On Christmas Day, 45 years of high profile, diverse, successful and, at times, controversial ministry came to an end when Rev Dr Francis Macnab gave his final sermon in St Michael’s Uniting Church.
In 2008 Dr Macnab made headlines for promoting a ‘New Faith’. He rewrote the Ten Commandments and, in 2010, became a literally larger-than-life figure when his image appeared on a highway billboard alongside those of Martin Luther King Jr and Florence Nightingale.
“I have no regrets, no apologies,” Dr Macnab said of the campaigns.
“If you don’t tell people you’re here, they don’t know you’re here.”
He said that unlike a suburban church, St Michael’s, which is situated on the corner of Collins and Russell St in Melbourne’s CBD, doesn’t have a resident population immediately surrounding it.
“People travel to get here,” he said.
“You’ve got to get up in the morning and say ‘I’m going to church’. People travel 10 or 20 or 100 kilometres to get here.”
Dr Macnab said if churches hid their lights under bushels those lights would go out.
“So if you don’t do something about it you’ll be turned into an art gallery, as they have done in places like Copenhagen,” he said.
“We reach the multitude. I have a great model for that, haven’t I?”
St Michael’s has a membership of 500 and boasts Sunday attendances between 350 to 600 people but it wasn’t always like this.
“At my first sermon here, an Easter sermon, there were 107 people,” Dr Macnab said.
“We’ve gone up and down quite a bit since, from a pretty full church to not so full to up again. It comes in waves.”
As part of its campaign to promote the New Faith’s revised Ten Commandments the billboard outside St Michael’s labelled the old ones as “one of the most negative documents ever written”.
In subsequent interviews Dr Macnab was quoted as saying that Moses was by biblical accounts a mass murderer, Abraham was likely concocted and Jesus not the literal son of God.
Dr Macnab said the church needed this type of “radical rethink” if it was to survive.
“The church generally is in a great deal of trouble in terms of attendance or in terms of relevance,” he said.
“You take the Uniting Church and you only need to examine the statistics to see that the graphs are not going in an upward direction.
“What does that mean? That people see church as irrelevant, or in some cases not just as irrelevant but unbelievable. So, of course, we have to re-examine what we’ve been saying.”
Dr Macnab said some might call his statements provocative but he took that as a positive thing.
“If you don’t provoke everyone goes to sleep,” he said.
“I think that it’s very important to consider what it is about, to look at what they have taken as traditional beliefs and consider ‘do I really believe that stuff?’
However, Dr Macnab denied that his positions were outside Christian thinking.
He said that as part of a scholarly forum he had studied which sayings traditionally attributed to Jesus were authentic.
“What we’ve said is that ‘he’s said this and that’, well he didn’t say that at all. Doesn’t stand up,” Dr Macnab said.
“So there’s been a big renovation of faith systems, which is what the New Faith is about.
“I know that some people find that unpleasant or difficult but the New Faith was really about saying how can we express it differently, how can we be more relevant, how can we be more honest in presenting the faith?
“I was trained in the theological position of Paul Tillich. Central to his teaching was to talk about a new being, that Jesus was the portrayal of a new being or a new way of being, which is to say a new humanity, a new human community. That’s what I am trying to construct here.”
Dr Macnab admitted that St Michael’s has operated somewhat as a separate entity within the Uniting Church.
“There’s been an attitude to it (St Michael’s), I think not least because we have been quite successful in what we have done,” he said.
“I think that worries some people in the church, oddly enough. There is a tendency amongst some to think that the church should deal only in the remnants. In fact, there is a theological doctrine somewhere there about the remnant of the church as being the significant thing.
“So in the Uniting Church, particularly around the time we became a little more assertive around the New Faith, a lot of people didn’t understand what it was about.
“People who came to speak to me about it hadn’t read anything I had written.”
According to Dr Macnab, his church was offering a vibrant take on Christianity.
“Anybody who comes and sits in St Michael’s is astonished by what they see and hear,” he said.
“Because we have a congregation of caring people, informed people. We have many examples of religious art within the church.
“We place a great deal of emphasis on the symbols of the Judaic-Christian faith. We are on the internet every week to people from 140 countries.
“If you hear what I speak about, I speak very biblically. I have rewritten the psalms and many passages of scripture to make them more accessible to people.
Those books, I am very delighted and touched to say, are read very widely in countries far and wide.
“When people say I am not giving the traditional Christian message I am pleased. The traditional Christian message has run its course. The churches are empty.”
Dr Macnab was made a member of the Order of Australia in 1992 for his contributions to psychotherapy and religion.
He founded, and was until recently, executive director of the Cairnmillar Institute, a leading counselling, psychotherapy and trauma therapy training and clinical treatment centre.
Dr Macnab also founded the Australian Foundation for Aftermath Reactions, which provides trauma, loss and grief counselling as well as The Big Tent Project, which provides therapy for kindergarten children.
At St Michael’s he established the Mingary Quiet Space, which is described as a sanctuary for people of all religions. Dr Macnab said he believed Mingary was “an extraordinary gift to the city of Melbourne and to the Church at large”.
There is also an associated low-cost counselling service.
Psychology and counselling were areas “massively neglected” by the church, according to Dr Macnab, who keeps a prominent photo of Sigmund Freud in his office.
“I can’t imagine being an effective minister without some knowledge of psychology or psychological insights, it’s about understanding people and their situation individually, personal and with families,” Dr Macnab said.
“The ministry is very uneducated in that regard.
“We could be helping people with living their lives because we are all dealing with very stressful, complicated and conflicted lives in ourselves and our relationships, in our communities.”
Dr Macnab cited satisfaction at a number of other achievements at St Michael’s.
These include completely renovating the church interior, improving and maintaining the gardens, building three-storey offices on the site of a former dilapidated hall and instituting a system of governance and administration that he believed could act as model for other churches.
However, at age 85 he recognised it was time to retire.
“You come to a point where you say that job’s done. My part in it, that’s enough,” he said.
“People keep saying ‘what am I going to do?’ and I keep saying you’ve got the verb wrong, it’s not what I’m going to do, I’m going to doze.”
Facing retirement with “no plans” brought together something of his professional and personal life because Dr Macnab has also long been involved with the S.A.G.E project aimed at helping people over 55 to age well.
“The adjustment to old age, retirement or relinquishment is a huge adjustment,” Dr Macnab said.