Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Trust God for All To Come

The Rev. Allan Thompson has urged Church members to focus on what lies ahead rather than the past, at the Tributes Service for retiring ministers at the Synod of Victoria and Tasmania.

Thank you Moderator for the privilege of responding on behalf of those whose ministry milestones have been acknowledged today. Christian ministry is a privilege of the highest order and an equally high responsibility. We are pleased to exercise that privilege and responsibility and we thank the Synod for the recognition given to us. I think it is very appropriate that alongside those of us who have had long periods of service as ordained ministers there are those who have only recently been ordained and those who have come to the Uniting Church from other churches. I see that as a juxtaposition of the past and the future. A juxtaposition which I see as relevant for a church which is moving from one paradigm to another, a Church in transition, a Church in a new time and a new mission context, a Church seeking – with not a little struggling - to discern God’s will for its future. Increasingly the world in which we are placed in contemporary Australia requires a fresh approach from the Church and some major change.

It is very tempting for people of my vintage to look back – to remember much larger congregations than we have now, to remember the church and its clergy being integral and even honoured parts of society rather than marginalised as we now are, to remember a broader range of age groups in our congregations and thriving youth programs; to remember when almost every congregation was served by an ordained minister, and to remember when virtually all weddings and funerals were held in churches. Many of us look back and see good days. Many memories have been evoked as Mark read out the names of those whose deaths we have noted and whose ministry milestones we have today celebrated. This fortieth year of our church we have looked back to the inauguration of the Uniting Church. What a joyful and exciting time that was, and how high were the hopes that we had at that time. We have had to adjust our hopes and dreams as we recognised that both the Australia we live in and the Church we hold dear is very different from what they were in 1977.

In the years of ministry acknowledged in today’s service we have seen big changes – not only the 1977 Union, but the advent of Congress, the concept of lay presidency of the sacraments, the emergence of presbytery ministers, a whole new understanding of lay ministry, the formation of groups within the UCA such as Uniting Network and the Assembly of Confessing Congregations, and the flourishing of congregations consisting primarily of members of specific ethnic groupings, to name just a few. Some changes we have welcomed, and others we have regretted. I regret the diminished place of elders in the Uniting Church, for example, and I regret that we have settled into being more of a denomination than a movement as envisaged by many of us in the 1970s and early 1980s.

But this is not a time to focus on the past, but on what lies ahead. It is not a time for Christians to focus on regrets; rather it is a time for anticipation – for anticipation of things new and different from our past experience. We may not have elders in the traditional sense but we are already seeing some wonderful new models of lay leadership in the church’s worship witness and service. We might have become a denomination, but we are seeing the emergence of some very distinctive characteristics of our still new church which is making a real contribution to Australian society. And we can anticipate more. I have confidence that those whose ordinations we have acknowledged today and those who have come to us as ministers in other churches are among those who will assist us to anticipate and participate in what God has planned and willed for our church.

Yes, let us seek to anticipate what God is doing and will yet do. I have no doubt that God continues to have a purpose for the church, and that this God who9 walks with us continues to call the people of God – the Church – to mission in the world. In the 2000 years of its life God has again and again called the church into fresh expressions of worship, witness and service, often in response to the changing nature of the society of the day. So we must be ready to leave behind some of our familiar and loved ways in order to anticipate and participate in a renewed calling following Christ..

Earlier I said it was tempting to look back, but looking back takes us nowhere. True our past is important, and amongst the names read out today there have been great ministers who enriched the lives and faith of many people over many decades. They served well in their time – and for their time - and we rightly thank God for these saints. But the past is the past and will not be revisited. We are in a new period of time, a time of great social and cultural change, and it is in this new era that God calls us to courageously and faithfully engage. In a ever –changing societal context what is in the past is important only as it is a springboard for what is to come in the future.

We do not know what will be the future shape of the church. I’d love to be around in another 50 or 100 years to see what has happened, but I must be content to know that those who follow me will minister in what I anticipate will be a very different church and radically different models of ministry from those I have known. That should surprise none of us and delight all of us as we anticipate an active and leading God broadening our visions and enlightening our minds. But I dare to suggest that we are getting some glimpses. Our Synod’s vision and mission principles and the statements of intent are one such glimpse, especially the reference to “deepen partnership and trust” and being “lighter and simpler”. Out in our congregations the Synod and other councils of the church are often seen as a regulatory body rather than a facilitator or support for mission. That perception has to change. As the Church positions itself for our future with God we do indeed need to be lighter and simpler and to build trust between our congregations, the councils of the church and the agencies. We are in this together as followers of Christ.

One of the most quoted phrases from the Basis of Union is “we are a pilgrim people always on the way to the promised goal”. Keeping a future focus is vital. Nostalgia should have no place among pilgrim people. Again as the Basis says “here we do not have a continuing city, but we seek one to come, and we have the gift of the Spirit in order that we do not lose the way”.

Some of us may think that we have lost the way, and perhaps in some areas and to some extent we have, but to quote another important clause in the Basis our prayer is that “God will constantly correct that which is erroneous in the life of the Church.” The task before us is to discern the renewal into which God calls us, the renewal in which the Spirit of God is active, and to participate in that renewal. The renewal for which we pray will not be one that takes us back to what we once were, but into an unknown future participating in new forms and expressions of Christian ministry.

So I conclude with a paraphrase of our much loved hymns “we’ll praise God for all that is past and trust God for all that’s to come”.

Thank you, Moderator.