A church without a passenger seat

In May this year, Dr Deidre Palmer, who at the time was the President of the Uniting Church in Australia, invited young adults of the Uniting Church WA to join her for a conversation. This would be one of eight entries into her project, ‘Around the Table’, which aimed to collate and represent the direct experiences of young people across the Uniting Church in Australia.

Deidre partnered with Amos Washington, 2018 Australian United Nations Youth Representative, to create an intentional agenda with questions that spanned young Uniting Church members’ joys, griefs, and concerns, their journey with Christ, and their Christian discipleship. As we worked through these questions, I was struck by how almost everyone spoke of their value for our church’s diversity. We spoke with pride about the church’s work towards a broader Union, and the mutual recognition, understanding and participation of all those within it.

Several spoke of the work we had ahead of us to ensure the safety of everyone within that Union, and the need for the church to take a broader understanding of health – mental, physical and communal – within its membership and surrounding community. Across the group, many spoke of their appreciation for the church’s prophetic voice on issues like the climate crisis. The fossil fuel industry has five times as much carbon in its reserves as even the most conservative climate scientists say is safe to burn. Our generation must defuse that carbon bomb, just as we must stand with First Nations leaders seeking justice and self-determination, end our countries’ extrajudicial concentration camps for those fleeing war and collapse, and transform the margins of our society so that every person has the means for a life beyond precarity and despair.

Many attributed the church’s commitments on these issues as being the thing that connected them most with the Uniting Church community.

Then there were questions about the reproduction of the church. How will our Uniting Church community relate these prophetic calls to their inspiration in Christ? How do we maintain the biblical vocabulary, theological convictions, and spiritual nourishment required to continue our important work?

How do we respond to the growing disenchantment of this world? What alternative will we proclaim to the idols of wealth, infinite growth, and the military industrial complex? How can our generation speak more of that divine alternative – a table where all are welcome, their debts forgiven, and lives renewed in God’s love?

I’m sure these ideas aren’t new to members of the Uniting Church, even if you don’t consider yourself a ‘young person’. Our tradition is shaped by simultaneous calls to seek justice and to spread the Good News. But this project was more than a field trip to collate some young people’s ideas. As the night unfolded, many of us would share what (I think) Dr  Deidre Palmer would refer to as an ‘encounter’. It’s hard to write about this without sounding hifalutin, so instead I hope to re-trace the experience with the hope that it conveys some of it. Below are some of the questions we discussed. As you read them, feel free to consider how you would respond to them today:

  • What brings me joy and grief? What sustains and encourages me? What are my concerns for our world?
  • How would I describe my faith journey? Where do I see God most at work in the world?
  • How do I want the Uniting Church to be in the public space? What are my hopes for the world?

I like to think of myself as a pretty philosophical person, but when it came time to share, I was surprised about what I had to say. Because honestly, when was the last time you were  asked questions like these? Not rhetorically, but surrounded by someone anticipating some sort of answer?

Maybe that’s some of what it means to have an ‘encounter’; to be pulled in by a moment, surprised at what you have to contribute; to be made visible by those listening to you, revealing bits of yourself that you didn’t know were there. This was the core of my experience of Deidre’s presidential ministry. The strange feeling of being asked by a lifelong leader of the church what I imagined of its future – and in answering, finding myself participating within that future. Having glimpses of a faith community where no one was relegated to the passenger seat. An invitation to a table where we’d be heard as not just the future of the church, but the church itself.

I know that I will carry that vision with me for a long, long time. And I pray that we might continue to make good on it together.

Mark Brisbane

Mark Brisbane is a member of Social Justice Church, Chair of the Social Justice Commission and a youthful member of the 16th Assembly of the Uniting Church WA.

Dr Deidre Palmer has made available a full report of the roundtable conversations with young adults and all their feedback. Find out more at uniting.church/retiring-presidents-address

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