IT’S HARD TO KNOW HOW TO OBJECT. MEMO to Management (of my nursing hostel): A lady nurse is wearing a festive ‘top’ bearing the greeting “Merry Stitchmas”. I think that it is an unfunny ugly go at demonising the commercial take-over of the annual birthday celebration of a revolutionary Jewish prophet, Rabbi Yeshuah (Jesus-Christ) of Nazareth (05 BCE-30 CE). The Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt judged him “… the most completely valid and completely convincing experience of goodness (that our world has ever known) as the inspiring principle of all action”. Kevin Smith room 55
Rev Dr Walter Stratford. [see details about his book at: Why are you here Elijah, now available as a kindle publication]
Following the discussion about the meaning of Christmas at the PCNQ gathering at New Farm last Wednesday, Wally has been inspired to write this….
The gospel account
of Jesus of Nazareth was written as an assertion that Jesus was the Son of God.
The claim comes from the experiences of followers of the way and was
expanded into a declaration on which the church was built. The gospel according
to Luke provides the story that claims Jesus’ birth as an eternal truth.
The angel said to
her, ‘the Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will
overshadow you, therefore the child to be born will be Holy; he will be called
Son of God’ (Lk1:35).
At the appropriate
time Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem. ‘While they were there the time came
for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her first-born son…’ (Lk.2:6-7).
These few verses
from Luke’s account continue to be a focal point for the church’s declaration
that Jesus is the Son of God, the birth narrative recognized as definitive of his
divine relationship. This literal understanding of Jesus’ birth was linked by
early theologians to a claim that the scriptures of the Jews contained words of
promise that found their outcome in Jesus. His sacrificial death and the claims
of his resurrection sealed the promises of redemption and became the rock on
which, it may be said, the church stands or falls.
It is generally
agreed that Luke was a Gentile God worshipper before converting to
Christianity. The consensus is that he was writing to fellow Gentiles, some of
whom may have also been God worshippers.
The Gentiles of
that middle eastern area contained among their numbers the strong influence of many
Greeks and Romans. Within this mix were many religious stories which included
visitations of the gods with human women. Children born of such liaisons were
referred to as sons of the gods. Some of these went on to become gods. Hercules
is one so named. Alexander a warrior of considerable renown was named as a god.
Augustus, Roman emperor, on his demise was proclaimed a god.
So, the first
point is that the story of Jesus’ birth is located readily in this Gentile
environment. It has more to do with myth than with demonstrable truth.
It is also
important as a second point to realize that Luke’s viewpoint was
‘written’ around 80 years after Jesus’s birth. It is written from within a
group of followers of the way – apparently Gentile in their origins. It
seems unlikely that after 80 years the detailed description of the happenings
surrounding Jesus’ birth could still be contained in memory.
Thirdly, to present the gospel theme as literally true does
not take account of the mythology of the time, nor the many years of argument
and discussion prior to the eventual determination of the essentials of the
faith to which all were called to accede.
background on which the church was grafted, gave rise to many practices that are
questionable in this 21st century. In our time where many bemoan a
steady demise of the Christmas story as more and more it is overlaid by the
world, I think what is needed is a different story.
The story that I
like to tell has its beginnings in Genesis. You will know the story. It begins
with the wind or spirit of God blowing over the water. A lot happens until we
reach the intimate moment of people’s beginnings. The action of this moment requires
of each of us, an element of imagination. “Then the Lord God formed mansic
from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life;
and the mansic became a living being” (Gen 2:7). Imagination will
hear God say with the breath: “The life of God for the life of humankind” In my
reading of these first two chapters, I am prepared to say that breath and
Spirit go together. We may claim therefore that as we breathe, so also the
Spirit is present. This presence is life giving.
Our different story does not begin with a baby Jesus – it begins at the
beginning of everything. It says that always and constantly the Spirit is
present in every life. All of this is part of the different story. This
presence does not need the continual presence of a baby. The Spirit is robust,
paradoxical, mysterious. It rides the wind that we breathe, and consistently
enables life. The baby born again every year may thus become symbolic of new
life constantly growing and developing and becoming adult.
I think that this story is essential, even in Christmas celebrations
that have become a once a year event – to which all are invited, and large
numbers attend. The glitter expands year by year in dazzling arrays of gifts to
satisfy every desire. It seems at times that life has been put aside in favour
of the satisfaction of immediacy. There is however, much in Christmas that is
good, there is much that is important in its celebration. The glamour is
seductive, but also deceptive.
Beneath the glamour is a mostly forgotten world of a young man who demonstrated
in his life and death the vitality and possibility of life with the Spirit of
God. He is seen in our day among those who fight fires, as a companion to the
frail, as one who vindicates the less fortunate, as one condemning violence. This
young man, Jesus is quoted as saying something akin to: “The reign of God is
within you” (Lk 17:21).
Listening to the people, we discover that Christmas is a time for family
and sharing, for gathering and companionship, a time for holidaying and enjoyment.
Christmas has the power to distract us from disturbing influences. Perhaps here
is some merit however, in remembering that the time of Jesus birth was a disturbing
time of considerable violence. Disturbing times are still with us.
Nevertheless, there is a thread of strength in the Christmas message, in which, if we have ears to hear, we will discover its potential as a catalyst for change in ordinary everyday life, a time for imagining possibility. Christmas spilling over into the New Year every year, may become every year a reminder of the connections humankind has with a mysterious, ambiguous and paradoxical Spirit.
Michael Morwood puts some rubber down on the bitumen exploring how the religious beliefs of many people in countries like ours are changing today. In his new book, “Prayers for Progressive Christians: a New Template”, which we introduce to you today he explores some of the ways in which our prayers and liturgies might have to change.
Go to: Catholica to view the great discussion that is ensuing amongst progressive Catholics.
Statement from the Rev Peter Catt, President of A Progressive Christian Voice Australia.
“There is no need for a Religious Freedom Bill. There are many people throughout the world who are persecuted for their faith. To align oneself with them in the current Australian climate is self-indulgent.
Freedom of religion has to do with the freedom to hold to a particular belief system, freedom to assemble for worship unhindered, and freedom to undertake religious observance and practice. It does not and should not include insulating church institutions or members from being challenged or criticised for poor behaviour.
There is a real danger that a Religious Freedom Bill will become a Freedom to be Sectarian Bill. Religion when it functions properly is about love and inclusion. No Religious Freedom Bill should ever sanction hate speech. Neither should such a Bill allow people who provide goods and services to withhold them from say, LGBTIQ+ people. To allow this would be a retrograde step, taking us back half-a-century to the days when goods and services were withheld from people based on perceived race.
I get attacked more often for my views and practices by fellow religious travellers than I do by people from outside the faith community. Will the Bill stop that from happening? Not that I think that it should. But the Bill is predicated on the idea that it is them (secular forces) and us (religious people). The reality is more complex. How will the Bill deal with religious people attacking one another?
Finally, the Government should reflect on its behaviour during the last Parliament when the greatest threat to religious freedom was the Government’s attempt to curtail religious charities from speaking out on policy matters that affected the poor and vulnerable.”
About Kevin: As a free-thinking progressive-christian messianic god-seeker. Kévin Aryé Hatikvah Smith, aged 98, deaf in a wheel-chair in Sydney / Supreme Cross of Honour in 2005 (from Benedict XVI) for 50 years of ecumenism (Christian, Jewish, Muslim) in France and Australia. My mother, Esther Myers, was culturally Jewish although non-observant and became Catholic before wedding my Catholic father in 1921. She was a splendid model of Hebrew neighbourly-love and wrote poetry about the blessed virgin Mary and Jesus. I made friends with a messianic rabbi and he invited me to be a reader in his synagogue, which I loved doing. With my wife we were foundation members of the NSW Council of Christians & Jews. Happy Hanukkah to you and yours from Kevin in Sydney NSW. My Jewish Cockney ancestor Emmanuel Solomon arrived in Sydney in 1818 and in about 1835 he became a patriarch founder of Adelaide. As a leading Jew he became a close friend of Saint Mary MacKillop and helped her during her excommunication… more than once supplying free accommodation on his properties to the nuns expelled from thier convents by a bishop.
WHAT REALLY HAPPENED? … studying the Rabbi Yeshuah story … Terentius (195-159 BCE): “As a human person, I consider that nothing human is unworthy of my concern”. (Homo sum. A me nihil humanum alienum puto.) -As a human person, I, Kevin/Gauvain, have cast my limited observation powers on the material world that has nurtured me and also beyond at the physical universe that gave me birth.
-I have had it pointed out to me that the universe is
part of a greater realm, the cosmos, where there is Creator-God, heaven,
angels, purgatory , hell, demons, etc.
— Concluding a session of my limited observations and
drawing on life-long learning I conclude in this essay, or I arrive at the
(i) that I am a citizen of a planet where all human
observations, conclusions and opinions are tentative and challengeable;
(ii) that nobody has totally died and then come back to
everyday life again, no resurrection;
(iii) that virgin-mary type pregnancies do not occur
[Yeshuah had no male DNA.];
(iv) that all miracles are scientifically suspect;
(v) that the existence of divinity / divine-nature is
(vi) that a great literary work, the Bible, is a wholly
human construct and therefore has very questionable verisimilitude on account
of its many discrepancies, contradictions and mistakes;
(vii) that you must not trust Christianity because of the christology that it created which was presented to followers as unchangeable ‘deposit of faith’ dogma;
(viii) that faith is often the enemy of evidential fact;
(ix) that history shows for me no evidence of what I
taught as a catechist for 20 years, “God the Father is a loving, caring
(x) that it has been most difficult for me to advance
this thesis since it has taken me 7 or 8 decades of devoted application trying
to find out WHAT REALLY HAPPENED?
(xi) that these observations are for me joyful and liberating.
— As one born saved, I spiritually embrace Rabbi Yeshuah of Nazareth as my mentor; he is Israel’s greatest prophet,, an original thinker, an inspiring preacher, gifted healer & exorcist, convincing teacher of wisdom and integrity, Jewish mystic, model of kingdom-oriented life-style and promulgator of the ancient Hebrew ethics of neighbourly love with esteem for Adonai-Elohim as our loving Father. I walk daily hand-in-hand with this most admirable spiritual companion and silently converse with him and I greet his mother too.  Kevin Aryeh Hatikvah Smith in Sydney 
Rev. Dr John Squires was formerly Principal of Perth Theological Hall. He is currently undertaking an Intentional Interim Ministry with Queanbeyan Uniting Churchand is Canberra Region Presbytery Minister (Wellbeing).
John’s blog An Informed Faith is linked to this site in Links – Categories – Leading Practitioners
There has been a lot of media interest in the recent declaration by the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, concerning the way that some dioceses, a number of ministers, and many, many people of faith are grappling with our changed understandings of gender and sexuality, and how that relates to Christian faith.
It is a complex matter, with many nuances, that deserve careful consideration, and compassionate reflection.
The words of the Sydney Diocese leader, however, cast the situation in a clear black-and-white manner, with the stinger of a sharp command to those with whom he (and many in his Diocese) disagree: “please leave”.
The full set of words from this part of his speech is instructive: “My own view is that if people wish to change the doctrine of our Church, they should start a new church or join a church more aligned to their views – but do not ruin the Anglican Church by abandoning the plain teaching of Scripture. Please leave us.”
So sayeth the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, the Rev. Dr Glenn Davies.
But there are a number of problems with what Dr Davies said.
The Archbishop distanced himself from “people who] wish to change the doctrine of our Church”. The first problem is, that doctrine is always changing. It was changing in the early decades of the church. It changed significantly in the various Reformations of the 16th century, under the leadership of Jan Huss, Martin Luther, Jean Calvin, Huldrych Zwingli, John Knox, and then the response of the Council of Trent in the Roman Catholic Church.
It changed in 1540, when Henry VIII of England sanctioned the complete destruction of shrines to saints, and further in 1542, when Henry dissolved monasteries across the country—actions which changed doctrines and led to the formation of the very church in which Glenn Davies was ordained and then consecrated!
It changed when, during the Enlightenment, theologians and scholars applied principles of rational thinking to scriptural texts and faith concerns. It continues to change in the postmodern world, as new discoveries and insights lead Christian leaders to bring new questions to faith issues, and to formulate beliefs in ways that connect with and make sense within the changing world.
In my own denomination, the Uniting Church in Australia, we recognise this when we recall the paragraph in our Basis of Union that affirms “the continuing witness and service”, not only of evangelists, prophets, and martyrs, but also of scholars; and which notes that as we engage with “literary, historical and scientific enquiry … [of] recent centuries”, we are able to develop “an informed faith” of relevance to the current times.
Doctrine is dynamic; it is always in a state of flux. Theology is transient; it is always developing. Church teaching is constantly evolving; it is never static.
Second, the Archbishop referred to “the plain teaching of Scripture”. The second problem, then is that scripture does not actually have a plain teaching. There are words, written in the Bible, which need to be interpreted, if they are to be understood and applied to contemporary life. There is no plain and simple teaching in these words; they are words which always need interpretation.
This interpretation starts with the choice of text. We do not have an “original version”; we have copies of copies, some complete, many fragmented. There are always options to consider–and we all rely on experts in this matter. Then comes the matter of language. Biblical texts were written in languages other than English. We English-speakers are reliant on the careful work of translators and scholars, seeking to render the phrases of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, into contemporary English. There are already multiple interpretive decisions that have been made for us, in our English Bibles.
Then, interpretation needs to take into account the differences in culture that exist, between the patriarchal, honour-shame cultures of antiquity, and the current state of play within (in our case) contemporary Australian society. We can’t just assume that something from an ancient culture “makes sense” in our contemporary culture, let alone that it can be “directly applied” into our context. There are interpretive decisions to be made.
The process of interpretation also needs to bear in mind how the usage of particular words and ideas has changed over time. Awful, for instance, once had a very positive sense, “full full of awe or admiration”, whilst nice had an earlier sense of “silly, foolish”. Guy (from the historical British figure Guy Fawkes) had an earlier sense of a frightening figure, not the generalised reference to men that it has today, whilst meat in earlier centuries was a catch-all term referring to food in general. (And, most pertinent to the particular issue at hand, “gay” once had a very different point of reference in English!)
These kinds of shifts in usage are also found in terms that appear in the Bible, especially in translations from some centuries ago. We need to factor that in to our interpretation.
And then, reading and interpretation of the Bible involves application, discerning how and in what ways a biblical passage is relevant for us today. That means knowing what our situation is as well as what we hear in the biblical text, and connecting the two. It is not simple or straightforward.
That’s an unfair and unhelpfully polemical characterisation of what is a complex and nuanced matter—reading biblical passages about sexuality in contemporary society. The biblical texts about sexual relationships involving people of the same gender are not simple and self-evident prohibitions on such behaviour, and should not be read as such.
Third, the Archbishop—quite strikingly—has urged certain people to leave the Anglican Church. I believe that advocating that people leave one church to start another church is not a helpful activity. Anglicans, like other mainstream denominations, have a commitment to unity in the church. So, the third problem is a lack of commitment to the unity of the church.
That’s quite an amazing position for a leader in a denomination which affirms that it is, indeed, an integral part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church—and which is universally recognised by other denominations as an integral part of that Church.
Each Sunday, in Anglican churches around Australia (and beyond), faithful people affirm, “I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.” That’s a line in the Nicene Creed. And those Anglicans are joined by many Roman Catholics, members of the many Orthodox churches, and quite a number of folk in the various Protestant churches, to say these words together on regular (even weekly) occasions. Across the denominations, there is a commitment to unity.
Not in the Sydney Anglican Diocese, however. The Archbishop’s invitation to those who see things differently from him to leave the church and form their own branch is fracturing the unity of the church even more by this narrow, sectarian dogmatism.
Archbishop Welby is promoting through the Anglican Communion a resource entitled Living Reconciliation, which “offers a vision of Church marked by honesty, truthfulness and love … [and] applies the teaching of the Gospel at precisely the point where we need it most today” (see http://living-reconciliation.org/thebook/).
Is the Archbishop of Sydney aware of just how contrary his words are, to the principles of reconciliation and the commitment to an honest, loving church that is being championed by the Archbishop of Canterbury?
Finally, the Archbishop of Sydney is quoted as imploring those with whom he disagrees: do not ruin the Anglican Church. The fourth problem I see is that exploring and developing ideas is not a process of ruination.
Rather, the exploration of ideas and the development of thought is a constructive process that offers a gift to the church at large: the gift of an ever-evolving, ever-refining articulation of beliefs in ways that resonate with life in the contemporary age. Questions, provocations, redefinitions, and developments in thinking and believing are wonderful gifts!
I wouldn’t characterise the process as one of causing ruin. Rather, I would celebrate it and affirm the importance of this process. The problem, it seems to me, is that if you really believe that you have The Truth, then you are impelled to convince others of that Truth. But if you believe you are called to Love others, then you will listen and learn.
Sadly, the Archbishop has demonstrated this stark difference: when we prioritise Truth, we inform, lecture, admonish, even berate; whereas when we prioritise Love, we enter into relationships, affirm, explore, nourish, question, rethink, and develop in community with each other. Quite a different ethos. Quite a different result.
Please Leave? No—Please Stay! To the people addressed by Dr Davies, I say: Please stay in the Christian church and help us to be faithful to the Gospel. Please stay in the Christian church and help us to change in ways that are positive and life-giving. Please stay and gift your distinctive contribution to the life of the church in your locality and beyond.
And to the Archbishop, if he really is committed to the process of leaving, I say: you please leave. Please leave behind homophobic fear and discriminatory rhetoric. Please leave behind your insistence on conformity to your particular dogmatic assertions. Please leave behind your criticisms of those who happen to be born different from you. That’s what I would like you to leave.
On October 3, 2019, the Prime
Minister, Scott Morrison, delivered a lecture to the Lowy Institute outlining
his vision for Australia’s role in relation to what he called “globalism”.
On the surface, the tone of his
speech was plausible and reasonable. But, on closer examination, his
declarations, couched as they were in general terms, are disturbing for many Australians of
goodwill who seek a better direction for our nation as an international citizen
– including progressive Christians (to whom this response is primarily
PM Morrison rejected what he
described as “unaccountable international bureaucracy”, clearly a side swipe at
the United Nations. There was no acknowledgement of the role prominent
Australian leaders of the past played in
establishing international forums which have defended peace along with human
and environmental rights.
While rejecting “isolationism”,
Mr Morrison opted instead for what he called “positive and practical
globalism”. Moreover, ignoring his power and responsibility to lead the nation
and inspire Australians to less self-centred policies, he insisted that he was “responsible to the will
of the Australian people” (whatever that is) invoking that slippery term, “the
national interest”, as his justification.
Throughout this bench-marking oration he did not once
mention the issue of Global Warming and Australia’s responsibility to take a
strong lead internationally, as life on the planet faces climate change. Interestingly, he did not repeat his recent
assertion to a United Nations assembly: “We are meeting our commitments and reject
any say to the contrary…” That dubious assertion was strongly disputed by
experts as demonstrated on the ABC TV program “The Drum” on the 8th
of October 2019.
Sadly, his silence about this
number one global issue in the Sir Frank Lowy lecture speaks volumes about his
unwillingness to prioritise a national
strategy on the matter. Instead, the priority Mr Morrison espoused was “security through economic strength”, seemingly
code for “business as usual”.
Furthermore, there was no mention
of his government’s record (and that of recent governments of all persuasions)
on matters such as our diminishing humanitarian overseas aid budget or border
protection with its unnecessarily cruel policies. Clearly, he was asserting,
the Australian government will not listen to “unaccountable” international
bodies who justifiably accuse Australia of violating human rights.
That said, the lecture also,
presumptuously, invoked Australia’s “higher values”, presumably the tradition
we share with other middle powers like Canada and New Zealand. Arguably, these nations with whom we share much history apply
values that promote a somewhat different
stance toward “globalism”.
The content of the
Prime Minister’s speech is all the more disturbing when set in its context.
Clearly, it was fashioned and
delivered against the background of his recent international tour which
included his absence at the UN Climate Conference in New York, but an elaborate
State visit to Trump’s USA (and it is President Trump who has given currency to
this term, “globalism”). Of course, the context is wider: China’s rise to
power, Vladimir Putin’s nationalistic style and the UK’s Brexit push.
These geo-political shifts
provide a reason for the Prime Minister to clarify Australia’s approach to
international affairs but they also emphasise the need for caution, lest
Australia fall into line with the mood
for regressive nationalism.
Finally, in my
view, people of Christian faith and all those who share a hope for the common
good, cannot avoid the conclusion that, as he has become a custodian of great
political power, the Prime Minister’s loudly proclaimed Christian faith has
evaporated in the years since he delivered a testimony to that faith in his
Understood prophetically and progressively, Christianity, along with other like worldviews, believes the interests of the global community of life are paramount. It will be up to civil society in Australia, including strong advocacy by religious leaders, guided by a different understanding of globalism, to push back and sound a different note. Otherwise, we will continue to slide further from authentic international responsibility toward a narrow and self-focussed national interest.
[Posted to demonstrate the diversity of thinking amongst our growing cohort of progressivesand the fact that this sort of thinking was in scholarly circles in the 18th century...]
From Brother Mac Campbell, Society of St Francis
interested in an eighteenth century German philosopher/theologian who was
responsible for the birth of Romanticism.
Perhaps the following might interest readers:
Johann Georg Hamann on sexuality; Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy: “One must also remember that Hamann confessed that he could not conceive of a Creative Spirit without genitalia; indeed, he was quite happy to assert that the genitals are the unique bond between creature and Creator. So sexuality in divine-human relations has two aspects. First, as paradigm of creativity, it is the way in which our God-likeness can most strikingly be seen. Secondly, as the point of the most profound unity, it is the locus for our union both with another human being and with the divine. Provocatively, Hamann sees original sin and its rebellion as embodied not in sexuality, but in reason. Overweening reason is our attempt to be like God; meanwhile, prudery is the rejection of God’s image, while trying to be like God in the wrong sense (bodilessness). (See Essay of a Sibyl on Marriage and Konxompax.) One should therefore distinguish ‘likeness to God’ from ‘being equal to God’. In the Sibyl’s essay, the male version of grasping at equality with God (cf. Phil. 2:6) is the attempt to be self-sufficient, to be the God of monotheism: the sole ruler, who possesses self-existence. Instead, the encounter with the opposite sex should engender in the man an attitude of profound respect towards the woman’s body, as the source of his own existence, from his mother. As the source of his own joy, lovemaking also is an acknowledgement of his own dependence, his lack of self-sufficiency and autonomy. But this dependence on another paradoxically is the Godlikeness of the Creator, the father, the one who humbles himself in self-giving (a favourite Hamannian theme in his discussion of God). Meanwhile, the woman’s temptation is to an artificial innocence; a secret envy of God’s incorporeality and impassibility. The defence of one’s virginity is another cryptic attempt at self-sufficiency. Instead, the woman must brave the ‘tongues of fire’ in a ‘sacrifical offering of innocence’, in order to realize her Godlikeness; which is not to be found in bodilessness and the absence of passion, but in passionate creativity; in the willingness to be incarnate. Thus, if human beings are in the image of God, it is a trinitarian image of God, a mutual relation of love of ‘Father’, ‘Son’ and ‘Spirit’; found in creating, in saving, and in tongues of fire.”
Brother Mac Campbell (the Society of St Francis) October 2019
The German philosopher Johann Georg Hamann (1730-1788) was known as the “Wizard of the North.” He held that truth is a matter of subjective belief, and he sought to reveal the divine in things and people.
Here is a snapshot of my introductory remarks at our last “exploration”:
On the wall behind the pulpit at the Thompson Estate Methodist Church where I grew up was a large painted scroll with these words: “Worship the Lord in the Beauty of Holiness”. Have been reflecting on that text for more than six decades…
Gained some insight as an adult when I discovered Micah 6:8 :
8 He has told you, O man, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
My Aussie paraphrase:
The good oil from God:
Fair go, cobber; be a mate, mate; and let’s all be humble little Vegemites.
Meanwhile, I found much the same message in the Gospel’s setting for Jesus’ Good Samaritan parable where Jesus essentially tells the trickster lawyer to never mind asking who your neighbour is – just be a freaking neighbour!
At the same time, I’ve always been gobsmacked by this New Testament insight: “God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him.” (From
1 John 4:16)
So to the term “God” which Lloyd Geering in “Christianity without God” has not only had a long and complex history but also has become a very confusing word. After suggesting that we can functionally take “God” to refer to the highest values which motivate us, Geering favourably quotes Theologian Gordon Kaufman’s observation that even in a secular world the term “God” can still have for us a useful function as “an ultimate point of reference”. Hence “To believe in God is to commit oneself to a particular way of ordering one’s life ans action. It is to devote oneself to working towards a fully humane world…while standing in piety ans awe before the profound mysteries of existence.”
Finally why I “go to church” is summed up in part by this provocative passage from Don Cupitt’s “Radicals and the Future of the Church””
“…we should stay in the church and attempt by deception, by reinterpretation, by political stratagems and by perverting the minds of the young to do something for the transformation of Christianity and the future of religion…Self-imposed exile right outside the church may be the right thing for a few very creative people, but…many of us will find it more stimulating to be internal e iles, plotting, scheming and suspected, inside the church…(thinking) of the carefully thought-out deceptions by which we plan to use the old vocabulary as a disguise for smuggling new ways of thinking into the church.”
On going to church
23rd August 2019
These notes were prompted by a presentation to be made to the Progressive Christian Network at Merthyr Road Uniting Church New Farm by Tim O’Dwyer on 31st August 2019.
Tim put the questions: Do you still go to church? If so, why? If not, why not? He invited me to throw in a few remarks from my own experience, so here goes. I have attended church probably from the time I was a baby in my mother’s arms and presumably before then when in my mother’s womb. My earliest memory of any sort, as related in my coming memoirs, was of returning from some function – perhaps a birthday party – alone. This, remarkably at the age of about three or four years. I looked down on my family home from the adjacent traffic bridge and pondered life and the future.
It would be easy to say that from that period on till my now 9th decade I have more or less regularly attended church because I accepted the invitation to be a Christian, or more accurately, as I would put it this way today, a follower of the ethical principles proclaimed by the wandering sage, Jesus of Nazareth some two thousand years ago. But the questions being put by Tim are part of a wider issue and we need to narrow it down quite a bit. I shall assume that going to church and being Christian in ethos and practice is not necessarily the same thing. I shall be referring to belonging to a specific congregation and attending weekly services on “the Lord’s day” more or less regularly. I have been doing that for nigh on 80 years. Why have I been doing this? It is largely habit. It is one of my life’s rituals. Presumably this routine has some benefit to it.
That need not have been the case for everybody. Only the other day when I suggested that the church is an institution which undertakes to make the world a better place, my table companion responded that this has not been the experience for her. An immediate response to the original question may be that the church is my “community”. It is a community which caters for our social, personal and some might say “spiritual” needs. It does that in contrast to just about all other communal institutions, from the cradle to the grave.
We engage in that community at our baptism, we engage in that community at our marriage, we engage in that community in the moral guidance of our children and grandchildren, we engage in that community often in sickness and at our ending with our funeral. I am reminded of the large part a congregation played for so many of my family and acquaintances in our entertainment and social interaction.
Most of my social dancing was with church groups, any girlfriends I might have had would have come from church congregations – not necessarily my own – I met my wife outside the doors of a church in Port Moresby. I have written recently on the impact of Christian Endeavour in nurturing confidence as a public speaker and office-holder in secular as well as religious groups.
One concern I have with the loss of attendance at church by children and young people is that disappearance of an important source of “moral guidance” for those growing up and establishing a place in an adult world. That a congregation provides moral guidance is not taken for granted these day and I would be the first to challenge the negativity which comes from the supernaturalism and rules which come from the preaching in most of our churches. Some of the old stories of vengeance and slaughter in the Hebrew scriptures are truly horrifying. When reading or preaching from the Bible one does need to be selective and in practice this is what preachers and especially Sunday School teachers do.
One can take stories from a recent Sunday as an example. The lectionary reading was from Luke Chapter 13 where Jesus was chided for healing on the Sabbath. The moral guidance from this surely is that acting in a caring spirit is more important than complying with restrictive rules and regulations which can entangle us in exercising the practice of love. Or take the Bible story that my grandson absorbed this morning at his Sunday school class – that of Paul and Silas freed from prison because of an earthquake. After returning home the youngster – six years old – was able to repeat the whole story. It clearly provided for him the lesson of caring for others through its punch line. That is that Paul and Silas the two prisoners chose not to run to freedom because they recognised that this would mean big trouble for their prison guard,
Another aspect of a congregation which draws me is that it is a great social leveller. I am talking largely of the non-conformist Protestant tradition here. Any persons of whatever social class can be officers in the congregation. She or he can rub shoulders, for instance, as an elder, with peers from any level of society.
I recall in my teen years belonging to a congregation whereby the local mill manager shared a pew with people who would have been his employees. For me, personally, it also provides the opportunity to develop administrative and leadership skills. It is rare for me to be associated with an organisation and, in due course, not end up holding some office or other. Such offices are usually within that congregation or with other associated entities. It provides me with a vehicle through which to further my life-long aim of seeking to leave the world a better place than when I came into it.
Some might respond, “But how can you put up with all that supernaturalism and gobbledy-gook language which goes along with the enjoyment of companionship and familiar music, songs and liturgies?”
Well, one may well be swamped by starchy, unintellectual tradition but there is also the opportunity to introduce congregation members to new songs, new ceremonies and even new ways of looking at the scriptures. You have to be in it to win it and it may be that some of the examples we set as individuals may rub off to become new ways of being appropriate for a 21st century community.
My recent sermon on the Trinity (https://ucforum.unitingchurch.org.au/?p=2990&cpage=1#comment-273795 ) led some to say, “I had never thought about it that way before!” One privilege that we have in the Uniting Church is that anyone may address a congregation from the pulpit and additionally there is always the opportunity to express points of view in the variety of study groups.
So yes I continue to “go to church” and what’s more, I enjoy “church crawling” when I am travelling to other places and other countries. Although not to the same extent as with Roman Catholic followers, for whom going to church is regarded as a moral obligation, I enjoy seeing how other Christians express their faith through their church services. The familiarity of the liturgies and the communal environment helps me to sense the connection which Christians have with one another all over the world.
So I anticipate that I shall continue to go to church until they put me in a box. Hopefully this will be after I have cautioned my family and the presiding minister to express none of this supernatural “in my father’s mansions” hope at the final “celebration of my life”.