Faith in the public square

The Wesley Centre for Theology, Ethics, and Public Policy will lead the way in offering a Christian-based voice on public policy in Australia.

By Robyn Whitaker

This month, Christians around the world will celebrate Easter, a time of year when we reflect on what it means to find light, hope, and new life in an often dark, difficult, and unjust world.

Next month we launch the Wesley Centre for Theology, Ethics, and Public Policy.

It’s my hope that this new centre will find new ways to speak words of hope and life into the public conversation in Australia.

Since 2019 the Wesley Church in Melbourne, along with other UCA partners, has been thinking about what it might mean to bring a theologically informed, research-based Christian voice to the public square.

COVID-19 interrupted things for a time, but last year I was delighted to be appointed the inaugural Director of the Wesley Centre.

For me, it’s an opportunity to bring together my love of scholarly theology with my belief that Christians must engage with the big questions facing our society and that we have something to contribute to those questions as people of faith.

What is public theology?

If theology, in the broadest sense, is reflecting on the God revealed in Jesus, then public theology is about asking what those reflections might have to say about the ethical, social, and political questions facing our world.

In their book, ‘For the Life of the World: Theology for a Flourishing World’, Miroslav Volf and Matthew Crossman write that “theology’s engagement needs to be both more theological and more transformative”.

Public theology is an attempt to speak out of our belief in the God who is love, into the world as we find it today – a world in which too many people are caught up in cycles of poverty and violence, in which many of us ignore or even despise those who are different to us, and in which our climate is changing in dangerous and damaging ways.

Public theology is not preaching, and it is not apologetics; but nor is it merely social commentary.

It involves looking hard, and lovingly, at the world, and trying to examine the problems and
challenges we face through a distinctly theological lens.

It involves getting our hands dirty and grappling with current public policy debates, while at the same time interrogating the values that lie behind those debates.

The Wesley Centre for Theology, Ethics, and Public Policy will be an explicitly Christian voice in the public conversation.

When Christian voices appear in the media they often represent a very narrow range of Christian thought, sometimes reflecting an anxiety about change as the world moves further and further away from Christendom.

The Wesley Centre will be a constructive voice on important issues facing Australian society.

As fellow Christians we wish these voices well, but we think there is room for a greater diversity of perspectives.

After all, there is no single Christian view on many issues.

The Wesley Centre will speak out of the history and traditions of the Uniting Church, and draw from the great work done by arms and agencies such as Uniting VicTas, Uniting AgeWell, Pilgrim Theological College, the Synod’s justice cluster, and UEthical.

At the same time, we hope to create space for conversations with a vast diversity of partners, including those with very different views to our own.

How we conduct discussions will be just as important as what we discuss.

It has become a cliché to say that we live in a divided world, but it’s true.

People of faith live in bubbles no less than anyone else, which is the opposite of what Jesus asks of his followers.

The Wesley Centre will bring people together in respectful and patient dialogue, exploring each other’s positions without rushing to judgement, respecting differences, and looking for
common ground.

We will try to model the kind of dialogue a divided world needs.

What will we talk about? Anything that impacts the common good.

We will try to influence individuals within the church and without, as well as businesses, not-for-profit organisations, and governments.

Theology has something to say to every area of public policy, but a couple of examples spring to mind.

One is disability.

Australia is slowly coming to recognise the rights of people with disability, but there is a long way to go.

What does this question look like if we think of every person as held in the loving gaze of God?

How might theology have contributed to harmful attitudes towards people with disability, and how might this be corrected and healed?
How do people experience God in and through their living with disability?

Another area of public policy which invites theological reflection is gender-based violence.
Theology, and particularly theology that focuses on gender roles and “purity”, has not always
played a helpful role here.

Paul writes that in Christ “there is no male or female” (Gal 3:28), but the
churches have been slow to learn this lesson.

When we ignore this radical equality, we risk contributing to the attitudes that lead to violence.

How might theology better speak to an Australia in which one in five women have experienced sexual violence?

The Uniting Church has a rich history of bringing the light of theological reflection to questions of public policy.

For our Church, ‘love your neighbour’ has always been about more than individual relationships.

The Wesley Centre for Theology, Ethics, and Public Policy is the next chapter in this already rich story.

As an ordained minister in the Uniting Church of Australia I have, in one sense,
been doing public theology for many years.

It is what we do as clergy as soon as we step outside our church buildings and engage with communities beyond our walls.

As a school chaplain at MLC I realised I loved speaking beyond the traditional church and when on faculty at Union Seminary in New York, I witnessed the possibilities of public theology while watching colleagues like Cornel West, Serene Jones, and James Cone engage the public theologically.

On my return to Australia in 2016, I began writing articles to newspapers and appearing on television, radio, and podcasts in addition to my work as New Testament Coordinator at Pilgrim Theological College.

As Director of the Wesley Centre, I will now be in a dual role, with my time split
between Pilgrim and the Wesley Centre.

Our website is now up and running.

Please check our website out here and look for details of our official launch event.

We’d love you to join us.

Rev Associate Professor Robyn Whitaker is the inaugural Director of The Wesley Centre for Theology, Ethics, and Public Policy

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