Then, Now, and If…
Notes on the Sunday address by Rev Ric Holland, 5 February 2017.
The Church has often had a higgledy-piggledy journey as it has travelled down the train line of history. It has not always been harmonious, nor has it been at one with itself or its own teachings.
Let’s just remind ourselves of some of the times it has clearly been at the wrong station:
Let’s look back at the Church’s historical “THEN”:
- The Inquisition
- The Crusades
- Its anti-Semitism
- The wars of religion
- Its support for capital punishment
- Its encouragement of corporal punishment
- Its justification of slavery
- Its world-wide colonialism in the name of conversion to Christianity
- The Dutch Reform church’s support of apartheid and similar attitudes leading to segregated congregations in the USA
Sadly the list is painful and abhorrent. How did this massive contradiction between the church’s message and its practice exist?
Professor Mirsolav Volf, Director of the Yale Centre for Faith and Culture, and one of the most celebrated theologians of our day says it happened “from a confusion of loyalties, rather than the character of Christian faith itself. A better explanation of why the Christian Church is either impotent in the face of very bad practices or even actively participates in them derives from the tendency of its adherents to have an overriding allegiance and commitment to their respective cultures and ethnic groups.”
This has meant that the church has got a pretty shady past. We are reminded of this in our own recent history when we look at the despicable crimes committed under the shadow of the cross in Aboriginal communities, in children’s homes, in schools and aged care facilities. We must accept the mistakes, nor more the horrors that have taken place as the institution has lost sight of the person whose message it espouses. The church has often failed to take the commission given to it seriously and has lived out the Jesus carping criticism “that if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be in darkness.”
Now don’t get me wrong, I am proud to be part of a church which through the centuries have also been peacemakers and suffered for the cause of right… the Kingdom of Heaven is surely theirs.
It was the church who first introduced education and schooling. Instigated Hospitals and nursing care facilities for the elderly and dying; fought for the rights and wellbeing of ordinary working people through Trade Unionism. The church builds social and community services which provide support and care for the most vulnerable; highlighting social justice issues in penal systems around the world.
These were all begun by the church as it sought to demonstrate the Kingdom of God in a world of suffering and pain. But while we acknowledge wonderful past achievements we must also accept the mistakes that have been made as the church seeks to protect itself and to build up the institution often contrary to the spirit of those early bare-foot preachers who were truly blessed and were given the right to be called sons and daughters of God.
The Uniting Church “Now”
St Michael’s have been part of the Uniting Church of Australia since its inception in 1977. A church which amongst many of its terrific statements of faith claims “to live a creative, adventurous life of faith, characterised by openness, flexibility, hope and joy”. It was to this that I was attracted when I transferred into the Uniting Church in 1989.
But sadly, as with many institutions, the Uniting Church along with many other churches can be hindered by the minutiae of administration and rules. By concentrating on church polity and process it’s so easy to forget the big picture issues.
This does not square with the blessing in the beatitudes to those who hunger and thirst to see right prevail or to those who show mercy.
Where is our hope and vision?
Where is our mission to share Good News?
We need to have a vision for the future!
We need to stop looking at the recent past as the beginning of the decline of church attendance. Professor Allan Gill, Professor of Church History at Canterbury University in studying the history of the church over centuries demonstrates in his thesis “The Empty Church” that the peak of church attendance in the western world was 1851, which coincides exactly with the massive growth in church buildings. So when the church was beginning its congregation decline, at the same time it was expanding its building program. Some research in Australia quotes an example in Bendigo and Ballarat when there was more church seating in the combined churches than there were people actually living in those communities.
So let’s think about St Michaels “Now”
St Michael’s started in 1839, and the current church was erected in 1866. Rightly proud of our independent spirit and theology St Michael’s thrived on change and our commitment to enhancing life and wellbeing.
This spirit is clearly demonstrated in our worship services; questioning and examining Orthodoxy, hoping to inspire and bring spiritual inner peace and joy.
- Through the terrific music program, led by Rhys Boak, central to the culture of St Michael’s, which can reach into a person’s soul and trigger wonderful emotions and responses.
- The Mingary Counselling service provides counselling and support to between 2 to 3 thousand people a year. This is a vital part of St Michael’s and I’m already talking to Mingary Director Dr Lynette Kramer about further growth and expansion.
- Our special relationship with The Cairnmillar Institute, training counselling and psychotherapy students since 1961 is a testament to our dedication to enhancing
- Our healthy ageing S.A.G.E. program helping hundreds of people build strategies to cope with big stresses in the post 55 years of their lives; continuing to expand with Clinical Psychologist Julianna Chokovski leading the program.
- Through Mingary, The Quiet place, a place for people of all religions and cultures can take the time to refocus and reflect in the midst of a hectic city life.
- Our Contact and Care Program reaches out through a comprehensive care network to support hundreds of people across many miles.
- Through our discussion groups and many, many conversations which take place within the walls of St Michael’s as well as worldwide through our social media networks.
St Michael’s is true to our calling to be a “beacon of inspiration and mental health in the heart of the City”.
But what of tomorrow, the “IF”?
The “If” of tomorrow depends on many other happenings, but we can still be fired up and ready.
As a church, we must always be looking towards tomorrow. We must always be with Oscar Wilde “Looking at the stars” and being reminded of Anne Frank’s “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world”.
This is what the true meaning of faith is, belief that things can improve as we learn from the past, but we must keep on keeping on. And like those before us, take risks. Be prepared for failures.
We can believe the impossible and make the impossible happen.
- By standing alongside each other. One spoke in a wheel the wheel buckles. A whole lot of spokes can travel for miles.
- By showing grit and resolve. Don’t be persuaded by the pessimistic soothsayers that “It will never work”.
- By building bridges. We must create partnerships with other organisations, companies and individuals who share our values if not our faith.
- By taking risks. No significant breakthroughs have ever been made by going down the pathway of the safe and assured.
- By smashing through the normal. It’s only the abnormal that creates new things.
- By believing in the power of the human spirit. Within each one of us is the ability to achieve the unbelievable.
This is a message for St Michael’s as we look to the future, a big “If”, but a wonderful and exciting one. A future where St Michael’s, in the words of the Gospel writer, will be a light for the world. Shining a light on the dark misunderstandings of faith and theology, shining a light in the dark recesses of city life, shining a light on the dark aspects of people’s troubled souls, shining a light on each one of us as we look to the future to make our dreams possible.
you for asking me to share that journey with you.