‘Stand up for the weak and challenge the strong,’ urges new Moderator
The Rev. Dr Brian Brown has urged the Uniting Church to be a community of faith that shows strength of collective character by “standing up for the weak and challenging the strong”.
Dr Brown was speaking at his installation as theModeratorof the Synod of New South Wales and the ACT during the opening service of the 2011 Synod meeting at Newcastle Conservatorium on September 23.
Dr Brown used the looming crisis of climate change and competition for limited resources to illustrate how the most vulnerable would take the “biggest hits”.
He asked: Would the church, in the face of rising materialism, have the faith and courage to challenge wealth and privilege and people’s reluctance to forgo it?
Would the church exercise pastoral care for the world’s most vulnerable (including agricultural producers, the poor, people living on low-lying islands or deltas and creatures whose habitats are under threat)?
The Synod meeting theme, “On new and risky paths”, had not been chosen without reference to the Synod’s recent past or the church’s 1977 Basis of Union, Dr Brown said, or out of context with his new position description or youthful conversion.
Alone in his bedroom, aged 19, in Durban in apartheid South Africa, he had accepted the call to follow Christ knowing his faith would be “tested in the fire”.
In the face of South Africa’s deep racial divisions, the German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words about “costly grace” had also cut through.
Dr Brown said Jesus’ road less travelled — the risky road — called his followers (as in Mark 8: 34b) to “deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me”.
Since becoming a Christian in 1969 Brian Brown’s own road had taken many twists and turns, with hardchoices; some of which left “painful legacies of guilt and shame”.
Yet the gracious presence of God had been constant and enduring — even when he did not realise it.
The road had led him to Australia where he drove 12-hour shifts in a taxi in Wollongong for $5 an hour.
He then spent five years as an industrial chaplain at Newcastle steelworks on an exile journey where he discovered, among the coke ovens and blast furnaces, “the healing power of fire”.
He also discovered how God could transform clay feet — persistently putting them back on the Christian path. Eventually, he said, the chosen clay was “fired to strength in the furnace of humiliation” — a transformation he believes can make the difference between “hardly walking without fainting and … running without becoming weary”.
Dr Brown’s placement before taking up his role asModeratorwas as a Specified Minister with Hamilton Broadmeadow Uniting Church in Newcastle, where he had served since the year 2000.
His heart for justice was well known throughout the Hunter Presbytery and beyond.
No turning back
Dr Brown said Jesus’ vulnerability in the Synagogue at Nazareth was made clear when he identified with the prophet Isaiah’s call to promise good news to the poor, liberty for the oppressed and captive, and offering sight to the blind.
Such identification might have been — and might still be — heardby the rich and powerful as containing a hint of sedition.
Hinting about a God with multi-faith sympathies might also have been — and might still be — enough to get a person nearly thrown over a cliff!
Jesus’ way, however, centred on reconciliation not status, exclusivity and privilege.
“Jesus intends to go on new and risky paths unarmed with the threat of Divine retribution,” Dr Brown said. “Most reckless of all, he tells the locals that God does not owe them special privileges due to their religious preferences.”
Dr Brown said the Uniting Church was no stranger to new and risky paths. It had forged an identity and ethos in the spectrum of Christian Churches by being prepared to take its stand and make its way forward:
- in relationship with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples;
- in affirming and encouraging a multicultural and multi-faith community; and
- in supporting people of both genders and different sexualities in expressing their God-given gifts.
The risk Jesus was asking the Uniting Church to take now, Dr Brown said, was not a gamble but a step of faith.
“The Synod that meets over the next four days stands on the threshold of an immense, perhaps once in a generation, opportunity to seize the day and launch out in new directions in the light of changing circumstances.”
AsModeratorfor the next three years, Dr Brown said he would cast a vision but also listen to the church in order to articulate the voice of the church to the church and to the community.
The daily themes at Synod would remind participants that, “It is God we follow on new and risky paths, it is with Christ that we walk and it is by the Spirit we are led.”
The “baton of leadership” Dr Brown took over from the immediate-past Moderator, the Rev. Niall Reid, focused on three words: inclusive, courageous and generous, which he said had acted as beacons in recent times to guide the Synod.
Those words would also inform his vision for an inclusive, courageous and generous church as it set out on new and risky paths, said.
“My vision is of a church that asserts and demonstrates that in Christ there is no male or female, no-one too old or too young, rich or poor, Jew or Gentile, slave or free, gay or straight, First or Second people, liberal or conservative, progressive or radical disciple. A church that embraces all without discrimination and allows each of us to serve according to our spiritual gifts.
“We must make this risky road by walking it,” he said. “We must not lose our nerve, turn aside or go back!”
Business sessions for the meeting of Synod continue at the University of Newcastle from September 24 to 27.