Are we ready to be pilgrims?

Are we ready to be pilgrims?

I have been called by the Church to help facilitate a conversation across the Synod about how we use our property resources to fulfil the mission of God. I have accepted the call because I believe it is from God. I also believe that the Uniting Church has the credibility, ethos and resources which give it the potential to make a significant impact on the spiritual and social landscape of Australian society. Determining how we use our considerable property in service of the mission needs to be a collaborative effort and in this special edition of Insights I am asking for your help.

In the following pages there are discussion questions and case studies to help you engage with the process and to spark your imagination. There is not an expectation that anyone will seek to answer all the questions and an acknowledgement that different people will focus on particular points that reflect their interest or concern.

This is an opportunity for us to work together, bringing wisdom and knowledge from our different perspectives and experience with the hope that in the conversation we will discern the guidance of the Spirit. At this stage there are no concrete proposals as to the way forward. It is envisaged that these will emerge from the wrestling of God’s people. It is well to remember that God may speak through the least and unexpected and so I would encourage everyone to participate and not be afraid to contribute whatever God puts upon your heart.

Spirit of God, may every person who reads these pages open their hearts and minds to you.
Spirit of God, may they be guided by the teaching and example of Jesus as they seek your will.
Spirit of God, may your vision emerge from the conversations of your people and come to life in your Church.

Rev. Niall Reid

Since the churches united in 1977, the whole Uniting Church has faced many property questions: what to keep, what to sell and how best to use …

Whilst acknowledging the challenges that face us, including the huge social changes in our society since the Uniting Church came into being: declining rates of attendance; the proportionately increasing costs of property maintenance; and compliance issues around complex state and federal laws, our focus must not be on the challenges but rather on the opportunities they offer for new and creative thinking.

In response to the gospel, as we discern and define what God is calling us to be and how we can most effectively engage with our society, we will reform the life of the church and in the course of doing so must decide what sort of property will serve us best.

Hearing the Word of God, understanding the times, facing its challenges and making strategic changes are not simple tasks. They require patient listening, careful discerning, persistent prayer, openness to new learning and a readiness to be led in new directions.

It is well to remember that when Jesus sent the disciples out, he told them to take nothing for the journey — no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra clothing, no sandals (even).

What do we need for the journey? What do we require to be effective in the mission God calls us to?

Some of our property can be of great benefit and some is simply a burden. Some property gives us a context for mission and some drains our capacity for mission.

Our property is not an end in itself, but a means to be about God’s work of transforming the lives of individual people, our society and our world. Is it fit for the purpose, reflecting why we are here and giving expression to what we are on about? If not, what do we need to do to ensure it does?

The good stewardship of our assets must ultimately be about the effective use of them for the mission of God.

Setting the scene: The goal of Property for a Pilgrim People

The theological framework and principles in this publication are presented in a way to help us reflect on the possibilities that the creative and wise use of our property resources could achieve. We hope presbyteries with Congregations will use this publication as a resource for study, as a catalyst for creative thinking, and an aid in discerning God’s leading.

The word ‘property’ refers to sales proceeds, sites, buildings and their contents owned by the Uniting Church, where the beneficial user is the Congregation or Presbytery.

Property for a Pilgrim People is not the final word. It’s part of an ongoing conversation that will take place in:

• consultation with presbyteries and Congregations
• small groups established by presbyteries and Congregations
• a third property workshop
• Synod Standing Committee meetings; and
• the Synod meeting in 2014.

With the approval of the Synod, policy documents and guidelines will be prepared for implementation across the Church noting that the Synod (and its Standing Committee) has responsibility for the general oversight, direction and administration of the Church’s worship, witness and service in the region allotted to it [Basis of Union para. 15(d)].

This consultation process is vital given there will be a broad range of opinions. Achieving consensus may prove to be difficult.
We encourage you to get involved in discussions in your Congregation and provide us with feedback.

Responses should be forwarded to the Rev. Niall Reid at niallr@nsw.uca.org.au.

Background

The past: God at the centre

There have been significant cultural shifts in Australia over recent decades. Attitudes, behaviours and beliefs have changed.
There was once general acceptance that God exists, that God is at the centre of our world and that most people believed in God.
From these premises, it followed that:
• every community had a church; many communities had several
• most people ‘belonged’ to a church even if they seldom attended
• the church’s authority extended over members –and society
• the church was central to society: Sundays were Sabbath days, rites of passage (birth, marriage and death) belonged to the church
• loyal members attended church regularly and everyone attended at Easter and Christmas
• politicians were Christian and operated with Christian values
• the church ran social and sporting activities for all ages
• the church provided a wide range of social services, including schools, hospitals and charities
• Christianity was the only public faith
• church structures, buildings and liturgy were permanent
• the word ‘sacred’ was applicable to church buildings.
This past era is within the living memory of many churchgoers today. It has given general form to Australian church life.

The present: God on the edge

The era of the centrality of God has been fast disappearing as we enter a time when, for the majority of people, the church is seen to be largely irrelevant.

The existence of God is either ignored or, increasingly, denied. God is no longer central in people’s lives and, at best, exists on the edge of their consciousness.

God on the edge implies a church on the edge, and this means:

• the church is no longer central in most people’s lives
• attendance at worship and involvement in church activities are optional and irregular
• fewer people choose membership
• Sunday offers many options apart from church
• there are civil marriages, birth rites and funerals
• the authority of the church diminishes while the authority of people over their own lives increases
• politicians are no longer assumed to be Christian
• society and its media distance themselves from a Christian milieu and values
• the church is understood to exist more to ‘satisfy the people’ in a ‘feel good ’or ‘self-authenticating’ society
• greater denominational choice means a wider array of churches
• the form of church life of the past seems to be dying, leading many to regard the church as old-fashioned and belonging to the past
• we now have many small, ageing Congregations with burdensome buildings to maintain and demanding health and safety regulations with which to comply.

Yet it remains true that all major religions in Australia continue to affirm the importance of having buildings as a focus for community identity.

The future: Belief in God as one of the choices

In the present day the idea of universal or absolute truths has declining acceptance in a culture where making choices and valuing differences has become the norm.

This development presents both difficulties and opportunities for the church. On the one hand the Christian story is seen as one among many stories and cannot claim special privilege or authority in our society. On the other hand the acceptance of diverse ‘truths’ and many ‘ways of knowing’ makes more room for religious belief in general, including Christian belief.

Our era is marked by the common search for a personal do-it-yourself spirituality.

It is a culture of options with belief in God as one of many possible options.

Anticipating the future church

It is not easy to anticipate the future shape of the church, but indications are that if current trends continue:

• the church’s place in Australian society will be as one faith group in a society of many faiths
• the church will be marginal to the main interests and activities of our society
• there will be a diversity of forms and styles of church life
• denominational loyalty will continue to decline
• Congregations will increasingly depend on lay leadership
• there will be fewer resources to maintain church structures, activities and buildings
• the church will be challenged by how to give expression to itself through its community service activity
• some church communities will have only a loose connection with buildings.

ON THE WAY: Towards a future promised by God

When the Basis of Union affirmed we are a pilgrim people, always on the way, it linked the Uniting Church to a long Christian tradition of pilgrimage. This strong emphasis on pilgrimage is reflected in the fact that the Uniting Church does not consecrate buildings.

We are moving towards a future promised by God while holding to the presence of God with us now. The metaphor of pilgrimage underpins the tension in Christian history between a sense of place and of no place; between understanding God’s place as here, or local on the one hand and beyond, or universal on the other.

Places of God: This place and every place

Christians have understood the places of God in many ways. Christian theology has always affirmed the importance of the material world. But Christian history has been wary of identifying sacred places and has tended, especially in the West, to emphasise time rather than place in discussions of how human beings interact with God.

In Jesus, believers found not a temple or a promised land, but a person. In early Christian tradition places were sacred because of their connection with Jesus and the events of his life. Old boundaries of the sacred were pushed outwards to include sinners, the poor and the outcast. The first Christian martyr — Stephen — is remembered in Acts 7 enraging the people with reminders of their heritage as “aliens in a foreign land’ and declaring that, ”the Most High does not live in houses made by men”.

The apostolic church was concerned with movement from ‘home’ outwards to the wider world. It was ‘on the way’ to Emmaus or to Damascus, that the early church remembered radical encounters with the risen Christ.

In the early Christian centuries, holy men and women became places of pilgrimage in themselves as the holiness of the people of God overtook interest in places. The tombs of the martyrs and the desert huts of living saints were sought out. The people in those places, rather than the place itself, offered models of radical discipleship.

Augustine made a related distinction at the end of this period as Christianity adapted to a privileged place in the Roman Empire. He warned strongly against identifying the ‘city of God’ with the ‘earthly city’ or ‘the world of places’. God’s realm of spiritual realities was in parallel to but outside the unstable realm of politics and culture.

Augustine’s sharp distinction influenced centuries of Western thought on the divide between secular and sacred history. With this came a suspicion, picked up by the sixteenth century reformers among others, of the idea that earthly places might mediate God.

On the other hand, particular places have been significant in Christian history. Landscapes and locations have fired spiritual imagination as places of encounters with God. Athanasius records that when Antony of Egypt found his remote hill in Thebaid, “As if stirred by God, [he] fell in love with the place”.

Since this time, other beautiful and wild places have been identified as a ‘map of paradise’ by holy seekers. The built environment has been important also. Monastic complexes, Gothic cathedrals, Puritan villages and Shaker communities are examples of theological architecture. All were designed with an awareness of how buildings can speak of God.

Particular places are part of the memory of conversion stories. They have shaped powerful encounters with God. Paul was at a particular point on the road to Damascus.

Augustine heard the lines that changed his life in a garden outside Milan. John Wesley was ‘strangely warmed’ at a prayer meeting in Aldersgate Street. Dietrich Bonhoeffer understood a call to ‘religionless Christianity’ in Tegal Prison. Thomas Merton suddenly found that God infused the entire world on a street corner in Louisville.

Other places would have shaped those experiences differently and we would remember them differently. This connection between places of encounter with God and the stories of those encounters is part of the sense of the sacred that also attaches to many church buildings.

Within the Christian awareness of the significance of place, there is a paradoxical insistence that God can be found in every place. The desert fathers who fled spiritual danger in the cities actually advised people to stay where they were called to be; to recognise that the holy place is always here in this place.

In the monastic centuries, this stability of commitment to the particular place and community was affirmed strongly. Holy men and women were expected to recognise that until they could find God in that particular place they would not find God anywhere else. Through the centuries the spiritual advice has been that utopia – literally meaning ‘no place’ – does not exist over the next hill. The holy place is always recognised here.

Place: Community and story

As mobility and change become increasingly valued over stability, commentators are paying more attention to the dynamics of place. They have noted that the shared memory of stories is often what makes a particular place special or sacred.

These stories define it as a place rather than just a space. This applies not only to church buildings, but to schools, family homes, public buildings and other sites of significant events.

Telling the stories is a way of participating in the meaning of the place; continuing to define it, and of shaping commitment to it. Usually it is those who do not know the stories of a place who are not committed to it and not at home in it.

Newcomers, travellers, tourists, sea changers, hobby farmers all sit in a different relationship to the stories of a place that is home to a steady community. Whether and how stories enlarge and grow around a place is one hallmark of its sacredness in a community.

A place without stories is never sacred. Without stories there is no place; the site is a non-place. This term was first used by French anthropologist Marc Augé. His work points out the non-places of the modern world where there is no real community. He argues that in non-places we could be ‘anywhere’. In supermarkets, airports, in front of a computer screen or in a traffic jam — we are at the same time ‘everywhere and nowhere’.

These non-places do not connect with the individual identities of the people who are there. There are no relationships lived out there and hence no memories or stories formed. The non-places of the new global village run the risk of forgetting that human beings have bodies. To create meaning we need to be somewhere.

 

This is the first chapter of Insights Special Issue: Property for a Pilgrim People.

If you would like more copies of this special issue delivered to your church, simply email insights@nsw.uca.org.au

 

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