School of Discipleship panel explores COVID implications
School of Discipleship 2020 continued on Saturday with a panel discussion focused on the life of the church during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Panellists included Uniting Church president Dr Deirdre Palmer, theologian Rev. Dr Chris Budden, Pilgrim Theological College theologian Rev. Dr Robyn Whittaker, and UnitingWorld’s Dr Sureka Goringe
For 90 minutes, the panel discussed the implications of the pandemic for church community, action on climate change, the use of church property, and online ministries.
What the pandemic might teach the church
Every panellist gave a short introduction that touched upon what the pandemic had taught them about their own discipleship.
Uniting Church president Dr Deirdre Palmer said that the Uniting Church had noticed deep longing in the community during the pandemic.
Some of the deepest longing from this time include community.
Dr Palmer said the church’s advocacy had remained active, and that the Assembly was specifically focused on mental health, family violence, and countries and communities impacted by loss of life and income.
Dr Robyn Whitaker is one of Pilgrim Theological College’s theologians. One aspect of her work she finds interesting is the concept of apocalyptic hope, a theme she returned to during the panel discussion. Dr Whitaker said that “in many ways discipleship has not changed at all.”
She said that the church were in apocalyptic times during COVID-19, not in the popular sense that signalled “the end of the world”, but rather that God was revealing something that had been hidden.
“We’re seeing all these injustices in our communities exposed…in part because of this pandemic,” Dr Whitaker said.
“What might the future look like?”
Dr Whitaker looked ahead to the post COVID-19 world.
There was great continuity for the worshipping community during the pandemic, but also discontinuity.
“It’s not about us reinventing the wheel,” she said.
“We are still called to follow God above all else.”
Dr Sureka Goringe is the Director of UnitingWorld. She shared a personal experience of discipleship during COVID-19, while running the church’s overseas aid organisation.
During Lent, Dr Goringe tried to find good news wherever she could, and share stories of good news in daily Facebook posts.
“Every day I would find one story…about the kingdom coming,” Dr Goringe said.
“I’m wired for problem solving,” she said
“But then COVID happened.”
“Nothing and no one could prepare me for running an aid agency during a pandemic.”
An experience of seeing panic buying during the pandemic had caused her to despair.
“I was down at Woolies and I found out that our fellow Sydneysiders had cleared out entire isles,” she said.
“I felt like…dying in our millions was exactly what we deserved.”
Over time, however, she noted that her despair evaporated as“little notes, little gifts” from supporters and friends helped her see, “the work of reconciliation God was doing in the world.”
“We need to find Jesus and recognise what we are doing.”
Dr Chris Budden is the author of multiple books dealing with reconciliation and doing theology on stolen land. Dr Buden said that the story of Legion, about the impact of roman occupation and Jesus’ intervention, was applicable to the Australian context.
His talk included a warning of what was to come.
“Post-COVID, our governments are going to get obsessed with rebuilding our economies.”
Dr Budden suggested that this will see the environment and the marginalised suffer, and that the church must prepare for the next stage of its activism.
“We need deep conviction,” he said.
“In some ways (protesting) is the easy bit.”
“Part of my hope and challenge is that…we can still build communities that can sustain our conviction.”
Online church brings opportunities
The panel answered pre-registered questions and questions that came up at the time.
The panel was asked at the beginning as to what they saw coming out of the COVID pandemic.
Dr Palmer said that online livestreams would continue, as would building on advocacy areas that the church had discovered.
Dr Goringe said that the past stories of prior pandemics had showed what the church could do. She saw two challenges for the church.
“The harder one is “meaning making” in the wake of the pandemic,” she said.
“We have to make meaning for people and connect them into that wider story of God and humanity.”
Robyn Whittaker said her fear was that nothing would change after the pandemic and that the church may “want to recapture what is familiar.”
“I worry we will too easily go back and forget what we’ve learnt.”
”We have hope and language around hope and language around suffering that we can offer.”
“This is exposing perhaps some of those myths as to what success looks like and how we can control our world.”
The subject of digital connection came up, with all of the attendant pitfalls and benefits that came with it.
“In some of those spaces I’ve had far more discussions than I otherwise would.”
“In the Uniting Church, we’re often quite good at the lament, trauma…we’re perhaps not as good at modelling the joy and the hope.”
The subject of protest came up, in the context of not wanting to spread COVID-19.
Dr Palmer said that engagement had continued despite everyone being online.
Dr Goringe said that the pandemic need not mean that climate change leave the public agenda.
“It is possible for the human race to solve something.”
“We’ll be able to say, look, we fought COVID, we can do this.”
One of the other questions called on panellists to reflect on what helped them overcome fatigue.
“My sustaining goes back to my strong sense of call; that I’m in this space because it’s the only space I belong in,” Dr Budden said.
Dr Goringe said that being surrounded by a “cloud of witnesses” in her work had sustained her. She cited the example of how she had met ministers who had served in some countries without any pay.
Dr Sureka Goringe said that her experience from seeing overseas ministries (and the closure of buildings during the pandemic) showed her that the church in Australia had much to learn about how to manage their buildings.
She noted that ministry partners who had moved to Australia and joined the Uniting Church had expressed surprise that on Sunday, buildings were often only used for a few hours’ worship.
Dr Palmer said that COVID-19 had allowed the church to ask itself “who are we really?” and reconsider the use of its property.
The complete video is available on the School of Discipleship Facebook page. School of Discipleship concludes at 5:30pm tomorrow with a closing worship service.