Some people love a good controversy. They write letters to the newspaper, attend rallies, join movements and engage in vigorous debates.
I am not such a person. I have, however, attended a number protest marches. My first was at the age of nineteen when I joined a couple of hundred other Christians, carrying crosses near a nuclear shipyard that planned to name a new nuclear submarine ‘Corpus Christi’, Latin for ‘the body of Christ’. We could not reconcile giving such a sacred name to a weapon of mass destruction.
More recently, I spoke at a rally on behalf of the suffering Rohingya people, and at Palm Sunday peace rallies I have felt compelled to join many other people giving support and solidarity to poorly treated refugees. I have reluctantly at times engaged in controversial issues, sometimes forgetting that Christ, who I claim to serve, was controversial. It seems that on some of the issues of the day, Jesus entered the controversy.
Interestingly, while John the Baptist protested about King Herod’s adultery, it seems Jesus was silent. When it came to the oppressive rule of the Romans, Jesus refused to join the terrorist group of Zealots or directly express his opposition, preferring to tell subversive parables about the kingdom, justice and peace. In many ways Christ’s teaching and behaviour was controversialist and inevitably his followers, the church, may take the same path.
The church has four key functions.
There is our servant role, indiscriminatingly caring for people. We do a lot of this well; but sometimes who we stand with is controversial (Jesus befriended prostitutes and sinners).
Alongside the serving role is our priestly role; through preaching, teaching, worship, prayer and sacrament we seek to connect people to God and to each other. In our secular, sceptical world this ministry can be controversial.
Then there is our evangelistic role; being bearers of the good news and seeking intentionally to make disciples, declaring Jesus Christ as Lord – rarely welcomed in our society.
The fourth function, the prophetic function, is however where the most controversy tends to occur. In seeking to honour God’s reign of justice, peace and compassion we are to be prophetic, not conforming to the spirit of the age, but by being captive by the unsettling word of God.
To be prophetic is not to allow ourselves to be squeezed into the world’s mould, but rather to double listen; to God’s word and to the cries of people. A delicate and risky business.
As a Uniting Church, we tend not to shy away from controversies. At our next Assembly we may find ourselves immersed in a few; sovereignty and treaty, assisted dying and perhaps most controversial how we understand marriage, its freedoms and boundaries.
I have recently held a Moderators Forum and will be holding another one in the next few days, to help the church think about how it maintains our unity with integrity in the midst of controversy. Join me in praying for discernment and grace in all our deliberations no matter how tough the issue may be.
Rev Steve Francis
Moderator, Uniting Church WA