The God is Where?! conference, held at the Centre for Ministry July 1-6, was hosted by the church’s national diaconal network and United Theological College. It explored the “movement of God in the ordinary and unexpected” and was open to all people interested in God’s call to serve humanity in the face of changing needs.

What a busy, powerful, energetic conference this was! Its focus was on diaconal ministry. The participants included deacons from around the country who came together to recognise the 20th anniversary of the renewal of the diaconate in the Uniting Church.

The intention of the conference was a mix of thinking, doing, and being.

There was a wide array of visits to sites around western Sydney thanks to a cast of presenters: Lake Parramatta, Villawood, Mt. Druitt, Mars Hill Café, Cabramatta and a dinner with Muslims in Auburn, complete with an interfaith trivia quiz. (Do you know what is the shortest sentence in the Bible? And the longest?)

John Squires and Elizabeth Raine led off with yet another of their highly acclaimed biblical feasts. Glen Powell introduced the Sydney Alliance. Chris Budden was interviewed on the practice of his congregational and public ministry.

It was an extraordinarily varied program put together by Marion Gledhill, Miriam Parker-Lacey, Karen Mitchell-Lambert, and Aimee Kent.

William Emilsen had taught an intensive for deacon candidates the preceding week; the theoretical side of the conference was overseen by Clive Pearson.

The title of this conference — “God is Where?!” — was unusual.

It is much more normal to think of who is God and what kind of God do we believe in. That shift to “where” is a little peculiar. It is suggesting a different kind of agenda.

The who and what questions are much more tied to the internal life of the church and how mission is sometimes (not without problems) tied to the church. It is, after all, the mission of God rather than the mission of this all too human institution in which we participate.

The who and what questions invite us to pay more attention to the inner life of discipleship and membership; the where question is of a different order altogether.

That point has been very well made by the English Methodist theologian, Clive Marsh.

His Christ in Practice is a study of what he calls an “everyday Christology”; it is designed to seek out “traces”, “resonances” — hints — of the Jesus story in the secular, multi-faith society we live in and which are beyond the walls of the church.

The distinctively Australian nature of the context was informed by a reading of Gary Bouma’s Australian Soul and a handful of other writers, including some who have spoken of their life in Australia as being “Australienated”.

This business of “where” is in keeping with the emerging discipline of a public theology/ministry. This synod is the only synod in the country which through its theological college has committed itself to this task, which is now freely described as a major “global flow”.

What this designation means is that a public theology is now regarded as a significant new development around the globe in helping Christians understand their faith and what is being asked of them for Christ’s sake.

The aim of the conference was to explore the nature and purpose of a public theology.

At one level this way of thinking is a thoughtful protest against the common tendency to confine faith to the world of private belief (me and my Jesus, so said Dorothee Sölle) or to the church’s struggle to survive.

These things have their place; they are important but they are only part of the picture.

The intention of a public theology is to work for the common good, the public good, and the construction of a civil society.
David Ford from Cambridge reckons that such a theology is concerned with the flourishing of all. That has become a frequent refrain for a faith and ministry in our post-this and -that world.

Those who are committed to this form of theology and ministry are shaped by a host of biblical considerations.

The Bible studies each day were designed to draw out the theme of the week and put a practical human face on this enterprise. There are a number of organising texts, like by the question posed by Jesus — who do people say that I am? — and the call to love one’s neighbour as oneself. The nagging question here is who is our neighbour?

The public theologian is likely to make use of the biblical themes of wisdom a great deal. The emphasis is an act of discernment, a capacity to read the signs of the times and express a Christian faith committed to mercy, compassion, justice and the care of creation.

It was recognised that part of the public role of the Christian faith is to secure a voice in the marketplace of ideas within society. That is not necessarily easy when there is so much suspicion with regards the Christian faith and in this setting the contemporary follower of Christ cannot rely upon a privileged space.

There have been too many negative headlines; there has been too much trauma associated with the effect of the church on the lives of so many people.

This discipline is one which works with “strangers”; it is interdisciplinary and it relies upon the extension of thin trust.

Such trust occurs where you do not know well or all the other but you expect them to treat you well as you would them. The making of a civil society — of any sort — depends upon such trust, writes Martin Marty in his fine study of Creating Cultures of Trust.

Those visits through the course of the week were designed to illustrate how a public theology identifies issues of the day which require prophetic attention.

It so happened that they frequently coincided with the daily work and passion of those involved in a diaconal ministry.

What those present seemed to find helpful was being given a theological frame of reference in which to situate their work and praxis.

They were being given words to name what they do and how it fits into the bigger picture of the Christian hope for the world.

They were being invited to be bilingual; meaning being well-grounded and able to talk within the life of the church and beyond in the public domain where God is also to be found.

To this end they were asked to revisit the Boyer Lectures of 2005 which were delivered by Anglican Archbishop Peter Jensen on The Future of Jesus in Australia.

What themes would these Uniting Church deacons choose to speak on if they were given half the chance to deliver the 2012 version? Which issues would illustrate their talk?

Would they draw upon the most astute and perceptive of writings like Marsh, Douglas John Hall’s Waiting for Gospel and Scott Bader-Saye’s Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear?

Clive Pearson is Principal of United Theological College, Lecturer in Theology and Ethics, and Head of School, School of Theology, Charles Sturt University.

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