By Andrew Humphries
Sometimes in the midst of chaos, drama and uncertainty it is a simple idea that resonates and brings people together.
In January 2020, Australia recorded its first case of COVID-19 and, by March 18, concern around rising infection numbers meant Prime Minister Scott Morrison plunged Australians into the first of what was to become ongoing restrictions on their day-to-day movement.
Before the Prime Minister’s announcement, though, Presbytery of Gippsland Minister Rev Jennie Gordon was among a number of Ministers who realised that traditional face-to-face worship would be impossible as restrictions kicked in.
It was then that they came up with the simple but groundbreaking idea of preparing a weekly worship resource for those Presbytery members who wanted to continue worshipping from home.
Three years later the Fig Tree Worship Resource that grew from that innovative idea has become something quite special and continues to be used widely by Uniting Church members.
Preparation of the weekly resource is now a Presbytery-wide project involving a team of seven ministers in placement, one retired minister, and Jennie and Rev Arnie Wierenga, who edit and contribute to it.
There are more than 170 subscribers on a weekly resource email list, from all over the country, while each week’s resource is also posted on the Synod website.
Sunday, March 19 this year marked the third anniversary of the first Sunday in 2020 that the worship resource was made available to presbytery members.
“It began as a Shearwater Ministry Team initiative on that first Sunday in March 2020 that we couldn’t meet together for worship, which was March 22,” Jennie recalls.
“The writing team was Rev Deacon Wendy Elson, Rev Ian Turrnidge and myself.
“This ran through to the end of 2020, when our email subscription list began, and we were also physically mailing over 100 copies each week to people around Gippsland.”
As she reflects on what began on that third Sunday in March, 2020, Jennie admits to being quite proud of what she describes as “one of those quiet little achievers”.
“It was something that had to be organised at short notice and, as a presbytery, we had already decided to ask our congregations not to meet for worship, even before that became an official restriction,” Jennie says.
“We probably had a couple of days of thinking, ‘okay, what’s next?’, and then the Shearwater team decided we could get our heads together and think about what we might be able to share.
“Producing the resource was a way of saying to people ‘you can’t meet for worship, but you can use this and it’s going to be okay and we will get through this’.”
Jennie says there was immediate feedback that the worship material was playing an important part in filling the vacuum created by the end of face-to-face worship.
“I think people were delighted to have this new resource, because the only other option at that stage in terms of worship was to watch Songs of Praise on the ABC,” she says.
“There was a way that people felt connected through using the weekly worship resource and having the tools to be able to worship at home.
“It meant that if people were on their own, they could still feel connected through this resource.
“We were getting some really good feedback around it and it just kind of grew from there.”
Jennie admits the impact probably took her and everyone else involved by surprise at first.
“We probably didn’t fully anticipate its impact initially, and there was probably a sense that this was going to be a big help for ministers as well,” she says.
“The response from people was that they felt they were still connected and being cared for and nourished and nurtured.
“I’m not sure we ever felt it would last this long and I don’t think we ever sensed that there might be a deeper need for it, even post-Covid when we all got back together.
“I think the great story about it is that one thing COVID-19 has taught us is that it’s all about working together, and it’s also encouraging ministers to share resources and not be quite as isolated as we used to be.
“It’s a resource that connects communities and congregations and develops leadership skills.”
Moderator David Fotheringham says the weekly worship material has proven to be a wonderful resource over the past three years.
“Congratulations to the team behind the Fig Tree Worship Resource,” he says.
“With such well-written liturgy and spirit-filled reflections, the value of this resource has proved itself as more and more gatherings of God’s people have made use of it to support and enable their worship.
“I’m grateful to God for the creativity behind the project, and glad to celebrate a whole three-year cycle of service.
“May God continue to bring inspiration for God’s people through it.”