Rev Alistair Macrae believes his congregation and the wider church will face some big challenges this year but they are put in perspective by some newcomers to Wesley Uniting Church.
“We’ve got a new family of asylum seekers from Iran,” Mr Macrae said.
“The father had his own business in Iran but became a Christian, and really couldn’t stick around. So he’s left everything and come here with his family to start a new life.”
“He’s certainly an inspiration. We talk about the cost of discipleship and it kind of doesn’t really mean much here, but this guy’s left everything – all his assets, his business. He wants the freedom to practice his faith.”
After conducting the Christmas morning service at historic Wesley Church on Lonsdale Street in Melbourne’s CBD, Mr Macrae found himself “bailed up” by more new arrivals.
“I met three young Chinese women who are asylum seekers,” he said.
“They’re from the so-called underground church in China and they’ve fled for the same reason as the Iranian family. They want to be able to practice their faith.”
Mr Macrae said the women asked, “You’re a church that believes in human rights, right?” and after being told that was so, they said “we’re hearing you accept all people”.
Once assured that was the case they said: “That’s why we’re here.”
Mr Macrae, a former president and moderator of the Uniting Church who was named an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in last year’s Australia Day’s honours list, issued his own challenge for the coming year.
“In the Uniting Church we still like to think of ourselves as a justice church. I think we are riding a wave of a previous generation on that,” he said.
However, he said that seeking justice should be a genuine and authentic expression of the Christian faith.
“I’ve heard people sometimes say that the Uniting Church is the Greens at prayer,” he said.
“I’d love to think that the Uniting Church is engaged socially but you can see it is also fuelled spiritually and theologically. So it’s not just ‘Oh, what’s some issue we can look progressive about?’
Assembly, the national decision-making council of the Uniting Church, will meet in Melbourne this year. One of the items it will consider is the issue of same sex marriage following its legalisation in Australia last year.
At the previous Assembly meeting in 2015, Mr Macrae presented a Doctrine Working Group report on the issue.
He said that stances on homosexuality are often seen as a litmus test of church orthodoxy, which indicates the massive underlying biblical, theological and ecclesial issues.
“I really hope and pray that in July when the Church discusses and debates same sex marriage we can unashamedly try to address it from our theological convictions and that the way we engage in it is Christian, meaning respectful,” he said
“I hope whatever outcome we arrive at, we can hold the unity of the Church and come to a position that is respectful of diversity.”
At a more local level, Mr Macrae said his congregation faced disruption with the construction phase of the Wesley Place redevelopment project well underway.
“We’re going to be the pilgrim people of God whether we like it or not,” he said.
“We’ll likely be moved temporarily out of our lovely old Gothic church at some stage in the next 6 to 12 months, while the building work occurs.”
“I’m looking forward to that challenge and holding the community together.”