Reimagining—the spirit of our times

The city where I live, Canberra, has a regular annual festival. Each year, a large section of a central park is planted out with bulbs, around this time of the year. Lots of tourists come in September, joining with many of the residents of Canberra, to enjoy the festival known as Floriade.

The bulbs that have been planted grow, silently and stealthily, throughout winter, so that when spring arrives, they are fully grown plants, ready to burst into a display of spectacular colours—in time for hundreds of thousands of people to walk through, enjoying the display.

507,550 people saw the display in 2019 (see https://www.canberratimes.com.au/story/6456817/floriade-breaks-attendance-record/)

That’s not going to happen this year. The ACT Government wisely decided that it would not be sensible to plan for a large, crowded event in September—with the uncertainty that crowds of people would be able to gather, even in the outdoors.

So they have implemented Floriade Reimagined. Bulbs have been offered to community groups, to be planted at dispersed locations right around Canberra. Those bulbs are to be planted in locations that are visible from the road. Now, in September, people are able to drive around Canberra and enjoy the displays of flowers in many community locations. (See https://floriadeaustralia.com)

Alongside this, in the southern part of Canberra, there has been an annual festival in Tuggeranong, called, quite appropriately, SouthFest. This has been based around the Tuggeranong Town Centre in past years, with many stall lining the streets, and a festive atmosphere pervading the day.

But this year, again because of COVID-19, it has not been possible to plan for and hold the usual festivities. (See https://the-riotact.com/southfest-organisers-make-early-call-to-cancel-2020-festival/379080)

But SouthFest, alongside Floriade, has also been reimagined. And that’s where the Tuggeranong Uniting Church comes into the picture. They took their annual Spring Fair, and in 2019, gave it a strong sustainability focus. This year, they once again reimagined that that spring fair would look like. And so, SpringFest was born.

Tuggeranong, where Elizabeth is serving as Minister, submitted an expression of interest for Floriade Reimagined, and was awarded a set of bulbs. A crew of volunteers has worked hard to dig garden beds, build up the soil, and plant the bulbs. (See the picture, and https://www.insights.uca.org.au/tuggeranong-to-provide-a-symbol-of-hope-during-floriade/)

Now, in September, the Tuggeranong Uniting Church is surrounded with colour, as the bulbs burst into flower.

And this church, along with the Yarralumla Uniting Church (pictured below), is on the visiting list for Floriade Reimagined.

And Tuggeranong Uniting Church, under the enthusiastic and energetic leadership of Elizabeth, along with a fine team of dedicated volunteers, has partnered with SEE-Change to have a modified, downscale (but still very much appreciated) SouthFest happening, in the grounds at Erindale. The sustainability focus of 2019 was kept and expanded in SpringFest 2020.

SEE-Change, a local sustainability group, ran a series of workshops, in the community garden and the community hall, on topics relating to sustainability: composting, worm farms, bee keeping, and reducing plastic.

Meanwhile, in and around the church auditorium, the Red Dove Pre-Loved Op Shop was selling second hand clothes, the church was offering Devonshire teas and BBQ sandwiches, the Girls Brigade were selling delicious cakes, reuseable bags to replace single use plastic bags were on sale, as was a wide range of potted plants, and there was a Beeswax stall and assorted other goods for sale.

Why, the COVID Fairy was even in attendance (ensuring that all COVID Safe precautions were being adhered to). And she brought Senator Katy Gallagher along, to open the proceedings!

Floriade has reimagined itself. SouthFest has reimagined itself. COVID-19 has been the impetus. Tuggeranong Church has reimagined how it can partner with community groups to provide an enjoyable and inviting community event.

Can the church as a whole, similarly, reinvent itself? Can we take the stimulus of the present time to move out into the future with renewed creativity, imagination, and community engagement? Can we demonstrate that we are capable of the spirit of the times—reimagination?

Worship like the first Christians. What will our future look like? (3)

I have been reflecting on the “where” of how we want to be, as the church, in post-COVID times, as well as the “when” of how we want to be. Do we want to be simply back in the church building on a Sunday morning? Do we want simply to be doing things in the old, familiar ways of past years?

You can read those posts at https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/24/its-been-two-months-under-restrictions-what-will-our-future-look-like-2/ and https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/22/its-been-two-months-under-restrictions-what-will-our-future-look-like-1/

In this post, I pick up the theme of “who” we are imagining ourselves to be in this future time. What might worship look like for us? Who do we reveal ourselves to be, when we gather for worship?

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If we want to rethink how we worship in the post-COVID era, and reimagine what we might do in a gathering of people as “church”, perhaps we could get some inspiration from what our scripture tells us about the early followers of Jesus? Could we being to rethink and reimagine so that church looked more like what these people did? After all, we have scriptures which we use as guidelines for various doctrinal and moral matters; why not also with worship?

The earliest followers of Jesus, we know, did not worship in English. They used their own languages—Aramaic, for Jewish People, and probably Greek, in many of the early Christian communities. And, no doubt, the native language of the particular region where new faith communities were established. Syriac. Coptic. Phrygian. Arabic. Latin. Each spoke to the other in their own language.

Unsurprisingly, that sounds just like Pentecost, the festival that we celebrate this coming Sunday, when those gathered in the Temple heard the early followers Jesus, and declared in amazement, “how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” (Acts 2:8, 11).

Of course, I am not advocating that we take up speaking in Aramaic, or Koine Greek, or Syriac, or Phrygian, or Latin. In the Reformed churches, we have long adopted the custom of worshipping in our native language. But are there other practices from the early church that we could consider taking up? For instance, the early church did not have organs or pianos to accompany singing. Is that something that we could adopt? How many other places in society still have group singing accompanied by organ or piano?

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The earliest believers being Jewish, they most likely followed the pattern of worship that is attested in the Temple: “Praise the LORD! Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty firmament! Praise him with trumpet sound … with lute and harp … with tambourine and dance … with strings and pipe … with clanging cymbals, with loud clashing cymbals!” (Psalm 150).

I know stories from Congregations where drum sets, complete with cymbals, were introduced into worship—leading to even louder noises, as church conflicts broke out! But such musical accompaniment is actually biblical. Can we head in that direction in our worship today?

We know also that those early believers sang “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Col 3:16). That sounds familiar. Not too much different from today. Except: singing. All the evidence points to the fact that singing, indoors, in a group with other people, standing close to one another, is one of the most risky behaviours in this current time of the pandemic.

So, there is very little room to move: if and when we gather together in person to worship, we will not be singing. We will, necessarily, be quite different in our worship practices, from the early believers.

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The early followers of Jesus did not have paid ministers leading worship. This was the case from the very earliest days, and this practice lasted for a long time. (They did, however, have provisions to provide for their leaders—hospitality, places to stay, the provision of resources to enable their living—as Paul makes clear.)

Not having a Minister in placement is a reality for a growing number of our Uniting Church Congregations, now, as the decrease in numbers has brought with it a decline in offerings and therefore a reduced capacity to support a stipended minister.

Is this something that might be considered by more congregations, in an intentional way, into the future? Do we need to move away from dependence on “the paid person” as the local leader (and often, the person expected to “do all the ministry”), and strengthen the resilience of the whole people of God who make up the Congregation in each of these places? Could we reshape local ministry so that it equipped and resources the gifted people of God to lead worship and other church activities, rather than sitting back and being consumers of whatever the paid person delivers?

And perhaps alongside that: should we be encouraging our stipended ministers to focus elsewhere than on the Sunday worship? To be resourcing and equipping people for their own ministries, to be developing missional plans and fostering community engagement? To be enabling the whole people of God to be confident in sharing their faith, serving people in need, and living as active disciples in all of their life? This would be more in line with the way that leaders functioned in the early church.

That’s a challenge that is worth considering. After all, our Basis of Union (picking up on 1 Cor 12) actually affirms that “every member of the Church is engaged to confess the faith of Christ crucified and to be his faithful servant … the one Spirit has endowed the members of Christ’s Church with a diversity of gifts … all ministries have a part in the ministry of Christ.” (Basis of Union paragraph 12).

We are all ministers. We are all gifted by the Spirit. We are all equipped to serve. We are all part of the ministry of Christ—not just the paid person! How might that best translate into a reshaped form of worship?

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Another insight into the nature of worship in the early church communities is that it was spontaneous. That is very clearly the case in Corinth, a community that caused Paul quite some angst. Indeed, the critical issues he addresses in the later part of the letter (1 Cor 12–14) arise out of the highly spontaneous, seemingly chaotic situation that characterised worship in Corinth.

Such worship had more the nature of a dialogue between conversation partners, rather than a monologue delivered by one person to a group of silent listeners. We can see this in a simple way, with the references to “interpreters” in what Paul writes to the Corinthians. Whilst there are people who contribute words of prophecy, pray in tongues, or speak in tongues (1 Cor 14), in each case there is the need for someone to interpret these phenomena.

What would it take to move towards a style of worship that more closely reflected this central ethos of gathering? That’s a challenging way ahead for us to consider. Could our worship be different, in this regard? As we explore the different possibilities for worship, once we start to gather together again in person, we ought to be stimulated by this kind of exploration of different options, of fresh expressions, of evolving ideas.

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Another question: where did the early followers of Jesus gather? Luke’s account of the early church in Jerusalem indicates that they met in homes on a daily basis (Acts 2:46; 5:42). Commentators on the letters in the New Testament have made it clear that the earliest churches met in the homes of wealthy patrons—there are pointers towards this in letters to Corinth, to Rome, and in the letters of John. (See Rom 16:5; 1 Cor 16:19; Col 4:15; Philemon 2; 2 John 10, and perhaps also 2 John 1.)

When we start planning to regather as Congregations, how should we do this? Perhaps we should consider, not gathering en masse in a large building, but meeting others in smaller groups, in homes, sharing together on a regular basis (and not necessarily on a Sunday morning!)—with appropriate social distancing, of course. Let’s plan for some different ways of gathering, not all together in one large body, but in focused smaller groups.

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It is also worth pondering the fact that, for so many of the early followers of Jesus, coming together for worship was not the primary purpose for gathering. The indications from New Testament texts are that the earliest followers of Jesus came together to share in meals, to pray together, to share their lives with one another, to receive teaching on the life of faith, and to strengthen practices that are integral to discipleship.

Worship was part of that, but not ever the primary purpose (and certainly not the sole purpose) of gathering together. Worship was but one stream amongst a number of elements essential to these gatherings. What would it mean for us to work to this set of priorities into our planning for the future?

This central feature of the life of the early followers of Jesus is worth pondering and exploring: how might we follow this, and foster it, in our own times?

For Jews in the first century, the synagogue was more akin to a community centre, and much less like a sanctuary set aside for worship. Archaeology has shown that first-century synagogues did not have “Jewish” features; they were simply public buildings with benches lining the walls. The architecture of the buildings reflected the primary role of synagogues as Jewish community centres. People gathered for all manner of social and community activities. Worship was a secondary use of the space.

This carried over into the ways that early followers of Jesus lived out their faith in their daily lives. There was no separation between “church” and the rest of life. Faith was to be lived out in the actions and behaviours of life. Faith informed everything. Faith was a way of living, a way of doing, rather than a set of beliefs, a doctrinal creed. To be a follower of Jesus meant to be engaged with other people, assisting them, caring for them, serving them, attending to their needs.

Indeed, there is a strong view amongst scholars that the main reason for the growth of the church over the first two centuries was much less to do with doctrinal beliefs and verbal evangelism, much more to do with acts of charity, deeds of care and compassion towards others. Christians, simply, loved one another (just as Jesus commanded them to do!)

(See the work of Rodney Stark, summarised in https://thejesusquestion.org/2013/01/20/the-rise-of-christianity-by-rodney-stark/; for a discussion of the contemporary relevance of this view, see https://time.com/5824128/early-christian-caritas-coronavirus/ )

So, when Paul writes about “spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1), he makes it clear that this means living a life wholly committed to discipleship in every way—reaching out to others, serving people in need, giving up self-interest, and not totally focussed on the worship gathering alone. That is most surely a way of being that we could well emulate in our own lives, today.

So Paul encourages the Romans to “contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers” (12:13) and reminds them that “each of us must please our neighbour for the good purpose of building up the neighbour” (15:2). He advises the Corinthians to maintain positive relationships with those who do not share faith in Jesus (1 Cor 10:27) and to follow the principle, “do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other” (1 Cor 10:24).

To the Philippians, he writes “let each of you look … to the interests of others” (Phil 2:4), and he urges the Thessalonians to “encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them” (1 Thess 5:14). All of this is outward-oriented, community-focussed, and following the direction of the injunction to “love your neighbour” (Lev 19:18, quoted by Jesus at Mark 12:31).

And that, more than any particular style or form of worship, is what should best characterise the followers of Jesus today. Are we up for the challenge??

It’s been two months under restrictions—what will our future look like? (2)

It’s now been two months since we moved into a period when restrictions on social gatherings came into force because of the spread of the COVID-19 virus. As restrictions are gradually eased, people are starting to grapple with what that will look like. How will hope be found, in what lies ahead?

I took the opportunity after one month, to step back and assess: what have we learnt, during this intense and most unusual period of time? (See https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/22/its-been-just-over-a-month-but-there-have-been-lots-of-learnings/)

Now my mind is thinking about what the future might look like. People are struggling with number of matters. These matters have been the subject of conversations in my household over recent weeks, as Elizabeth and I think about what the future might hold, and how we need to prepare for it, both personally, and as a church.

As we consider these struggles, I want to look beyond, to what a hope-filled, missionally-engaged future might await us. So this is the second in a series of posts in which I muse about a series of issues that emerge as we think about this. The first was focussed on “where” people are wanting to be in that future time.

This post reflects on the “when” of our hopes for the future. How often have you heard someone refer, longingly, to “the way things used to be”? How often have you heard people lament that they would really like things to be “just like they used to be”?

This is a refrain in society—let’s get back to when life was simpler, people were friendlier, choices were easier. It is also a refrain in the church—let’s get back to when buildings were filled on Sundays, Friday night youth groups were thriving, Sunday Schools were overflowing. Ah, the good old days …

It is still a struggle for some people to try to move beyond this yearning for the past. When they try to imagine what it will be like when we get back to meeting in person, such people simply have in mind that things will be “just like they used to be”. The natural human urge is for us to move out of a time of upheaval, right back into the comfort zone of what is familiar, what is predictable, what has been the comforting routine of “life as usual”.

That is no less the case in the present period of COVID-19 restrictions. Back to church worship on a Sunday morning, seeking the much-loved group of friends once again, sitting in the usual spot, singing the favourite hymns, sharing the chit-chat over morning tea—church as usual, just if nothing had happened!

We can’t, of course, go back to the old familiar patterns. COVID-19 has ensured that this will be the case. We will need to clean and disinfect buildings regularly, maintain contact lists of all people attending any event, ensure that all physical touch elements in worship are modified, and, for the moment, ensure that there is adherence to social distancing and the limits on numbers in the building. And we would be well-advised not to sing when we gather for worship, for that is a high risk activity. Things will be different.

“Behold, I am about to do a new thing”, the prophet of old long ago declared to the people of Israel (Isa 43:19). To the people of Israel who had been decades in exile in Babylon, the word of the Lord spoke of hope and promise, of a new initiative, stepping out in a new way. The people journey back across the wilderness, heading back to the land where their ancestors had lived for centuries.

Without the “new thing” of the Lord, the people of Israel would have remained in exile and, presumably, have diminished in their distinctiveness, threatening the existence of the people of God as a nation called to be “a holy priesthood”. Finding the “new thing” that is happening in our own time is important.

See further at https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/14/ministry-and-mission-in-the-midst-of-change-and-transition-luke-2113/

So the question for us could well be: what is the “new thing” that God is doing, that the Spirit is calling to us to take part in, as public society begins to reactivate, as church begins to regather, in the weeks ahead?

I have read a number of pointers about how about society will need to be structured differently after the current restrictions have been eased and then lifted. In what I have read, there are a number of things that point directly at how things will need to change when we gather as a church.

One commentator, Tomas Pueyo, has noted that “Social gatherings should be avoided if a lot of people are close to each other, sing, talk a lot, or commingle. Indoor, confined areas are much worse than outdoors activities.” (See Tomas Pueyo, “Coronavirus: Prevent Seeding and Spreading”, https://medium.com/@tomaspueyo/coronavirus-prevent-seeding-and-spreading-e84ed405e37d)

Both of those factors place church gatherings, worship services, morning teas, and other group gatherings, into the high risk category. They are usually indoors, inviting people into close personal contact with others. And singing—we always sing when we gather, for grace, for praise, for communion, for benedictions. All high risk.

The same commentator, Tomas Pueyo, has noted that “Time matters. A short time is probably ok. Hours probably not.” That might please some people, if we apply it to church—short is better, no more long droning sermons!

But short worship services will be hard to monitor—even a short time for worship sees many people on site for quite some time, first while setting up, then in social mingling afterwards (and even the occasional “car park conversations” that prolong the time together even more!).

How we gather, what we do when we gather, cannot simply be stepping back into what we used to do. We are entering a time when things must be different. How will we engage with that challenge? How will we ensure that we don’t just step back into the past and settle into the well-worn routines? What will church look like, for us, in the future? That is the challenging question that sits before us, now, as we consider our future as the church in post-COVID times.

Thanks again to Elizabeth for the conversations that have shaped these ideas as we talk about future hopes for the church.

See also https://millennialpastor.ca/2020/05/24/there-is-no-going-back-to-normal-or-the-glory-days-this-is-the-beginning/

and my series of blogs on life during COVID-19:

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/22/its-been-two-months-under-restrictions-what-will-our-future-look-like-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/22/its-been-just-over-a-month-but-there-have-been-lots-of-learnings/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/05/the-times-they-are-are-a-changin/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/04/not-this-year-so-what-about-next-year/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/11/when-we-come-together-2-values-and-principles-in-the-midst-of-a-pandemic/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/15/when-you-come-together-reflections-on-community-in-the-midst-of-a-pandemic/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/01/pastoral-letter-to-the-canberra-region-presbytery-of-the-uniting-church-in-australia-31-march-2020/

It’s been two months under restrictions—what will our future look like? (1)

It’s now been two months since we moved into a period when restrictions on social gatherings came into force because of the spread of the COVID-19 virus. The full set of restrictions that were put into place are beginning to be eased, with more changes still to come. Governments across the country are making announcements, indicating timetables, looking with hope to the future.

As restrictions are gradually eased, people are starting to grapple with what that will look like. Some are anxious about moving too rapidly to lift current restrictions. Some are hopeful that we can start meeting again in person very, very soon. And some are angry about the intrusion of governments into our lives, the measures in place seen as unwarranted restrictions on our freedoms.

I took the opportunity after one month, to step back and assess: what have we learnt, during this intense and most unusual period of time? (See https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/22/its-been-just-over-a-month-but-there-have-been-lots-of-learnings/)

I want now to offer some reflections from my own perspective on what the future might look like. I am aware of a number of matters which remain a struggle for people, and I offer these thoughts with particular reference to the struggles that people in my church (the Uniting Church in Australia) are dealing with.

These matters have been the subject of conversations in my household over recent weeks, as Elizabeth and I think about what the future might hold, and how we need to prepare for it, both personally, and as a church. From within these struggles, I want to look beyond, to what a hope-filled, missionally-engaged future might await us. So this is the first of a series of posts in which I muse about a series of issues that emerge as we think about this.

First, lets think about Sundays. It is still a struggle for many people to imagine anything other than “Sunday morning” when they speak about “church”. The dominance of the Sunday morning worship service, in the minds of so many people, is abundantly clear. Ministers have known this forever—how many times have we heard the half-joking, half-serious comment, “well, you really only work for one hour on one day each week, don’t you?” Grrrrr!

Church, of course, is far more than Sunday morning worship. And people do make the connection from “church” as worship, to visiting hospitals, running a youth group, feeding the hungry, lobbying the local member, providing shelter to homeless people, or doing the shopping for the shut-in down the street. These are seen great things to do—but for many, they are viewed as a kind of optional extra beyond the Sunday morning worship gathering.

Somehow, over the centuries of history that the church has existed, the Sunday morning worship gathering has come to be seen as the very heart, the essential centre, of being church. The importance of gathering to worship has taken over all other elements in being church. In our own time, the dominance of the Sunday morning worship gathering is clear.

We talk about “going to church”—meaning worship in the church building. We ask, “what time is church?”—meaning the time for Sunday worship. We say, “see you in church”—often meaning next Sunday morning. Sunday morning worship has taken over our sense of what it means to be church.

In this view, “church” is really all about hymns and prayers, sermons and morning teas, rosters, and rosters, and more rosters! So the Sunday gathering has become an end in itself. Many people look to Sunday worship in the church building as the time and place for them to carry out their Christian duty. Church has been completely conflated to worship.

A fuller understanding of worship is required. Worship should not be the END. Worship should not be what is always in view, when we think about “church”. Worship should actually be a MEANS to fostering a sense of missional activity in which we share the good news of Jesus in order to build up the body of Christ. The end, from this perspective, is not the time of worship. The end is missional engagement in the world. One of the means to strengthen that end (and only one, amongst a number of things) is worship, as a gathered community.

We need to struggle some more with the implications of this way of seeing things. “Church” is much more than Sunday morning. But so much frenetic activity over the past two months, when gathering in person has not been possible, has been devoted to ensuring that, even if we can’t meet together in person, there is still some “church” happening on Sunday morning—online, on Facebook, on YouTube, on ZOOM. Because, you know, “church” means “worship”.

Let’s struggle to live beyond this blinkered and limited view. Let’s work to foster a strong sense of “church” being a seven-day-a-week enterprise. Let’s talk much more about being disciples, following the risky way of Jesus, and let’s be more active in the world amidst all the diversity of humanity that we encounter. Let’s talk much less about being members, settled into a comfortable club, and let’s not be bound by the traditional customs and practices of our own little clique.

Certainly, scripture contains an encouragement to meet regularly for worship (Heb 10:25), and there are passages that provide specific guidelines and instructions relating to worship in various places (1 Cor 11, 1 Cor 12-14, Col 3:16, Eph 5:18-20). But worship is not all that there is to being church.

Paul uses the language of worship when he writes to the Romans, appealing to them “to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1). The letter continues with a string of exhortations, injunctions, and instructions, which point very clearly to the view that “spiritual worship” entails living a life wholly committed to discipleship in every way, not simply focussed on the worship gathering. That outward orientation is something that we could do well to hold to. Church is more than just Sunday worship.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/24/its-been-two-months-under-restrictions-what-will-our-future-look-like-2/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/22/its-been-just-over-a-month-but-there-have-been-lots-of-learnings/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/05/the-times-they-are-are-a-changin/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/04/not-this-year-so-what-about-next-year/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/11/when-we-come-together-2-values-and-principles-in-the-midst-of-a-pandemic/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/15/when-you-come-together-reflections-on-community-in-the-midst-of-a-pandemic/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/01/pastoral-letter-to-the-canberra-region-presbytery-of-the-uniting-church-in-australia-31-march-2020/

This is the world we live in, this is the Gospel we believe in

This month I have started fulltime into a regional ministry role with the Canberra Region Presbytery of the Uniting Church in Australia. The Presbytery includes Congregations, Faith Communities, and Uniting Agencies across the ACT and in coastal and rural areas in the southeast of NSW.

I am joined in another fulltime regional ministry role by Andrew Smith, a colleague minister in the Uniting Church, and we work with administrative support staff, as well as in a collegial relationship with the Saltbush Project of our church, serving rural and remote Congregations, and Uniting, building community connections in locations across the region.

My role is described as Presbytery Minister Wellbeing, and I will be working with Ministers and Pastors, Congregations and Faith Communities, to guide them in their development and growth and support their leadership in their communities. I am charged to provide pastoral care, leadership development, and other training. There is a significant administrative component in the position. Despite this (or because of this?), I am looking forward to what this role will set before me.

Andrew has been called to serve as Presbytery Minister Congregation Futures, working with Congregations and Faith Communities, Pastors and Ministers, to empower their spiritual life, develop missional capacity, strengthen missional leadership, and build strong missional networks across the region. We are already working closely, and look forward to a constructive collaboration over the time ahead.

In the Service of Induction on 21 February 2020, we were privileged to have the President of the National Assembly, Dr Deidre Palmer, preach a thoughtful and stirring sermon. She focussed on the call to serve embedded in Luke 4:16-30 and the prayer of hope expressed in Psalm 13. What follows are the words that I offered in response at this service.

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Co-Chairpersons, President, colleagues and friends, I thank you for your welcome. I am pleased to be in Canberra, here because Elizabeth was called by God through the church, to the right place at the right time, to be minister of the Tuggeranong Congregation. We are very content to be here. The cats are contented, and after a year in our house, the veggies are growing abundantly.

Maisie, Felix, and Fearghal, settled into life in Canberra

I am grateful for the support and encouragement that I have received as I have undertaken the slow and extended process, over the last year, of working my way into this role of Wellbeing within your Presbytery.

I come with a commitment to support and serve the leadership of our 29 congregations, both lay and ordained; to equip and encourage the whole people of God in order that together we might be faithful followers of Jesus; and to work to strengthen the mission and ministry that is undertaken by our congregations and faith communities.

In a world where a mother and her children can be incinerated by an act of savage fury, we need the Gospel of God, which invites us to value others deeply and to share with others in the depths of pain …

In a world where barriers are built and walls reinforced, where borders are patrolled and security is intensified, where fear and distrust leads us to keep at bay those who are perceived as different, foreign, strangers, we need to live out the Gospel of welcoming acceptance, so that we may no longer be strangers to one another …

In a world where stereotypes are promulgated and intolerance of difference and diversity in personal identity is growing, we need to reinforce that the Gospel in which we stand calls us to value diversity, love everyone, and work together to strengthen the common good in society …

In a world where land is taken, communities are neglected, the voices of Indigenous Peoples are silenced and their peoples and communities are marginalised, we need to live by our covenant commitment to honour and respect them, to listen and share with them, to seek a destiny together with the First Peoples of this continent and its islands …

In a world where vested interests cajole and threaten, pouring money into supporting ventures which continue to inflict damage on the environment and destroy ecosystems, we need the Gospel of renewal and reconciliation for the whole creation …

In a world where bushfires and cyclones wreak havoc, where droughts and floods destabilise, we need the Gospel of patient care and loving concern, looking to rebuild lives and strengthen community resilience, which all comes from the central command, that we are to love one another …

In a world where captives are tortured, prisoners are held unjustly, systems are corrupted, and injustice is contagious, we need the Gospel which calls us to set free the prisoner, enable the blind to see, and offer God’s gracious liberty as a sign of the year of the Lord’s favour …

This is the world we live in, and this is the Gospel we believe in. It invites us into wholeness, shalom, wellbeing.

The 29 Congregational units in this Presbytery cover 54 locations under the banner of the Uniting Church. Every Sunday, when people in our Presbytery gather together to worship, every weekday, when people gather in our buildings to eat and talk, to listen and learn, we demonstrate that we are committed to this Gospel, as the good news for all, that we seek to live it out to the fullest.

Our congregations and faith communities are the lifeblood of that Gospel in our region. Our pastors and ministers are the people who call and care, who proclaim and practice the good news for our world in each of those places, as we live out that Gospel.

Canberra Region Presbytery Ministers and Pastors with the Co-Chairs of Presbytery, on retreat in October 2019

I am looking forward to working with you all, to continue working with Amy and Janise in the Presbytery Office, and especially to work closely with Andrew as we offer resourcing and guidance as the ministers you have called to serve across this Presbytery, charged to support ministers and pastors as they offer their leadership, called to equip faith communities and congregations to be resilient, faithful and engaged with their local communities.

I am committed to working with you, alongside each of you, to seek the wellbeing of our church and to contribute to the common good in society. I look forward to the adventures that lie ahead, as together we serve the Gospel in the world through our church.

*****

The Canberra Region Presbytery website is at https://canberra.uca.org.au/About-Us

A pastoral letter that I wrote as I started into the role in early February is at https://canberra.uca.org.au/presbytery-news/a-pastoral-letter-from-rev-dr-john-squires/

An earlier pastoral letter from Presbytery officers, sent during the height of the bushfire crisis, can be read at https://canberra.uca.org.au/presbytery-news/a-pastoral-message-for-the-bushfire-crisis/

The Presbytery newsletter for Summer 2019-2020, with the theme celebrating transitions, can be read at https://canberra.uca.org.au/presbytery-news/viewpoint-summer-2019/

Celebrating Transitions: into a strange and graceful ease … (part two)

Into a strange and graceful ease is a phrase from a prayer by Ted Loder, from Guerillas of Grace (1984)

The theme of the November meeting of my Presbytery (Canberra Region) is Celebrating Transitions. As people of faith, we know that at the heart of our faith sits a dynamic of transition that was lived out to the fullest by Jesus of Nazareth. The life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus—the story which we remember every Easter, which undergirds every Sunday gathering—this is a story of transition. We are called, as people of faith, to celebrate transitions.

This year, Elizabeth and I have spent time with various cohorts of ministers who are undertaking training in the Foundations of Transitional Ministry, with a view to being accredited as an Intentional Interim Ministry (IIM). We took part as co-teachers in the course, along with Rob McFarlane, a colleague who has taught this course now for almost two decades. It was a rich experience of learning in community.

One of the prayers included in the IIM resources offered these words: eternal God, lead me now out of the familiar setting of my doubts and fears, beyond my pride and my need to be secure, into a strange and graceful ease with my true proportions and yours …

The prayer is by Ted Loder, from his book Guerillas of Grace (1984). It is a fine prayer for all ministry practitioners to pray, on a regular basis, throughout their ministry. The prayer invites us to find our true selves in the midst of change and traction. It calls us to sit, at ease with ourselves, in new ways of being, working, and living.

Alongside the prayer, the course offered many resources, designed to help Ministers think about their ministry and work in ways that embrace transition. A number of these resources are also applicable to anyone who takes responsibility for pastoral care, proclamation of the Gospel, missional engagement, or loving and compassionate service, within their local community of faith. Each of these resources will help to equip all of us in faithful ministry within that context of transition.

In a time of transition, people will find themselves in a liminal space, that in-between space, the place of not yet being where we hope to arrive at, still in a place where the last holds sway, but in a place of transition, of being not settled.

First, I note the importance of story for ministry, and especially for people engaged in transitional ministry. Story is what grounds our experiences in our lives. Story is the way that we make sense of the experiences we have in life. Story is how we share our deeper selves with others. And story is foundational to the whole dynamic of the Gospel calling and forming the Church, and the Church living out the Gospel as it takes part in the Mission of God.

Second, when we consider leadership styles, we need to be aware of the range of styles exist, and discern what is most suited to a certain situation, what another style of leadership might offer in that situation. In the course, we used the story of Moses and Aaron, and the people of Israel, to connect leadership styles with scriptural reflections at various points. Participants focussed on leadership for transition, leadership in the midst of turmoil, and the application of spiritual gifts to leadership positions. The figures of Moses and Aaron have some things to offer about each of these areas.

Within the church, it is important for us to grasp the way that our core beliefs shape our primary values. Our values manifest themselves in specific attitudes we foster, which then can be observed and experienced in tangible behaviours we undertake. Drilling down through the levels, from the behaviours at the surface to the deepest level of primary values, is critical to the way that we interact with other people in the exercise of our ministries.

Stories of conflict are endemic throughout the church. Everyone in ministry has experienced conflict. Everyone in ministry will experience conflict in the foreseeable future, on into the distant future, as long as we are in ministry. The way that human beings interact will guarantee this. And transition provides a hotbed or potential conflicts, which need to be identified, and dealt with, appropriately.

It is vital for Ministers and Pastors, Officers of Congregations and Church Council members, to know how we operate in situations of conflict—both in situations of relative calm, and then on those occasions when a storm shift happens and we are thrust into the the middle of a conflict, with raging turbulence all around us. Knowing how we operate, and what options there are for operating differently, in such situations, is an important learning to have.

Taking responsibility for the dynamics that are at work in conflict requires us to be determined not to ignore the conflict but to address the issues head on. We need to deal with the conflict in ways that are respectful, not demonising or stereotyping the other party in the conflict. We ought to seek to invite engagement with others in the conflict, rather than scaring people off from a way to address it.

Conflict resolution should be both constructive (ensuring that more damage is not done through the process employed), and productive (moving to an outcome that is mutually acceptable for the parties involved). And we need to know ourselves, to know how we operate, in the midst of these situations. Transitions inevitably occur with associated conflicts. Knowing ourselves, and managing others, is critical to being able to navigate successfully through those conflicts.

Much of the course was premised upon the analysis of systems, and how churches work as systems. This is the final, and most challenging, dimension of working constructively in the situation of transition. Strategic interventions into the system are central to providing effective leadership in ministry when transition is clearly at work.

To this effect, there are some wonderful stories contained in Friedman’s Fables, one of the creations of American rabbi, therapist, and ultimately management consultant, Edwin Friedman. “No living part of the system was unaffected by this action”, one story recounts. That is always the case in a situation of transition.

A time of transition provides a wonderful opportunity for leaders to effect constructive change—if they are able to identify, plan, and implement a strategic intervention, encouraging people to let go of the past, and then committing together follow on through the process, making sure that it sticks.

I hope you, like me, are seized with joy at the abundance of possibilities that lie before us in this time of transition. I hope you will be able to enter into the theme of our Presbytery, that you will rejoice in Celebrating Transitions, as you pray, eternal God, lead me now out of the familiar setting of my doubts and fears, beyond my pride and my need to be secure, into a strange and graceful ease with my true proportions and yours …

You can read about the Interim Ministry Network at https://imnedu.org

See also

https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/15/celebrating-transitions-into-a-strange-and-graceful-ease-part-one/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/14/ministry-and-mission-in-the-midst-of-change-and-transition-luke-2113/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/09/29/gracious-openness-and-active-discipleship-as-key-characteristics-of-church-membership/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/07/09/advocacy-and-climate-change-growth-and-formation-treaty-with-first-peoples-synod-2019/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/05/17/discovering-new-futures-letting-go-of-the-old/

http://discoversacredspace.blogspot.com/2011/03/lead-me-out-of-my-doubts-and-fears.html

Celebrating Transitions: into a strange and graceful ease … (part one)

Into a strange and graceful ease is a phrase that comes from a prayer by Ted Loder, from Guerillas of Grace (1984)

Look around you, when you gather this coming Sunday for worship. What looks familiar? The people beside you? The person (or persons) out the front, leading worship? The pictures or plaques on the wall? And what sounds familiar? The music from organ, or piano,,or guitar, or voice? The voices reading, the voices praying, the voices responding? What tastes familiar? Perhaps the plates of food and cups of drink available after worship?

And what looks different? New people, new images? What sounds different? New music, new voices?

Now, step outside into your local community. Recall what you see as you move around your community. What changes do you notice as you move around the shops, the streets, the parks? What things remain relentlessly the same?

Now, reflect on how much is still the same, and how much is quite different, in your church—and in your community.

How we, as church, respond to the changes that are taking place around us, and within us, is a critical issue. How we respond to the inevitable changes and transitions that are taking place, is a key factor in our being faithful, as church, in the present time.

This year, much of my focus on ministry has been on transitions. Elizabeth and I have moved interstate. We have changed our place of residence (we are in a house that Presbytery has recently purchased) and we are both in new Ministry positions—Elizabeth, at Tuggeranong, and myself, at Queanbeyan.

Indeed, the Presbytery where we are now serving is at a significant moment of transition, as leadership changes, ministers move on to new placements, congregations consider new futures, and we look to a full complement in Presbytery staff in 2020, as I move into a fulltime role with Presbytery, alongside of a new colleague, Andrew Smith.

Life is always comprised of transitions. And how we deal with those transitions, is critical. Do we resent transition and change? Or do we celebrate transitions when they come?

All ministry, these does, is taking place in contexts where changes are afoot (or need to be afoot!), where transitions are taking place, where the ground seems to be shifting under our feet as we walk the pathway ahead of us. Every ministry context these days reflects our post-Christendom context, with a growing multifaith mix in society. We live in a world which has an increasingly vocal secularised or anti-faith element, where the church is both smaller than in its heyday, and also occupying a very different place in (or on the edges of) society. We are all in a context of transition.

The theme of the November meeting of my Presbytery (Canberra Region) is Celebrating Transitions. As people of faith, we know that at the heart of our faith sits a dynamic of transition that was lived out to the fullest by Jesus of Nazareth. The life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus—the story which we remember every Easter, which undergirds every Sunday gathering—this is a story of transition. We are called, as people of faith, to celebrate transitions.

This year, Elizabeth and I have spent time with various cohorts of ministers who are undertaking training in the Foundations of Transitional Ministry, with a view to being accredited as an Intentional Interim Ministry (IIM). We took part as co-teachers in the course, along with Rob McFarlane, a colleague who has taught this course now for almost two decades. It was a rich experience of learning in community.

One of the prayers included in the IIM resources offered these words: eternal God, lead me now out of the familiar setting of my doubts and fears, beyond my pride and my need to be secure, into a strange and graceful ease with my true proportions and yours …

The prayer is by Ted Loder, from his book Guerillas of Grace (1984). It is a fine prayer for all ministry practitioners to pray, on a regular basis, throughout their ministry. The prayer invites us to find our true selves in the midst of change and traction. It calls us to sit, at ease with ourselves, in new ways of being, working, and living.

It is also a prayer that is most applicable for all in leadership within churches, whether they be ordained, commissioned, or appointed, to pray and meditate upon. Lead us out of the familiar and known. Lead us into a strange and graceful ease with ourselves. May it be so!

See also

https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/14/ministry-and-mission-in-the-midst-of-change-and-transition-luke-2113/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/09/29/gracious-openness-and-active-discipleship-as-key-characteristics-of-church-membership/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/07/09/advocacy-and-climate-change-growth-and-formation-treaty-with-first-peoples-synod-2019/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/05/17/discovering-new-futures-letting-go-of-the-old/

http://discoversacredspace.blogspot.com/2011/03/lead-me-out-of-my-doubts-and-fears.html

Please Leave ?? No — Please Stay !!

There has been a lot of media interest in the recent declaration by the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, concerning the way that some dioceses, a number of ministers, and many, many people of faith are grappling with our changed understandings of gender and sexuality, and how that relates to Christian faith.

It is a complex matter, with many nuances, that deserve careful consideration, and compassionate reflection.

The words of the Sydney Diocese leader, however, cast the situation in a clear black-and-white manner, with the stinger of a sharp command to those with whom he (and many in his Diocese) disagree: “please leave”.

The full set of words from this part of his speech is instructive: “My own view is that if people wish to change the doctrine of our Church, they should start a new church or join a church more aligned to their views – but do not ruin the Anglican Church by abandoning the plain teaching of Scripture. Please leave us.”

So sayeth the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, the Rev. Dr Glenn Davies.

(A full account of his speech to the Anglican Synod is reported on the Sydney Diocese webpage at https://sydneyanglicans.net/news/guarding-the-faith-in-a-changing-world and in Eternity News at https://www.eternitynews.com.au/australia/please-leave-us-sydneys-anglican-archbishop-tells-progressive-christians/)

But there are a number of problems with what Dr Davies said.

The Archbishop distanced himself from “people who] wish to change the doctrine of our Church”. The first problem is, that doctrine is always changing. It was changing in the early decades of the church. It changed significantly in the various Reformations of the 16th century, under the leadership of Jan Huss, Martin Luther, Jean Calvin, Huldrych Zwingli, John Knox, and then the response of the Council of Trent in the Roman Catholic Church.

It changed in 1540, when Henry VIII of England sanctioned the complete destruction of shrines to saints, and further in 1542, when Henry dissolved monasteries across the country—actions which changed doctrines and led to the formation of the very church in which Glenn Davies was ordained and then consecrated!

It changed when, during the Enlightenment, theologians and scholars applied principles of rational thinking to scriptural texts and faith concerns. It continues to change in the postmodern world, as new discoveries and insights lead Christian leaders to bring new questions to faith issues, and to formulate beliefs in ways that connect with and make sense within the changing world.

In my own denomination, the Uniting Church in Australia, we recognise this when we recall the paragraph in our Basis of Union that affirms “the continuing witness and service”, not only of evangelists, prophets, and martyrs, but also of scholars; and which notes that as we engage with “literary, historical and scientific enquiry … [of] recent centuries”, we are able to develop “an informed faith” of relevance to the current times.

Doctrine is dynamic; it is always in a state of flux. Theology is transient; it is always developing. Church teaching is constantly evolving; it is never static.

(On my take on interpreting the classic creeds of the church, see https://johntsquires.com/2018/11/02/interpreting-the-creeds-in-a-later-age/; on how the Uniting Church envisages the factors involved in this process, see https://johntsquires.com/2018/07/30/seeking-an-informed-faith/)

Second, the Archbishop referred to “the plain teaching of Scripture”. The second problem, then is that scripture does not actually have a plain teaching. There are words, written in the Bible, which need to be interpreted, if they are to be understood and applied to contemporary life. There is no plain and simple teaching in these words; they are words which always need interpretation.

This interpretation starts with the choice of text. We do not have an “original version”; we have copies of copies, some complete, many fragmented. There are always options to consider–and we all rely on experts in this matter. Then comes the matter of language. Biblical texts were written in languages other than English. We English-speakers are reliant on the careful work of translators and scholars, seeking to render the phrases of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, into contemporary English. There are already multiple interpretive decisions that have been made for us, in our English Bibles.

Then, interpretation needs to take into account the differences in culture that exist, between the patriarchal, honour-shame cultures of antiquity, and the current state of play within (in our case) contemporary Australian society. We can’t just assume that something from an ancient culture “makes sense” in our contemporary culture, let alone that it can be “directly applied” into our context. There are interpretive decisions to be made.

(I have written about this dimension at https://johntsquires.com/2018/12/07/to-articulate-faith-contextually/)

The process of interpretation also needs to bear in mind how the usage of particular words and ideas has changed over time. Awful, for instance, once had a very positive sense, “full full of awe or admiration”, whilst nice had an earlier sense of “silly, foolish”. Guy (from the historical British figure Guy Fawkes) had an earlier sense of a frightening figure, not the generalised reference to men that it has today, whilst meat in earlier centuries was a catch-all term referring to food in general. (And, most pertinent to the particular issue at hand, “gay” once had a very different point of reference in English!)

These kinds of shifts in usage are also found in terms that appear in the Bible, especially in translations from some centuries ago. We need to factor that in to our interpretation.

And then, reading and interpretation of the Bible involves application, discerning how and in what ways a biblical passage is relevant for us today. That means knowing what our situation is as well as what we hear in the biblical text, and connecting the two. It is not simple or straightforward.

In an earlier interview about his view of matters of sexuality (and other issues), Dr Davies referred disparagingly to “a virus in the national church, caused by not teaching properly the word of God” (see https://www.thepastorsheart.net/podcast/2019/9/17/archbishop-davies-on-public-christian-leadership).

That’s an unfair and unhelpfully polemical characterisation of what is a complex and nuanced matter—reading biblical passages about sexuality in contemporary society. The biblical texts about sexual relationships involving people of the same gender are not simple and self-evident prohibitions on such behaviour, and should not be read as such.

Elizabeth and I have contributed a discussion of this matter which, I believe, offers more constructive lines of understanding; see https://johntsquires.com/2018/07/30/marrying-same-gender-people-a-biblical-rationale/ as well as https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/26/human-sexuality-and-the-bible/ and https://www.unitingnetworkaustralia.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/02-Human-Sexuality-in-Biblical-Perspectives.pdf.

(More generally, see https://johntsquires.com/2018/07/30/the-word-of-god-scripture-and-jesus-christ/)

Third, the Archbishop—quite strikingly—has urged certain people to leave the Anglican Church. I believe that advocating that people leave one church to start another church is not a helpful activity. Anglicans, like other mainstream denominations, have a commitment to unity in the church. So, the third problem is a lack of commitment to the unity of the church.

That’s quite an amazing position for a leader in a denomination which affirms that it is, indeed, an integral part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church—and which is universally recognised by other denominations as an integral part of that Church.

Each Sunday, in Anglican churches around Australia (and beyond), faithful people affirm, “I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.” That’s a line in the Nicene Creed. And those Anglicans are joined by many Roman Catholics, members of the many Orthodox churches, and quite a number of folk in the various Protestant churches, to say these words together on regular (even weekly) occasions. Across the denominations, there is a commitment to unity.

Not in the Sydney Anglican Diocese, however. The Archbishop’s invitation to those who see things differently from him to leave the church and form their own branch is fracturing the unity of the church even more by this narrow, sectarian dogmatism.

Even his own colleagues, it seems, have recognised that Dr Davies has crossed a line with his rhetoric in recent days (see https://www.theage.com.au/national/even-conservative-rectors-shuddered-why-sydney-archbishop-s-words-hurt-20191018-p531ye.html). Such rhetoric serves only to exacerbate differences and intensify hurt. Is that really being faithful to the office into which he has been called?

The worldwide leader of the Anglican Communion, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Revd Justin Welby, has affirmed that “reconciliation is the hallmark of Anglicanism, the heart of the gospel and a life to which we are all called” (see https://www.anglicancommunion.org/mission/reconciliation.aspx).

Archbishop Welby is promoting through the Anglican Communion a resource entitled Living Reconciliation, which “offers a vision of Church marked by honesty, truthfulness and love … [and] applies the teaching of the Gospel at precisely the point where we need it most today” (see http://living-reconciliation.org/thebook/).

Is the Archbishop of Sydney aware of just how contrary his words are, to the principles of reconciliation and the commitment to an honest, loving church that is being championed by the Archbishop of Canterbury?

Finally, the Archbishop of Sydney is quoted as imploring those with whom he disagrees: do not ruin the Anglican Church. The fourth problem I see is that exploring and developing ideas is not a process of ruination.

Rather, the exploration of ideas and the development of thought is a constructive process that offers a gift to the church at large: the gift of an ever-evolving, ever-refining articulation of beliefs in ways that resonate with life in the contemporary age. Questions, provocations, redefinitions, and developments in thinking and believing are wonderful gifts!

I wouldn’t characterise the process as one of causing ruin. Rather, I would celebrate it and affirm the importance of this process. The problem, it seems to me, is that if you really believe that you have The Truth, then you are impelled to convince others of that Truth. But if you believe you are called to Love others, then you will listen and learn.

Sadly, the Archbishop has demonstrated this stark difference: when we prioritise Truth, we inform, lecture, admonish, even berate; whereas when we prioritise Love, we enter into relationships, affirm, explore, nourish, question, rethink, and develop in community with each other. Quite a different ethos. Quite a different result.

Please Leave? No—Please Stay! To the people addressed by Dr Davies, I say: Please stay in the Christian church and help us to be faithful to the Gospel. Please stay in the Christian church and help us to change in ways that are positive and life-giving. Please stay and gift your distinctive contribution to the life of the church in your locality and beyond.

And to the Archbishop, if he really is committed to the process of leaving, I say: you please leave. Please leave behind homophobic fear and discriminatory rhetoric. Please leave behind your insistence on conformity to your particular dogmatic assertions. Please leave behind your criticisms of those who happen to be born different from you. That’s what I would like you to leave.