By Andrew Humphries
When Rev Denise Liersch passes the baton to incoming Moderator Rev David Fotheringham tomorrow night, it will bring to a close a most eventful three years as the Synod’s spiritual leader.
When Denise took over from Sharon Hollis in 2019, she expected the role would be busy enough, with one or two challenges to face along the way. She didn’t, however, expect to face an obstacle which turned church life, and indeed life for every Australian, on its head.
By early 2020, COVID-19 had made itself known and, since then, it has been an almost constant presence in our lives, pushing us into lockdowns, restricting our freedom and, at times, overwhelming us.
In the process it has had a major impact on so much of day-to-day church life, an impact felt in so many ways by congregations and faith community members who were used to gathering in a physical sense.
“One of the biggest challenges early on was that so much of how we touch base with each other to make sense of things depended upon coming together physically and, of course, we couldn’t do that (because of lockdowns),” Denise says.
“The question then became, ‘how do we decide things when we can’t be with each other in the way that we normally would?’.
“It seemed to me that in the early days of COVID-19 we focused incredibly intently on how we connect. And rightly so, because in a Uniting Church context we would say, ‘well if we are going to find our way, we need to touch base to discern together, and not have a single person decide for us. More importantly, how can we be a community of faith if we aren’t connected?
“But of course coming together physically was the very thing that we couldn’t do. So that lack of capacity to be able to meet has been challenging in relation to who we are as human communities, and how we find our way around things when we have big decisions to make.”
Denise says the pandemic did have one unintended benefit as it brought forward discussion around some issues that might not otherwise have seen the light of day.
“Perhaps a good thing about COVID-19 is that there have been so many things that have been sitting with us for a long, long time, where we have recognised there are areas in our life together as a church, and in our communities as Australians, where we know there are issues that we’re not addressing. COVID-19 brought some of this to a head,” she says.
“It means we’ve had to start having conversations around these issues and make decisions on them.
“The often-quoted example, is that it has led to questions around how we use our property. In many instances, there has been this sense that we don’t need our property as much as we thought we did. We’ve discovered there are alternative ways of doing things where we don’t have to rely so heavily on our physical resources, like buildings.
“There is a kind of freedom in being released from that. But it’s also meant on occasions, that there has been pressure to make decisions about things that people haven’t had the chance to properly work through, because communication has become more difficult.”
The art of communication and the ability to listen well, Denise says, will become even more important as the Church considers fundamental questions around what being “church” actually means.
“When we think about the best ways for communities to come together and the best ways to be the church, we have these questions. Being the church means living quite counter-culturally. We need to ask ourselves, ‘are we following our culture or are we following the gospel?’,” she says.
“I think how we find our way, and who we look to to guide us along the way, has been diverse. The rapidity and extent of change in our times means we have discovered that many of the things we do as a church have more to do with past tradition and practice rather than what God is calling us to. The last two years of COVID-19 have helped us see some of that.
“It’s not just COVID-19 of course, the world is far different to what it was in the 1950s or 1920s. We need to find our way through this. It involves a lot of learning and we need to keep doing it.”
Financial challenges and questions around how the church is best structured also loom large for members, says Denise.
“Over my three years as Moderator, a number of challenges have arisen because of COVID-19, but there have also been pre-existing challenges which have become more accentuated or clearer because of the pandemic,” she says.
“People are naming challenges that focus on how we are structured as a church and how well our current structures really serve us and the communities in which we live. Many would say they don’t necessarily serve us well, which is something our most recent Assembly meeting explored as part of the Act2 project.
“There is a call to now reassess whether the church, as we structured it in the 1970s, needs to be relooked at. While there is a huge amount that it is absolutely critical we hold on to and lies at the heart of who we are, there are other aspects that aren’t really critical.
“We have some very important questions to answer about these sorts of issues. We can get caught up in things like financial security and use of property, but forget what it exists for: to serve the mission of God in the world.
“Financial security and property shouldn’t be ends in themselves. When we spend a lot of time on our properties and finances we can get distracted as to what they are for. My hope is that we don’t find ourselves getting distracted and going astray in that regard, and someone like David (as Moderator) will be so important in guiding us through these next three years.”
What’s been a highlight? As she reflects on her own time as Moderator, Denise looks back with delight, and some heartache, on being part of the Church’s journey of walking together with First Peoples.
“That has meant learning so much around how First and Second Peoples might come together, while knowing that it is not straightforward and that we must stick with each other when we make mistakes,” she says.
“There is so much going on right now. The Uluru Statement from the Heart, constitutional recognition and a Voice to Parliament. treatment in custody, why people end up in custody, health, language. So there is that constant and ongoing dialogue. This isn’t just a matter of one little compartment of our life. The way we live as First and Second Peoples in this land actually shapes who we are as a nation and who we are as a people and a church. That’s an amazing gift to us all.
“It’s a constantly evolving relationship, and being a part of that as Moderator has been a particular privilege.
“The heartache has been that it takes us so long, that we are so slow to learn and unlearn and change, and that COVID-19, again, has had an impact on that in terms of limiting the opportunity to actually come together, in person. I only got to Tasmania this year – after three cancelled trips.”
Dialogue and the art of listening respectfully are key in strengthening relationships between First and Second Peoples, Denise says.
“We need to look at who the First Nations people are that we Second Peoples need to be in relationship with,” she says.
“It’s important we get to know each other, to listen and try to understand more, so that in every way we are considering what it means to be Second Peoples.
“You could be in a congregation in, say, Moorabbin, or Colac, or Bridport. It’s about saying, ‘OK, we are second peoples here in this community. So who are the First Peoples here in this place? What are their stories? Who might we talk with and get to know? Local people getting to know local people. How might we gain a greater insight into who we all are, by hearing their stories? The truth of them.’
“Can we imagine that? I hope it means a massive shift in our relationship with First Peoples.”
As she welcomes David into the role, Denise says the Synod benefits from the fresh pair of eyes each Moderator brings to the role.
“There are many ways it’s a really good thing that the role is restricted to three years,” she says.
“The fresh input of different people, each taking up their particular place, is really valuable for the community. that we keep on having change.
“We have lots of continuity in other ways, but the role of Moderator is one where fresh insight and voices bring something special.”
In David, Denise says the Synod welcomes a Moderator with all of the characteristics needed to fully and respectfully assume the role of spiritual leader.
“I have kept a bit of a connection with David over time and I know him well enough to say it is really heartwarming to know he is stepping into the role of Moderator,” Denise says.
“I see David as deeply spiritual and a person of really deep faith, one possessing great humility and one who is deeply committed to the life of others and of the Church.
“When you think of a person who fills the image of the servant leader, he is right up there.
“He has a way of bringing out the best in others and a very particular way of guiding a group of people in good and deep discernment, while he sits in the background and allows them to explore deeply and well together and touch into what matters most.
“He is going to be wonderful, not because he brings his opinion into matters, but because he is able to lead a group of people to discern really well where the Spirit of God is leading us.”
And in saying farewell to the role of Moderator, Denise poses one last question which needs to be considered.
It’s a question which goes to the heart of what being a church is all about and the importance of faith communities within that.
“What is the core characteristic of being a church, and the theological basis for that, which helps us to understand how we are worshipping communities and communities of faith, and communities concerned about doing good in the world?” she asks.
“There could be a kind of thinking that says communities of faith are fading into non-existence, but that the church lives on in the community services that we’re engaged in. The question becomes, ‘is that right?’
“Theologically, the answer is no, it’s not right. If you don’t have communities of faith the church isn’t there anymore.
“So the work of agencies needs to be deeply embedded in and emerging out of communities of faith. If that isn’t the case, you might have a vestigial remnant of the church, not necessarily the church itself.
“But neither can you have communities of faith without engaging in God’s work of flourishing life in the world. We aren’t communities of faith if all they are interested in is some disembodied spiritual realm that isn’t embedded in the reality of our whole lives.
“Both are essential and the question becomes how do we hold these together?
“You might have a church building sitting on a corner somewhere that says it’s a church, if there is no community there that is alive and living out that faith, is that a Christian presence? I would suggest the answer is no, it’s not.
“They are the questions we are considering at the moment and we need to have a basis for how we answer them and discern together as communities.”
General Secretary Rev Dr Mark Lawrence says Denise has displayed exemplary leadership during the most trying of times.
“This has been a unique time to be Moderator,” he says.
“Normally the Moderator would travel all over Victoria and Tasmania, as well as interstate for various activities, to share that sense of being a wider church, and Denise has had to do that from her study at home because of COVID-19.
“Her agility and ability to be present with people in an online sense, prepare specifically for that and think through how her presence online can be as meaningful as possible, has been terrific.
“She has been present so well in so many different ways … to connect with various leaders and members in the life of the church and support and assist them through incredibly uncertain, challenging and stressful times.
“She has been able to understand and appreciate the complexities that have been going on and consistently offer a word of hope and encouragement when things have been incredibly uncertain.
“She has prepared well, read widely and sought to understand what is going on at all times.”
While every Synod meeting represents an important occasion, this week’s gathering will be particularly special for UCA members.
The June 30-July 3 event will be the first in-person gathering since the 2019 Synod.
The COVID-19 pandemic meant the scheduled 2020 Synod meeting had to be postponed until February last year, when it was held as an online gathering.
And, while that worked well and was well-attended by members as an online event, Mark Lawrence admits he can’t wait to see members gathering again at the end of this month.
“It’s going to be wonderful to be able to have that in-person meeting again after having been online for the February 2021 meeting,” Mark says.
“Last year we were able to undertake an effective Synod online and, for most of us, it was the first time we had been in a big meeting online with people where we were there over a couple of days and able to discuss significant issues.
“Many people, though, really missed that intangible quality (of gathering together in person) and being able to chat informally.
“Both the formal and informal parts of a Synod Meeting are important for shaping the community, which is built for the opportunity to discern about the big decisions which are going on.
“Even though we will talk formally, in plenary and working groups about matters, the informal engagement that goes on around all this is really important as well.
“So there is the decision-making side of things when we are all in one place together, but the informal development of relationships and friendships and all of the informal interaction that goes on is really terrific.”
Synod 2022 is important for a number of reasons. It sees David Fotheringham succeed Denise Liersch as Moderator and it will formulate the Church’s response to Tasmania’s Voluntary Assisted Dying legislation.
“This is a distinct, but similar, legislation to the Victorian legislation around VAD and a lot of the theological work that we covered in response to that Victorian legislation will help inform our response to the Tasmanian legislation,” Mark says.
“Nevertheless, it is specific legislation and we need to do our work together as a church to reflect on that.
“There has been a consultation process that has gone on around this and a very comprehensive report will be provided to the Synod members and we will work through that with presentations and working groups considering proposals at the Synod Meeting itself.”
Mark says the future of the church’s corporate discipleship and mission will also be an important discussion area at Synod 2022.
“We will be spending a bit of time sharing and hearing stories about ways that congregational life is responding creatively and constructively to what it means to follow Christ in 2022 and beyond, recognising deliberate changes around that and potentially changes in congregational emphasis, how they organise themselves and where they meet,” he says.
“The hope is that we can stimulate thinking for congregations, presbyteries and the Synod about how we might use our resources more wisely to be a church that expresses itself in appropriate ways, which respond to our mission context.
“As a reforming and renewing church, and the Basis of Union understanding around being a pilgrim people always on the way towards a promised goal, we are called to continually adapt, which is part of our DNA.”