Challenge of Assembly

desert fathers
By Dan Wootton

In his retiring address to the Assembly in Perth, former president Rev Dr Andrew Dutney quoted philosopher John Dewey who said, “We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience.”

Readers who have never attended an Assembly meeting might be forgiven for thinking that there is ample time during a week-long meeting to reflect. Not so in my experience – not unless you get up very early and walk, and you won’t be surprised to learn that I did just that. I can’t seem to think clearly if I remain sedentary for too long – and there is much ‘sedentary remaining’ during this significant meeting in the life of the Church.

Each day the bible studies were based on Luke’s version of the disciples’ walk to Emmaus.  One of the Bible study leaders, missiologist Dr Rosemary Dewerse, spoke of walking in terms of the Maori understanding of Hikoi. She said that, “when we go on our Hikoi, there is company on offer, if we would only lift our eyes and notice”.

Dr Dewerse said the story of travellers encountering Jesus on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35) offered many parallels to the journey of followers today. She reminded us that, like the two travellers on Resurrection Sunday, we also do not walk alone.

As a walker, Dr Dewerse’s alignment of walking to Hikoi really resonated. After each morning walk along the Swan River and around the University of Western Australia I would return in time for breakfast and then attend an optional communion service. For various reasons, I found these services particularly intimate and often moving. They helped me to be attentive to “the company on offer” prior to my daily attendance in plenary.

A number of challenging topics formed part of the debate and discernment processes of the 14th Assembly. There were a number of times when I felt the urge to stand up and approach a microphone. My heart would began to beat a little quicker as I summoned the courage to speak into the at times difficult debate about eldership, marriage, justice, governance, and regulation changes.  But someone else invariably stood up and said what I felt needed to be heard. Instead I opted to display my indicator card in silence.

This was the sixth Assembly meeting I have attended and my sense is that the proportion of Assembly members who never speak is on the rise. In my mind, this is not necessarily such a bad thing. Of much greater importance I think, is the opportunity to come together regularly, even if that means spending some time a long way from home.

At the conclusion of the Assembly there was lots of chatter as we were herded on to busses and planes. I no longer felt the urge to walk (or talk) and I was thankful to be allocated a window seat on the plane next to unknown passengers. In the fading light I looked out the window to what I imagined were the plains of the Nullarbor. Not for the last time, I was reminded of yet another saying of the Desert Fathers:

Abba Macarius the great used to say to the brothers at Scetis when he dismissed the congregation, ‘Flee, brothers’.

One of the fathers said to him, ‘Where can we flee that’s more desert than this?’

He put his finger to his lips and said, ‘Flee this’, and so he would go into his cell and shut the door and sit down.

Dan Wootton

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