40 years of change
A former Uniting Church President says, with good leadership, the church can set an example in the face of change and uncertainty.
The Rev. Dr D’Arcy Wood, President of the Uniting Church Assembly 1991-94 and President of the Australian Council of Churches 1984-88, believes there have been enormous changes in church and society since the 1960s, when he was ordained.
Preaching last October at the 40th anniversary of a Methodist ordination service at Epping, Victoria, he noted a decline in the number of ordinations and in the status of ministry, the shrinking of congregations and resources for mission, increasing attacks on faith and positive developments such as greater involvement of lay people.
Firstly, he said, the number being ordained in the Uniting Church these days was very small. “In my first or second year of theological study there were, I think, 66 ministerial candidates for Victoria and Tasmania — that is Methodists, not counting Presbyterians or Congregationalists.”
He said, “At a luncheon for retired ministers recently, the CEO of the Beneficiary Fund, Robert Runceo quoted two interesting figures. The average age at the point of ordination is now 47. I don’t know what the average was back in 1969, but I am confident it would have been lower.
“The other figure, perhaps more startling, was the average age of Uniting Church ministers now in active service. It is 55!”
Second, said Dr Wood, the status of ministry in the community had declined. The reasons were not entirely clear, but he said, “The Church itself is more marginal in society than it was and therefore its clerical representatives are less important.
“Then there is the advent, or it might be more accurate to say the revelation, of sexual abuse on the part of clergy … I think it would be fair to say that these days respect has to be earned: it doesn’t come with the certificate of ordination.”
Third, the number of people in the pews, and the money they contributed, had declined. “This means fewer resources to apply to mission and ministry. It also means that dedicated lay people are shouldering heavy burdens, and there are cases of ministerial burnout.”
Dr Wood said, “There is much work to be done, and we try to do more with less, and often don’t succeed.”
His fourth point was that “the Church is under attack from atheism. This is not new, but has become particularly noticeable in the past five years or so, with Dawkins and so on.
“As a reader of The Age, I find attacks on faith and on the Church every week, indeed almost daily. On the positive side, I suppose we could say that at least the atheists think they have an opponent worth attacking, so we have not entirely lost relevance!”
Fifth, he said, there were also theological attacks from within.
“One could argue that watering down the faith goes back to the early 19th century at least, but in our lifetime the 1960s were pretty crucial, with the publication of Honest to God and the so-called secular Christianity and “death of God” theology which followed.”
The Uniting Church, he said, had to contend with people like Francis Macnab who had “thrown overboard nearly all the claims of the New Testament concerning Jesus”.
Sixth, there had been positive developments in the Church, Dr Wood said.
The ordination of women was one: “There is no doubt in my mind that women have broadened and enriched the ordained ministry. The only downside is that the large influx of women candidates that we saw in the 1970s and 1980s seems to have largely dried up.”
Another positive, he said, had been the increased role of lay people. “Decades ago the word “churchman” usually referred to ordained men. Now it rarely does. Some would call this the democratisation of the Church. I would prefer to call it a recognition by the Church of the varied gifts of the Holy Spirit, many of which are not gifts associated with ordained ministry.”
Last on Dr Wood’s list was the growth of ecumenism. “The Second Vatican Council finished in 1965 and its ramifications were almost immediate,” he said. “The cooperation between denominations has increased enormously.”
The Uniting Church now had joint parishes with Anglicans and Lutherans and theological education had become more an ecumenical enterprise.
Dr Wood said there had been gains, certainly, but probably some losses as well. “One very cheering example of ecumenical development is that ten denominations in Australia accept each other’s baptisms as valid, and these ten churches cover probably about 90 per cent of Australia’s Christians.”
Changes in society have been immense also, he said. Three changes had a direct bearing on the work of ministry.
One was the growth of fear and uncertainty — “fear of war and terrorism and of the spread of nuclear weapons; uncertainty about the economy, the effects of climate change, and about the standards which society expects.”
He said the rate of change itself — for example in technology — exacerbated the development of fear and uncertainty.
“The relevance of all this to the Church is pretty clear. The Christian gospel claims to address fear and to provide a sure ground for living. How to communicate this message is perhaps our greatest challenge.”
The second significant change in society was the questioning of authority and leadership. “Australia has always had what we call the ‘tall poppy syndrome’, but even leaders such as medicos, whose authority was rarely questioned a generation ago, are now regularly challenged by the media and by their patients.
“Politicians are of course granted very little credence these days. This has a spill-over effect in the Church. We used to say the Church’s pulpits were ‘six feet above contradiction’, but that is no longer the case.”
Last was individualism, which Dr Wood said was rampant in society. It led to the isolation of people, to self-absorption and to lack of concern for the neighbour.
“Australians are known for rallying around in times of crisis such as the 2009 Victorian bushfires, but we should balance that with the obvious fear on the part of politicians of all parties lest they be branded as ‘soft on asylum seekers’.
He referred to an article in The Age of July 28, 2009, where American psychologist Jean Twenge spoke of a “narcissism epidemic”. An individualistic culture, she said, had reinforced the preoccupation with self and its promotion. The narcissism of reality TV reinforced anxiety and could lead to depression.
Dr Wood said, “The Church’s response to this, I believe, should be to set an example of accepting and supportive communities. The judgmentalism which we were guilty of in times past must be rejected.
“Every person is of value to God and belongs in God’s family. To grow in maturity of faith is a project we undertake together, not as an individual spiritual exercise.
“Personal spiritual direction is valuable, certainly, but it should be accompanied by commitment to others.”
Dr Wood also said leadership in the Church was vital, “although it is becoming less and less easy: just speak to recent Uniting Church presidents and moderators.”
He said, “In John 12 it is clear that leaders are also followers. We follow Christ and, if we follow closely, we can help others to follow.
“Leadership is not an end in itself but a means to the health of the Body of Christ.”