Church at its best

pilgrim candidates

I wonder how many of us Uniting Church people spend our nights pouring over the Basis of Union rather than watching Netflix. Not many I imagine.

I know some people, if asked to appear on the old Einstein Factor, would choose the Basis of Union as their area of expertise. But not many.

Yet this week I was reminded of what at first glance looks like a pretty dry old paragraph –paragraph 15 of the Basis – can actually mean in action.

‘The Uniting Church… organises its life that locally, regionally government will be entrusted to…. men and women, bearing the gifts and graces with which God has endowed them for the building up of the Church.’

Seasoned church campers know there are many good things about gathering together with a group of people over an intensive period in a purpose-built facility – praying, worshipping, snorers and non-snorers bunking in, late night conversations and preparing meals together.

Early February marked the date for exactly that to happen for Uniting Church candidates and Pilgrim faculty in our synod as they began their three-day commencement camp for 2018.

And what a diverse bunch we were: seven men, 16 women, five faculty, two deacons and 16 ministers of word candidates, a wide range of ages and ethnic backgrounds.

There were the candidates who grew up in the Uniting Church and others who are relative newcomers. They came with backgrounds in engineering, nursing, teaching, social work, lay ministry and hospitality. They speak Korean, Chin, Arabic, French and Chinese.

The overarching purpose of the time together was to build a formation community to begin our life together. But this year, as the days unfolded, I was reminded how good it is when the various parts of the church actually work well together.

I have noticed over the years a habit many of us fall into from time-to-time. I call it “blaming up, down or across” for any problems within the church.

How many have heard “Ah those folks at synod. They need to understand what it’s like in the Real World!”; or “Assembly just needs to get in touch with the grassroots”; or “Those folks in ‘congregation land’ just don’t know what to do with all that property” or; “In our day we never argued, we just got on with things”; or “Church council just make decisions without consulting the rest of us”?

Need I go on?

Of course, from time to time anyone involved in our councils – from local church councils, through to standing committees, PRC, and assembly committees – get things wrong. Yet I believe we do need to take care in falling into our blaming habits.

There is something very precious about our inter-related councils which is countercultural and worth protecting. They are fundamentally places where all of us – faithful men and women, clergy and laity – are entrusted to build up the life of our church. And it was this I saw in action among our candidates, synod staff, local presbytery people and individual congregations. 

Our camp was held at Camp Acacia in Halls Gap (sort of Norval’s less fancy little sister down the road) where we were warmly welcomed by Amy from UCA camping, part of the synod’s new eLM unit.

Our program involved working with the local presbytery and congregations so our candidates could be immersed in the breadth of ministry in Western Victoria.

One group of candidates travelled to Hamilton where the congregation is presently between ministers. They were welcomed by a team of lay people who talked about the leadership offered by their church council and the ministry in the Hamilton community.

We heard of the fine work of the recently retired minister, Rev Peter Cook, and were reminded of the continuous thread of ordained ministry appreciated within the community.

Other groups returned to Halls Gap after visits to Stawell and Horsham full of admiration, questions and affirmation.

Then, together with the presbytery minister Rev Paul Blacker, the candidates began to explore some of the deeper theological questions: “What does it mean to be a gathered community of Christ in any place and time?” and “What is central to a life of Christian faith?” These questions and discussions continued late into the night.

Although on the surface it could all look pretty familiar, this camp made me realise that our councils of the church are working together daily, offering something very precious for the building up of the body of Christ.

We do not make our way by stealth and fancy programs. It is theological conversation by theological conversation, careful decision by careful decision, prayer by prayer, and working together bit by bit, that together we build up the body of Christ though the Grace of God. Nothing less.

To quote D’arcy Wood “…the Uniting Church is not a democracy, because a democracy is a form in which the people as a whole rule. The Uniting Church does not aim to represent the will of the people on any given issue, but to seek the will of God by prayer and by consulting together in the light of the Word of God.” – D’Arcy Wood, Building on a Solid Basis (1986)

Sue Withers
Field Education Coordinator
Centre for Theology & Ministry

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