go to our favourite cafes, museums or picnic spots. We have not been able to visit those whose mobility restricts them to their homes or rooms and we have not been able to gather together on Sunday morning, to worship.
It is now clear that the early movement to impose restrictions right across society has helped Australia to have fewer deaths in the pandemic. We are certainly saddened by the deaths that have taken place, and aware of the spread of suffering that has been experienced by those who have had their health impacted significantly because of COVID-19. We are relieved that there has not been more deaths, that we did “flatten the curve”, and that we have “slowed the spread” of the virus.
It is also clear that the restrictions of past weeks have had a heavy economic impact—on individuals and small businesses which have lost their income, as well as on the overall economy of our country. It is clear that political leadership wishes to address this matter, and is doing so by easing restrictions, in a staged process. We need to be mindful of what is now permitted—and what still remains restricted.
It is also clear that this easing of restrictions has kindled flames of hope amongst many people—hope that life can “get back to normal”, hope that “life will be easier”, hope that we can “go back to church”. Every one of us shares those hopes, to a greater of lesser degree. And yet, we know, deep within our hearts, that life will not soon be “back to normal”. Things have changed, and that’s the way they will stay, for some length of time yet.
With regard to the last of these hopes—to “go back to church”—there are some important factors for us to consider. It is not just a matter of sending out the emails, ringing up the folks, opening up the doors, and welcoming people back into the church building. Before we can do that, there will be planning and preparation—and prayerful reflection—that needs to take place.
Leaders of our church, from across every Presbytery, and in the Synod, have been meeting each week for the past ten weeks. This week, the leadership group approved a set of resources which have been prepared to assist each Church Council, as they discuss, plan, and prepare to resume church activities on church property.
Those resources are detailed, comprehensive, and carefully conceived. They will help each of our Church Councils to develop a set of COVID Safety Plans, one for each activity taking place in our church. Together, these Safety Plans will provide us with a COVID Safe Roadmap to re-gathering.
We encourage Church Councils to begin by reading through this webpage and discussing together the questions that are posed here. After this, Church Councils can then begin to develop specific COVID Safety Plans, one for each activity taking place in their church property.
We encourage you to go to the website and read these resources. They are comprehensive, so this will take time. Church Councils will need to take that time to give careful consideration to the responsibilities that they have. We need to ensure that we do not rush back into holding activities in our church buildings, before we are certain that we have done all the planning that is required.
We also need to take care to ensure that in all our planning, we prioritise the needs of those who are vulnerable—Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, those with chronic medical conditions, people with impaired immune systems, and people aged over 70. Their health and safety needs to be the first consideration in any decision to commence worship gatherings in person.
We cannot simply assume that it would be wise for all of these people (including our Ministers and Pastors) to “come to church” when we start holding worship in person once more. In fact, it most likely is wise that they do not join with those who will be gathering in the church building. We need to plan and prepare with this in mind.
As we move along the path of stages taking society forward, let us be patient and compassionate. We need to be compassionate to one another, ensuring that when we start to gather again in person, all precautions have been taken, and the risks have been minimised as much as we can.
We need, especially, to be compassionate towards those whose vulnerabilities mean that they remain at home, waiting still for that safe place for gathering in church to come. They will need our particular care and attention. This is a central calling for us, as a church, at this time. We need to attend, today and in the months to come, to the hard work that will be required, to ensure that all of our buildings and activities are safe, for everyone who attends.
Further still, we are to be mindful of those who may have begun to make connections with our Congregations through this time of meeting and worshipping differently online, or by other means. We want the arrangements to which we now move also to be inclusive of them and their needs.
And let us be patient with each other; may our frustrations fall away, our anxieties dissipate, as we wait, pray, and prepare. As Daniel Mossfield recently wrote to his Congregation:
“In a culture where people are forced to rush back to work, and potentially risk their lives due to economic hardship, we the church dare to claim there is a different way the world could be. We dare to believe that our society can and must look after all its members in the coming weeks and months, because we believe the value of each of us does not rest in how much we earn but in the fact that we are all children of God. We believe not gathering yet is the very call of God upon our lives: to witness to the patience of the Gospel.”
Please be assured of ongoing prayers from each of us, as we all work our way through the challenges and opportunities of this time, and as we pray and plan for the future that we hope for, as Congregations, as a Presbytery, and as part of the whole people of God.
Judy McKinlay, Presbytery Co-Chairperson
Jared Mitchell, Presbytery Deputy Chairperson
Andrew Smith, Presbytery Minister—Congregation Futures