By Alistair Macrae
Have you ever wondered where the Uniting Church’s voice in the “public square” has gone?
When did you last read an opinion piece by a UCA leader in the mainstream media? Why do mainstream church leaders rarely appear on panel shows such as Q&A on the ABC or The Project on Channel 10?
Have you wondered why the “Christian” voice in the media is increasingly from organisations such as the Australian Christian Lobby, whose views often conflict with the positions of our church on various social issues?
Have we lost confidence that we have an important perspective to offer into public debates? Or does it reflect the media’s (and the community’s) lack of interest in what the church has to say unless it is extreme?
The statue of John Wesley on the forecourt of Wesley Church is more prominent than ever following the redevelopment of Wesley Place. John Wesley stands facing away from the church and towards the city’s public space.
He holds a Bible in his left hand so there is no doubt about the basis of his public utterance. His right hand is extended in a way that suggests to me, a “consider this, friends” gesture.
Those who use their Wesley Place guided-tour-of-the-site App to learn about the statue and other site features, will hear words penned by Uniting Church Minister and Wesley scholar, Glen O’Brien: “John Wesley (1703-1791) was a priest of the Church of England and the founder of Methodism. A man of both reason and religion, he preached the gospel to the poor, and proclaimed God’s universal love toward all through Jesus Christ. His work continues today in the Uniting Church and wherever personal and social holiness are brought together.”
In that spirit, a few years ago, Leonie Barber, then Chair of the Wesley Church Council, and I were having coffee. We were lamenting the marginalisation of the Uniting Church’s public voice and how so much debate on complex social issues these days is characterised by a lack of genuine listening.
We reflected how in recent years Wesley Church, trying to recapture the spirit of earlier days on the site, had hosted various forums on issues relating to environmental sustainability, refugee and asylum seekers, reconciliation between First and Second Peoples.
Could we provide a catalyst for some sort of “Centre” that might bring together the Uniting Church’s rich theological and social witness heritage on this site with the existing research and advocacy resources of the Synod – Pilgrim Theological College, Uniting Vic.Tas, the Justice cluster within eLM, AgeWell, the Synod Ethics Committee?
Could such a Centre organise public events on issues that model respectful engagement across diverse viewpoints? We were aware too, that duplication is the last thing the church needs or can afford. It was time to test out the idea.
We visited and shared our thoughts with the Board Chairs and CEOs of Uniting, AgeWell and UEthical.
We met with the leadership of eLM, including the Principal of Pilgrim Theological College. Each time, we received positive feedback, even some expressions of financial support to take it to the next step.
A Board was formed, comprising either the Chairs or CEOs of the four Synod entities, plus two from Wesley Church. A Vision Statement was refined over the course of several meetings to direct our planning: “To bring an inspiring, research-based, Christian perspective, focussed on justice and the common good, to public debate and social policy through education and advocacy … The Centre will bring a theologically informed and prophetic Christian voice into public discourse regarding matters that impact the common good through educating and influencing governments, businesses, not for profits and individuals.”
Then the COVID pandemic arrived, that scourge of so many plans, and the pause button had to be hit.
Now that life has returned to a “new normal”, the Board is meeting again, reflecting on the recommendations of a review we commissioned in 2021 by Rev Dr Elenie Poulos.
Elenie was the National Director of UnitingJustice Australia for 15 years, the Uniting Church’s national justice policy and advocacy unit. She interviewed 20 people across the Synod to get their feedback about the Centre then prepared an excellent report which included analysis of similar Centres around Australia.
The Board is now preparing a Constitution, refining its Purpose Statement and preparing a Position Description for the Director. The Centre will report to the Wesley Church Council at least in its initial stages to keep the governance “light”.
If it grows to a significant size, that will need to be reviewed. We imagine that as well as having a Board, there will need to be a “reference group” comprising people with theological, social policy, ethics and media expertise to assist the Director, especially when formulating public responses to particular issues.
The next task is to secure funding for the Director position and hopefully advertise early in 2023. We are already well on the way to achieving our target, but need extra help. We hope the idea will attract financial support from individuals who share the vision and from congregations who may be interested in making a “legacy” contribution to restore our Church’s heritage in contributing, humbly but confidently, a coherent, well-researched Christian perspective on the basis of our theological convictions.
The Board is challenged and inspired by the words of the Statement to the Nation issued by the inaugural Assembly of the Uniting Church (1997):
“In the Uniting Church our response to the Christian gospel will continue to involve us in social affairs … We affirm that the first allegiance of Christians is God, under whose judgment the policies and actions of all nations must pass…We pledge ourselves to hope and work for a nation whose goals are not guided by self-interest alone, but by concern for the welfare of all persons everywhere — the family of the One God — the God made known in Jesus of Nazareth the One who gave His life for others.”
Alistair Macrae is one of the Ministers at Wesley Church and unofficial Secretary to the Wesley Centre Board
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