As I write my first column as Acting General Secretary, it’s the morning after the results of the US Presidential election were announced. The office is a bit subdued and I’ve heard snatches of conversations all wondering together what this might mean. In the community more broadly, there are mixed reactions — some are horrified, others are celebrating — and one thing is clear: we’ve all woken up in a different world this morning.
The (appalling) rhetoric of the US election campaign has highlighted the continued erosion of commonly held values and the crumbling of old certainties. There’s no clarity about what might emerge in their place. None of us know what consequences might ensue if any of the threats or promises of the newly elected President are made real, and many people have good reason to be anxious — most particularly, all those who have been clearly labelled as ‘them’ during the campaign.
I confess today to a strong feeling of ‘stop the world, I want to get off.’ However, I know that this too will pass and that there is work — important work — to be done in the here and now by the church in the name of Jesus Christ, for the sake of the world.
When Andrew handed the role of Synod General Secretary into my care for the next 12 months, he did so using a quote from an episode of revered TV show The West Wing. The context is that a member of Cabinet is required to stay behind in the White House during the State of the Union address, in the event of anything happening to the President:
President Josiah Bartlet: ‘Oh, Roger. If anything happened, you know what to do, right?’
Secretary of Agriculture Roger Tribbey: ‘I honestly hadn’t thought about it, sir.’
President Josiah Bartlet: ‘First thing always is national security. Get your commanders together. Appoint Joint Chiefs, appoint a Chairman. Take us to Defcon 4. Have the Governors send emergency delegates to Washington. The assistant Attorney General is going to be the Acting A.G. If he tells you he wants to bring out the National Guard, do what he tells you…’
I’ve since discovered that ‘defcon’ means ‘defence readiness conditions’ and level four means ‘an increased intelligence watch and strengthened security measures’ (thanks very much, Wikipedia). Since Andrew quotes The West Wing to me, I’ve been pondering the notion of ‘readiness’. What might it mean for the church to be in a state of readiness to meet the challenges of the present time? What is our core business right now? (Hint: it’s not national security).
It lands squarely for me in the founding vision of the Uniting Church as eloquently expressed in the Basis of Union (paragraph 3) ‘…the Church’s call… is to be a fellowship of reconciliation, a body within which the diverse gifts of its members are used for the building up of the whole, an instrument through which Christ may work and bear witness to himself.’
‘An increased intelligence watch’ surely requires us to know our communities well, to be alert to the human need present in those communities and to be intentional, inclusive and generous in relating with those labelled ‘them’ and responding to those needs.
In the history of the church, this always has been risky business and it’s not likely to become less risky any time soon. This is simply the context in which the church seeks to tell and live a different story. To do that well, we probably do need ‘strengthened security measures’, which means we need to get our act together.
We do spend an unnecessary and tedious amount of time arguing about yesterday. What do we actually need to respond to the challenges of this world? What does it take for us to really be a fellowship of reconciliation for today and tomorrow?
These are Advent questions to orient us towards the mystery of the incarnation and the revelation of God in Christ, for the sake of the world.
Jane Fry is Acting General Secretary of UCA Synod of NSW & ACT