In my first year as Moderator my focus has been on listening to the church. What I am hearing is two quite different stories, yet both are essentially true.
One story is about a church with its back to the wall. Its membership is ageing and declining in number. Its finances are dwindling, both in congregations where many members are on fixed incomes in a time of low interest rates and in the Synod where the Global Financial Crisis is having a belated but telling effect on the extent to which Uniting Financial Services can support mission. The end of the decline is not in sight.
From the wider community we are facing the challenges of living in a plural, secular society. The national census figures tell us that the number of people who register as having “no religion” has risen by 50 per cent in the last ten years.
Some also see our diversity of conviction over issues such as sexuality as a fault line that threatens to pull us apart. As we dwell on this story we can find ourselves vulnerable to the debilitating forces of negativity and fear.
The other story is one of a church that is holding a strong line and making ground in key areas of mission and ministry. For example:
- At the recent Assembly in Adelaide we strengthened our ties with the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress as we stood together against the dehumanising effects of the Northern Territory Intervention and its latest incarnation in the so-called Stronger Futures legislation. We were also able to abide together as we worked through difficult issues such as same-gender marriage.
- Many presbyteries are doing a wonderful job in resourcing congregations and, as I observe it, we have never had a higher proportion of lay members involved leading worship, pastoral care and missional programs than we do now. (I write this from the Far North Coast Presbytery, where each of the three congregations I am visiting — Lismore, Casino and Yamba — have innovative and effective programs where they engage creatively with their local communities.)
- We have a particularly strong group of young adult leaders who are making their mark at all levels of the church’ life, as evidenced by their recent Statement “Reconciliation People”, presented to the Adelaide Assembly. It is also most encouraging that many of these younger leaders are candidates for Uniting Church ministry.
- We seem to now have a clear idea of our ethos. In the last National Church Life Survey a full 71 per cent of members identified “inclusion” as that characteristic of the Uniting Church that they most value. This is lived out by a conviction that we are called to stand with marginalised and oppressed people.
- Part our positive story is the work of UnitingCare as it exercises best practice in the areas of Aged Care and Children, Young People and Families.
These are both telling stories. We cannot honestly claim one and reject the other; otherwise we would indeed be “telling stories”.
It is a sign of our maturity if we are able to live in the tension between them or, even better, dwell in the mandorla space where they overlap — a place of reconciliation and transformation.
For biblical encouragement I recommend the story of Gideon in Judges chapters 6 and 7 for insights in how to deal with that which would plunder our morale and threaten our resources.
Gideon, with God’s guidance, was able to show that with faith, courage and ingenuity, it takes only a minority of a minority to restore the hope of the Community of Faith.
The Rev. Dr Brian Brown is Moderator of the Synod of New South Wales and the ACT
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