By Andrew Humphries
When Australia Remade national co-ordinator Millie Rooney sat down at her computer for a virtual chat with Uniting Church members last September, she was hoping for a robust discussion around the theme of ‘public good’.
She got that and more during a fascinating talk examining what is meant by public good, how we see it in action, the role of faith groups in providing it and just how important community connection is in creating a better Australia.
And, within that, was the fundamental question of how we can help the most vulnerable and ensure that no one is ‘left behind’.
Those issues go to the heart of Australia Remade, which wants every Australian’s voice heard in creating a more just and fair society.
Millie says the September discussion, featuring Victorian and Tasmanian UC members, explored the universal theme of the search for meaning.
“In the wake of the bushfires which had hit Australia earlier in the year, and then the arrival of COVID-19, we found that people were searching for meaning and were asking themselves, ‘what are we here for’,” she says.
“It led to further discussion, with people saying, ‘you know it’s not about left or right in politics, it’s about what we stand for as a country and why we do what we do (around public good).
“Public good works around knowing how power works in society and making sure how we as a society can use that power (to make a difference).”
Public good, says Millie, revolves around a sense of community connection and what that connection can achieve.
“People don’t want to live in a polarised community and there is a deep need to want to walk in to a place and be accepted,” she says.
What was most fascinating to Millie during the virtual discussion was comments from those taking part around the importance of human connection during times of crisis, perfectly illustrated in 2020 by COVID-19.
“There were some really interesting comments around the challenges in maintaining that connection during COVID-19,” she says.
“What I was hearing was around how the pandemic actually created this sense of a mega connection between people.
“It certainly enabled people to come together in new ways using new technology and I heard of examples in Tasmania of someone who was fairly tech-savvy teaming up to help someone who wasn’t, and there were a whole lot of lovely examples like that.”
So what about the Uniting Church’s role in providing leadership in a time of such dramatic change?
Millie says while members of the discussion group were in no doubt that the church had a significantly different place in society than it did 50 years ago, it still had a vitally important role to play.
“As I understood it from our conversation, the particular role faith groups like the Uniting Church have in providing the public good includes their ability to help create meaning, connection and values-led community,” she says.
“In essence (it was about) contributing to what we’ve called people’s capacities for participating in and maintaining the public good.
“They do this by gathering together around shared values, meaning, ritual and teaching; and also through having the capacity to experiment with new ways of providing for people’s tangible needs (such as homes, education, or care) that is driven by beliefs, values and relationships.
“(It’s different) to a profit-motive approach or government’s official duties of care to provide certain services to everyone.”
Millie says the COVID-19 pandemic also forced faith communities to reconsider how they connected.
“Lockdown and changes in how local faith communities were able to connect meant that people were asking questions about what to prioritise and why,” she says.
“While many pastoral carers were shutting down face-to-face meetings, some of the older members of the community pushed back and were asking for greater face-to-face connection and basically saying, ‘hang the risk’.
“For those responsible for care, it provided a challenge, as no one wanted to be responsible for passing COVID-19 to the congregation.”
It was best summed up by one of the discussion members who had a pastoral care role within the UC.
“This person indicated that local leadership needs to recognise that keeping people safe is also about social and spiritual care and that sometimes, particularly in COVID-19 times, these things are in tension with each other,” Millie says.
“And while this tension remains, it does provide an opening for an interesting reflection on just how important community connection is as a public good in and of itself.”
And while it may seem at times that Australia is fragmenting and some have questioned the role of government, and even the concept of democracy itself, Millie says they are concepts worth persevering with.
“At Australia Remade we are very much believers in the fact that the very act of building community is, in itself, a public good and (can lead to) the future that we want to build,” Millie says.
“And there are heaps of flow-on effects from that, when people feel they are in a safe space and have control.
“There is no doubt government could be amazing and, in some instances, is amazing and I don’t think people have necessarily given up on democracy, but there are some mixed feelings around it.”
It may be, says Millie, that we need to rethink how democracy can best work for us.
That rethink will require a more nuanced conversation and one Millie believes will be worth the effort in this age of social media, when the left-right divide seems as wide as ever on many issues.
Millie hopes for a time when greater tolerance of diverse views reaps rewards.
“What’s interesting to me, for example, is how much that I have learnt while following people on social media who are not like me, and how much more nuanced my thinking is as a result of that,” she says.
Millie uses a cooking analogy to better explain how faith groups can influence public good.
“Salt adds flavour. It doesn’t dominate, but it does enhance,” she says.
“This is what members of the Victorian and Tasmanian Synod say when I ask them about the role of faith groups in providing the public good.
“They explain that, like the value of salt in cooking, faith communities can enhance and enrich our quality of life.
“And as we ended the virtual call, one final comment summed up much of what I’m hearing in conversations about the public good.
“While government of all levels is important for facilitating action, it is the local communities themselves who need to choose their own salt.
“For those on the call, the Uniting Church is a favourite flavour enhancer.”