Retiring President laments … but remains hopeful for the church
The Rev. Alistair Macrae began his Retiring President’s Report to the Uniting Church’s 13th Assembly with a quote from the 2012 film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: “Everything will be okay in the end. Everything is not okay. Therefore it is not the end.”
He said a better summary of the eschatology of the Uniting Church’s foundation document, the Basis of Union, could not be found.
It was a statement of “the promised end”, a realistic assessment of the way things are in a world sustained by grace and distorted by sin, and a restatement of the Christian hope for the ultimate reconciliation and renewal of God’s creation.
Mr Macrae, President of the church from 2009 to 2012, was speaking during the Assembly meeting in Adelaide, July 15-21.
He said, “Along with the worldwide Christian Church we are in a time of fundamental transition, with all its challenges and opportunities.”
He listed issues of national importance relating both to “not-okayness” and to chinks of hopeful light.
“One sign of not-okayness is the fact that, in the past three years, in most of our synods, instances of debilitating conflict have sapped much time, energy and trust. People have been hurt, those directly involved and their families and communities.”
He said those tasked with trying to resolve the conflicts had borne heavy burdens. Conflict was part of any community, he said, and churches were no exception.
“We need to develop some early intervention strategies that address issues of conflict before they escalate into situations in which mediation and restoration of relationships becomes problematic. And it is time I believe to commit ourselves to the practices of restorative justice, which seem so consistent with gospel values, to assess and amend our current complaints and disciplinary processes to reflect that approach.”
Mr Macrae said the Uniting Church needed to develop clarity on its DNA so that whenever people encountered the Uniting Church in whatever manifestation (councils, agencies or schools) they would find some consistency of values and message.
On evangelism and faith-sharing he said mainstream churches needed to be reminded that conversion, “that fundamental reorientation, re-centring of lives to God”, was still fundamentally important.
“In churches like ours, the religious life has sounded more like a bit of lifestyle tinkering rather than a fundamental shift in our heart and our head; that is, lives transformed by the Spirit, centred in Christ and oriented for mission.”
Referring to discipleship formation, Mr Macrae highlighted the Economy of Life document, passed by the previous Assembly, as a superb theological vision of abundant life for the planet, the church’s 1977 Statement to the Nation, which inspired the 2012 National Young Adult Leaders to produce a contemporary social statement, and the annual School of Discipleship, which he said resourced young adults to be biblically and theologically literate and equipped for mission.
The single most significant outflow from the previous Assembly was the new Preamble to the church’s Constitution, he said. “The challenge is now to get this into the consciousness of our members. We have a unique perspective to offer as our nation contemplates something similar in the Australian Constitution.”
Having spent a significant proportion of his time in Aboriginal communities, Mr Macrae said he was acutely aware of the vast gap in living standards between First and Second Peoples.
He said, “We have been disillusioned and angered by the cynical exercises in faux consultation employed by Government and its agencies and the continuing paternalism that characterises Government relationships with the First Peoples. No-one denies the need for action but top-down, one-size-fits-all template approaches disheartens the communities that are functioning well and yields few positive outcomes for communities with deep and complex issues.
“We hear the Rev. Djiniyini Gondarra’s call, at the passing of the Stronger Futures Legislation, to a period of mourning.”
Mr Macrae said he also had a new appreciation of the increasingly multicultural character of the church. “The test of our maturity as church will be how far and how quickly we can move from being merely multicultural, which is a matter of fact, to becoming genuinely cross-cultural in our practice, whereby the missional, theological, liturgical and cultural wealth of our various communities can flow through the whole church.”
He said, “For some in these communities it feels like there is an invisible wall which prevents the full participation in the life of the Uniting Church. Let us pray that Jesus Christ, in whom there is neither Jew nor Greek, enhances our capacity to recognise that wall and to begin dismantling it.”
Asylum seekers was an issue that continued to occupy the Assembly, he said.
“I’ve twice visited Christmas Island to resource and inform our continuing advocacy for the welfare of asylum seekers. How lamentable has been our national response to this international refugee crisis and our reluctance to take our share of the burden of care for displaced people.
“It is a complex issue with no easy solutions but ask our neighbours and they will tell you Australia’s response has been curmudgeonly and ungenerous. Compare our current response to refugees with our post war responses and the signs are that our national heart has hardened.”
After noting the appointment of the second Uniting Church chaplain on Christmas Island, he said, “I long for the day when we will place ministry resources, in the spirit of John Wesley, where they are needed most, rather than where they can be afforded.
“Wouldn’t it be great if we could manage our considerable resources to place ministry agents in every detention centre, in the most stressed aboriginal communities, in the least resourced remote and rural regions, in the urban wastelands on the outer fringes of our major cities? May the light of Christ shine and be embodied in every dark place.”
Mr Macrae lamented that the language of public life had lost the character of generosity and the largeness of spirit that created the best of Australia’s institutions and brought reform to the worst.
“More than ever we need the vocabulary and practice of the great Christian social tradition to sharpen our analysis, to soften our hearts and generate humane and creative solutions.
“I am alarmed by the level of vitriol and personalised attack in political debate. Inflammatory words can be catalysts for violence in disordered minds. Let’s challenge this trend before it progresses from character assassination to something worse.”
He also expressed concern about the church’s regard for its sacraments. “I have wondered on occasions if we are in danger of losing connection with the catholicity and apostolicity of the church in our gatherings. Some of the markers of our continuity with the church in time and space have practically disappeared in some places and the local and the contemporary seem the only note.”
The broad horizons of Christianity had closed in, he said. “I have been at baptisms where some alternative to the Apostle’s Creed has been used. Why not use a contemporary creed and one that links us with the church catholic across time?
“I have been at celebrations of Holy Communion that are scarcely recognisable in terms of the meal at the heart of Christian life for 2,000 years.
“Friends, we have only got two official sacraments in our church; let’s not mess with them. Is it so hard to keep them aligned with the church ecumenical and historical; and contextual and contemporary? That’s what we do every time we preach from ancient scriptural texts.”
Among those he thanked Mr Macrae included the Uniting Church for entrusting him with the role of President. “Please forgive my mistakes and omissions and any words or actions that have been unworthy of the church or the gospel.
“You gave me the privilege of seeing a broad cross-section of this church and I have been blessed with so many glimpses of God’s Kingdom, God’s new creation, in and through the worship, witness and service of this church.
“While we are a flawed church, nevertheless God’s grace is so often manifest and I encourage us all to remain committed, faithful and imaginative as we participate with God until that blessed day when the walls of separation will be no more and God of our crucified and risen Lord will make all things new.”