By Andrew Humphries
When Anne Pate is asked what her role as Missional Spirituality Pastor with Northcote Uniting Church involves, she admits she isn’t 100 per cent sure.
To be precise, she says, it’s a work in progress.
“Well, we’re still reflecting on exactly what we mean by that title,” she says with a laugh as she describes her and husband and Minister Alister’s approach to the role.
“Essentially, it’s about bringing the riches of the Christian tradition to the front door of the church, and not hiding them at the back.
“We want to put the gifts of our spiritual tradition to the work of mission, and to place them at the front door of the church, rather than leaving them down the back as something for religious professionals, not relevant to ordinary people.
“I draw on my experience and formation as an Ignatian spiritual director to make these gifts more widely available.
“What we want to explore is how we can make available some of those riches of the Christian tradition in ways that can connect in a contemporary context, and this is something that we are exploring as a community.”
It’s as much about the journey, Anne says, as it is about the final destination.
And for so many people, that journey involves the search for a sense of meaning in their lives.
“Part of what we’re trying to do with my role is to say that so many people in our culture are searching and seeking meaning, but they are not quite sure where to look and certainly wouldn’t initially think to look at church because church itself might not really appeal to many people,” Anne says.
“What we’re trying to say is that the Christian tradition has so much to offer, and it’s partly about how you offer it and make it available to people so that they can engage with it.
“It sometimes sounds clichéd to talk about this so-called search for meaning, but I think today it has become more important than ever.
“When I talk about that in terms of what we’re doing at Northcote, I mean two things: firstly, we are cultivating a deeper understanding of who we are, and how to be Jesus’ people in this time and in this place.
“We are also focused on what we do at Northcote, which is that with God we will co-create a life-giving community in which the love of God is palpable.
“We seek to hold space for all people as we discern God’s call and participate in God’s project of liberation and love for the world.”
At the centre of what Northcote offers, says Anne, is the ability to facilitate connection with people on an individual level, rather than as part of a one-size-fits-all model.
“I’m always trying to think about how this can connect, and whether people feel they have to buy the whole story in order to be able to connect with the experiences that we offer,” she says.
“We have noticed that since pandemic lockdowns ended we have had quite a few people come to us who are searching for answers.
“Some of them may have had some experiences with Christianity going back to their childhood, and have then found that the experience of going through Covid-19 has forced a re-evaluation in their thinking.
“People are still reeling from the pandemic and we certainly noticed towards the end of last year an increase in the number of people coming to see us as they began to feel a bit more confident in venturing out.”
One way of connecting, says Anne, is through making a retreat.
“I have been running retreats as part of cafechurch since about 2013, and they were always one-day events until last year when we experimented and did a weekend gathering thanks to assistance from the Presbytery of Port Phillip West’s Simpson Fund,” she says.
“We went to Santa Casa in Queenscliff, which is run by the Sisters of Mercy, and we also promoted it outside our community and it was a great success.”
So successful was it as a weekend event that it will take place again this year from November 24-26.
It’s an opportunity, says Anne, for people to take the time out from their often busy lives to reconnect with God.
“Those who attend are able to embrace both time together with other people but also time by themselves,” she says.
“It’s not a silent retreat, but there is that opportunity to make use of the value of silence.
“But there is also plenty of time for people to come together and that can take place through activities like music and poetry, so there is a real creative side to it all.
“So the invitation for people is to come as you are and to be aware of what it is that you might need during this time, and to consciously set aside time for God.
Further information can be obtained from Anne at firstname.lastname@example.org
Northcote’s engaging double act
From humble beginnings more than 20 years ago, Northcote Uniting Church, or Chalice as it is also known, has developed into a booming and lively congregation after a recent refounding.
And at the heart of it all are Minister Rev Alister Pate and his wife Anne, Northcote’s Missional Spirituality Pastor.
“Chalice is a hub for a number of communities, all seeking to drink deep from the wellsprings of faith,” is its invitation to newcomers.
“We are a place for people of faith, people with hard questions, and people on a spiritual quest.
“We think you can have a serious, engaged Christian faith, and also be an inhabitant of post-modern, post-Christian Melbourne.”
At the heart of Northcote, says Anne, is a youthful vitality and positivity about spreading the word of God.
“We’re a relatively young congregation and I think our average age is about 36,” she says.
“We’ve got some people in their early 20s and I’m in my mid 50s, and I’m one of the oldest.
“That age demographic is what people often notice about us when they meet for the first time.”
It’s been quite a journey for Alister and Anne, and for the Cafechurch community which began 20 years ago and met in cafes and pubs until 2019.
In 2019, Alister was commissioned as Northcote Uniting Church Minister.
Members of the Cafechurch community joined Northcote UCA, and the spirited congregation has continued to blossom as new members arrive.
“Part of the joy for us is being able to be in a church space, rather than a pub, which allows us to do more reflective and contemplative things,” Anne says.
“We’ve certainly arrived in Northcote with a strong sense of mission and an emphasis on social connections.”
As a husband-and-wife team, Anne says she and Alister balance their responsibilities nicely and, while they may do things a little differently, a strong commitment to the Christian faith is at the heart of what they are about.
“I think we do balance each other well and what we’re trying to do is to offer that Christian tradition in a way that people can engage with,” she says.