At the end of last weeks service, I was challenged by a member of the congregation to take time in the next few weeks to unpack the image of the pot and the plant and what it may look like to do that within the Australian context.
Remember we looked at the bread of life discourse, which continues in todays Gospel reading (John 6:51-58), through the context of Johns community and its conflict with the traditional Jewish understanding of God, particularly the manna of heaven their ancestors received in the wilderness.
We understood that this passage is not primarily about the eucharist but a language and ritual based attempt to place Jesus as the Chosen One within their experience and the understanding of God they had received from their tradition.
We commented that the Anglican Church and all that comes with it came to us from another context and relied on language, liturgy, traditions and practices foreign to this context, Australia. We should also recognise that the place of the church in society is no longer the same as it was when it was transplanted here.
We also suggested four points to be considered:
- Coming to grips with the church’s history in this country;
- Coming to grips with the ethos of the space we now inhabit;
- Coming to grips with the language and spirituality of this context
- Coming to grips with the need to mature both as a nation and as a church.
Today I will comment briefly on the first of these:
John’s Jesus states:“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” The word living is important to our discussion. Living can be understood as the normal process of life – birth, childhood, maturation and death. It is the process of becoming and growing in wisdom and knowledge and implementing that experience in new and previously unexperienced ways. It is how we now understand Jesus. He didn’t come into the world a completed being, he became that person in relation to the world in which he lived – his context. The implication here is that while he always remains the divine manna it will be experienced and lived in ever changing ways within the context of our lives. It is not finished.
This also refers to the way the church engages with its context. While we can acknowledge the changing nature and role of church in society since Phillip arrived based on history and acknowledge that that history is a mix of good, not so good and very not so good outcomes, two significant events in the last 3 years have significantly impacted on the place and privilege of the church in general and the Anglican Church in particular.
The first was the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Abuse and the second was the Statement from the Heart enacted by First Nations people. These 2 events have changed the landscape for the church and shifted the balance of power out of the hands of the institution and into the hands of the general public, in these cases the victims of the failures of these organisations.
In the first case it has deeply damaged the reputation of the church and now requires mandated reparation. The fact that some have said they will be selling property to pay redress signifies the financial impact. The continuing public discussion, rightly or wrongly, over such as the position of Bishop Hollingsworth and others implicated in the failure adds to the pressure being applied. The move by the former tax office head Terry Hamilton to write to the Prime Minister and the head of the charities commission requesting that the tax benefits and charity status of those organisations who failed to protect children be denied as they have failed to comply with the basic requirements of the legislation raises further questions for the future of the church as we know it.
As a result of the most significant Australia wide community based consultation on any constitutional issue resulting in a pan-aboriginal statement on constitutional change, the Statement of the Heart, aboriginal people no longer see themselves as powerless. This 12 month long process of consulting widely with the aboriginal community (12 consultations) resulted in the ratifying of the decisions made at each of those consultations. Aboriginal people realised the importance of the task and put aside personal and clan concerns to invite the Australian people to join them on the road to unity and reconciliation. They understand, by the responses of governments and churches, that the balance of power has shifted and that they are now have a voice.
In relation to the church, a movement has been developing alongside the process toward the statement, to call the churches and other institutions to account for their actions in the past and the privileges gained from the colonisation of this country. This movement of senior aboriginal elders, lawyers and academics will be seeking treaty, truth telling and reparation and it won’t be satisfied with terms set by the church. This has gathered momentum as a result of the statement by the Bishop of Tasmania that churches will be sold for redress for victims of child abuse.
These are serious challenges, along with falling attendance, ageing congregations and the increasing disengagement with the institutional church in favour of spirituality and more, asking us to reimagine faith and practice mindful of the Spirits continuing call to renewal. We can no longer rely on what we previously understood about faith and the Divine. We can no longer rely on an outdated understanding of God’s interaction in the world and that the church, us, are the ones who hold the keys to that relationship. As a result of the living bread coming into the world, the whole of the world has been impregnated with the Spirit of Justice and Hope and we are to find ways to cooperate with it.
The church has lived through and been transformed by challenges as impactive as these in previous centuries. The reformation, counter reformation, the to and fro over the future of the English church in the Middle Ages and more give us hope. The church was able to ride out those challenges and be changed and transformed by them. Gods grace is sufficient for our context but we must not attempt to avoid the challenging questions put to us in our particular context.
This modern day call comes in the voices of those both outside and with the church who are wanting us to live up to our stated relationship with God. In other words to make real what we say we believe in a new time and place.
How do we do that?
- By accepting that we who make up the church are human and make mistakes, that how we understand others and the world is constantly changing and what we once thought was appropriate no longer is.
- By accepting that we have to share the revelation of Divine wisdom with others who are not part of our faith or denomination, we no longer own it exclusively.
- By accepting that our place in the world has shrunk in that we no longer sit at its centre, but paradoxically, by doing so our place in the world has expanded as we work with other like minded people to bring about the justice of God for all.
We are living in a stage of faith development that is becoming more and more democratic – all are included in the kingdom of justice and all have the right to a say in how that kingdom is revealed and how they individually engage with that kingdom.
Jesus leaves us in no doubt that becoming the manna from heaven is a costly process, we will not be left untouched in our humanity. Not even the church will be left untouched. Becoming a church for the Australian context will see us giving our living self to be consumed and transformed into a new way of being the kingdom of justice in this place called Australia.
It will be costly but it also has the potential to bring great rewards.