‘We’re not dying, just need to adapt to change,’ says ex-Moderator
Declining numbers and influence, far from spelling the end of the Uniting Church, is forcing it to be a different kind of church with a crucial role to play in Australian society.
This was the substance of a moving address given by the Rev. Niall Reid, bringing to a close his four years in ministry as Moderator of the Synod of New South Wales and the ACT.
Mr Reid told the Synod meeting in Newcastle on Saturday September 25 that the church needed to stop asking why the church was in decline and to cease looking for somebody or something to blame for this trend.
Instead, he said, it should acknowledge that both the world and the Uniting Church’s place in it had shifted dramatically since the three churches joined to form it in 1977.
It should also see that shift as offering a unique opportunity to get alongside people in the community — the people God loves and for whom he came.
That would involve setting aside factional tendencies, embracing diversity, cutting off the labels and growing in confidence “about who we are and what we have to say”.
Mr Reid said the Uniting Church no longer had a comfortable place at the heart of society where it was “mostly respected” but rather found itself now “at the edges of society, often criticised and poked fun at”.
The church needed to adapt to that change — as it had adapted before — to meet new circumstances, see the world as Jesus sees it and participate in the world in new ways.
“We have to move from where we are to where God is taking us, out of the church, into community,” Mr Reid said.
“We have to see people as God sees them — not as enemies but as people with whom we are to share the journey, with whom we can share our story and, through our story, the story of Jesus.”
Finding beauty beyond our doors
Mr Reid gave three concrete examples of how the church had recently demonstrated it was “no longer the blind beggar, begging society to love us, to come to us, to support us, but leaping up, sharing our story, participating in the world and discovering its beauty beyond our doors”:
- The Hillston congregation had transformed itself from scrimping, saving and fundraising so it could pay a minister (and thus drawing on the community) to being a lay-led congregation with an outward focus (and thus using the resources it has to support the community).
- Another church had put on a women’s event in a restaurant which had drawn 63 women from the wider community. (Mr Reid’s advice to this church was to become a church in a restaurant and offer church property for community use.)
- The church’s deep involvement in the Sydney Alliance now meant Uniting Church people were “meeting people we would never have met” and having deep and meaningful conversations about faith with people far more receptive and with “greater spiritual depth than we give them credit for”.
Mr Reid said this experience had opened his eyes to see that Christ is in the world, the Spirit is already at work and that everyone is made in the image of God — which meant they should be met, at all times, with respect.
“I have come to understand that the foundation upon which our theology must stand is the story of creation not the story of the fall — and we will be closer to the kingdom when we see the image of God in people, as I believe Jesus did, rather than seeing their sinfulness.
“Our job is not to remind people of their sin but to remind them of their creator and as they acknowledge their creator they will turn from their sin.”
Mr Reid said Uniting Church theology was different to that expressed in most churches and different to that which generally found its way into the public discourse and informed people’s understanding of Christianity.
Australians needed to hear another understanding of God that made sense to them and was biblically and theologically credible, Mr Reid said.
The Uniting Church should not be reticent to take up the call to lead where others feared to go.
It was also important to stop being “bewildered by our predicament”, apologetic, or swayed by voices — from within and from other churches — which condemned as not of God the Uniting Church’s disregard for particular doctrines, values and means of evangelism.
Mr Reid asked, “How can a church which has such huge commitment to caring for the disadvantaged and the poor, providing so many services that offer life, how could it not be from God?”
He also said it was important to meet the circumstances and needs of our time in a context and from a foundation that acknowledged that “the land we inhabit is Aboriginal land and that God has been present and active here long before any church was built, Bible translated, minister preached or Eucharist shared.”
More important than keeping religious law, Mr Reid said, was that the blind could see and have a relationship with God.
“Surely we can proclaim what we know is true, the experience which is ours,” Mr Reid said.
“We need to stand by the experience of the work of the Spirit in the life of the community beyond our church and recognise that this is more important than right doctrine — sometimes doctrine needs to change in light of experience, context and time.
“If we can bring more people into relationship with God through giving a different expression to the gospel let’s do it: Isn’t that what it is all about?”
Praise for service
Mr Reid’s chaplains paid tribute to his four years of service to the Synod as Moderator.
Sue Conde said Mr Reid had challenged the Synod and its people to “step into and become part of the stream of grace that flows from the heart of God”.
The Rev. John Jegasothy said Mr Reid had challenged the church to be generous, inclusive and just.
He recalled Mr Reid’s involvement, in March 2010, at a celebration of service staged by Tamil refugees, most of whom were Hindus. Mr Reid had spoken “the prophetic word to the heart of the traumatised young people that they are welcome into this country and precious in the sight of God and the church.
“Let your words echo in the hearts of all Australians especially in this time of political strife,” he said.
Mr Jegasothy also praised Mr Reid’s leadership in the Sydney Alliance and the message of hope delivered at its Founding Assembly on September 15, which Mr Jegasothy said “made all 300 delegates from the Uniting Church proud”.