Jon Owen, Pastor and CEO of the Uniting Church’s Wayside Chapel in Sydney will be the keynote speaker at the upcoming ‘Surrender Perth’ conference. He has an amazing story of living a life guided by the call of Jesus, and he spent some time chatting with Heather Dowling to share some of it with Revive.
Rev John Cox is the inaugural Director of the Uniting Church in Australia’s National Safe Church Unit. John previously served as Executive Officer of the National Royal Commission Response and Engagement Task Group, the group that guided the Uniting Church’s national response to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
He shares some thoughts on his new role.
What is the background to the National Safe Church Unit?
The Uniting Church took a proactive stance to engaging with the Royal Commission and the work of the national task group was to make sure that the commission had what they needed from the church, and that the church learned from the commission.
In the last year of the commission’s work the national task group transitioned to be more forward facing—asking itself the question, how do we implement what we’ve learned in and through the life of the church?
The idea of a national safe church unit grew out of that. It’s a unique collaboration between all of the synods and the Assembly, so it is owned by the councils of the church, which gives it a level of responsibility to drive change in and through the life of the church.
What can we expect from the unit?
The new body is about cultural enhancement in the life of the church; how do we understand ourselves as church, what does safety mean and how do we live that out?
Our role is to resource the church to provide safe contexts in which people are nurtured and can engage the possibilities of faith in Christ. This is the call to be a Christian community. The unit’s work is intended to sit right across the church, not just the congregational life but also the agency and the school life of the church.
So, this work is about supporting the church to be who we are called to be through the creation of strong evidence-based policy frameworks and resources, further collaboration across the church to create consistency in processes and enhance our education and training, and sharing information to create the checks and balances the church needs to ensure safety.
Do most Uniting Church members accept the reality of abuse in our churches?
I think across the life of the church we have people in congregations, lay and ordained, whose experience and understanding is that this could never happen here.
The Royal Commission said one of the biggest hurdles to adequate reporting on child sexual abuse was the belief that the person working at the next desk could never do something like that.
That’s a challenge for the church, as we understand people of faith to be people of integrity as we know them in a particular sphere.
My experience is that it’s not so much the looking back and saying, ‘I don’t believe that’. The struggle I think is here and now—yes, we accept that that happened there and then—but that would never happen now!
The checks and balances certainly help, but in my view safe church culture rests with every member of the church owning a responsibility to ensure that it’s a safe space.
Helping the church to understand that a percentage of abuse is perpetrated by people intent on undertaking that behaviour but there’s also abuse that happens when boundaries are lax, when opportunities are presented—is going to help us to be that safe community.
What drives you to continue working in this difficult space?
The dissonance between what I heard and experienced at the commission and what I understand the church to be called to be—this is what drives me. You hear stories and you think to yourself, ‘how on Earth could we allow ourselves to not be who we were called to be, to allow that to happen?’
I understand some of the contextual differences that contributed to abuse, the power and position of leaders, the place of children… so I understand functionally how that happened. However, this has not magically stopped… and this is not who we are.
We have moved a long way since some of the stories I’ve heard—but I strongly believe that following Jesus involves being a community of Christ in which people are nurtured and loved by God and by each other, and that being a safe church is one significant part.
Top image: Rev John Cox, Director of the Uniting Church in Australia’s National Safe Church Unit
This article originally appeared in Journey, the publication for the Uniting Church QLD.
We know that Jesus was a storyteller, but was Jesus funny? Is there humour in the Bible?
Rev John Bell, international theologian, musician and social justice advocate, thinks so, and will be in the country soon to tell us why. He’ll be setting off on an Australian and New Zealand tour in May. Despite the challenging time difference from WA, John shared some of his passions for the church, from his home base of Glasgow, Scotland.
John has been a member of the Iona Community for 50 years. On top of that he’s worked for the community as a resource worker in the areas of worship, spirituality and social justice. He’s also a published author, a regular radio broadcaster and a songwriter of many hymns – some of which we regularly use in worship here in the Uniting Church WA.
If you get the chance to meet the Uniting Church WA’s new Presbytery Minister Mission, Rev Alison Gilchrist, you’ll soon find out that she’s ready to get into the thick of it and get the job done – she’s a ‘doer’.
Alison was ordained in the Church of England and came to Perth six years ago to work with the Anglican Diocese of Perth. Having started her role with the Uniting Church WA in September last year, Alison has already begun making her mark, with the introduction of the ‘Light on Every Street’ campaign. The campaign saw congregations sharing the light and love of God in the lead-up to Christmas by giving candles and postcards with a message to people in their communities.
John Knowles, CEO of Good Samaritan Industries (GSI), welcomed me into his office with a big smile and an even bigger heart before announcing we needed to step out for a minute to sing happy birthday to a staff member.
Out in the foyer, staff (and me) gathered for cake and well wishes, while a group of high school kids wandered in to one of the meeting rooms for job training. In the warehouse, employees sort and pack all sorts of donations, from clothes to bedding to shoes and accessories. And in the canteen staff are busy preparing food.
The place is a hive of activity where people genuinely seem to love their jobs.
As a General Practitioner in the medical field, Dr Sue Wareham has long held compassion for her fellow human beings. When she began learning of the effects and scale of global nuclear weapons in the late 70s and early 80s, she became passionate about ridding the world of them.
Since then, she has worked tirelessly to campaign for the abolishment of nuclear weapons through the Medical Association for Prevention of War (MAPW) and the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). Sue has been awarded an Order of Australia, and last year, ICAN was recognised with a Nobel Peace Prize.
Dr Sue Wareham will be one of the speakers at the upcoming conference, ‘Making Peace: exploring the practice of peace in today’s world’, held from Saturday 10 to Sunday 11 November, at St George’s Cathedral, Perth. The conference is organised by the Social Justice Commission of the Uniting Church WA, and will be held over the centenary of the Armistice of the First World War.
Sue has been involved with MAPW since its foundation in 1981. She said the aim of the association is to draw attention to the health implications of warfare and armed conflict.
“We draw attention particularly to the health impact on civilians, partly because civilians form the majority of the victims of war these days,” Sue said. “When we go to war, modern warfare is often an attack on civil society itself. So it’s absolutely imperative to find other ways to resolve conflicts.”
Dr Deidre Palmer chooses her words carefully when asked about her call to church leadership.
“I’m probably more called to discipleship than leadership,” she says. “As an educator, as someone who contributes to people’s formation in faith, I see leadership arising from inviting people into a deeper relationship with God. So, I actually think leadership grows out of discipleship.”
Youth worker, Christian educator, academic, theologian, social worker, counsellor, Assembly Standing Committee member, Working Group Chair, Moderator. From 8 July 2018, Dr Deidre Palmer will extend her invitation to discipleship to the whole of the Uniting Church in Australia and beyond in the role of President. When Deidre receives the symbols of ministry from outgoing President Stuart McMillan at St Michaels Collins St in Melbourne, she will become the Uniting Church’s 15th President and the second woman to take-up the role. Dr Jill Tabart being the first, serving as President from 1994 to 1997.
‘Abundant Grace Liberating Hope’ is the theme Deidre has chosen for her term.