Some people who hit 40, experience a midlife crisis; if they are affluent they might buy a red sports car or go on a big European trip. But, 40 years of living often also prompts us to look back with thanks and gratitude and it can be a time to ask oneself some hard questions.
For some, the questions are about weight gain, career dissatisfaction, parenting struggles or financial worries. For others, it is a time to deal with regrets, missed opportunities, failed relationships and broken dreams. After the big 40 celebrations are over, midcourse evaluations begin and new hopes for the future start to emerge.
This year marks 40 years since the Union of the Uniting Church, and it is first and foremost a time to celebrate. Forty years ago, we tended to be defined by which denomination you came from (Methodist, Presbyterian or Congregational). Now, that is in the past and is not as important as who we are in the present: Uniting.
Thanks be to God we have made some real gains over the past four decades. Women are largely, though not entirely, accepted as ministers in their own right; we are more sensitive to our covenant with First Peoples; multiculturalism is now part of our DNA in a way that it wasn’t even dreamt about in 1977; and concern for social justice remains a strong characteristic of our profile.
Added to this, we also had the difficult and costly conversations about the nature of human sexuality.
Since Union, we remain the most ecumenical of all the denominations; our schools, university college and caring agencies have wonderful reputations for high quality care and professionalism; and a number of congregations have significant ministries of compassion within their communities. We’ve also remained committed to a high standard of Theological Education in a changing world.
While we still have some way to go in all these areas, we should be very thankful to God for the progress of 40 years together. Yes, thank God for the Uniting Church.
We do however have to ask the hard questions: Why are we closing more congregations than we are opening? Why has our membership significantly declined over the past few decades? Where are our youth? Why are there so few candidates for specified ministry? Why have some congregations thrived, while others have experienced a slow state of decline? What is the spirit of God saying to the church today?
It is not negative or disloyal to ask the hard questions, it is honest. If we are to have a healthy future, we need to celebrate all that was good about the past and ask the hard questions about where we have not done well. Hopefully, through our deeper questions we can identify where God is leading us. Along with celebration, we need prayer, humility, open mindedness and repentance if we are to discern our God given future.
Rev Steve Francis, Moderator of the Uniting Church WA