Constantly devoting themselves to prayer (Acts 1; Easter 7A)

During the season of Easter, we have been hearing stories from the book of Acts, with highlights this year with Peter in Jerusalem (Acts 2), Stephen in Jerusalem (Acts 7), and then Paul in Athens (Acts 17). This coming Sunday, the lectionary takes us back to the opening chapter of Acts (1:6-14), most likely in order to prepare for the reading that we will have the following week, on Pentecost Sunday (2:1-21). Here we encounter a community that was, as the NRSV translates, “constantly devoting themselves to prayer”.

This Sunday, the Seventh Sunday in Easter, for the First Reading the lectionary offers us a passage from Acts (1:6–14) which includes the story of the ascension of Jesus (1:6–11) and an insight into that early community, gathered in Jerusalem (1:12–14). This sets the scene for recounting various scenes from the life of the community in Jerusalem, where the earliest followers of Jesus establish a pattern of faithful living through their common life, their public witness, and their persistent adherence to their Jewish traditions. The whole section is located entirely within Jerusalem (1:4,8,12; 2:5; 4:5; 5:16; 6:7; 8:1).

Ten days separate the ascension of Jesus (forty days after Passover, 1:3) from the coming of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost (2:1, fifty days after Passover). Only two things are told of these ten days; already the process of selectivity which shaped Luke’s Gospel can be seen in his second volume.

In the previous blog, I noted that the departure of Jesus by means of his ascension into heaven is actually the moment when Jesus charges his followers to be engaged in mission. The departure of Jesus heralds the start of the church. The (physical) absence of the Saviour brings in the impetus for engaging wholeheartedly with the world which he has (physically) left. In this blog, my focus is on how that community of followers begins to prepare for that enterprise.

Thus, we learn only that the community had gathered on the day of ascension (1:12–14) and that at some stage in these days a replacement was found for Judas Iscariot (1:15–26). The material relating to Judas is omitted from the lectionary offering this year (it appears in Year B); you can read my take on this passage at

The list of those meeting in the upper room of the house in Jerusalem includes both eleven of the twelve already identified (Luke 6:14–16) as well as “certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers” (Acts 1:14). That is consistent with the notes of women who followed Jesus in Galilee (Luke 8:1–3; 23:27, 49) as well as the presence of his brothers (Luke 8:19–21). The community which met together “constantly devoting themselves to prayer” was a gender-inclusive group.

Luke uses a hugely significant Greek word here; the word homothumadon. This is a word used only 12 times in the New Testament, with most of those occurrences in the Book of Acts, and one in Romans. Luke uses it to help us understand the uniqueness of the Christian community. It is most often translated as “all together”.

Luke initially tells of how “they were all together in the upper room” (1:12), forty days after the resurrection of Jesus—the day when Jesus ascended into heaven. Ten days later, they were all together once again, in the precincts of the Temple (2:1), along with devout Jews from all the nations surrounding Israel (2:9–11).

Then in the days following, as “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (2:42), they continued to be all together; “they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God” (2:46).

And still later, the community of believers came together to welcome Peter and John, after their hearing before the authorities, and “they raised their voice to God all together in prayer” (4:24). And then again, some days later, “they were all together in Solomon’s porch” in the Temple precinct (5:12). Gathering together, meeting in unity, was a key characteristic of the early community of Jesus followers.

As the story continues, Phillip travelled north out of Judea into the region of Samaria, where he was preaching to the Samaritans. Here, Luke comments: “the people were all together listening to those things which Philip spoke” (8:6).

Then, some time later, after Saul had his Damascus Road experience and Peter had his vision of all foods being declared clean, after Paul and Silas and Barnabas had been travelling amongst the Gentiles sharing the good news, we read that there was a gathering of church leaders in Jerusalem, who conferred together, “the apostles and the elders, with the consent of the whole church, being assembled together as one, decided to choose … representatives and send them to you, along with our beloved Barnabas and Paul” (15:22,25).

So the point is, with each step along the way, this little community of assorted disciples, was all together … or, of one accord, in another translation.

In the early chapters of Acts, as we have noted, we are at a very significant point of transition. Luke is clearly marking the end of one phase and the beginning of another. The Jesus part of Luke’s story has come to an end. But it is the beginning of another story—the story of the church.

Homothumadon is a compound of two words, homo meaning “in unison” and thumos meaning “temperament, emotion of the mind, the principle of life, feeling and thought.” One scholar writes that there is a musical sense to this word, where it suggests notes being brought into harmony together, under the masterful hand of the conductor. The role of the conductor is to ensure that flutes and cellos, drums and violas, trumpets and clarinets, are all making their distinctive contribution to the end result—the piece of music being performed for the audience to enjoy.

Perhaps another appropriate image, today, might be of the way that the artist sets out a palette of colours to be used in painting, and as the creative activity gets underway, those various shades and hues and colours are mixed together in such a way as to produce an intricate, complex, and aesthetically pleasing end result: a work of art.

That is how Christian community is to function. That is what we are to be, as the people of God in the place where we gather. Homothumadon denotes the unity of a group who have the same passion, who share the one persuasion, who are of the same mind, of one accord, with one purpose.

Homothumadon suggests both a harmony of feelings as well as singleness of purpose. However, while homothumadon refers to a group acting as one, it does not mean lack of diversity. It means cooperation in the midst of diversity.

The word first appears in Greek literature from 500 years before the time of Jesus (in the plays of the dramatist Aristophanes, the treatises of the philosopher Plato, the oratory of the general Demosthenes) and was used in the political sphere to describe the visible, inner unity of a group which drew together when facing a common duty or danger. The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology emphasises that “the unanimity is not based on common personal feelings but on a cause greater than the individual”.

In a sermon I gave on this passage, I noted that believers today stand with Peter and the disciples and the women and the brothers of Jesus in a liminal place, a place on the edge. We are leaving behind the old, reaching out to the new. The dramatic events of Pentecost, that we will recall in a week’s time, invite us to move to the future, and to change ourselves in a renewed commitment to our faith and our mission.

These words from the book of Acts challenge us not to simply continue our present practices and beliefs unchanged, but to hear a new message and a new way of being. We are being asked to change ourselves, to let go of what we find reassuring, and step out in faith into the chaos represented by the Spirit of God. We are being asked to be all together, to ‘act of one spirit’, to unite for the common good. May we be up to the challenge!


See also

You in me and I in you: the Johannine interrelationship of Father, Son, and disciples (John 14; Easter 6A)

The fourteenth chapter of John’s Gospel contains some lines spoken by Jesus that are widely known in today’s society—courtesy of the fact that they appear in many of the funeral services that are conducted each week. For people with a distant relationship with the Christian faith (as in, “I believe in God, but I don’t go to church”), this chapter is often the go-to when faced with the option of having a reading from the Bible in the funeral service of a recently-deceased relative.

“In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places” (John 14:2, in last week’s lectionary Gospel passage for the Fifth Sunday in Easter) often appears, as this is a comforting statement for people worrying about what the afterlife will be like. Or “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you” (14:18, in this week’s lectionary Gospel offering for the Sixth Sunday in Easter), as a further note of reassurance about what lies ahead.

Or, indeed, “peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid” (14:27, in the lectionary Gospel for the Sixth Sunday in Easter in Year C), as a comforting affirmation for mourners to hear at the time of parting. All quite appropriate and pastorally helpful.

The Gospel passage for this Sunday, however, contains more than this note of reassurance. It also offers one of the rare references, in this fourth Gospel, to the Holy Spirit, here identified as “another Advocate … the Spirit of truth” (14:16–17). The word translated by the NRSV as Advocate appears here, and at John 14:26; 15:26; 16:7—but nowhere else in this Gospel, nor indeed does it feature in any other canonical Gospel.

The word used is a Greek word that is capable of various English translations: Advocate, Counsellor, Helper, Comforter, or Friend; or it can simply be transliterated, as the New Jerusalem Bible does, as Paraclete. See my explorations of this word at

As well as this relatively rare Johannine reference to the Spirit, this Gospel passage has Jesus speak words that are characteristic of how the unknown author of the book of signs understands the relationship of Jesus, the Son, to the Father: “I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you” (14:20). These words express the mystical relationship of mutual in dwelling that characterises the way that this Gospel depicts the Father—Son relationship: I in him, you in me, I in you.

“If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me; but if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father”, says Jesus, during an extended debate in Jerusalem (10:37–38), provoking the Jewish authorities to attempt to arrest him.

In the conflict that is reported throughout chapters 8–11, Jesus debates these Jewish authorities with quite some vehemence. At the end of his disputation, he makes a bold assertion: “The Father and I are one” (10:30). The mutual indwelling of Father and Son has merged into an essential unity of being, a complete coherence of identity—at least, in the words of the Jesus we encounter in this Gospel. (It is quite different in the Synoptic Gospels.)

Wayne Meeks (in his classic article, “The Man from Heaven in Johannine Sectarianism”, JBL 91 (1972) 44–72) notes that the claims made about Jesus in the fourth Gospel function as reinforcements of the sectarian identity of the community. As this community had come into existence because of the claims that it had made about Jesus, so the reinforcement of the life of the new community took place, to a large degree, through the strengthening and refining of its initial claim concerning Jesus. What is said about Jesus can also be said about his followers.

Claims made about Jesus, the Messiah (Christ) thus function as markers of the emerging self–identity of the new community, over against the inadequate understandings of Jesus which continue to be held in the old community (the synagogue), still under the sway of the Pharisees. See

Some time after the conflict that took place in Jerusalem, Jesus responds to a request from Philip to “show us the Father” (14:8), saying, “Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me” (14:10–11).

This mutual indwelling is reaffirmed in the words that Jesus prays before his arrest: “you, Father are in me and I am in you” (17:21). In that prayer, he goes on to extend the scope of his mutual in dwelling; he dwells, not only in the Father, but also in his disciples, and they dwell in him. “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me … [may they] be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one” (17:21–23).

The mutual indwelling of the Son with the disciples is developed particularly in the teachings that Jesus gives concerning the vine: “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches.” (15:4–5).

The vine, of course, was a standard image for Israel (Ps 80:8–10; Jos 10:1) featuring in this way in assorted prophetic parables (Isa 5:1–7; Jer 2:21; 8:13; Ezek 15:1–8; 17:3–19; 18:10–14). In developing this parabolic image, Jesus applies it to his followers: “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” (John 15:5–7).

The sense of “abiding in” is a mysterious inner connection that binds followers to their master; but because that master has likewise been bound with the Father, the intimacy of connection between Father, Son, and disciples is clear. Thus, “you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you” (14:20), as we hear this coming Sunday. Those who are linked inextricably with the Son are linked through his intimate connection with the Father. Father, Son, and Disciples: the Johannine version of the trinity!

On my view of the way that this three-part unity is developed in John’s Gospel, see more detail at

The end of the Assembly of Confessing Congregations and, hopefully, their aggressive apologetic antagonism

Another step in the story of evangelical fundamentalism in the Uniting Church has come to a close. The Assembly of Confessing Congregations (ACC) has recently decided to close. It brings to an end a long process of various evangelical organisations within the life of the Uniting Church which have attempted to “correct” the theology and practice of the Uniting Church, since it was established in 1977. They said they were evangelical; I heard little of the Gospel in their words and saw only dogmatic fundamentalism in what they did.

The ACC has existed as an entity within the UCA since 2006. It took its name from the Confessing Church that formed in Nazi Germany in the 1930s—a name that has also been adopted by other conservative groups around the world, staking their claim for “the true Gospel”. Of course, looking back to the 1930s and 1940s, we can see that the German Confessing Church in Hitler’s Germany did, indeed, hold fast to the principles of the Gospel. For other movements that later took that name, making their stand over other issues does not appear to be as clear cut. At least, that is my take on them.

The ACC is the child of the Reforming Alliance (RA), which had been formed in 2003—the RA was a relatively short-lived entity, as it soon morphed into the ACC in 2006. RA itself was a child of the Evangelical Members of the Uniting Church (EMU), making the ACC the grandchild of EMU. EMU had been formed early in the life of the Uniting Church.

Each of these conservative splinter groups sought to enforce their narrow and retrograde understanding of matters pertaining particularly to sexuality on the whole UCA—with persistent, and increasing, failure. They each, in turn, failed in that enterprise.

The proponents of the conservative theological perspective articulated by these splinter organisations buttressed their claims with a particular way of reading scripture, and with a particular mode of theological argumentation that slots well into the field called Apologetics. That’s the name given to a way of arguing that sets out a collection of beliefs that are held by a certain group and advocates that this cluster of beliefs represents “right doctrine”, “the true faith”, “what Bible-believing Christians hold to”, or some other catchphrase that revolves around being right.

Apologetics at its best the craft of arguing your case, putting forward your point of view, in a way that engages constructively with the listener. It can be done in an irenic and reasoned way. But the way the ACC and its precursors argued was anything but irenic and reasoned. The implication from much of what they said has been that those who hold different viewpoints to the one they are proposing are just plain wrong. It’s a style of speaking and writing that often, in these kinds of situations, takes on a hard edge—moving from assertions about beliefs, to a much more aggressive manner of apologetic argumentation. We can see that throughout the years that these groups were in existence.


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 newly-formed Uniting Church. Over time, the SA group grew with branches formed in other Synods, and then a national organisation emerged.

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 to engage with members of my own parish, as well as members of other nearby UCA congregations, who held to that retrograde view and argued that the UCA was doing the wrong thing by ordaining women. They argued apologetically against me, and others. I think their apologetics were misguided.

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 have continued to experience discrimination and marginalisation into the 21st century. I have both heard from others, and witnessed for myself, some horror stories, unfortunately.

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. It’s almost fundamentalist, I think.

For a summary of the doctrinal position taken by EMU, see


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

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. Its apologetic line was to advocate a conservative, perhaps even fundamentalist, approach to scripture, which although it had been the dominant paradigm in some denominations, had never been the way that the UCA had approached biblical interpretation.

The push by RA to have a ban placed on ordaining candidates who expressed an attraction to people of the same gender, whether or not they were in an active relationship of not, has failed spectacularly—there are now scores of ordained people who live in same gender relationships and, since 2019, have been married to a person of the same gender.

For a summary of the doctrinal position taken by the Reforming Alliance, see

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 apologetic took on an angry, aggressive tone. 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.


After the 11th Assembly in 2006, a special summit of the remnants of EMU and the relatively new Reforming Alliance met, to establish a new organisation, the Assembly of Confessing Congregations (ACC) within the Uniting Church. The marriage was purely on the basis of sex—or, at least, on a common negative view of sexuality and a shared desire to combat anything that was perceived to be accepting of same-gender attracted people in ministry, and accepting also of same-gender relationships.

The battle waged by the ACC has continued into the present time. The appologetic rhetoric has continued, and intensified, as the obvious lack of impact in the strategy became more evident. The focus became narrower and narrower; more discriminatory, more homophobic. The furious attempts to generate guilt and build opposition was magnified, but to no avail. The move,ent began to dwindle. Meanwhile, the Uniting Church has continued on the path it has set years ago: a path of welcome and inclusion, and the valuing of all people.

So, what we have seen in recent years is playing out the four decades of the UCA where disenchanted conservative evangelical pietistic fundamentalists 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 the last few years, the ACC has swerved even more to the hard right; it spoke 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

and also in a statement expressing its hard line about sexuality, at


It has only been in recent days that the ACC has “seen the light” and realised that continuing this battle is futile. An attempt earlier this year (2023) to negotiate a way for ACC congregations to leave the Uniting Church, but maintain the use of the property they inhabited and continue to use the funds they had accumulated, got nowhere.

Because the Uniting Church was set up with a structure in which the property is legally owned by the legal entity, the UCA Property Trust, established by law in each state and territory, no local congregation has legal ownership of their property. Each congregation enjoys “beneficial stewardship” of the property—they can use it, and look after it, but they do not own it in the strict legal sense. That has been the case for all of the 46 years during which the Uniting Church has been in existence.

So, after the ACC pitch for an amenable parting of the ways got nowhere—and after some key leaders of the ACC had their recognition as Uniting Church Ministers removed—the ACC national executive saw the writing on the wall, prepared a proposal to close the organisation, and then last week the national membership of the ACC voted to close.

A recent group of ACC leaders

It has been a sad and sorry saga; not because we have come to a sad end result (on the contrary!), but because of the turmoil caused and the damage inflicted by rabid members of the ACC and their predecessors over the last four decades. The constant badgering of councils of the church to address matters which they saw as of primary importance—but which did not figure in most people’s view as warranting that amount of attention—has been frustrating, annoying, and counter-productive. The Gospel has actually been hindered by these tactics.

The regular antagonism, the growing negativity in rhetoric, and the incidences of specific vitriolic attacks on individuals within the church—undertaken by members of the ACC and their predecessors, and targeted largely at gay, lesbian, and transgender people—has been utterly shameful. I don’t know how many times I have heard people from within the LGBTIQA+ community recount how terribly they have been treated within church circles—including, but not limited to, the Uniting Church. And as far as I can tell, any ACC leader who was called to account for such behaviour failed to acknowledge any remorse, or show any compassion over such behaviour.

The regular response I have heard and read is that they are “standing up for the Gospel”, “declaring the truth to an apostate church”, and suchlike. There is no compassion, no empathy, no understanding—simply an aggressive prosecution of a rigid dogmatic line. I know this to be the case across the board; I know it especially since Elizabeth and I have each been targeted by a rogue ACC member, who is completely without understanding and completely without compassion in the way he goes about things. I don’t think he is an exception; I have heard and seen other instances of the same behaviour.

It is a well-known fact that members of the LGBTIQA+ community are much more likely to have suicidal ideation and at times to act on that, and also to develop other negative coping mechanisms that impinge upon their mental and physical health—simply because of the way that they are treated, the terrible negative comments and brutal attacks that they have to endure, simply because of who they are. That is completely unacceptable. The words and deeds of the ACC have fed into this dynamic; ACC leaders have fostered this negativity, persecution, and even irrational hatred. It is completely unChristian.

So that is why this has been a sad and sorry saga. I rejoice at the conclusion of the ACC. I lament that it did not come years early. I am sad that there was ever felt a need to create EMU, or RA, or ACC. I rejoice that the Uniting Church is committed to providing safe spaces for members of the LGBTIQA+ community, just as much as for straight people. We are all welcome, all included, all valued, and all honoured for being faithful followers of Jesus, across a wonderfully varied spectrum of identities.


Today is a good day to reflect on these matters. Today is the Trans Day of Visibility—an annual international celebration of trans pride and awareness, recognising trans- and gender-diverse experiences and achievements. Gender diverse people right around Australia gather on this day to share stories, engaged in conversations, and attend trans-focusses events.

Trans Day of Visibility was started by activist Rachel Crandall in 2009 as a reaction to the lack of recognition of trans people, noting that the only well known gender-diversity centered day at that time was the Trans Day of Mourning, a day of mourning, on 20 November. So the j was created as a counterpoint to this; a day to acknowledge and celebrate living members of the transgender community. International Transgender Day of Visibility has been held on March 31 ever since.

In our current context in society, when trans people are the object of vitriolic verbal abuse as well as physical assault—simply for identifying as transgender—it is important for people of goodwill to speak out in support of trans people. Undergoing that journey in your life is a significant and challenging process; adding verbal and physical negativity on top of the challenges of the process is most unfair.

I have been blessed in recent years to get to know a number of trans people personally. In each case, they are people of integrity, who have quite a story to tell, who are committed to expressing in public “who they feel they really are, deep down”. It’s a journey and a commitment that I feel I have no right to criticise—I feel I should only be honouring them for their chosen pathway in life. Indeed, being true to yourself has been a virtue since the classical period of Greece and Rome, millennia ago.

We should honour and value those people in our midst who, facing a large challenge, knowing that they are walking into the active dislike and fear that other people have, still choose to walk the way of absolute inner integrity and complete honesty. That’s what this day offers us: we see trans people, we hear them, we honour them. They are valued.


My previous posts on the various evangelical/fundamentalist groups in the UCA are at

See also my post on the United Methodist Church at

For the various affirmations that the Assembly has made that led the church to agree to the marriage of people of the same gender, see

See also

Gather—Dream—Amplify: World Pride 2023

World Pride 2023 is taking place in Sydney at the moment. It started on 17 February and runs through to 5 March, with a concentration of Pride-related events in Sydney, including a fine Pride Concert last night and the annual Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade that is taking place later today, Saturday 25 February. This is the first time that World Pride has taken place in the southern hemisphere.

The theme for World Pride 2023 is Gather—Dream—Amplify. The website describes the event as “A time to listen deeply, learn, take action, protest and party … A time to dream. Imagine the future we want and demand it … A time to step aside, making sure there is an abundance of space for everyone. New voices. New dreams. A time for new perspectives and possibilities.” It is a positive, optimistic, affirmation.

World Pride has been held since 2000, when it took place in Rome. It was next held six years later, in Jerusalem (2006), and then a further six years later, in London (2012). Momentum grew, as subsequent gatherings took place in Toronto (2014) and then Madrid (2017).

Two years later, in 2019, World Pride was held in New York City, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising, with five million spectators attending in Manhattan over the central Pride weekend. The Stonewall uprising is widely considered to mark the start of the modern Gay Rights Movement (now more commonly referred to as the fight for LGBTQIA+ rights).

In 2021, World Pride was shared between Copenhagen, Denmark, and Malmo, Sweden. The Crown Princess of Denmark was patron of the event, making her the first ever royal to serve as patron for a major LGBTQ event.

This year, in Sydney, the key events include a Fair Day on Sunday 19 Feb, the formal Opening Ceremony and Concert in the Sydney Domain on Friday 24 Feb, the annual Mardi Gras Parade and Party on Saturday 25 Feb; a Human Rights Conference from Wednesday 1 to Friday 3 March; a First Nations Gala Concert and a Mardi Gras International Arts Festival and Film Festival; and on the last day, Sunday 5 March, a Pride March over the Sydney Harbour Bridge and a grand Closing Ceremony.

Faith communities are actively involved in World Pride 2023, with a full listing of events at

The Uniting Church is strongly supportive of the event, and a number of Sydney churches are involved. See

The Pitt St Uniting Church, located in the heart of Sydney, is actively involved in World Pride 2023, bringing a strong faith voice into the event. Pitt St is holding a photo exhibition, Queer Faces of Faith and providing a rehearsal space for the Out&Loud&Proud Choir rehearsals, as well as providing a safe and celebratory faith space and pastoral support to World Pride people in the heart of the CBD. A full program of prayer support for World Pride is operating as well. See


Christians have had an unhappy relationship with LGBTIQA+ people. Sadly, far too many Christians hold a judgemental and discriminatory attitude towards people whom they regards as sinners, and many of these carry those negative attitudes through into discriminatory, oppressive, and damaging actions.

These negative attitudes were born long ago, in societies with different understandings of sexuality and gender. Many such societies of the past were centred around what they perceived as normality. “Normality” is what is most commonly found. “Normality” is also what is needed to ensure the ongoing survival of society. So regular reproduction of the species was essential in such societies, especially given the rate of deaths was much higher than in most modern societies.

The communities reflected in the Bible are no exceptions to this. Humanity is defined in Hebrew Scripture as needing to strive for perfection, so we see those who cannot see or hear, with missing limbs or those unable to speak, excluded from worship and community on the basis of how they differ from “perfection”. They are perceived as a threat to the good order and flourishing of society, because of their inherent “difference” from the norm. This is reflected in ancient Israelite law, and this continued on into in the understandings of the New Testament writers.

In modern times, our understanding of “normality” has broadened from such a binary understanding, to include now a spectrum of what is seen as “normal”. No longer do we exclude people on the basis that their physical appearance does not conform to the physical appearance of the majority of people, for instance. The understanding that the human brain operates on a spectrum has been well established, and we are now used to hearing regular references to the fact that neurodiversity in human beings has placed people at various points along a spectrum of neurological functioning.

The same applies to human sexuality. As further research is done, it has becoming increasingly clear that the way that people experience and express their sexuality, like the way that the brains of different people function differently, exists on a spectrum and is not confined to a binary state. Gender identity and sexual orientation both sit on such spectrums rather than existing in oppositional binary states.

Within such spectrums, there are “standard deviations” which we expect to find in any human population. This is a perfectly “normal” phenomenon. So, today we recognise that there is a range of gender identity along a spectrum of identities, and a range of sexual orientation along a range of sexual orientation.

Our Bible is an ancient document. It was written at a time when “normality” was seen as living within the divine favour and existing in a way that accords with the divine statutes. Those who failed to conform to the “normality” of those statues were seen as “abnormal”, incomplete and perhaps, at times, sinful. They occupied what we today call “the tails of the bell curve”. They were not seen as “normal”, since they were unable to promote the future of community.

In ancient times, sexual behaviour that fell into the expected variation of the tails of the bell curve was frequently perceived as “not normal” and threatening to the community, and an aberration that threatened the survival of the community. That is no longer the case for us, today.

The Hebrew Scriptures use the word nephesh (נֶפֶש) to describe human beings (and, indeed, all other living creatures). It is a common Hebrew word, appearing 688 times in Hebrew Scripture. It is most commonly translated (238 times) as “soul”; the next most common translation is “life” (180 times). The word is a common descriptor for a human being, as a whole. (I have learnt much about nephesh in my discussions with my wife, the Rev. Elizabeth Raine.)

However, to use the English word “soul” to translate nephesh does it a disservice. We have become acclimatised to regarding the soul as but one part of the whole human being—that is the influence of dualistic Platonic thinking, where “body and soul” refer to the two complementary parts of a human being. In Hebrew, nephesh has a unified, whole-of-person reference, quite separate from the dualism that dominates a Greek way of thinking.

Nephesh appears a number of times in the first creation story in Hebrew scripture, where it refers to “living creatures” in the seas (Gen 1:20, 21), on the earth (Gen 1:24), and to “every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life (nephesh hayah)” (Gen 1:30).

It is found also in the second creation story, where it likewise describes how God formed a man from the dust of the earth and breathed the breath of life into him, and “the man became a living being (nephesh hayah)” (Gen 2:7). The claim that each living creature is a nephesh is reiterated in the priestly Holiness Code (Lev 11:10, 46; 17:11). So we human beings are part of a wide spectrum of creatures, all created by God, all seen to be “good”, a wonderful kaleidoscopic variety of beings.

Our theology of the human being needs to underline the claim that all people, no matter where they are located on the bell curve, are “nephesh” and are filled with the sprit of God. We are all part of the creation that, in Christian and Jewish mythological, God declared “very good” (Gen 1:31). We are, each and every one of us, “fearfully and wonderfully made”, as the psalmist sings (Ps 139:14a)—like the intricate, complex, and beautiful created world in which we live, each human being is, exactly as they are, one of the “wonderful works” of the Lord God (Ps 139:14b).

And that is exactly what World Pride 2023 is celebrating!


See also

and for Canberra people, there is a safe space every Sunday morning at 9:30am and once a month on Sunday at 6:00pm (the 2nd Sunday of the month) at Tuggeranong Uniting Church, where Elizabeth Raine and Sharon Jacobs lead the ministry team. See

and for further biblical discussion, see

Reimagining ministry in these different times

I have exercised ministries in the position of Presbytery Minister over the past 12 years, more than half of which have included an explicit linkage with a local Congregation as part of that ministry. I have served in my current position for forty-two months (initially in part-time supply, then fulltime from February 2020). On Thursday I became a retired minister, and today I have shared with friends and colleagues in a Closure of Ministry service for my role as Canberra Region Presbytery Minister–Wellbeing.

As I began this role, a huge swathe of the east coast of Australia was in the grip of multiple fires, during the Black Summer of 2019–2020. The air in Canberra was thick with smoke; one night, the fires came within just a few kilometres of our house. With most of the rest of our street, we stood in the dark, watching the flames at a distance, as planes and helicopters flew overhead, dropping water in an attempt to slow the spread of the fire. Many communities within the Canberra Region Presbytery were seriously impacted by these fires. It was a time of great tension, and continued breathing difficulties.

As the fires diminished, our car was caught outside in a hailstorm that raced through Canberra. Then a few weeks later, we began learning of the virus that was infecting many and spreading rapidly; and so much of the next two and a half years would be spent in lockdown, with all worship, Bible study, fellowship, and organisational meetings held online. It has been quite a learning curve!! And then, multiple times in the ensuing months, friends and family members in various locations were forced to leave their houses, as rain far beyond the normal range fell, flooding river systems and causing widespread havoc.

So there have been fires and smoke, a hailstorm, a viral pandemic–the plague, it would once have been called–and floods. All very apocalyptic!!

In the midst of this, I have exercised ministry. At the end of my time in stipended ministry in formal placements, as I step into a period of unstipended, non-placement, but perhaps still somewhat active, ministry, my thoughts have turned to what I have learned, what I have valued, what I would wish for, and what I might say.

Ministry is both a calling and a profession. Ministry is taken up as Jesus invites his faithful followers to live out their faith in adventurous ways. Over the last two years and more, restrictions on gathering in person have led to a suspension of the regular activities of the church–worship, fellowship, prayer groups and bible studies, discipleship activities, training courses.

Then, as restrictions were eased, a return to each of these forms of gathering became possible. But, as we regathered, under the conditions of the COVID Safe Plans that were required, it became obvious that we were not simply entering a “back to normal” phase. Each form of gathering would be different from the earlier, more familiar, form of gathering. Yes, there would be familiar elements; but there would be additional requirements, and some changes in what we do when we gather.

In short, we were moving on into a different form of gathering–be that for worship, for study, for prayer, for meeting, for learning, or for sharing the Gospel with others. In contrast to the pre-COVID period (a time of settled familiarity in our various gatherings), we were now moving into a time of post-COVID realities–or, at least, a time when the realities of COVID needed to co-exist with the hopes about how we might gather, informed by the traditional practices of the pre-COVID period.

All of this has presented a challenge to the church, as we have grappled with what is possible at each stage of the process. All of this has also opened an opportunity to rethink what we do and reimagine how we might go forward. Many Congregations have been doing exactly this.

Alongside this review and reshaping of congregational life, a similar revisioning and reimagining of ministry can be–indeed, should be–taking place. Ministry itself can be reviewed and reshaped in this current time.


So in what follows, I want to offer a proposal about how we think about ministry in a refreshed way: that we might consider ministry to be a call to be on mission, through worship, witness and service, as we collaborate, resource, and pioneer.

These last three terms–collaborate, resource, and pioneer–invite us to approach ministry in a different way, when compared with the “traditional minister” of years past. These terms might sound like a different approach to ministry–different from the “preach the word, celebrate the sacraments, visit the people” pattern that shaped ministry for so many decades in the past.

Yet all three terms can be found in that section of the Regulations of the Uniting Church in Australia about the duties of a Minister. The Regulations provide a clear and comprehensive statement of the various duties that are expected of a Minister. (The full list is pasted below, from section 2.2.1 of the Regulations.)

Before we turn to this document, however, let me explain that I am using the term “Minister” to refer to a Minister of the Word or a Deacon, the two specified ministries to which people are ordained for life and for whom the normal form of ministry is exercised through placements under the oversight of the Presbytery. This is in accord with the definition that is given in section 3 of the UCA Constitution.

Deacons and Ministers of the Word are exercising their ministries in different, perhaps unprecedented, ways, in this current situation of change. The months where restrictions have been in place, prohibiting gatherings in person, have presented a challenge to many of my colleagues.

Our sense of what it is that we were called to, and how we have come to operate in response to that calling, has come to confront head-on the need to operate in different ways in this circumstance. How prepared are we, collectively, and individually, to meet these challenges and to re-orient our ministries to fit the new situation?

Tradition has seen that the role of Ministers has been to preach the Gospel, preside at the sacraments, and offer pastoral care. That threefold pattern has a long and valued history. I still hear it stated, from time to time, in the present age.

However, learning to do things differently, and re-prioritising what we do in ministry, is the challenge of the moment. I think it is worthwhile highlighting some of the points contained in this Regulation, to show that our ministerial charter actually invites and encourages us to engage in this process.


Let’s start with the final point in that list of ministerial responsibilities, that a Minister will be involved in pioneering new expressions of the gospel. This contains a clear call to move beyond the “traditional” expectations of a Minister–that she or he will preach, undertake pastoral visitation, and organise the business of the congregation (which is perhaps the traditional way of reading a statement contained in the Basis of Union).

The restrictions of the past few months have forced us to develop new ways of ministering: new patterns of online worship, study groups online, distributing worship materials by email or post, and providing practical assistance through doorstop calls. We have developed new patterns of working, whilst new skills have been needed to minister effectively. Creativity has flourished under this stimulus.

The other clause in this final Regulation orients ministry in the same direction, emphasising the collegial or communal nature of the role of the Minister: that of encouraging effective ways of fulfilling the mission of the Church. This means that it is not up to “the Minister alone” to pioneer new expressions and develop the missional impetus of the church. It is to be “encouraged” by sharing the task with others–and presumably equipping those people to be effective in that role.

And that goal, to fulfil the mission of the church, has been to the fore in all that has been undertaken, in new ways, over recent times, as people have worked together in different ways–and as people previously unconnected or rarely engaged with each other, have co-operated and collaborated in many ways.

The same collegial and resourcing role is articulated in clause (iii). This clause follows two earlier clauses which specify that the Minister presides and preaches, but now it goes on to say that the Minister is charged with providing for other persons to undertake these roles.

That means that the Minister does not necessarily occupy the worship leading and preaching role for 48 Sundays a year (allowing for annual leave), but makes provision for sharing this role with others — who presumably are trained and equipped in appropriate ways for this role. I know of a number of Congregations where lay people have provided worship leadership for online gatherings, for instance, in situations where they have been reticent to do so in gatherings in person.


The Basis of Union, at a number of points, identifies worship, witness and service as the lynchpin of the work of the congregation. Interestingly, whilst the “traditional” role of worship is embedded into the duties of the Minister, so too is witness specified at clause (iv) and service is likewise identified at clause (viii).

So what is expected of the congregation as a whole, is to be modelled and implemented by the Minister, personally, in their ministry. Those who argue that the Minister has a primary focus on worship and preaching, supplemented by pastoral care and administration, are not actually reading their Regulations carefully!

The “traditional” role of the Minister (the solo individual who preaches, presides, visits, and chairs) is so, so far removed from what the UCA Regulations actually articulate. We are called to be on mission, through worship, witness and service, collaborating, resourcing, and pioneering. It is a fine calling–and the challenges of the current context both enhance and challenge the way that we seek to carry that out.


Regulation 2.2.1

(a) Within the ministry of the whole Church, Jesus Christ calls men and women to proclamation of the gospel in word and deed through the ministry of the Word and the ministry of Deacon. This calling is exercised by:

(i) preaching of the Word;

(ii) presiding at the celebration of the sacraments;

(iii) providing for other persons to preside at worship and/or preach within the pastoral charge in which the Minister is in placement;

(iv) witnessing in the community to the gospel of Jesus Christ;

(v) guiding and instructing the members of the Church and equipping them for their ministry in the community;

(vi) nurturing candidates for baptism and confirmation;

(vii) pastoral oversight and counsel wherever needed;

(viii) serving in the community, especially among those who are hurt, dis-advantaged, oppressed or marginalized;

(ix) careful attention to administrative responsibilities;

(x) due observance of the discipline of the Church;

(xi) the enhancement of the Minister’s own gifts for the work of ministry;

(xii) pioneering new expressions of the gospel and encouraging effective ways of fulfilling the mission of the Church.


See also a series of posts that I made during 2020 about the challenges being faced and the changes being undertaken:

See also


Priorities in ministry: an ordination anniversary reflection

“Well, you only really work one day a week, don’t you?” After decades in ministry, I am not sure I can count how many times I have heard this comment—sometime flippant, but often rather serious.

Of course, ministers do not work only one day a week! That stereotype is based on the perception that the weekly sermon is the sum total of the work of ministry. Whilst it is true that many of my Protestant colleagues see the sermon as the most important, or critically significant, element of their weekly work, it is definitely the case that the work of ministry stretches far and wide beyond the weekly sermon.

Today is the 42nd anniversary of my ordination; I was set aside to the Ministry of the Word in the Uniting Church in Australia in a service that took place on 3 December 1980 in my home Congregation of Seaforth, amongst the cloud of witnesses that had surrounded me in my early decades.

I have been privileged to have spent time in congregational ministry in two rural areas and one urban location, in regional roles in two presbyteries, in educational roles in two synods, and to have served the Assembly on a number of committees, as well as multiple committees in synod and presbytery roles over the years.

I have worked with some fine colleagues in each of these placements. And in each place, I have sought to live out those vows that I took at ordination, in the exercise of my ministry at Southern Illawarra and Waverley, in years of study at New Haven and two decades of teaching at North Parramatta, in sabbatical periods at Durham and Cambridge, back in ministry at Wauchope and the Mid North Coast Presbytery, in the venture overwest to Perth, and then at Queanbeyan and in this most recent Presbytery role.

In each of these placements, I have been comforted (and challenged) by the way that the Uniting Church articulates the various responsibilities of a minister. They are set out in section 2.2.1 of the national Regulations. The expression of those responsibilities has changed somewhat over time, although the basic shape of these responsibilities remains consistent in its focus. But there have been some interesting refinements over time.

(The current version of the Regulations is cited at the end of this blog.)

To start, we can note that preaching is given the first place in the list. Is this significant? Certainly, in the history of Protestant churches, the priority accorded to preaching is clear. And I know of colleagues today, who insist that, whatever else is happening, preparation of the weekly sermon is their first priority each week. That is central to our tradition.

Of course, preaching is not held exclusively to the ordained ministers. The Methodist Church contributed the ministry of lay people as preachers to the Uniting Church when it was formed, and Lay Preachers are now one of four specified ministries within the UCA, alongside the lay ministry of Pastor and the two ordained ministries of Deacon and Minister of the Word.

Second, presiding is noted. That sits hand in hand with the role of preaching; these are two of the key aspects in leading worship within the gathered community of faithful people. Leading prayers, reading scripture, explaining and expounding the message, baptising new members of the community, and gathering people around the table of the Lord at communion, are key aspects of leading worship on a regular basis.

Once again, presiding at the sacraments, within current Uniting Church understanding, is not limited exclusively to ordained people; in situations where access to an ordained minister is not regularly available, authorised lay people can preside, after having completed a training course and being recommended by their Church Council.

In fact, the third clause places conditions around the way that a minister exercises the roles of presider and preacher. The leading of worship is to be a shared, collaborative, team-based enterprise. All ministers should, in their practice, cultivate a team of people who can not only read scripture and lead prayers, but also preach and, if need be, preside at baptisms and communion within the placement. Certainly, neither the pulpit nor the table is the exclusive preserve of ordained ministers, as we have noted.

Clauses 3, 5 and 6 each indicate that a key function of ministry is to prepare others: prepare people to lead worship, prepare people to be baptised or confirmed within the church, prepare people to be faithful and more effective disciples, and prepare people to engage in the mission to which the church is committed. Each minister within the UCA is to exercise a ministry of education, training, equipping, resourcing. All ministers are educators; all ministers are called to build up the body of Christ by enabling others to exercise their gifts for ministry and carry out their roles in mission.

The classic understanding of ministry, which is even articulated at points in the Basis of Union, is that the minister the threefold role of preacher, presider, and pastor. Clause 7 addresses the matter of pastoring. Is it significant that this function is quite some way down the list? If the order is in any way significant, we should pause at this point and ponder the traditional expectation that the minister provides pastoral care to all members of the congregation. This is not what the Regulations specify.

And is it also significant, that pastoring the people is (like preaching and leading worship) not the preserve of the ordained alone? That is, all people are called to show care and concern for others. The role of pastor is exercised by those in ministry as an oversight role, ensuring that a team of pastoral careers or elders provide regular and personalised pastoral care. The clause is also made conditional by the phrase “wherever needed”, which suggests that what is in view is a responsive form of pastoring, on a needs basis, rather than a regular “visit the flock every three months” prescription simply because “that is what the minister does”.

Are ministers called to be prophets? Some colleagues that I know place a high value on this role. Nothing explicitly identifies this role, however. Yet understanding how the Bible relates to contemporary situations, and articulating the way that the Gospel speaks into our context, has a dynamic that is very similar to the dynamic that the prophets of old knew very well.

What is “the word of the Lord” for this situation? How do we do just that, in our preaching and teaching? What are the words that best identify prejudices and expose injustices, that advocate for the poor and speak for the voiceless or disempowered? That’s functioning as a prophet.

Practising faith, as a committed disciple, is indicated by a number of clauses. Clause 4 prescribes that ministers bear witness to their faith, while clauses 8, on serving, and 11, on being a committed lifelong learner, also relate to this important dimension of ministry. We need to live, and model, exactly what we say to others, in our own lives.

The final clause addresses the mission of the church. It specifies that Ministers will find ways to be effective in fulfilling that mission. Maintenance is not adequate. Missionary impetus is essential. And “pioneering new expressions of the Gospel” is integral to that process.

This final clause envisages that all ministers will be equally pioneers in mission, as much as they are preachers and presiders, or practising their faith and preparing others for leadership roles in their discipleship. Pioneering is closely linked to “fulfilling the mission of the church”. Over the centuries, the church has regularly reinvented itself, finding new forms for worship, for service, for witness, for fellowship. We need to keep doing that in our own times, to continue being effective in mission.

And might the last clause (following a familiar scriptural dictate) be made first? What would our ministry, and our mission, look like, if each minister made the task of “pioneering new expressions of faith” as their first priority—and, by implication, relegated preaching to a lower spot, maybe even the last spot, on the list? It is a challenge—but I think this might be an important clue for the way ahead.

See further at


UCA Regulations 2.2.1

Within the ministry of the whole Church, Jesus Christ calls men and women to proclamation of the gospel in word and deed through the ministry of the Word and the ministry of Deacon. This calling is exercised by:

(i) preaching of the Word;

(ii) presiding at the celebration of the sacraments;

(iii) providing for other persons to preside at worship and/or preach within the pastoral charge in which the Minister is in placement;

(iv) witnessing in the community to the gospel of Jesus Christ;

(v) guiding and instructing the members of the Church and equipping them for their ministry in the community;

(vi) nurturing candidates for baptism and confirmation;

(vii) pastoral oversight and counsel wherever needed;

(viii) serving in the community, especially among those who are hurt, disadvantaged, oppressed or marginalized;

(ix) careful attention to administrative responsibilities;

(x) due observance of the discipline of the Church;

(xi) the enhancement of the Minister‘s own gifts for the work of ministry;

(xii) pioneering new expressions of the gospel and encouraging effective ways of fulfilling the mission of the Church.

It’s not over until it’s over. And at the moment, it’s not over.

Where is “the fat lady”? We know that, as the saying goes, “it’s not over until the fat lady sings”. So where is “the fat lady”? And has she sung?

Our state and federal leaders appear to think that she has been centre stage, singing her heart out. They are acting as if it is, indeed, over—that the passing of the virus through community spread has diminished, so that we can get back to “business as usual”. (Business being the operative word in government considerations about this matter—business, not health, not wellbeing, but business.)

“It’s not over until the fat lady sings”. It’s a terrible saying, actually, playing on unhelpful stereotypes about body shape and body size. The saying originated, it is often claimed, as a reference to the large-sized women who sang lead parts in operas. (Perhaps the large body size relates to the large lung capacity that is required to perform operatic arias?)

Wikipedia helpfully refers to Wagner’s grand opera cycle, Der Ring Des Nibelungen, and specifically, the last part of that long cycle, Götterdämmerung. It hypothesises that “the ‘fat lady’ is thus the Valkyrie Brünnhilde, who was traditionally presented as a very buxom lady. Her farewell scene lasts almost twenty minutes and leads directly to the finale of the whole Ring Cycle. As Götterdämmerung is about the end of the world (or at least the world of the Norse gods), in a very significant way ‘it is [all] over when the fat lady sings’.”

Others claim that it was a saying first uttered by an American sports commentator, who used the phrase at the end of a university athletics meeting in 1976; or at the end of a 1978 NBA playoff. Or perhaps it is a variant form of the phrase, “It ain’t over till it’s over”, attributed to the famous baseball player, Yogi Berra, at a baseball game in 1973.

Whatever the origin, the saying (in its various forms) is widely known. And, as far as I am concerned, it is very relevant to our current time. For we are now at a point when many people are acting, in relation to the COVID pandemic, as if “it’s over”. I hear this in what people say; I see it in how people behave—low levels of mask wearing, low levels of social distancing, less attention to ensuring that physical contact is minimised, less attention to diligent hand washing and to sneezing into your elbows, and high levels of assuming that we are back to “business as usual”. Goodness, now there is even no requirement that people stay at home when they are sick; saying that people “just need to self-regulate” is a recipe for disaster, especially amongst people who rely on the income they get each week to ensure that they “make ends meet”.

The plain truth is that it’s not over—and that it won’t be over for quite some time. And the costs of the continuing impact of the virus are many. First, we should not forget that deaths from COVID are continuing; they take place at an unacceptable rate; the latest figures show that 323 people across Australia died as a result of COVID in the week ended 21 September—that’s 46 each and every day. A week later, and the number of deaths was slightly lower, at 282, but still at a high level—that is still just over 40 people still dying each week; or 6 a day; or one every four hours.

Deaths in Australia due to COVID-19
Week ending 28 September 2022

One person dying every four hours. Think about that. All Ministers and lay people who conduct funerals and provide follow-up support to bereaved families know the deep and enduring emotional impacts that the death of one loved one can incur, spreading across the wider family, friends, and others connected with them through their life. That’s already a significant cost, both in terms of lives taken as well as in terms of ongoing emotional impacts, for one death. Imagine that recurring every four hours, constantly, without pause, day after day. That’s a huge cost in emotional, psychological, and thus medical ways. A huge cost for society.

You can access statistics relating to COVID since early 2020 at

Second, the consequences of Long COVID continue to be documented as medical studies take place; the Mayo Clinic notes that the long-term effects of “post-COVID 19 syndrome” include “fatigue, fever, respiratory symptoms, including difficulty breathing or shortness of breath and cough, neurological symptoms or mental health conditions, including difficulty thinking or concentrating, headache, sleep problems, dizziness when you stand, pins-and-needles feeling, loss of smell or taste, and depression or anxiety, joint or muscle pain, heart symptoms or conditions, including chest pain and fast or pounding heartbeat, digestive symptoms, including diarrhea and stomach pain! blood clots and blood vessel (vascular) issues, including a blood clot that travels to the lungs from deep veins in the legs and blocks blood flow to the lungs (pulmonary embolism), and other symptoms, such as a rash and changes in the menstrual cycle”.

That’s a wide range of issues which can each be very significant, causing longterm difficulties, and in some cases, contributing to an early death. That’s a second major cost.

Third, rates of absenteeism provide a striking indicator that the impacts of the pandemic are still with us. In February, the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported that “more than one in five (22 per cent) employing businesses had staff who were unavailable to work due to issues related to COVID-19”

In April, the Australian Financial Review reported that “absenteeism rates sitting 33 per cent higher than long-term averages, analysis of MYOB’s payroll data reveals”.

By July this year, this had grown to “absences already running at 50 per cent above average levels, as the highly contagious BA.4 and BA.5 variants drive a new wave of infections and hospitalisation”.

The media delighted in showing lengthy lines at airports because of staff shortages; perhaps many of us have experienced slow service at local cafes because of the same reason. The cost of extra sick leave payments is just one component of the cost in this regard. It is said that during pre-pandemic times, the “regular rates of absenteeism” cost Australian businesses around $32.5 billion a year. With increased rates of absenteeism, that cost has surely risen.

Of course, now that the requirement to isolate at home whenever a person is symptomatic has been removed, we will surely see further disruption to business enterprises—since people dependent on their wage will go to work when “just a little bit off”, and if infected with the virus, they may be infectious, and thus may well spread illness to their fellow workers—thus resulting in more people off, more time lost. I can see this. Why can’t our leaders see this?

All of which leads me to the conclusion that “it’s not over until it’s not over”—and clearly, “it’s not yet over”. We need to ensure ongoing protection from the virus in our day to day life. Of course, one hugely important way to provide strengthened protection against the COVID-19 virus is to be vaccinated— and to have each of the “booster doses” as they become available. It’s clear that widespread vaccination has contributed to a slowing of the spread of the virus.

Sadly, however, the rate of deaths due to COVID continues to be of concern. That’s simply because people who are more at risk of infection—the elderly, those with compromised immune systems, those with multiple medical conditions, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders—are thereby more likely to have a bad response to the virus, with more medical complications, and higher death rates.

I’ve found a recent study which sought to compare the efficacy of vaccination amongst healthy people with the efficacy amongst immunocompromised people. It measured the level of seroconversion, which is the capacity of the system to repel the virus. The study concluded that “the immune response to the influenza vaccine might not be as strong in immunocompromised patients, yet they appear to derive some benefit from vaccination. These findings reflect what is now being experienced with covid-19 and vaccination.”

See “Efficacy of covid-19 vaccines in immunocompromised patients: systematic review and meta-analysis”,

All of which means that vaccination is a wise move, but it in no way guarantees that a person once vaccinated will definitely not suffer ill effects; and a person with medical vulnerabilities, such as having an immuno-compromised system, will still be vulnerable to illness, serious medical,complications, and death.

Which means that we need to continue all those precautions that we learnt in early 2020: wear a mask; practise good hygiene; wash your hands; sanitise with alcohol-based hand rubs; maintain social distancing; don’t touch your face; cover your mouth or nose with your arm, not your hand, when you cough or sneeze; stay t home when you are sick; close the toilet lid before flushing. All of these things, even though they are not “mandated”. All of these things, because it is just common sense to continue to take great care. Because it’s not over. Not by a long shot. There is no fat lady, not yet. It’s not over.

Voting on 21 May (6): Flourishing Communities, Regional, Remote, and Urban

Australian citizens go to the polls to elect a federal government on 21 May. The 17 million people eligible to vote will be electing both a local member to sit in the House of Representatives for the next three years; and a number of senators, to sit in the Senate for the next six years.

To assist voters in considering how they might vote, the Uniting Church has prepared a resource that identifies a number of issues, in seven key areas, that should inform the way that we vote, if we take seriously how the Gospel. calls us to live.

The seven areas are drawn from Our Vision for a Just Australia, a 40-page document expressing the Uniting Church vision for a just Australia and why our Christian faith calls us to work towards its fulfilment. It can be read in full at

The Assembly has prepared a shorter 8-page document as a Federal Election Resource, in which key matters in each of the seven areas are identified. That document is found at

The sixth area reflects the vision of the Uniting Church for Flourishing Communities, Regional, Remote, and Urban—with particular reference to issues of housing and mental health in rural and remote areas.

We live in communities where we are connected and we care for one another. In communities all over Australia, from our big cities to remote regions, we seek the well-being of each Australian and uplift those who are on the margins.

People in Australia living in rural and remote areas tend to have shorter lives, higher levels of disease and injury and poorer access to and use of health services, including mental health care, compared to people living in metropolitan areas. The housing crisis and mental health crisis are converging in regional Australia as rental vacancy rates in some regions fall below 1%.

Regional towns have experienced a significant reduction in available properties and rental affordability, particularly since the onset of the pandemic. The Queensland Alliance for Mental Health, the state’s peak body for community mental health said the situation was “pushing people experiencing mental distress into homelessness”

The key issues to inform our voting in this regard are what each candidate or their party says about these two major areas:

(1) Improved mental health support for people in rural and remote Australia that is adequately funded, able to be flexibly used and well managed locally.

(2) Governments to do more to provide affordable housing in the regions – to boost housing for vulnerable people and strengthen local economies.

For the full series of seven posts, see:

Pastoral Letter to Canberra Region Presbytery, October 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The challenge of COVID-19 to Social Ethics as we know them

A guest blog by the Rev. Dr Geoff Dornan, minister with the Wesley Forrest Uniting Church Congregation in Canberra, ACT.

COVID-19 has turned the world upside down. Its impact upon the way we reason ethically has been immeasurable. There were the portentous signs in the first wave of infection of 2019-2020, especially in Italy, as clinical practice was tested as never before. I recall the Italian peak body for anaesthetics and critical care issuing a divisive guideline about the allocation of intensive care resources, suggesting an upper age limit for ventilator eligibility, the implicit condoning of ventilator withdrawal if necessary, and a ‘pragmatic’ focus upon maximizing clinical outcomes.

It could be said that there was little new in this. After all, much of it had been anticipated in longstanding clinical policy about the allocation of scarce healthcare resources, in what was known as the “fair innings” argument. The point, however, was not the clinical theory per se, but rather the shock of having to actually put such theory into practice on a wide scale.

Another clinical issue, as the virus spread across the world, was the relationship between patients and healthcare providers. Hospitals cancelled elective surgery to save on PPE supplies, beds, and human resources. Access to ICU level care was restricted and strict infection prevention controls were also put into place. Many patients faced prolonged precautionary isolation without the reprieve of visits from friends or family.

As if these challenges to clinical ethical practice, were not enough, COVID has also tested public health policy. As governments implemented biosecurity powers to ensure compliance with business closures and social distancing measures, available technologies were deployed to ensure adherence to new laws and contact tracing of those who contracted COVID-19. The use of phone metadata to locate and track individuals, occurred even in liberal democracies, as the seriousness of the pandemic intensified.

Phone applications were also introduced by governments in several countries to communicate with surrounding phones through Bluetooth, so as to record those with whom a person had been in close contact. In some cases, GPS tracking was also utilized: something generally restricted to police functions.[i] The public health emergency powers enacted in liberal democracies during the COVID-19 crisis have permitted to some extent a power imbalance between governments and citizens. Moreover, and most importantly, the framing of public health as a security issue, continues to allow exceptional actions to be taken, beyond what would be normally politically acceptable.[ii]

The Church’s Conundrum: Inclusion and Safety

While COVID-19 has ‘set the cat among the pigeons’ in the ethics of clinical practice and public health policy, the impact continues, raising new issues and challenges for many institutions, not least the church. Most recently, as countries open-up, and governments set policies which distinguish between the vaccinated and unvaccinated, denominations have made their own responses. Roman Catholic and Anglican leaders of Sydney have been quite clear about their reservations in following public policy.

The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher OP, in his message of September 9th, declared, “I would insist that ‘Jesus is Lord of all, and his gospel is a gospel for all. A ‘No Entry’ sign at the door of the church is wholly inconsistent with the Gospel preached inside.’ Race, gender, ethnicity, age, education, wealth or health status (including vaccination) must not be points of division within the Christian community or barriers to communion with Christ Jesus.”

The motivation for this stance is the high view that Catholicism harbours of the Church and the centrality of the Mass as the fundamental liturgical expression of being church. Moreover, speaking broadly, as evidenced in recent statements of ‘push-back’ from the Polish Catholic Bishops’ Conference, the Catholic Church is wary of the extension of state powers as a weakening of democracy and a slide into authoritarianism. Something we have seen as not entirely without foundation.[iii]

There have also been evangelical responses, such as the “Ezekiel Declaration” recently published by three pastors from Queensland, directed to the Prime Minister Scott Morrison, which states concern for those suffering mental and emotional stress from lockdowns, and which appeals to Morrison to resist the policy of vaccination passports on the basis that such a practice “risks creating an unethical two-tiered society”.

In spirit and mood, the declaration reflects not a high view of the Church in the Catholic sense, but a libertarian ethos with a strong inclination toward a priority for individual freedoms. More disturbingly, the document raises questions of soundness as it slides into a barely concealed ‘anti-vaxxer ethos’, and mistakenly implies that vaccination will be made mandatory. The declaration appears to be primarily ideological. [iv]

For the Uniting Church in Australia, thinking our way through the current challenge of the conundrum of the ‘vaccinated-unvaccinated’ as we prepare to ‘open up’ is confronting. Rather than seeing the issue in the singular terms of inclusion, for us, there is also the issue of safety.

Robert McFarlane has succinctly explained it, “The first principle of safety for the most vulnerable implies that people who are not fully vaccinated may need to be excluded for the safety of the vulnerable. The second principle of inclusion implies that we can’t turn anyone away”.[v]

John Squires, in an article ‘On Vaccinations, Restrictions and Fundamentalism”[vi], notes that there is a strong defence of the priority of vaccination, and by extension mandatory vaccination, plus the need for that priority to be exercised in deciding who attends worship and who does not. Of course, within the opinion piece, the author accepts that there may be good reasons for people not being vaccinated, especially underlying health issues.

He also argues for the continuation of on-line worship to serve the unvaccinated from the safety of their homes, so that the principle of inclusion can still be maintained in unison with that of safety. He concludes, “So, at the moment, I will advocate for complete adherence to government restrictions. My faith calls me to work for the common good, to care for the vulnerable, to love my neighbours, both near and far. Minimising risk of transmission as we gather is our first duty. Ministry takes place in many ways other than sitting in an enclosed space for an hour once a week!”

Considering the Problem through the Lens of our Ethical Traditions 

Given the various Christian responses, which range from a priority for unrestrained inclusion of all comers to a physical place of worship, to a priority for safety, limiting physical presence at worship to the vaccinated alone, at least until the danger of COVID subsides, I think we need some help. My suggestion is to appeal to and examine the three major ethical traditions which have shaped and continue to shape the way we moderns think about ethics. My question is simply this: what would each have to say to us about this problem?                                                                   

There are three traditions that I shall briefly examine: the Ethics of Duty, the Ethics of Consequence, and the Ethics of Virtue.

Ethics of Duty

The ethics of duty are not concerned with the consequences or results of actions, but rather their inherent rightness. The point is do the right thing, do it because it is the right thing to do, irrespective of the results; after all results or consequences cannot be entirely foreseen or controlled. The father of the ethics of duty was Immanuel Kant, whose august figure you can see below.

Within the ethics of duty there are what are called categorical imperatives, one of which you would already know: “act so as to treat people never only as a means, but always as an end”. There is another categorical imperative which you may not know. In it, Kant points out that you should not do something if it cannot be done by everybody. Put another way, “you ought not act according to any principle that cannot be universalized”.

A simple example has to do with cheating. What a cheat wants is not that everyone else should do what they do, but that an exception should be made in their case.

Turning to the issue of the vaccinated and unvaccinated, of course people have a right to remain unvaccinated as a question of individual conscience, but it does not end there. The question must be, what if everyone were to do the same, to remain unvaccinated? Clearly the results would be catastrophic, with immeasurably more sickness, substantially more deaths, the collapse of medical systems and glaring economic damage. Moreover, communities and organizations have the duty to protect people from such a scenario. Short of mandating vaccination, the ethics of duty would tell us that it is both reasonable and necessary that a community differentiate between the vaccinated and those who choose in conscience to remain unvaccinated; and this for reasons of the community’s wellbeing and safety. That said, such measures should always be taken treating people, all people – to quote Kant – as ends not just means.

Ethics of Consequence

The ethics of consequence think about ethical issues, as the name suggests, from the perspective of what results from an action. Utilitarianism, a school established and shaped by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, the latter caricatured below, embrace this idea.  Central to its understanding is that good ethical policy should seek to maximize the good or utility in a society.

Bentham and Mill explained that good as “happiness”. In other words, the broader and greater the happiness, the better. This ethics that focuses upon results, correlates closely to the way Christianity thinks about ethical issues: for example, the Golden Rule – “do to others what you want them to do to you” (Matt 7:12, Luke 6:31).

As an ethics for maximizing happiness, the ethics of consequence is particularly important for thought and decision making about public welfare and social reform: pensions, benefits, health, education; fundamental dimensions of what we refer to as the common good. This idea of maximizing happiness through welfare, was significant in the post-World War II reconstruction of many societies, including the establishment of the welfare state.

In broad terms, the ethics of consequence which focus upon the welfare of a community, would support the comprehensive vaccination of a society as a means of protection for its members. On the other hand, it does not do especially well when considering the rights of minorities, simply because they are minorities. Because it focuses upon the bigger picture of collective gain, particular heed needs to be paid to what it is prone to ignore: as J.S. Mill put it, “the rights of freedom of expression”.

This deficit serves as a warning in our current circumstances, to understand that ethical policy and practice – to be ethical – requires a committed balancing of majority rights with those of a dissenting minority. In this sense, any church practice that brusquely favours safety over inclusion, meaning the ‘exclusion’ of the unvaccinated, needs to be rebalanced.                                        

Ethics of Virtue

Virtue ethics is quite different to the ethics of duty or consequence in that they focus upon the individual character with the question, “what and who ought I be?” Going back to even before Aristotle – the gentleman we see below – virtue ethics dominated ethical thought for centuries. Thomas Aquinas was particularly important in developing a Christian ethics of virtue, in the light of his theology built upon the shoulders of Aristotelian thought.

In recent times there has been a return to virtue ethics as a way of completing the more modern approaches of rules-based ethics of duty and situational ethics of consequence. In a sense virtue ethics offers depth in that ethics are understood as a way of life.

Virtue ethics address two very human issues: the first, the emotions and the second, wisdom. In developing the virtues, the emotions are trained to serve the virtues, not undermine them. Likewise, in developing the virtues, practical wisdom (phronēsis) is cultivated, meaning that it is not sufficient to only do what a just person does, but to do it in a way that a just person does it. In other words, the emphasis lies with the how as much as the what.

Moreover, the content of the virtues changes depending upon the purpose (telos) that a person lives for. For the Christian, the primary virtues have been considered to be charity, patience and humility as pathways to living out the kingdom of God. For Aquinas, charity reigned supreme: “Charity is the form of all virtues”.

Finally, conscience constitutes a significant aspect of virtue and the moral knowledge entailed in living virtuously. That said, the virtue tradition insists that conscience can never be lazy, for we are bound to subject our conscientiously held views to rigorous analysis.

As we consider the question of how to proceed with the challenge of giving expression to the values of inclusion and safety in our services and liturgies, the ethics of virtue would counsel us to do so aware of the priority of charity and the need for an informed conscience.


What is it that these ethical traditions offer to us as we find ourselves on the horns of a dilemma, caught between two noble and necessary practices: inclusivity and safety?  All suggest, either explicitly or implicitly, that a good decision will likely need to include a balance of each.

Unconstrained inclusivity alone, will open congregations to the possibility of infection. Safety alone, will open congregations to excluding those for whom they love and care. After all what good is safety if it cuts us off from each other?  

Additionally, for those who refuse vaccination in conscience, the challenge is to ensure that their conscience is well informed, not determined by ideological bias or irrational partisanship.

Of course, there are multiple ways to balance these requirements. Each congregation, presbytery and synod will need to do just that, accessing and utilizing the knowledge of their specific contexts and the technologies to which they have access, keeping in mind that how we do things is every bit as critical as what we do.

Rev. Dr. Geoff Dornan, October 3rd, 2021

Geoff Dornan is minister in the Wesley Forrest Congregation in Canberra, ACT. He holds a PhD in Philosophy, Theology & Ethics from Boston University, USA.

[i] In March 2020, the government of Singapore, launched a smartphone application to assist in monitoring COVID-19 by enabling public health authorities to investigate infections and limit further transmission. In May 2020 the Australian government announced it would implement similar technology.

[ii] Kamradt-Scott, A., & McInnes C. (2012), The Securitization of Pandemic Influenza: Framing Security and Public Policy. Global Public Health, 7, 95-110, 106.

[iii] Jonathon Luxmoore, “Polish Archbishop criticizes anti-church Covid measures”, The Tablet, August 11th, 2021.

[iv] Timothy Grant, Matthew Littlefield, Warren McKenzie, The Ezekiel Declaration,

[v] McFarlane, R. “Vaccination, Inclusion and Exclusion: The Ethics of Regathering for Worship in a Part Vaccinated World”, Insights Magazine, September 17th, 2021.

[vi]  John T. Squires, “On Vaccinations, Restrictions and Fundamentalism”, blog at