Giving Voice, Telling Truth, Talking Treaty: NAIDOC 2019

NAIDOC Week runs for a week each July. NAIDOC originally was an acronym for the National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee. The organising committee behind the day adopted this name in 1991. It has been held, as a week, each year since then.

The theme for NAIDOC Week 2019 is Giving Voice, Telling Truth, Talking Treaty. This is something that all Australians should support. And this is certainly something that people within the Uniting Church are able to support.

The Uniting Church has given voice to First Peoples. Twenty five years ago the Uniting Church entered into a covenant relationship with the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress. The Covenant is an expression of how we seek to listen to the voice of First Peoples. (See https://assembly.uca.org.au/news/item/3035-the-25th-anniversary-of-the-covenant and https://assembly.uca.org.au/resources/covenanting/item/135-covenanting-statement-1994)

A covenant relationship is often an agreement between equals. Yet the relationships between First and Second Peoples is not one between equals. The voice of First Peoples, the place of First Peoples, has a priority over the voices and the place of those of us who have come more recently, in the past two and a half centuries, to this continent and its islands. We are committed to prioritising the voice of the First Peoples.

The Uniting Church is committed to telling truth. This truth is confronting and challenging. In the revised Preamble which was adopted a decade ago by the Uniting Church, we sought to tell the truth. Drawing on the voices of Indigenous Peoples, we have named the settlement of this continent as a colonising movement, generated by foreign imperialism, manifesting in violent invasion and genocidal massacres, spread from north to south, from east to west, of this continent. We must continue to prioritise this commitment to tell the truth. (See https://johntsquires.com/2019/01/16/the-profound-effect-of-invasion-and-colonisations/)

Likewise, at the 14th Assembly, we decided to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery, that medieval theological foundation upon which the worldwide invasion and colonisation of lands was based—including the invasion and colonisation of Terra Australis. This has been part of our commitment to tell the truth. (See https://johntsquires.com/2018/08/13/affirming-the-sovereignty-of-first-peoples-undoing-the-doctrine-of-discovery/)

And the Uniting Church is committed to talking treaty. We are supportive of the formalisation of treaties with the various nations of Peoples who have inhabited, nurtured and cared for this land since time immemorial. This commitment is based on a recognition of the Sovereignty of each of those nations, sovereignty over the land that the people have inhabited, nurtured, and cared for over those many millennia.

Sovereignty, as articulated in the Statement from the Heart of 2017, is understood by the First Peoples as a spiritual notion, reflecting the ancestral tie between the land and the First Peoples (see https://johntsquires.wordpress.com/2018/10/13/on-covenant-reconciliation-and-sovereignty/ and https://johntsquires.wordpress.com/2018/10/13/on-covenant-reconciliation-and-sovereignty/)

Each of the hundreds of nations found before 1788 on this continent hold that sovereignty. The 15th Assembly of the Uniting Church recognised this sovereignty. This current proposal seeks to take the next step with regard to this sovereignty. A treaty between the governments of the invading, colonising settlers and the long-existing nations of First Peoples, is the logical next step. That is the pathway stretching out ahead of us.

Labor governments in Victoria and South Australia have already committed to signing a treaty with Indigenous peoples. SA has appointed a treaty commissioner, Roger Thomas, to consult with Aboriginal communities and help negotiate individual clan-based treaties. This work is now underway and resulting in regional treaties.

Victoria has also appointed a treaty commissioner, Gunditjmara woman Jill Gallagher, who will oversee the development of an elected representative body which will negotiate with the Victorian government on behalf of Victoria’s Aboriginal peoples. (See https://www.google.com.au/amp/s/amp.theguardian.com/australia-news/2019/apr/11/victoria-a-step-closer-to-indigenous-treaty-with-creation-of-first-peoples-assembly)

In NSW, the Aboriginal Land Council has a Strategic Plan which sets its direction. The Plan commits to an ambitious agenda of cultural protection, social wellbeing and economic development. In 2019, it now adds a new political call: that there be a process for establishing a Treaty or Treaties between the NSW Government and the Aboriginal people of this state. (See

http://alc.org.au/about-nswalc/strategic-plan-2018—2022.aspx)

The current NSW state government needs to be pressed with regard to this issue. It is not an optional matter. It is core business.

Finally, the Federal Government needs to be lobbied to return to the process set up some years ago, working towards reconciliation. National governments have formalised treaties with Indigenous peoples in New Zealand and Canada, and parts of the United States of America. (See https://www.google.com.au/amp/s/theconversation.com/amp/why-the-indigenous-in-new-zealand-have-fared-better-than-those-in-canada-84980)

The establishment of a Makarratta Commission within Australia, to oversee and facilitate the making of treaties, is essential to our national wellbeing. As a church, we should be strongly committed to encourage that process.

At the 2019 meeting of the Synod of NSW and the ACT, we have now agreed by consensus to enact a series of proposals to give support to the theme of Giving Voice, Telling Truth, Talking Treaty. A similar proposal was adopted by the Synod of Victoria and Tasmania. The church is committed to reconciliation, giving voice, telling truth, and working to secure treaties.

See https://www.insights.uca.org.au/news/hear-the-statement-from-the-heart

https://victas.uca.org.au/synod-day-three-recap/

https://www.insights.uca.org.au/news/its-a-time-for-a-treaty

Providing for the exercise by men and women of the gifts God bestows upon them: lay people presiding at the sacraments in the Uniting Church

The Uniting Church has a firm commitment to being part of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. This is affirmed in our Basis of Union as well as in many places in liturgies and papers written on various topics.

Belonging to this body, along with many other denominations—Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Baptist, Church of Christ, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, and others—means that we seek to find the things in common, that we hold across the denominations. As members of that one body, we share many beliefs, practices, customs and commitments.

From time to time, however, one of those denominations will make a decision or implement a policy that sets it apart, in some, from the others. This process of differentiation is perfectly normal and quite understandable. Human beings are all different from one another. We have many things in common, but some things that set us apart as different.

The matter of presiding at the sacraments is one such case in point. For twenty-five years, now, the Uniting Church has authorised lay people to preside at the sacraments. In many denominations, this role is the preserve of the clergy who have been ordained, set apart for a priestly role, which includes presiding at the sacraments. So, for the Uniting Church to introduce the practice of authorising lay people to undertake this role, is a distinctive feature.

Of course, there are other practices within the Uniting Church which differentiate us from other members of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. Ordaining women is one such practice; it is not done in many denominations around the world. Permitting ministers to be married is another; some denominations do not have such a practice. The ordaining of a person to the ministry of Deacon, a ministry that is equal in status and equivalent in function alongside the Minister of the Word, is another Uniting Church distinctive.

Despite these distinctive, we still maintain cordial and respectful relationships with other denominations where those practices are not found. We recognise that it is possible to be different within the one body. Diversity is not division, and unity is not uniformity. We co-exist in our diversity within unity.

We need also to note that, within the Uniting Church, authorising lay people to preside at the Sacraments is understood as being faithful to our commitment in the Basis of Union. In that document, the church affirms that the one Spirit has endowed the members of Christ’s Church with a diversity of gifts, and then declares that the Uniting Church will … provide for the exercise by men and women of the gifts God bestows upon them (Basis of Union para 13). Leading a gathering of faithful people in a celebration of one of the sacraments of the church is one such gifting, for which appropriate provision has been made.

Four four days over the last two months, Elizabeth and I have been working with a group of lay leaders from across our Presbytery as they prepare to fulfil this ministry within the community of faith where they worship and serve. It is always an inspiring opportunity, to work with committed people who are equipping themselves for new forms of service.

We take four days, across two weekends, to explore the Biblical passages relevant to the two sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion, as well as the relevant paragraphs from the Basis of Union, which sets out the theological understandings held by the church in relation to these sacraments.

We spend some time exploring the structure of the liturgy for worship in Sunday services, where each sacrament “fits” within that structure, and what the component parts of each sacrament are. We look at the role of symbols, in life in general, and in worship in particular, and explore the various symbolisms inherent in each sacrament.

There are case studies and role plays included in the resources for the group to use. This helps participants to “get inside” the role of Lay Presider, both in the worship itself, and in the times of preparation for each sacrament, such as the pre-Baptism interview with candidates or parents of the child to be baptised.

We spend each Sunday morning attending the worship of a local congregation within the Presbytery, where Holy Communion is being celebrated. This gives participants an opportunity to experience worship led by an experienced minister (either ordained or lay), and then to reflect on the experience with critical insight.

Finally, there is a session for each sacrament devoted to the various practical considerations associated with each sacrament. Each member of the class takes a turn in leading a part of the liturgy, and we discuss matters such as voice projection, eye contact with the congregation, gestures, actions integral to the worship, and so on.

To complete the requirements of the course, participants seeking to become lay presieers must submit four written assignments followed by the conducting of a service with supervisory assessment of the candidate by an experienced Minister or Lay Presider.

In undertaking this course, we demonstrate the way that the Uniting Church works. Every one of the four councils of the church plays a role. We follow the national Assembly guidelines for Lay Presiders, using the educational resources provided by the Synod. The Presbytery (the regional body) offers the training. The local Church Council designates the candidate(s) for this ministry, who must share in the pastoral oversight of the congregation or faith community, and requests the Presbytery to approve them once they have completed their assignments.

The final step is for the Presbytery to approve for the conduct of Sacraments by the authorised Lay Presider within the designated congregation. Authorisation is for a designated period of time, and must be reviewed before it can be renewed, if appropriate, at a later time.

The process is relatively slow and complex, but that is to ensure that not just anybody can perform this role; those who do so must be recognised as gifted for the role, then trained and equipped for the role, before they are authorised.

In part, this is because the Uniting Church takes seriously the process of appropriate equipping people for ministry. In part, it is because of our ecumenical commitments, and sensitivities to how presiding at the Sacraments is understood and practised in other denominations within the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.

And that is something for which, I believe, we ought to be most grateful.

The photo shows participants in the course, Understanding the Sacraments, held mid-2019 in the Canberra Region Presbytery.

For the Assembly guidelines on lay presidency, see https://assembly.uca.org.au/images/stories/ASCMinutes/2013/July/13.07Minutes-Attachment_A-_Lay_presidency_Guidelines.pdf

“Do you believe in the Triune God?”

Every so often, I get asked the question, “Do you believe in the Triune God?”

My answer to that question involves consideration of a number of areas.

One. History

I accept that the Trinity is a helpful way of understanding God that the church has employed throughout most of its history. It arose within the debates that took place amongst philosophically-aware teachers of the church in the third and fourth centuries, so as an historical phenomenon, I can see that it makes a lot of sense within that context.

Three persons, consubstantial, of the same nature, co-inheriting, all makes sense in terms of the philosophical context of the day. Clearly, these were important ideas at the time; they generated vigorous debates amongst church leaders for quite some time!

That was how they thought and wrote, so analysing and describing God in terms of ‘persons’, ‘substance’ and ‘essence’, was utilising the tools of the time. From my studies of the period, and of many of the writings of these teachers as they debated and probed the ideas, I find I can generally admire their intellectual strength and spiritual insight in the course of these debates.

Viewed contextually, in their own time within history, the affirmations about God as “triune” make good sense. I value the concept of the Trinity as a fine example of good, honest, contextual theology.

Two. Scripture

I don’t find that there is a clearly-articulated awareness of a “three-in-one, one-in-three” divine being within either testament of the Bible. At best there are hints and clues which later investigators used, in the 3rd to 5th centuries, as the basis for their own theoretical speculations.

Neither the Hebrew Scriptures nor the Greek New Testament are informed by the developed neo-platonic worldview which was held by those Christian teachers of later centuries. So none of the writers of books which are placed into scripture can articulate things in the way that was later developed.

It is clear to me that a number of the individual elements (both the ‘persons’ and their attributes, or qualities) which made up the fourth-century concept of a triune God, are all to be found within the works of assorted first century followers of Jesus, which were eventually collected together as part of Christian scripture, the New Testament.

It is also clear to me that many of these elements are most certainly not found, in the way they are used in Christian theology, in the Jewish writings from centuries prior to Jesus, which were collected together as Hebrew Scripture.

So the individual elements can be seen if we identify a number of New Testament texts, extract those elements from their context, and combine them artificially into a new combination of ideas that we then grant the status of a reality. Clearly, the fully-fledged, totally integrated concept that the later fathers developed, is not there. Scripture does not testify to the “three-in-one” concept of God that is articulated in later theology.

This is an important distinction to maintain. Perhaps you can argue that individual elements are present in some biblical passages for assorts books. But certainly I cannot see how the final, integrated idea is put forward at any point in Scripture.

And, of course, there are numerous ways of understanding God, articulated in both testaments, which are not of primary consideration in the “doctrine of the Trinity” that arose over time. Hebrew and Greek writers offer a wide range of diverse insights into what God may well be like. A “triune God” is one, but by no means the only, deduction to be drawn from scripture.

Three. Liturgy

Personally, I find that the threefold pattern of prayers and litanies that have been developed within the church is a useful, and often quite poetic, help in shaping public worship and private prayers. And that makes sense, since the pattern of threes is a common technique in public speaking, in speeches, in jokes, and so also in liturgies.

However, I don’t for one moment imagine that the way I shape my litanies and prayers is a full and final reflection of the inner nature, the “essential being”, of God. That points in some ways to God, but by no means defines the essence of God. So I am open to other patterns and structures in worship, and in talking about God, as well.

Four. Doctrine

I do have a degree of frustration with the way that what appears to be a fixed, solidified understanding of ‘the Trinity’ or ‘the Triune God’ has taken hold, not only in many liturgies, but also in much theological writing and thinking, and doctrinal treatises, in our own time. This doctrine seems to have become a touchstone for orthodoxy, a test as to how genuine one’s doctrinal understanding is. We have solidifed our view of God into a Trinitarian formula.

The effect of this “solidification” of views about God has been that it has squeezed the life out of a wide range of other expressions as to who God is, how we relate to God, and what we understand of the mystery of the deity. Our doctrine (teaching) about God needs to be open to our range of experiences as we encounter and engage with and meditate upon God.

One way that systematic thinkers have grappled with the doctrine is by focussing on the notion that the Trinity places the idea of ‘community’ right at the heart of God; and that this then provides a mandate for exhorting our fellow human beings to live relationally, in community, with one another. That is an attractive idea, to be sure — and one that is much needed in modern society.

But how do we really know what is at the heart of God? what is the essential nature of God, within God’s own self? We can’t be sure that this is actually how God is. And why do we need an abstract theory of ideas and concepts to validate the exhortation to live in community? A theoretical philosophical doctrine, shaped so long ago, isn’t really a convincing argument in modern public discourse, I would have thought.

Five. Polemics.

Modern theologians are quite taken by the notion that the doctrine of the Trinity provides some unifying vision that enables Christian believers to feel content in their close relationship with God, and affirmed in their positive relationships with other people of faith (and beyond …).

I find it ironic, however, that the process by which this unifying vision emerged was through a series of entirely pragmatic political powerplays exercised by a group of church fathers who soughty and gained control over the church.

Those patristic patriarchs “played hard”, confronted alternative points of view, argued vociferously against them, expelled their proponents from the church, and created creeds which shut out these so-called ‘deviant’ or ‘heretical’ opinions. They were convinced that they possessed The Truth, and any other view was Beyond The Pale.

The irony is that such modern theologians can so readily overlook the hardball powerplays of the patriarchal pugilists, and create theories and pictures of trinity-as-communion, trinity-as-unity-in-diversity, and the whole idealistic perichoretic thing.

I’m somewhat sceptical of the conclusions to which such modern theologians arrive (very nice as they are, very appealing as they emerge), largely because these theologians appear to be completely oblivious to the rough, painful and highly politicised process by which the doctrine was created.

I wonder: would any of the fathers of old have been up on Discipline Charges, given they ways that they prosecuted their arguments and dealt with dissidents, if they were miraculously transported into the contemporary church??

Six. Prayer

It seems to me that the doctrinal stranglehold of the Triune God has limited, confined—even belittled—our human grasping after God, our human imaginings of who God is, our human efforts to articulate something of how we might gain access to the inner workings of God.

I am actually quite unsure as to how we human beings can do this with final, definitive confidence, so I much prefer the openness of pondering about, and praying with, God, that is not limited by trinitiarian formulae and dogmas. Prayer, after all, is opening ourselves to a renewed encounter with the divine.

I do not believe that the Trinity as a doctrine has nothing at all to offer to us today. That is not so. But, by the same token, there is so much more to ponder, explore, and explain, beyond this strict triune formula, so I think we need to be regularly reminded that we ought to be opened up to those possibilities.

So I am happy to have a place for “the Triune God” amongst the various ways in which I think about and relate to God. But it is not the one and only thing to be said, or thought, or prayed, in relation to God.

Seven. Mission and Meaning.

So, I reckon that Trinity Sunday provides a new missional opportunity. The missional task that we face is to follow the example provided by the contextualised development of doctrine by the church fathers. This Trinity Sunday, instead of sermons that grind through abstruse and remote arguments for the Trinity, I would hope we can begin to find ways, in the contemporary context, where we can talk about God and bear witness to our faith, using concepts that are understandable and ideas that are enlivening.

If we want to talk about the divine delight in deep relationships and God’s desire to relate fully to our world, then concepts of incarnation, God coming “down” to earth, hypostatic equality, co-inherence and perichoresis, just won’t cut through in the contemporary era.

We need to move beyond the ossified conceptualisation of God from so many centuries ago, and begin to create our own language and our own ideas for bearing witness to what we know in God. Mere repetition of ancient speculation and debate will not suffice.

It seems to me that, if we want to engage adequately in mission, we have to be immersed in our world, fully part of the communion of daily life. One critical problem is that when we devote time to speaking of the Trinity, using abstract philosophical terms drawn from the foreign languages of antiquity, then we are privileging the voices of male patriarchs from antiquity, over the lived experience of faithful people in these present time.

The Gospel is surely that God’s generous self-outpouring is evident in actions which foster justice and deeds which demonstrate compassion; in loving relationships and in living the values of the kingdom. Words which are uttered about concepts which are about imagined entities and their relationships, will not suffice. We need new images, concepts and doctrines: new images to reflect who God is for us, new concepts to help us think further about God, and new doctrines to speak clearly about God in our contemporary context!

(The image is a literalist personification of the doctrine of the Trinity, from the so-called Dogmatic Sarcophagus, c. 350 CE, kept in the Vatican Museums)

Geoff Thompson has recently written a thoughtful and challenging reflection on the Trinity at http://xenizonta.blogspot.com/2019/06/trinitarian-disruption.html

Craig Mitchell has offered these words (to a familiar tune) which provide a supportive expression of how we encounter the triune God in our lives at https://craigmitchell.typepad.com/mountain_masala/2012/05/creator-companion-comforter.html?fbclid=IwAR39O1mfvMFx4dKIPtUhuUKfldiW4LAZZp2zgh4A6j37AGCh4tPDyWjGDqQ

For my musings about the creeds and what they contain, see

https://johntsquires.com/2018/10/30/affirming-the-teachings-of-jesus/

https://johntsquires.com/2018/11/02/interpreting-the-creeds-in-a-later-age/

The Paraclete in John’s Gospel: exploring the array of translation options (John 14, 15, 16)

The Gospel reading for this Sunday (John 15) contains a rather unusual word, which is translated in various ways across the range of English translations. The word (in Greek) is parakletos. It appears four times in the Gospel of John (14:16, 14:26, 15:26, and 16:7) and once more in the first epistle of John (1 John 2:1). How should this word be translated?

First, a word about translations. There is a range of possibilities for undertaking a translation of the Bible into modern English, stretching across a spectrum that ranges from formal correspondence translations, all the way to dynamic equivalence translations. 

At one end of the spectrum, formal correspondence translations place a high value on sticking closely to the original biblical language. They follow, as closely as is possible, what was written in the original language. Where the original Greek or Hebrew is obscure, it may attempt to assist the reader in some measure; but the sentence structure of the original language is basically adhered to, and there are approximately the same number of words in the translation as in the original. 

At the other end of the spectrum of translations, dynamic equivalence translations move the emphasis away from the original language; the overriding concern of the translators is to communicate the meaning of the text in contemporary, idiomatic English expression. There are anumber of such translations that have been published over the years.

When we turn to this single Greek word, used in John and 1 John to describe the Holy Spirit, we find that the Revised Standard Version translates this word Parakletos, as Counsellor. The same term is used in the New International Version.

Both translations aim at formal correspondence as much as possible. The term counsellor infers that the spirit is a guide for Christian faith; one who relates one-to-one with the Christian person, who walks alongside them, encouraging them and offering advice where relevant. This is a fair translation of the Greek word used here.

The New Revised Standard Version has made a significant change from its parent translation, the RSV. In place of the term Counsellor, the NRSV prefers the term Advocate. The Jersualem Bible and the New Living Translation also use this term. It has quite a different nuance in English. 

The usual location for the term advocate, in contemporary English, is the courtroom; so we move from the intimacy of the counselling relationship, to the public realm of judicial hearings. By describing the spirit as an advocate, these translations are describing the spirit as a person who represents the Christian person and stands up for their rights, who ensures that the believer is given a full and fair hearing at the day of judgement. 

The NRSV translation, Advocate, is equally as valid as the alternative, Counsellor, since the Greek term they both translate actually contains both shades of meaning  it refers to one who walks beside and supports, as well as one who stands on behalf of and represents. Either translation corresponds formally to the original term. But, in opting for one or the other of the nuances of the term, the meaning has actually been specified far more narrowly than in the original language. Such are the limitations of translations. 

The Good News Bible, a dynamic equivalence translation, translates the word for the Spirit in John 14-15 as Helper. The New American Standard Bible and the translation made by J.B. Philips also use the term Helper.

This choice of word is obviously related to the sense of Counsellor, but it is very limited in meaning. A counsellor can certainly help; usually they have specific skills and expertise that they bring to bear into a situation. By contrast, the word helper suggests someone who is in a subordinate position, one who pitches in by assisting with the more menial tasks, and perhaps one who is at the beck and call of the one requesting the help. 

This kind of nuance might give some insight into the role of the spirit, who does come to the aid of the Christian person and provide assistance. Nevertheless, the English word helper sits somewhat at odds with the broader Christian conception of the Holy Spirit. It is a limited, over-simplistic view of the role of the Holy Spirit.  

A fourth option for translating this term is the word Comforter, which appears in the King James Version, the so-called ‘Authorised Version’ of 1611. This also is an accurate translation of the word Parakletos, for it was used in ancient writings to describe the comfort, or consolation, to those who were aggrieved. By opting for this translation, the KJV was also being faithful to the text. 

However, there are other considerations to be made here. Because the KJV is so old – it is over four centuries since this translation was made  it can sometimes be less relevant to contemporary understandings. The word “comfort” has shifted in meaning over the centuries, and to us it now conveys an image of the kindly parent, hugging the distressed child, drying their tears, settling them down into bed; a domestic image which may well describe something of the role of the spirit, but which loses so much of the broader scope inherent in the term.

In addition to the formal correspondence and dynamic equivalence translations, a third type of bible version which can be bought today is the Paraphrase. Although some of these versions claim to be translations, there is a significant difference. A paraphrase will happily move very far from the original text of the Bible, in order to convey in precise detail the particular nuance of the passage being translated. Most paraphrases deliberately use a number of words, a phrase, to convey one of the possible meanings of the original word. 

A popular contemporary paraphrase is The Message. In this instance, it uses just one word for Paraclete, which it renders as Friend. That is nice and cosy—but not quite grasping the range of meanings in the Greek! 

Finally, let me note a fifth option for translating the Greek term for the Holy Spirit in John 14-15. The Jerusalem Bible translates the term parakletos as Advocate; but in revising the JB, the New Jerusalem Bible has decided simply to transliterate the term from Greek into English. It thus uses the non-English term, the Paraclete, at this point. The virtue of this is that all the possible meanings are inherent in the term. We need to explore what it means, using biblical dictionaries or commentaries. Thus, this translation has encouraged us to work out what the word means for ourselves. 

The disadvantage of this translation is that, from a simple reading of the text, we have absolutely no idea what a Paraclete is. It is not an English word, and it is as puzzling as reading the original Greek. We cannot simply read this translation; we have to stop, think, explore, and question. Depending upon the situation, this may be appropriate and valuable, or frustrating and unhelpful.

The bottom line, for me, is: use a range of translations … explore the alternatives that are chosen in each of them … and use this range, to ponder the significance of the text that is under investigation!