Part 1 – Recapturing Our Soul from…?
When visiting Melbourne last year with RoadTrip we unexpectedly bumped into Dr John Flett who invited us to attend the Recapturing our Soul conference in September 2016. The conference is concerned with the gap between church congregations / Synods and church agencies. Here are the introductory words from the conference website.
Many institutions within the community service sector have a religious background and motivation. This service grows out of belief. However, with the professionalisation of health provision in an increasingly plural society, some gap has developed between believing communities and the associated agencies.
Recapturing Our Soul examines this gap and considers various ways of uniting communities, church congregations, community service delivery and the state sector. It will stimulate a clearer understanding of the added value of the church’s core values to community service provision and explore the future connections between the church and agency/ third sector community work.
This topic caught my eye as a practitioner in such an agency. I work for Uniting Communities, an agency of the Uniting Church Synod of South Australia. At Uniting Communities I have a role as a ordained Uniting Church Minister and a management role in the area of Advocacy and Community Development. As the ordained minister much of my learning and work can be found at myfaithinaction.net. We are a mid sized agency with 850+ staff and similar number of volunteers in Lifeline.
ROS is being arranged by the Centre for Theology and Ministry in Melbourne. I feel a responsibility to constructively engage in this important conversation for the speakers / presenters are at the centre of the theological life of Anglo Christianity. A look at the speaker list provides us with a number of significant leaders in Australia and from Germany.
The conference is a reflection of the genuine concern that the theological centre has regarding the gap between believing communities and social service agencies of the church. For more detail regarding the concern and focus of the conference click here for an interview John has done with CrossLight.
This concern is often characterised as ‘the tail wagging the dog’. There have been times when I’ve listened to a well meaning congregation or synod member use this metaphor to lament the size and success of a particular church agency. That it ‘never use to be like this’, that while congregations are shrinking ‘the agencies are so large that they might take over the whole church’. Though these conversations are heartfelt rarely do they produce any new or useful insight. I am often non the wiser about what we’ve learnt and what we might do. So what should we do with the tail and its dog? I suspect that this particular metaphor might be a beginning for us but we will need to think creatively and beyond the alleged problem.
The Recapture Metaphor
The conference title Recapturing our Soul can be read in more than one way. In the imperative voice “Recapture our Soul!” is a shouted command to all who can hear to stop what you are doing and give chase to the escapee. But it could also be the voice of those giving chase “Recapture our Soul?” followed by a short nervous laughter at the impossible task of stuffing a genie back into the bottle.
Either way the title is describing the Uniting church organisation which ac cents my ministry contribution as soulless. This metaphor characterises us as mindless zombie slaves of the State. Hard hearted obdurate impenitents draining the life out of the Christianity which created us. The tail wagging dog has been replaced with a more colourful compelling and contemporary metaphor!
Some of my colleagues might celebrate their new found soullessness. Possibly Rev Graham Long of Wayside Chapel (King Cross) would make a spirited apologetic for not recapturing the soul of the theological centre. At a recent visit I heard him describe Wayside theology as the following;
- No judgement
- No cowboys
- No secrets
- No rush
- And no big words people don’t understand!
Maybe the gap between agency and Synod gives Wayside Chapel the space to connect with prostitutes and drug users in their local community in a way that most well run congregations would never dream of.
Another colleague, and friend, Rev Dr Les Underwood give a spirited response along the lines of “Why on earth would we want to capture our soul? It has been seen free!”
And I can also hear my own staff at Uniting Communities challenging me to confront the soulless characterisation. To describe people and their work as soulless is a linguistic act of violence. Uniting Communities knows about violence. We have worked with the affects of violence against women and children for many years. Some of those women have lived in their congregation and their husbands and preachers have treated them as if they have no soul. Violence isn’t just physical, its also economic, its social, and it is spiritual. It is well known that abusive words are often the most difficult to recover from. Bones reknit and join. Words cut to the soul of our being.
Now I know that this is not intended by the conference organisers, but as academics they are professional wordsmiths, practiced at choosing their words carefully. Academics know the power of words and ideas to construct a reality. They know, more than I, the power of words to open topics up or to close them down.
Jesus in the community
Many Uniting Communities staff I work with live lives which are congruent with the parables of Jesus – where they care for the isolated, respond to the rejected and stand up and advocate against systems which do not appreciate the colour and variety of humanity. Some of them do this as effectively as many of the members of the Uniting Church (myself included). When I started my ministry at Uniting Communities I was surprised by this observation, but now I have come to accept this. Even Jesus experienced this same phenomenon when he is confronted by his own disciples complaining about the guy down the road who is casting out demons but without Jesus permission. Jesus responds..
Anyone who isn’t against us is for us Mark 9.40
There are people doing divine reconciling work of God regardless of whether we have given them our permission. I observe our agency staff living lives congruent with the gospel in a way that is difficult to recognise and understand lest you work with them.
So I hold two contrary views about the recapturing our metaphor. On the one hand church agencies and parish missions can be understood as soulless of the administrative theological centerist Protestantism – because we don’t want it. We left this behind with other demeaning baggage like ‘charity’ and ‘the deserving poor’ some years ago. When holding this position I am able to accept with fun the zombie characterisation and recommend we all join in the annual zombie walk (which by the way raises funds for Foodbank). From this point of view I understand those who have said to me that we should ignore the conference, because it has no consequence and will go away.
On the other hand I want to claim that we are organisations filled with people who are soulfully living out the parables of Jesus and some of us describe ourselves as Christian! Where we highlight the hegemonic violence in our church and community when it is put upon us and others. For we are organisations which have a vision for a compassionate respectful and just community in which all people participate and flourish.
I find myself able to argue both “Yes” and “No” to Recapturing our Soul.
The Meta Question
The conference question is designed to frame us into a theological debate where we argue for the truth as we see it. The deliberately provokative dualist metaphor forces us to argue for a position. For surely something is wrong, something should be done and someone is to blame.
Those who work in the sector, and those who are members of the Uniting Church should expect much more from our theological discussion this conference provides. They will want much more from us – whether congregational or agency, whether Protestant or otherwise. They will want us to expand our understanding and insight regarding why we are here, what we might learn from each other and how that learning might improve our congregational and agency / parish mission life.
How we might get there is the theme the second of three blogs on the Rescuing Our Soul Conference titled Part 2 – ROS Conference – UnitingCare Australia’s Mission and Ministry Network and the Four Marks of the Church
Rev Peter McDonald is the Executive of Advocacy and Community Relations at Uniting Communities as well as the Minister in placement. His profile is here and he will be attending the Friday and Saturday of the ROS conference.
Catalogue of work prepared for “Recapturing our Soul” Melbourne 2-4th Sept 2016
- Part 1- ROS Conference – Rescuing our Soul from?
- Part 2 – ROS Conference – UnitingCare Australia’s Mission and Ministry Network and the Four Marks of the Church
- Part 3 – ROS Conference – Faith in Action as alternative to Rene Girard
- Beginners Guides – Background information written with our visiting German scholars in mind.
After reading Parts 1-3 Dr John Flett asked me to prepare a brief description of 1) the Australian social service sector, 2) Uniting Church agencies, 3) Uniting Church governance, and 4) The relationships between the three.
Hence my “Incomplete Guides” written for beginners. The guides are ‘incomplete’ as they do not describe the whole system. Rather they pick one or two issues as an example of what can be found within it.
- Incomplete Guide to social services and the way the Uniting Church plays (Part 4 for ROS):
an incomplete guide to Australian social sector written from a Uniting Church agency point of view
- Incomplete Guide to the way the Uniting Church plays in the social sector (Part 5 for ROS):
the second incomplete guide to the history and presence of the Uniting Church in social services today
- Incomplete Guide to the convoluted names and governance of UCA: the third incomplete guide to the basic structure of the Uniting church and the logical consequences of a hybrid centralised and decentralised church (Part 6 for ROS).
(New work posted 24th August)
- The relationship between the three is the last piece of work. This pivots us into the area of the relationships between, church governance, agency governance and state governance. We (Uniting Communities) approaches this through the lens of advocacy. How might we apply pressure to the Synod and the government to make communities a better place to live for disadvantaged and isolated people. This may get written in the few days prior to the conference or may be writtenm . See how I go.
- Incomplete Guide to social services and the way the Uniting Church plays (Part 4 for ROS):