Called, Sent, Empowered: A Theology of Mission

Anonymous, 'Jesus the Tagger'. Berlin.
Anonymous, Jesus the Tagger. Berlin.

Some moons ago, the Global Mission Office (GMO) of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand (PCANZ) kindly invited me to write a little theology of mission. I was very pleased to do so. The wee piece, which has since been elevated to being an official statement of the GMO, seeks to not only bear witness to the ground and end of mission in the triune life (a subject I’ve posted on before) but also to relate this history to what the PCANZ refers to as its ‘five faces of mission’ – to work with others to make Jesus Christ known:

  • Through proclamation of the gospel
  • Through the nurture and teaching of people in the Christian faith
  • Through response to human need in loving service
  • Through seeking to transform society
  • Through care for creation

You can read the statement here.

another discussion paper on marriage

leunig-if-you-see-anything-unusualIt seems like lots of people are doing it these days. Sometimes they are doing it without the express invitation of the wider assembly, and sometimes with the expressed request of such bodies. But in each case their doing of it represents a defiant expression of the conviction that nothing in life is a settled matter, and that theology, like other responsible sciences, remains an enterprise which opens up space for deeper engagement and reflection on things which matter deeply to us.

So, earlier this year, the Doctrine Core Group of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand prepared a discussion paper called Christian Perspectives on Marriage: A Discussion Document.

And now the  Doctrine Working Group of the Uniting Church in Australia has prepared their own discussion paper on marriage and same-gender relationships in the form of a commentary on the marriage service in Uniting in Worship 2.

The two documents take different approaches, but both are accompanied by an invitation to respond in some way. More importantly, I think, both are an invitation to a form of prayer – an invitation to think, to listen, to confess, to say ‘Thank you’, to say ‘But I don’t understand, although I want to’, to together hear the Word of the patient Lord.

I commend them to you.

Christian Perspectives on Marriage

Christian Perspectives on MarriageLast year, the Council of Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand asked the church’s Doctrine Core Group to provide the church with a discussion paper on marriage. That group decided to approach the task by inviting a select and representative number to write a brief response to the following question:

‘What do you believe lies at the heart of a Christian doctrine of marriage, and what are the key biblical and theological considerations that inform your position?’

The discussion paper is now available for download here. It is offered in the hope that the statements therein might provoke deeper engagement with the complex issues about marriage in New Zealand church and society.

Two Presbyterian seminaries showing some leadership

pcusa‘Where there is forbearance, there is a table set around which we can pray, study, listen, share, debate, and mutually form one another, subjecting ourselves to the work of the Spirit as we pass the common loaf … Perhaps the one thing worse than those in disagreement sitting on the same pew is those in disagreement NOT sitting on the same pew’.

Deeply concerned about the ‘polarities’, ‘deeply divided positions’, ‘growing sadness’, and ‘widespread pain and anxiety’ that is said to be characterizing the PC(USA), and in light of next month’s General Assembly in Detroit, the faculty at both Columbia Theological Seminary and Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary have both issued unanimous public statements calling upon the church to take seriously its first mark – unity; and they have identified some of the concrete characteristics of such action as mutual forbearance, forgiveness, and hope.

The statements can be read here and here.

Tragically, they speak not only to the challenges facing the PC(USA), but also to those threatening to put asunder those whom God has joined together in other parts of the Presbyterian family, including that part here in New Zealand. Gratefully, they speak a word of humility and of hope.

Academic position: Dean of Studies and Lecturer

kcmlApplications are invited for the position of Dean of Studies and Lecturer at the Knox Centre for Ministry of Leadership in Dunedin, New Zealand. The Knox Centre forms and trains theology graduates for ministry and leadership in the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand. This includes running a two-year internship programme for people training for the Ministry of Word and Sacrament. As Dean of Studies, you will handle course enquiries and manage the ordination programme’s curriculum. As Lecturer, you will teach at least one paper in the ordination studies programme, preferably in the areas of Theological Reflection and/or Presbyterian-Reformed Studies. As well as having the requisite skills in administration and education, you will be familiar with the Presbyterian-Reformed tradition, you will have a proven background in Christian ministry and leadership, and you will have either a D.Min or a PhD in Theology. A full Job Description for this position can be obtained from the Registrar. Applications can be submitted to the Principal. The position is available from 1 January 2015. The closing date for applications is 16 May 2014.

Some reflections on the 2012 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand

It was the best of times,
it was the worst of times,
it was the age of wisdom,
it was the age of foolishness,
it was the epoch of belief,
it was the epoch of incredulity,
it was the season of Light,
it was the season of Darkness,
it was the spring of hope,
it was the winter of despair,

we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way— in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only. (Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities)

It was indeed something of a Dickens of a General Assembly, about which I’d thought I’d share a few reflections.

There were a number of genuine springs of hope for which I give thanks:

  1. The powhiri and service of worship at the Church’s national marae at Ohope, hosted by Te Aka Puaho, was very special, overcoming all the challenges of weather, logistics and a crummy sound system. One of the real highlights for me was when Richard Dawson presented the new moderator, Ray Coster, with a copy of the church’s confession of faith, Kupu Whakapono, written in Te Reo Maori, followed by a sung version led by Malcolm Gordon. The Assembly was last held at the marae in 1984 – too long ago – and this Assembly marked, in a number of significant ways, including Wayne Te Kaawa’s rousing speech during the Assembly business time, a maturation in the church’s bicultural journey.
  2. The former moderator, Peter Cheyne, spoke well about the things that have inspired him throughout his moderatorial term: ministry and mission at the grassroots, the caring witness of the people of God in Christchurch, his ongoing concern for a church committed to discipleship and to raising biblical literacy.
  3. The decision to call upon a foreign government (i.e., the New Zealand Government) – and hopefully there are responsibilities here that the church might be able to undertake as well – to establish relocation strategies with the governments of Pacific island nations in danger of disappearing as a result of climate change.
  4. It is always a highlight for me when we welcome international guests and observers. This GA, we welcomed 16 guests from Korea, Burma, Chile, Vanuatu and Tahiti.
  5. The church backed the campaign by Living Wage Aotearoa New Zealand. Margaret Mayman made the point that ‘people and their work have a dignity that makes the labour market substantially different from the purchase of other goods. The price of a person’s labour shouldn’t be determined solely by the market’. This is good news for theologians!
  6. I always have a real sense of pride when ex-students rise to speak. They invariably do so with a neat combination of wisdom and wit, and I reckon that their fresh – and most often younger – voices offer one of the most important contributions to the discussions.
  7. The moderator modelled grace, good humour and appropriate dignity throughout. Well done Ray!
  8. I have mixed feelings about the GA’s decision to grant presbytery status to the Pacific Islands Synod. (Howard Carter expressed my mind well.) Given the decision, however, we might have marked this significant event with more carnivalesque fanfare than we did.

And there were a number of factors which signified that we had indeed entered an ‘epoch of incredulity’ – all-too-familiar territory for the church. Among these were:

  1. No real coffee. I fail to see how anyone can be expected to discern the will of God without real coffee. This is the one great tragedy of the GA!
  2. While I’m on the matter, the vote to support the living wage movement seemed to be radically undermined by the absence of any Fair Trade beverages.
  3. And while I’m on the matter of hypocrisy, the church’s rhetoric of concern regarding climate change seems at odds with our decision to have hundreds of people jump into aeroplanes to attend one of these gatherings and then think little of the environmental cost of such a decision. My minister – peace be upon him – raised a wonderful point about this incongruence. He could have also mentioned something about the number of forests we raped doing our holy business.
  4. Apart from the few extra-ecclesial matters that were discussed, the highest court of the denomination – charged as it is with the solemn and joyous responsibility of listening for and to the divine voice in the world – seems to be much more interested in clanging its own cymbals and blowing its own bassoons. This is not altogether unexpected for it is almost inevitable that anxiety would drive us toward Pelagianism.
  5. The processes of discernment employed by the GA seem to be particularly successful in turning otherwise fine and friendly souls into packs of frightened, blind and deaf wolves. Put otherwise, the church seems to lack the imagination – and/or the theological resources and/or the leadership – required to enter into processes of discernment in ways other than marked by an unholy cannibalism with make a stranger stare (and then walk away) and which perpetuate cycles of abuse from one generation to the next. Like modern day Israel, those who were once victims now employ the very same tactics that they learnt from their abusers, tactics which disempower others to equally ugly effects and cycles which can only be broken by the ministry of mediation and healing given to us in God. Such behaviour served to remind me that the gospel is not a set of doctrines or ideologies, no matter how carefully articulated and well-intentioned – and that with due fidelity to Scripture – but a person; namely, Jesus the Christ. When our ethics, processes, practices, decisions and speech are cut loose from him they roam in the desert of meaning out of step with the grain of the universe, a desert that breeds a kind of unholy desperation out of step with apostolic faith. I know that the Church is the glorious bride of Christ, and the most beautiful creature in creation, but she really can be an ugly and vexatious bitch sometimes.
  6. Much of the debate concerned vexed matters around sexuality and leadership. It is really disappointing – not least because it is most unprotestant! – that both sides insist on grounding their arguments in logic devoid of any kind of christology. Either way you walk, Jesus simply seems to make no difference. For those on the left, the argument seems to be grounded in notions of ‘natural justice’, while those on the right insist on the making their case on the basis of ‘nature’. (I am, of course, aware of St Paul’s words about ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ intercourse in Romans 1, but remain entirely unconvinced that Pauline anthropology would sponsor the argument as articulated by traditionalists.) I wonder what might happen were both ‘sides’ to sit at the Lord’s Table together – the most suitable place for debate, and for love making – and begin with a different question; namely, who is Jesus Christ? That said, I am deeply encouraged that some of the ministry interns are trying to do precisely that! I am also deeply encouraged by a number of signs that the hard lines that have characterised our church in the past show real signs of wear and tear. Perhaps a new vision of being church together may result, a vision unenslaved to those modes of modernity which insist on perpetuating irrelevant and outmoded structures of top-heavy leadership – we really don’t need a presbyterian pope! – and where the rhetoric of ‘servanthood’ and ’empowerment’ and ‘local’ continue to characterise where the real action takes place.
  7. Among the many motions upon which the recent GA was invited to discern the mind of God God (quite a bold if not ridiculous thought when you think about it that way) was whether or not an invitation ought to be made to our Church’s Doctrine Core Group to ‘prepare a discussion paper on the theology of marriage within the Presbyterian Church, and explore its implications for public covenants of same-gender relationships’ (Notice of Motion #133). Given the liveliness of this topic in wider NZ society, and a long-standing Presbyterian tradition of seeking the welfare of the city, one may not be surprised to learn that not a few who attended Assembly were profoundly disappointed and somewhat bewildered when this motion received the support of less than half of the voting commissioners. I was also surprised to learn that this significant matter was not even reported on the PCANZ website among the list of items discussed on Saturday. (NB. I am not suggesting that anything sinister or underhanded is going on here, but simply making the observation). There are many things one might deduce from such a decision of our church’s highest court, but I am not interested here in commenting on these. Rather, I wish to offer a few observations about how and why such a move is so foreign to the best instincts of our tradition.

The Reformed faith is, according to John Leith, ‘not a fixed pattern of church life but a developing pattern that has both continuity and diversity’. Being reformed, in other words, is not so much about espousing certain doctrines or sharing a particular interpretation of the Bible but is rather about the fact that one has committed oneself to being involved in a certain kind of project: the project of renewing the faith according to the Word of God. So Michael Jinkins:

The Reformed faith is more an ongoing project than it is a tradition, a denomination, or even a communion, though it has elements of each of these. When we say, ‘We are Reformed,’ we are saying that we are Christians committed to a particular project. The Reformed project is concerned not so much with defining and defending such things as the uniqueness of a Reformed tradition as it is with recovering, in each new generation, Christian faith as God’s calling of humanity to new life in Jesus Christ. Such a mission reflects the commitment of John Calvin ‘to renew the ancient form of the church.’ Whenever the Reformed movement has become preoccupied with itself it has missed the point of its existence. The Reformed project exists to draw our attention to Jesus of Nazareth in whom God is revealed and through whom God redeems creation … This does not mean that there are no distinctive features of what we might call ‘Reformed faith.’ There are particular emphases that have distinguished the Reformed approach to Christian faith from that of other Christians. But these Reformed emphases remain just that: emphases. The most distinctive aspect of the Reformed faith is also its most catholic, or universal: its unflagging commitment to articulate the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The reformed project, in other words, is not about our beliefs, or our righteousness, or our values, or our interests, or our devotion, or our aspirations, or our hopes. The reformed project is about what the Christian faith is about – namely, the God revealed in Jesus Christ. It is about who this God is and what this God is doing in the world. It is about ever calling the church catholic to fulfil our vocation as witness-bearers to this good news. So the reformed minister and theologian Karl Barth understood that in theological study we are ‘always to begin anew at the beginning’. And, for Barth, as for all those engaged in the reformed project, the beginning point is never a concept or a principle. The beginning point is always a name: Jesus Christ. One simply cannot arrive at the right answers until one sets off with the right question. And the ‘quintessential question’ (Bonheoffer) facing our church is not, ‘What can the Reformed tradition do to ensure that it has a future?’ Or, even worse, ‘How can we guarantee the survival of the Presbyterian Church?’ Rather, the right questions are ‘Who is Jesus Christ?’, and ‘What is he up to?’, and ‘What is he calling us to participate in?’ The Lutheran theologian Ernst Käsemann expressed this well when he wrote: ‘Wherever ecclesiology moves into the foreground, however justifiable the reasons may be, Christology will lose its decisive importance, even if it does so by becoming integrated, in some form or other, in the doctrine of the church, instead of remaining the church’s indispensable touchstone’. And Barth too is worth citing here at length:

Theological work is distinguished from other kinds of work by the fact that anyone who desires to do this work cannot proceed by building with complete confidence on the foundation of questions that are already settled, results that are already achieved, or conclusions that are already arrived at. He cannot continue to build today in any way on foundations that were laid yesterday by himself, and he cannot live today in any way on the interest from a capital amassed yesterday. His only possible procedure every day, in fact every hour, is to begin anew at the beginning. And in this respect theological work can be exemplary for all intellectual work. Yesterday’s memories can be comforting and encouraging for such work only if they are identical with the recollection that this work, even yesterday, had to begin at the beginning and, it is to be hoped, actually began there. In theological science, continuation always means ‘beginning once again at the beginning.’ In view of the radical exposure of this science to danger, this is obviously the only possible way. The endangering of theology is strong enough to cut the ground away from under the feet of the theologian time and again and to compel him to look around anew for ground on which he can stand as if he had never stood on such ground before. And above all, the ever-new start is the only possible way because the object of theology is the living God himself in his free grace, Israel’s protector who neither slumbers nor sleeps. It makes no difference whether theological work is done with attention to the witness of Scriptures, with the reassuring connection to the communio sanctorum of all times, and certainly also with a thankful memory of the knowledge previously attained by theology. If God’s goodness is new every morning, it is also every morning a fully undeserved goodness which must give rise to new gratitude and renewed desire for it.

For this reason every act of theological work must have the character of an offering in which everything is placed before the living God. This work will be such an offering in all its dimensions, even if it involves the tiniest problem of exegesis or dogmatics, or the clarification of the most modest fragment of the history of the Church of Jesus Christ, but, above all, if it is the preparation of a sermon, lesson, or Bible study. In this act of offering, every goal that previously was pursued, every knowledge that previously had been won, and, above all, every method that was previously practiced and has supposedly proved its worth, must be thrown into the cauldron once again, delivered up to the living God, and proffered to him as a total sacrifice.

Theological work cannot be done on any level or in any respect other than by freely granting the free God room to dispose at will over everything that men may already have known, produced, and achieved, and over all the religious, moral, intellectual, spiritual, or divine equipage with which men have traveled. In the present continuation of what was won yesterday, the continuity between yesterday and today and between today and tomorrow must be submitted to God’s care, judgment, and disposing. Theology can only be a really free and happy science in a continually new performance of this voluntary offering. If it does not want to succumb to hardening of the arteries, barrenness, and stubborn fatigue, its work should at no step of the way become a routine or be done as if it were the action of an automaton. Because it has to be ever renewed, ever original, ever ready to be judged by God himself and by God alone, theology must be an act of prayer. The work of theology is done when nothing else is accomplished but the humble confession, ‘Not as I will, but as thou willest!’

It ought come as little surprise, therefore, to learn that Barth protested against attempts to found a theological school of thought or a ‘movement’ that might advance his own project. In this Barth was simply being true and consistent with his reformed conviction, for to be committed to the reformed project is not to be committed to being ‘Reformed’ but to being ‘Christian’ (albeit in a reformed kind of way) and to loving the church so much that you direct all your efforts towards her continual hearing of the Word of God rather than assuming that what you heard yesterday is the Word of God for today. The Word of God, in other words, is not an idea or words about an idea, but the dynamic person of God himself who in the freedom of grace makes himself available to us.

Some reformed theologians – Shirley Guthrie Jr., for example – have drawn attention to a double crisis within the tradition – a crisis of identity and of relevance. In some churches so much value is placed on identity – i.e., on adherence to tradition which is then often reduced to a series of propositional truths, etc. – that it often leads to the suppression of imaginative and critical thinking, and to the church becoming both exclusive and judgmental of those who think and live otherwise, and unable to respond creatively and effectively to rapidly changing circumstances. New information or perspectives are discounted in attempts to safeguard doctrine, polity or practice. In the end, it’s often simply about power.

At the other extreme, in a quest for relevance, some churches jettison tradition and historical memory altogether, losing their identity in the process. Abandoning or rendering superficial the resources of history, tradition, liturgy, and theology leaves churches vulnerable to cultural forces that promote idolatry. A church that has lost its memory is in a state akin to senility and prone to repeat the mistakes of the past. Henry Chadwick once made this point powerfully when in the midst of a debate at the Anglican Church’s General Synod (1988) he famously stated that ‘Nothing is sadder than someone who has lost his memory, and the church which has lost its memory is in the same state of senility’. A similar point was made by Simon Schama who, in responding to the lack of historical instruction in Britain’s secondary education, noted that ‘a generation without history is a generation that not only loses a nation’s memory, but loses a sense of what it’s like to be inside a human skin’. And Jinkins also writes:

When memory exits so goes our identity, our grasp on those particular and idiosyncratic recollections that make us who we are, that make us human, that hold us in relationship with one another, that not only make sense of our past but also orient us in the world. When memory fails us we are reduced to confusion. We cannot move forward because we have lost continuity with ourselves and with those who are closest to us. The question is why anyone – and more to the point I want to make – why any church would choose to jettison the memory that makes us who we are. Having loved and lost those who suffered from Alzheimer’s, how could any of us wish for such a fate to befall our church?

Once upon a time, of course, ‘Presbyterians simply looked like Presbyterians. They were clean and well starched. They went to Sunday school and believed in predestination’ (Alston). We may well wish to distance ourselves from such a caricature but there remains much value in our distinctiveness that takes us beyond the straitjacketed stereotypes. Correspondingly, we might think of the habitus, or character, of reformed Christianity in conjunction with its cultural-linguistic identity, a trait George Stroup characterises as ‘family resemblance’. Here, reformed identity is not so much an outdated stereotype, nor a set of theological-ecclesiological propositions, but a family photo album that spans several generations. While no two members of the family are identical, as you become familiar with the family it becomes possible to intuitively pick out a member of the family. [I am very grateful to one of my many amazing ex-students, Rory Grant, for pointing me to this article.]

We might think of such generational family resemblance as an artifact of the narrative history of the tradition – the reformed ‘look’ similar because they have a shared history. However, shared history does not automatically equate to a fixed set of criteria or attributes that define reformed identity. We need to think here of a tradition characterised by both continuity and diversity.

In my teaching, I am keen to assist students to understand and value the characteristics that make the reformed faith distinct. Among these characteristics are (i) a commitment to being a broad church, and (ii) our strong emphasis on education and, relatedly, an expectation of an educated clergy.

Certainly, the reformed tradition is – at its best – a broad tradition, captive to neither the left nor the right of the theological spectrum. The reformed believe that the politicising of the body of Christ along lines which limit the love and availability of God are a scandal against the Table of the Lord. One place we see such happening in our context here in New Zealand is where those associated with more progressive expressions of reformed faith and who dominated our General Assembly and college for over half a century now find themselves on the margins and struggling to find a place in a sea of more conservative expressions of the faith. Regardless of where one sees oneself on the theological spectrum, this situation constitutes an ongoing challenge to our identity historically conceived. Also, as in many other places, increasingly our ministers and congregations come from non-reformed backgrounds. This basic ignorance of reformed identity means a loss of connection with our past, and that leaves us more vulnerable to both repeat its mistakes, and not free to celebrate, learn from and build on its strengths.

Breadth also means taking seriously the cultural, ethnic and social diversity in the Presbyterian family, and a commitment to making the journey together. We are all so much the poorer without each other. Shall the toenail say to the belly-button, ‘I don’t need you’? We as a church are yet to find ways where our full ethnic diversity is both represented and celebrated. There are challenges here, to be sure – translating all the English material into Korean and vice versa, for example – but it’s worth taking up as a priority for the next Assembly, and at presbytery level too. We as a church are all so much the poorer without our breadth.

If what I have witnessed at the past two GAs is any indication of things, the trust barometer of the church is pretty low. And without trust, the divisions shall only widen, and harden. I have also witnessed a people who – on all sides of each debate – care deeply for the church, who love the church and who are invested in its betterment and in the betterment of its witness to God’s love in the world. We must all do better to widen that affection not only for our own patch, or for the church in the abstract, but for the actual people that God has made us family with. This road will require forgiveness, apart from which there will be no future for the PCANZ. The Christian does not carve out his or her own story ex nihilo, or even with the likeminded alone. Jesus does not grant us the liberty to choose our friends. Rather, whenever Jesus comes to us he always brings his friends along with him as well … and he helps us to love them, to stake our very existence on the claim that I simply cannot be me without them, hence the deep existential pain born of the great mistrust between Abel and Cain. Remain unconvinced? Read 1 John! ‘Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also’. To this end, it is my hope that the PCANZ might learn here from our brothers and sisters across the ditch in the Uniting Church in Australia and embrace the consensus model of discernment at every level of its governance. Enough said.

On the question of education, we might simply note that education was fundamentally important in Grandpa Calvin’s church, and in the early reformed movement more widely. In Geneva, for example, this is evident through the emphases on catechesis and the ‘sermon’, and through the establishment, in 1559, of the Genevan Academy which became the nursery of reformed movements in France, the Netherlands and Scotland. In 1536, at a town meeting, the Genevans also voted to begin what is considered to be the first public-run school. Such a commitment betrays the reformed assessment of all creation thriving as both under the sovereign government of God and as the ‘theatre’ of God’s glory, and sponsors the reformed determination to engage in public theology. The church has always faced the temptation to disengage from the world, to take a turn inwards and focus almost entirely on ‘churchly’ or ‘spiritual’ matters. One response to this turn here in NZ has been to try to carve out a space in university departments for Christian theologians with a proven record and proficiency in the area of public theology to contribute in a constructive way to public discourse around issues facing our nation (e.g., domestic violence, restorative justice, climate change, foreign trade, etc.). These strategic positions sometimes need to be funded from church sources but the positions I have in mind in NZ are already proving to make an important contribution to public discourse, and to model for local churches how they might go about doing the same in their contexts. For example, Chris Marshall serves as Head of School of Art History, Classics and Religious Studies at Victoria University, a position initially fully-funded by a local church in Wellington. Also, the University of Otago has set up the excellent Centre for Theology and Public Issues which is headed up by Andrew Bradstock. One downfall of this model of subcontracting public theology to the university, however, is that it threatens to remove public theology from the life of the church. Does the church need to resurrect its Public Issues Committee, freshly conceived?

The matter of education also finds deep roots in the inclination of the reformed to insist on an educated and theologically-rigorous clergy and church. Historically, one of the real gifts that the reformed have bequeathed to the wider Church and to the discipline of theology has been the rigour with which it has undertaken the indispensable task of talking about God and about God’s work in the world. The twin temptations of abandoning this rigour and/or buying too uncritically into the humanist and enlightenment program with which it has sometimes been associated are real. But it is only to our detriment and – more importantly – to the detriment of the Church’s ongoing witness to Christ that the reformed would neglect this fundamental task. To speak of God in such a way that engages the real questions of our time is not a task for the faint-hearted or the frivolous.

Again, Jinkins:

One of the greatest gifts of the Reformed project is its commitment to the life of the mind in the service of God. From the first, Reformed Christians have sought to advance the best thinking in the face of superficiality, superstition, bad religion, social reactivity, and anxiety. As expressions of confidence that Christian faith and the promotion of knowledge go hand-in-hand, the Reformed project established the first programs of universal education, founding universities, graduate schools, and teaching hospitals as it moved across the world. Today the world’s problems have become extraordinarily complex, and many religious people try to prove their religious devotion by refusing to test their convictions intellectually or by seeking to silence those with whom they disagree. Now more than ever, we as Reformed Christians must foster the curiosity and intellectual openness that have driven us to think deeply, for there is desperate need for faithful people who are bold and unflinching thinkers, people who will use their best knowledge and concerted intellect to engage and mend a broken world.

So we are thinking here about the posture of the reformed to love God (and God’s world) with our mind, as well as with our heart, soul and strength. The reformed are typically those in the body of Christ who worry about what will become of Christian faith – and, indeed, of the world – if Christians fail to ask the tough, deep, critical, sometimes intractable questions about life. They are those who are ‘concerned about what it will mean for our faith if we choose to ignore life’s most profound mysteries and insoluble riddles’, who are ‘concerned about the integrity of the church if we abandon the curiosity that is unafraid to swim at the deep end of the pool, if we jettison a passion for ideas, for knowledge, and for wisdom for their own sake’ and who are equally ‘disturbed about what will become of society if persons of faith retreat from the public sphere, where ideas must fight for their lives among competing interests, where justice is served by vigorous argumentation and intelligent action as much as by high ideals’ (Jinkins). They are those who believe that the greatest heresy the church faces today is not atheism but superficiality, and its attendant ‘cult’. To cite Jinkins, again:

Occasionally I hear editors of church publications or church growth consultants arguing that Christian laypeople just aren’t interested in theology, or that laypeople aren’t interested in the history of their faith or, worse still, that laypeople simply can’t understand complicated ideas. Yet, when I speak in congregations around the country, I regularly encounter crowds of lively, intelligent laypeople hungry to know more about their faith. These are laypeople, incidentally, who in their daily lives run businesses and shape economies, teach, read or even write important books on a variety of serious subjects, argue legal cases before judges and juries, write laws that shape our common life, and cure our diseases of the mind and body. These laypeople are tired of being infantilized at church. They want to understand their faith more deeply.

The comments of the laypeople I meet, people who want to learn more about their faith, are often along the lines of what an elderly woman said … one Sunday after [Tom Long] had preached in one of the many congregations in which he speaks around the country. As he was making his way from the pulpit to the sanctuary exit, the woman stepped forward to greet him. Earlier in the evening, Tom had invited members of the congregation to share with him any messages they’d like him to take back to the future ministers he teaches in seminary. As this woman stepped forward, Tom greeted her with the question, ‘Is there a message you’d like me to take back to the seminary, something you’d like me to tell our students?’

‘Yes, there is,’ she said. ‘Tell them to take us seriously.’

Now, I know that not every person in our churches, or indeed in our society, craves to understand God (or anything else) more deeply. But I would also maintain that at the core of the gospel there is a sacred mandate – we call it the Great Commission – to go into all the world to make disciples, ‘teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you’ (Matt. 28:20). The word disciple translates a Greek word that means ‘pupil’ or ‘willing learner.’ As church leaders, then, we have this duty, this mission, this commission: to teach, to kindle curiosity, to expand knowledge, to renew minds, to make our people wiser. And there are many, many people only too eager to learn.

The reformed emphasis on the importance of education needs to be tempered, however, with the kind of humility that many reformed emphasise concerning human personhood in general, and about the noetic effects of the Fall in particular. Truth (as the saying goes) is the first casualty of war. But self-criticism is among the first casualties of insecurity, especially those brands of insecurity that transform thinking people into an unthinking herd.

Christian faith, on the other hand, thrives on a spirit that resists taking itself too seriously. As G. K. Chesterton once suggested, angels can fly because they take themselves lightly. Devils, on the other hand, fall under the weight of their own self-regard. Again, Jinkins:

A thinking faith is a self-critical faith. A thinking faith knows its own limits because it is guided by a comprehension of a basic reality: we are human. We are creatures. We are not God. Thinking faith’s recognition of human finitude generates reverence for transcendence and recognition of the limits even of its own claims.

Thinking faith is characterized as much by its humility and reticence as by its pronouncements. Along with its reverence for God and respect for others, it is characterized by a kind of irreverence toward its own certainty. One might regard thinking faith as a faith chastened by knowledge and experience. One would certainly regard thinking faith as a faith that has made its peace with ambiguity, because it cannot and it will not try to justify itself in the presence of God. But it is inevitable, for these very reasons, for a thinking faith to be thought ‘weak’ by some.

It has become commonplace in our culture for Christians to believe they can only prove their faith by claiming to know the mind of God. Yet, pretensions to certainty do not signal a superabundance of faith. They indicate, rather, faith’s vanity and paucity. Religious dogmatism is the child of insecurity.

All this is to say that it strikes me that there is something most foul and most un-reformed at work whenever a member of the reformed family of churches makes a decision to not keep engaging theologically, particularly with the very matters that it has just discerned are ‘fundamental’ to the Christian faith. That the recent GA made precisely such a decision (regarding NOM #133) strikes me as deeply disturbing.

The matters to which NOM #133 are inviting the church to engage are not black and white, but brim with doctrinal, pastoral, ecumenical and ecclesial implications, not least around the question of our relationship with the State. We are a people called to have our agenda set not by the State but by God’s good news announced in Jesus Christ – news which ought to inform and give shape to all our life together and to God’s vision for a society in which human personhood is radically reconstituted after the image of One whose hospitality is most irresponsible, surprising and risky. I consider NOM #133 to be an invitation – perhaps even an invitation by God – to pause and to ask deeper questions about our identity as creatures and as church, and to grow as a result. I am not sure that we as a church together have asked those questions yet in a mode that leaves us satisfied enough to move forward on this divisive issue in a way that gives due fidelity to the gospel and to the hard questions that the gospel raises for us. I can only hope that this desire will not rest, and that ministers and others will seek to bring the essence of NOM #133 to their respective presbyteries (and invite other presbyteries too) with a view to an invitation then being made to the much under-utilised Doctrine Core Group to do some work on this question for us all. The invitation for this important work need not come from the GA though the fruit might well serve that court of our church.

[Image by Diane Gilliam-Weeks. Used with permission]

New Position: Director, Knox Information and Research Centre

The Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand is seeking to appoint a Director for the newly created Knox Information and Research Centre. The Centre is located in the Hewitson Building at Knox College in Dunedin and incorporates the Hewitson Library and the Archives of the Presbyterian Church. Applications close 19 October, 2012. Enquires about this position should be directed to the Rev Dr Graham Redding (email; phone: +64 3 4730784). Applications are to be sent to the Assembly Executive Secretary (email; or AES, Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand, PO Box 9049, Wellington 6141, New Zealand). A job description can be downloaded here.

Position vacant: Director, Presbyterian Church Schools Office

Applications are invited for the position of Director of the Presbyterian Church Schools Office.

The purpose of the position is to:

  1. serve and strengthen the relationship between the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand and those church schools which are affiliated to and associated with it;
  2. develop and coordinate the provision of resources in keeping with the Christian and Presbyterian/Reformed character of those schools;
  3. provide support and encouragement to those engaged in the provision of Religious Education and Chaplaincy in Presbyterian Church Schools;
  4. engage with the leaders of Presbyterian Church Schools about what it means to have this special character

This is a part-time position commencing in February 2013.

Enquiries, including requests for a copy of the Job Description, can be directed to the Principal of the Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership.

The successful applicant will be theologically trained, have a background in education, and be familiar with the Presbyterian and Presbyterian Church School contexts.

Applications can be emailed to the Principal of the Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership, Graham Redding. The deadline for applications is 30 September 2012.

‘How precious did that grace appear’: a story from Down Under

It’s so good to hear stories birthed by, and which witness to, the kingdom of God in our midst. For many months now, Martin Stewart, a friend of mine and fellow Presbyterian minister who, with his partner Anne, is nothing less than obsessed with the crazy and wreckless and completely-irresponsible nature of divine grace, has been spearheading what is an inspiring (in every sense of that word) project. Some of that journey has been documented on Martin’s blog, and yesterday, the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand posted the following media clip. I’m sharing the love:

On Sunday 14 August 2011 Presbyterian church-goers gave more than $70,000 – 365 $200 New World Supermarket vouchers – to homes in part of the red zone on the east side of Christchurch.

“The vouchers were given out to homes with no strings attached”, says the Rev Martin Stewart. “The homes are all in an area perceived as not needing help, so they hadn’t received much.”

After their regular Sunday church service, 130 people from St Stephen’s Presbyterian in Bryndwr, St Giles in Papanui and St Mark’s in Avonhead, went door-to-door to share the vouchers with people whose resources have been stretched more thinly than their own.

Martin says that “going over to that side of the city was sobering. There were many sad stories of struggle and wondering what is next. Without exception those who handed out the vouchers were touched by the welcomes they received”.

The Rev Martin Stewart, the driving force behind the project and minister of St Stephen’s and moderator of the Presbyterian Church’s Presbytery of Christchurch, says,  “$70,000 was raised, some donated by people from here but most from far off places like Scotland … and Auckland! Foodstuffs offered a discount enabling us to purchase even more vouchers”.

The idea for the vouchers came in April, Martin says, when Highgate Presbyterian Church in Dunedin, (Martin was formerly the minister there) gave him and his wife Anne money to distribute in Christchurch “as we saw fit.  The next day we gave the first $1000 of that money to a young family we did not know, and that we had heard life was tough for, in the damaged Avon loop area.  I wrote about it on my blog and then someone from Wellington sent $15,000 – it soon ballooned to $70,000.  It has been like witnessing the miracle of the loaves and the fishes right before our eyes”.

Martin says in many ways 365 vouchers to 365 homes is barely touching the need out east in Christchurch city.  “It really is like we have only got a little bit of play-lunch to share and there are 5000 people hungry.  But we sense that we are not alone in this enterprise.  We believe that Jesus’ ‘kingdom of God’ is in this and we simply don’t know what kind of ripple of hope the vouchers will generate in the lives of the people we share them with. We are sure something good will come of it and that in a multitude of ways people who receive vouchers will pay it forward in some way.”

An update on Christchurch from the Moderator of Christchurch Presbytery

Martin Stewart serves as the Moderator of the Christchurch Presbytery, and as one of the ministers at St. Stephen’s Church and Community Centre. He is a highly-respected leader of the Presbyterian family here in New Zealand and in the midst of all that is pressing upon his time, emotions and energy, he is managing to keep the wider church informed about what is happening on the ground in Christchurch. Here is his latest reflection, and a pastoral letter penned in his capacity as Moderator:

‘I ventured across town today to the sea-side suburb of Redcliffs to help a woman load up stuff on a trailer – she is moving with her children to Queenstown – I had conducted her husband’s funeral late last year – the load for her is horrendous. We have been told to avoid travelling unnecessarily and we have heeded that. But heading over there was a real eye-opener. The scenes of devastation across the city are one thing on TV and quite another thing seeing it with my own eyes. What a mess and what dust! The piles of sand/dirt on the streets become normal, as does damage to every second or third building. I am surprised to find myself seeing these things and not reacting – it is as if this is has become normal. It is all abnormal, but the all-consuming nature of it numbs me.. Someone sent me the attached photo of the dust at the point of the earthquake – it is frightful.

The trip over was at 9am and I got there much faster than I anticipated in 20 minutes. Heading home at 11.30am was a different story, it took an hour and a half! The main arterial routes are all damaged.

Rev Dugald Wilson and I have been working for the last five months on earthquake matters for the Presbytery. We met with the assessors manager working for the Presbyterians on Friday. He was quite cut up by what he has seen and heard – he is a fine guy and because of this earthquake he will be bumped up the chain and not as available to us as he has been. He along with the insurers manager and engineer firm manager that we have been working with are all church-goers – it has really helped – we feel that the peculiarities of our ways of working are understood. Our assessor friend told us that this event along with September is the largest insurance event in the history of world insurance (recognising also that we are a high-level insured society). It is also the worst earthquake to hit an urban area in the world – not in magnitude but in the nature of the forces caused by the shallowness of the quake and its proximity to a city. With that knowledge, it is remarkable that there weren’t more fatalities. Every day or two the police reduce the projected number of fatalities, and the news today about there being no bodies in the Anglican Cathedral reminds us again that we have escaped the kinds of horror that many other cities and regions in the world have suffered.

The 600 food boxes from the Wellington Presbyterian churches have been delivered and the team have made their way back home’.

Here’s a wee video that tells something of that story:


A Pastoral Letter from the Moderator

Dear friends

What a troubled season we are in. The unfolding tragedy as bodies are pulled from the rubble in our city is simply horrible – we rejoiced that we had escaped fatalities in September, but now we lament the loss of many – the task ahead will be carried out with heavy hearts and take an extraordinary amount of energy. Our hearts go out to the many families and friends who are grieving the loss of loved ones. We are also mindful of the many hundreds of people who are working tirelessly for the welfare of our city – thank God for them all. Many are working in places of extreme danger – what a blessing they are.

We are having to juggle a multitude of tensions in these times – tragedy and triumph, loss and gain, death and life, despair and hope. So often news of human tragedies of great magnitude come to us from far-off places across the waters, but this time it is our city, our families and neighbours, and our houses, businesses and churches that are affected. I hope and pray that you are finding solace in your faith and support in your church families – draw deep from the well of God’s grace, and I also pray that you are discovering new opportunities to love and serve your neighbours and find the face of God in the faces of those who are around us.

The Presbytery has mobilised on a range of fronts – I list just some of them here:

1. Parish Twinning – linking west wide churches with the east side harder hit ones. Rev Hamish Galloway has written the following: “Heard of twin cities – what about twin parishes! Some of our parishes have been badly hit by the earthquake, others have come through with buildings and homes largely intact. This is a time to support each other and we are all looking for ways to do that. In the ancient wisdom of Ecclesiastes 4, two are better than one and a cord of three strands is not easily broken! The invitation is for those who are stronger in the present situation and those who have been hit badly to talk about forming a supportive relationship around things like facilities, personnel, services, etc … What parish can your parish begin this conversation with? What would the relationships look like? We would love to see these conversations initiated and then grow into genuine twin relationships. We would love to hear about it too as it unfolds so that where it is working we can share this as an inspiration to others.

2. A Mobile Minister – we are exploring the possibility of having one of our ministers circulating among the east-side churches – offering support and being a conduit between need and help. What this looks like and what form it takes will unfold in the next while, but in the meantime I have asked Rev Darryl Tempero to work in my name as a liaison person with the east-side churches in our care. He is also the point person helping arrange time out in North Auckland for people.

3. Emergency and relief accommodation – we are receiving many offers of accommodation for people in need from all over the country. Liz Whitehead is coordinating this. It can be for respite as well as emergency. To enquire about this please contact Liz via email or phone 027 257 7112 or (03) 314 8110.

4. Linking with all churches – the Revs Darryl Tempero and Phil King are establishing our linking with the inter-church group who have significant people and skill resources able to be directed to where there is need.

5. Building damage – we are attending to the processes of having buildings inspected by structural engineers, making buildings safe, restoration, and in some cases demolition, with assessors and insurers. We had made significant progress on this prior to 22 February. We anticipate that the problems in outlying areas will still progress swiftly, but given the needs in the CBD and in residences, the restoration process (assessment, costings, etc.) will be a longer process this time. Rev Dugald Wilson and I continue to be the ones to talk to about any issues you have. We work closely with all of the parish liaison people appointed last year. Sadly, St George’s in Linwood has already been demolished. We anticipate that the St Paul’s Trinity Pacific, Berwick Street, and St John’s in Lyttleton churches will also be demolished, and there are serious issues with the Knox, Mt Pleasant and North Avon churches. This is not an easy time.

6. Caring for the carers – I am concerned for the well-being of those who have responsibility for pastoral care, especially the ministers. Finding our way ahead is going to take a very long time and I encourage Sessions and Parish Councils to encourage their ministers to attend supervision, take appropriate time off each week, a weekend a term, and also to have at least a week of leave on the near horizon. I ask you to please be generous in helping your ministers look after themselves.

7. PCANZ appeal – the Presbyterian Church has launched an appeal to support our churches. Congregations and individuals can make an offering by direct bank credit to the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand, account number 02 0500 0086963 00 with the reference: CHQUAKE, or mail their offering to, Financial Services, Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand, PO Box 9049, Wellington 6141. There is information about this on the PCANZ webpage. As a Presbytery we have asked the Assembly office to handle all donations and letters of support so that we are freed from that administrative load. Congregations have been invited to seek financial relief. It would help if I could be informed of any plans you have to access this.

8. Messages of Support – the PCANZ website has also listed many of the letters of support from around the world. They are very encouraging – the prayers of millions are with us.

9. Stories – the Archives Department of our church has also been offering informative material about what is happening here along with things of a historical nature. Yvonne’s blog is well-worth a regular visit.

I encourage folk to approach the Presbytery with any concerns you have or information you need. The Presbytery is here to resource you in your partnership in God’s mission in your communities. Our resources are stretched and we are tired, but we are not alone – we have one another and God’s enabling Spirit is our strength. Our Lord calls to those who are weak and heavy-laden to come to him and find rest and their burdens eased.

May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

Martin Stewart

If you are of the praying kind, please keep Mart and the people of New Zealand in your prayers.

You might also like to check out these earlier posts:

Blogging Presbyterian Ministers

I guess that it is encouraging to see blogging catching on among Presbyterian ministers (and their partners) here in Aotearoa New Zealand. Here’s a list (repeated in the sidebar) of those that I know of:

Am I missing anyone?

And while I’m in ‘give ’em a plug’ mode, there’s a few other Pressie-tribe sites that are worth noting:




A prayer for the meeting of the General Assembly

As the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand prepares to gather for its General Assembly next week, it’s a time not only for reading through hundreds of pages of reports and recommendations, but also to be praying. So …

Almighty God,
in Jesus Christ you called disciples
and, by the Holy Spirit, made them one church to serve you.
Be with members of our General Assembly.
Help them to welcome new things you are doing in the world,
and to respect old things you keep and use.
Save them from empty slogans or senseless controversy.
In their deciding,
determine what is good for us and for all people.
As this General Assembly meets,
let your Spirit rule,
so that our church may be joined in love and service to Jesus Christ,
who, having gone before us,
is coming to meet us in the promise of your kingdom. Amen.

– Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Book of Common Worship, prepared by the Theology and Worship Ministry Unit for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Cumberland Presbyterian Church (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993), 805.

… be the sailor’s friend, be the dolphin Christ

Last night, I was privileged to be part of a gathering at the First Church of Otago for the induction of Anne Thomson. Henry Mbambo recalled – with passion much too rarely evident in the Presbyterianism in my part of the world – God’s charge upon ministers to ‘preach the word’ and that those so charged will, at times, be tired and discouraged. And, I was introduced to Colin Gibson‘s delightful hymn, ‘Where the road runs out’:

Where the road runs out and the signposts end,
where we come to the edge of today,
be the God of Abraham for us,
send us out upon our way.

Lord, you were our beginning,
the faith that gave us birth.
We look to you, our ending,
our hope for heaven and earth.

When the coast is left and we journey on
to the rim of the sky and the sea,
be the sailor’s friend, be the dolphin Christ
lead us in to eternity.

Lord, you were our beginning …

When the clouds are low and the wind is strong,
when tomorrow’s storm draws near,
be the spirit bird hovering overhead
who will take away our fear.

Lord, you were our beginning …