There was some lively debate last Sunday afternoon when some Uniting Church future-gazers were urged to ask, “Why should there be a Church in the first place?” rather than “how can we be Church in new ways?”
Rev Dr Geoff Thompson told the 50 plus participants gathered at Melbourne’s Centre for Theology & Ministry for a public forum that the first question was the one that mattered in the post-Christendom mindset of contemporary Australia.
Dr Thompson (systematic theology teacher at Pilgrim Theological College) was joined by Uniting Church’s president-elect Dr Deidre Palmer to present their views on where the Uniting Church is heading.
An audience member suggested that both speakers were speaking theoretically about an issue that needed action.
Dr Thompson responded that “theologians don’t work in theory, they work in imagination”.
“Ministers need also to work in the space of imagination,” he added.
Facilitated by Dr Jill Tabart, the forum was engaging, positive and thought-provoking.
Dr Palmer described the Christian community as both ancient and ever-fresh. She outlined reasons to feel hopeful for the future of the Uniting Church and stressed that a regularly repeated narrative around limited resources and disappointed hopes “will limit our vision”.
She urged people to engage in a narrative of God’s abundance.
“As disciples of Jesus,” Dr Palmer said, “God invites us to receive God’s abundant grace and blessing in our lives to be God’s hopeful and compassionate people in the world.”
Both speakers stressed the importance of evangelism, but it was only during question time that Dr Thompson defined his understanding of the word.
“Let’s avoid replicating a 20th century view of evangelism,” he told a room full of nodding heads, “humility and gentleness are important in any conversation.”
“Are we confident that we have something to say in the public space? Our voice has been weakened because the church is on the nose. Its confidence has been eroded.”
The discussion weaved through the first 40 years of the Uniting Church and what might unfold into its next 40 years. The two speakers agreed that the Church would continue to focus on its Christological centre (as witnessed in Jesus Christ’s birth, death and resurrection and reinforced in paragraph 3 of Basis of Union).
Dr Thompson said the way the Church communicates needs to reflect the ‘post’ world in which we live: post-truth; post-colonial; post-secular; post-Christian and post-liberal.
For example, he said, people approach theological education expecting to be shuffled along a liberal-conservative spectrum.
“No longer do we live in a world so easily divided,” Dr Thompson said.
“We live in a world of intellectual pluralism – multiple conversations, not one single conversation. –, about God, about hope.”
Dr Palmer outlined seven strengths and challenges for the Church. Her list included, as a strength, achieving equality of women and men.
“Women are able to fully contribute to the life and mission of the church and reach their fullest humanity,” the president-elect said.
She said this is particularly evident in the intergenerational community of the Church. Dr Palmer urged the gathering to encourage the full participation of people in their 20s, to honour their contributions now and into the future and not to patronise them.
One person questioned Dr Palmer’s optimism around gender equality, pointing out that there had only been one previous female president of the UCA, and that person, Dr Jill Tabart, was present in the room.
Animated conversations continued even as the forum drew to a close.
Participants left still grappling with questions such as:
What makes us think we have something to offer the world?
Why do we need to be in the world?
How do Christians express their voice when they are becoming an increasing cultural oddity amongst their peers?
How do we have conversations about God and address the issue of decline?
For this weeks Friday Forum we ask how you would answer those questions.