The first born child of Rev R (Carl) Dempsey and his wife Lillian, Ken spent much of his childhood in country NSW Methodist circuits. The lifestyle required the family to change churches regularly and Ken moved from school to school on a regular basis. Ken spoke of this constant loss of community during his childhood as a contributing factor in his early sense of isolation and a resulting difficulty in applying himself to his school work, which caused his parents a great deal of concern.
It couldn’t have been all that bad, however, because on the occasion of his 80th birthday celebration he reflected on his childhood in this way.
“What I especially want to stress is that although my upbringing was very strict and my childhood often sad, any price I paid for it is greatly outweighed by what I gained from being born into the family I was. It is a rare day I do not reflect on just how fortunate I was to have the parents I had and to live my childhood out in the places I did and in the way I did. I owe both parents an immeasurable debt. Much of the substance of my life is still shaped by their parenting.”
At age 17, and although not sure exactly the reason for doing so, Ken took the first steps toward following in his father’s footsteps to become a minister. Nine years later however, realising that his “calling” was motivated, as he claims, ‘“by self-interest rather than a commitment to proclaim the gospel or serve others”, he resigned.
After briefly working as a high-school teacher, Ken spent the next 37 years of his working-life as a university lecturer and researcher. During this period he published a number of books and research papers and his achievements as an academic were recognised by La Trobe University when he was granted an honorary title Emeritus Scholar, College of Arts, Social Sciences and Commerce, Melbourne (Bundoora), something that universities accord only to their best people.
Although, as Ken pointed out, he was more a doubter than a believer, his interest in the Church was borne out by his painstaking research which resulted in the publication of Conflict and Decline: Ministers and laymen in an Australian country town (1983). This research, together with his promptness in defending Christianity when it came under a misinformed attack by a university colleague, proved to him that he was not as alienated from Christianity as he had supposed.
After a number of attempts to find community and meaning in a variety of churches, an ad hoc visit to Highfield Road Uniting Church in Canterbury proved to be a ‘welcome back’ experience.
Some years later, Ken reminisced on this experience: “Nostalgia kicked in when we sang a couple of Wesley hymns. By about halfway through the service I was saying to myself –“this feels like home, why have I not been coming?” He soon found himself involved in Bible study groups and finally leading worship again.
On retirement from his academic position, Ken took steps to apply for readmission to the Christian ministry. A chance meeting with Rev Dr D’Arcy Wood led to him making a commitment to St Stephen’s Uniting Church Williamstown to provide supply ministry for a brief period.
At St Stephen’s Ken discovered community. He spoke of this time as “probably the most fulfilling and meaningful time of a working life that has extended over the best part of 60 years. I feel loved, valued and accepted. This community is composed of people I enjoy being with and talking to. This community has become part of who I am. I am grateful to have the chance to minister and be ministered to, at a stage of life when the big questions are at the forefront of one’s mind: what is this life all about, what makes it meaningful and worthwhile? What light can Jesus and the Christian faith throw on these issues?”
Regrettably, due to increasing health issues, Ken retired after 11 years of ministry at St Stephen’s in November 2016.
Members of St Stephen’s congregation were greatly gifted when Rev Ken Dempsey entered their lives in 2006. A passionate sociologist. A man of faith. A writer. An ideas man. A compassionate man, tender-hearted and loving, generous and forgiving. Strongly committed to social justice. Keenly interested in people. A patient listener. An animated talker. An avid reader of theology, biographies, stories, history, newspapers, especially political articles. A lover of music, art, sport, nature. He will be sadly missed but his teaching, his support, his love and his ministry will never be forgotten.
Ken is survived by his daughters Julie, Susan and Elizabeth, and three grandchildren.
Compiled by Elaine Peck from speeches given by Kenneth Dempsey.