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Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Stephen Dreams of a Church Beyond Literalism

Recently when the conference of Progressive Christians decided to hold their assembly called "Common Dreams" in the heart of Sydney, it was really interesting that they should choose the old Pitt Street Church as the place to house it. That venerable old church has once more taken its place on the front lines of Australia's religious life as the place from where a new call for a reformed and revitalised Christianity goes forth to all of Australia and perhaps throughout the world. A friend who attended wrote to me with some of the following comments:

I am reliably told that some twenty years or so ago the leaders of Australia's Uniting Church decided that the Pitt Street Uniting Church of Sydney was doomed and probably should be closed. (For those outside Oz, the Uniting church is a body that came into being in 1977 as a merger of Methodists, Presbyterians and Congregationalists, with samplings of some other smaller Protestant bodies). Pitt Street Church's empty pews were becoming too much of a drain on the denomination's resources. Closing this church, however, which had been the flagship congregation in Sydney, would effectively bring to an end the main presence of the Uniting Church in the heart of Australia's major city. In those deliberations, someone raised the new possibility that this church's apparent demise might not be that Christianity itself had lost its appeal, but that the way this Church was projecting itself and its message simply no longer had sufficient appeal to draw people into the heart of the city. The people who lived in the city tended to be regarded more as problems than as potential members.

It was a tug of war in ecclesiastical decision making, which has been replicated in almost all Christian traditions during the last century. Finally a compromise was adopted that offered a new possibility. The judicatory leaders and the remaining members of the congregation would support a new pastor for Pitt Street Church, but they would consciously free that pastor from the expectations of running a traditional church. The new pastor would be encouraged to experiment, to take bold initiatives, to walk in new directions, in fact to reinvent what it means to be church in the heart of a great urban area. I do not know if those who forged this new approach had any expectations of great success, but this decision served as a guilt assuager. If this last chance proved to be a failure then they could all move to close this old, historic church with a clear conscience. With this new mandate, the congregation then called a remarkable pastor named Dorothy McRae-McMahon to its newly defined leadership post and as we say, "the rest is history".

Clearly from her actions, Dorothy McMahon took her lead from Jesus actions ("what ye do for the least in my kingdom...") and not the institutional high ground. She found that street people lived in her church's neighbourhood and began to address their needs. She became aware of a vital gay and lesbian population in the heart of Sydney and began to make this church a place of welcome to them. She became such a persistent advocate for the poor, the marginalised and the dispossessed that slowly, but surely, both she and the congregation emerged as one of the recognised change agents in all of the Uniting Church. Of course, she was called "controversial", all change agents are - and the traditional Christian voices, who are always fearful of new things, began to rail against her liberal innovations. Friends recall that protestors frequently picketed her church. These deeply threatened "Christians" went so far as to spread human and animal faeces on both the church and on Dorothy McMahon's home. Pitt Street Church, however, began to come alive. People who had long ago given up on the Church began to dip their toes back into Christianity at this place, tentatively at first, lest they experience a repeated rejection.

Dorothy McMahon also began to challenge publicly the traditional ways in which Christianity was proclaimed. She forced people to look with new eyes at a literal Bible that has so often been used to justify prejudices, to blame the poor for their poverty and to condemn gay and lesbian people for being who they are. That understanding had to go. Going beyond even that, Dorothy began to separate her theology from that familiar theology that wallowed in sin and helplessness and that culminated in a divine rescue operation that was said to have led to Jesus' crucifixion. Such a theological understanding of the Church did nothing, she rightly discerned, to lift the despair from the street people. The mantra, "Jesus died for my sins" was quickly replaced by a message of love and caring that started with an act of self-affirmation and grew into giving people the courage to be all that they were created to be. The infinite variety in the human family was not just tolerated in this church, it was fully celebrated. Even down here in Melbourne we heard that people of all races and ethnic backgrounds, male and female, gay, lesbian, transgender and bi-sexual people, even people of a variety of religious backgrounds or of no religious backgrounds at all found themselves welcomed in this congregation.

A new Christian order was born back then in Pitt St. It is my view that Jesus would have been in the thick of this in person 2000 years ago, and spiritually today. The new Christian order appears to be being born again in this humble old Pitt Street Church in Sydney recently with the emergence of a group of Christians prepared to find the relevance of our Lord's message in the 21st century. Common Dreams!

Well really its not so much the message, its the delivery. Unshackled from religious institutional hyperbole and irrelevant literalist thinking.

I note that the conference was condemed by certain apparently Christian groups in Sydney; proselytizing instead a dictatirial literalist position. If the media reports are anything to go by, the response from the common person seems to be disagreement. That's great, the literalists have actually provoked a response! Sydney is a lucky place. I look forward to the movement finding its momentum in Melbourne.


Blogger John Bunyan said...

In all fairness, one should note that the Uniting Church in addition to Pitt St. has two other churches in Sydney's heart, including the very very large Wesley Mission a block away doing much good work, and S.Stephen's, Macquarie St. Pitt Street's liberal contribution is certainly needed & I sometimes attend on Sundays - though some like myself do not think the best and most thoughtful modern Christianity was represented by Bp Spong's recent addresses there. (Listen to them & make your own judgment!)
(The Revd) John Bunyan

7:17 PM  

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