Review: The Struggle for Justice

The Struggle for Justice: Conversations with John Bottomley about transforming church community services, by Kate Dempsey, Coventry Press 2020

The Uniting Church, according to this book, is both “shrinking and ageing”. The congregational side of it certainly is. But the community services side is expanding. I have argued in my PhD on the Uniting Church’s future that if the Uniting Church’s community services were amalgamated and “quoted” on the Australian Stock Exchange, the new Uniting entity would be one of the exchange’s largest companies. As governments continue to privatise their welfare services, so the Uniting Church will be among the not-for-profits scooping up the additional work.

Rev John Bottomley is a pioneering Uniting Church minister. He and university lecturer, Dr Kate Dempsey have co-operated in producing a very challenging book. Bottomley speaks whereof he knows. He has been a suburban Melbourne minister, a social researcher and social justice activist with an involvement in the creation of three agencies. He remains active in retirement.

The book tackles head-on some of the larger questions arising out of the Uniting Church’s work in community services. Is the Uniting Church now becoming too much of a corporate business? Is it becoming just a welfare arm of government? Is the Uniting Church, by taking government money to provide services, being restricted in what it can say about those services? How can the Uniting Church maintain its prophetic role without jeopardising government funding?

There are no easy answers to these questions, but it is important to have them raised so that the Uniting Church can think about what it is getting into.

Each chapter ends with discussion questions and so the book is a very good study guide. Boards and management will find it a useful way of stimulating debate on their work. The book also raises questions about the nature of Australia’s overall economic system.

For the past four decades Australia has had a particular economic philosophy that maximises individual profit (even it means fewer resources for the wider community). The rich are getting richer and so are the poor – but at a slower rate. There is growing inequality.

What role does the Uniting Church now have in stimulating a national debate over economic justice?

Again, this book is very useful in reflecting on this.

Keith Suter

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