A drought is coming …of Holy Communion

Google a Sydney Anglican website, look under “staff” and the chances are that you will find a bloke called a “minister”, “senior minister” or “pastor”. Look up the regulations and you will find that clergy are called “priests” or “presbyters” and “deacons”.

The pewsitter finds it interesting that the old titles have mostly vanished from everyday use. This is partly out of discomfort with the title “priest” which sort of implies that Jesus gets sacrificed again and also because the terms sound a bit antiquarian.

But underneath the titles our local clergy use day to day the old ones still exist: priests or presbyters are allowed to be in charge of churches, licensed to baptise and run Holy Communion. Deacons traditionally were priests in waiting, sort of like P-plate clergy.

A radical change in policy has changed those roles here in Sydney. Don’t worry – it is a good change but not as well known among pewsitters as it deserves to be. 

Think of it like a railway journey – Sydney Anglicans have our own stations of the Cross. Being a deacon used to be like a trip from town to Macdonaldtown, the “blink and you miss it” rail station close to Moore College. You were there before you noticed, and it wasn’t much of a trip anyway.

But now to be a deacon is like heading off to a major station like Hurstville or Chatswood or Penrith – it’s a real destination and the trip could take some time. You don’t have to go near Moore College on the way – the new sort of deacon won’t necessarily have a uni degree. You can start the journey from Sutherland (where the Anglican Youthworks College is). But not from the pewsitter’s station at Croydon (home to SMBC). I am sad about that.

A wide variety of ministries from youthworker to chaplain can be recognised as long-term deacons.

Local churches still pick their own staff, whether ordained by the diocese or not. But the deacon label gives diocese-wide branding and will help people have a career in their ministry role, and move around.

The pewsitter thinks that it is an exciting change that should grow gospel work by encouraging a more diverse bunch of ministries.

But like many good things, there is a catch.

Up till now a large parish might have several priest/presbyters, with one of them in charge – sometimes called a “rector”.

Under the new policy ministers will become priest when they are considered ready to take charge of a parish. Only the senior minister will be a priest/presbyter.

The problem is that deacons can’t “do” Holy Communion. One church plant went a few years without the Lord’s Supper as they had no priest/presbyter. Parishes with more than one site and simultaneous services will have real problems organising Communion.

The diocese is caught on the horns of a dilemma. Either we need to find a way to give deacons the power to do Communion – and at present difficult-to-change church law prevents this. Or we need to go back to priesting clergy who are not in charge of parishes.

Otherwise there will be a drought of Holy Communion coming to a church near you.


Nov 2006 Knowing how to die

One Friday afternoon, a few weeks ago, my friend Peter had a close brush with death.

He did not find Kerry Packer while he was away. But he did find peace and a new determination to follow Jesus.

“You know that bit in the Psalms,” he says, “about walking through the valley of death and not being afraid? Well, it’s true”.

“I was at peace. I knew I was being looked after.” That was during an ambulance trip through peak-hour Sydney traffic. Then to the local hospital and across to the RNS Hospital, followed by a quick operation to unclog his coronary artery.

He’s telling his story to a few of us, in a work meeting room. You know the sort of place. All glass and metal. Today I am a chair sitter. As he describes his drama and the peace he had during it, we think of our colleagues through the glass.

“But if you didn’t have Jesus, how would you cope?” he says.

Peter makes it clear that it wasn’t a blithe confidence that things were going to be all right medically. It’s obvious that at that time he did not know.  Instead it was an assurance that things would be well, whatever the outcome. He doesn’t sound relieved that he’s talking to us in the office Bible study group so much as refreshed in his faith. The office hippie has found peace, man.

Thin and lithe looking, Peter does not look like the obvious candidate for a heart attack. Everyone on his floor was, well, floored when it happened. He wants to fix the lifestyle things that made him a target.

“I gave up smoking, cold turkey, that Friday afternoon.”

“I can make myself, am going to make myself, 10 years younger as the doctors suggest. But I want to fix the spiritual things too.”

At this point it sounds like a normal cautionary tale. But then he says, “If it happened again I know I would not be worried.” He means it. The Valley of Death holds no fear for him. He’s been there, and he knows that Jesus was there too. 

“I wouldn’t recommend a heart attack to anyone,” says Peter. Then he does. “I’d rather have it than not learn what I have learned.”

At this point I know I am in the most important meeting in all 27 floors. Whatever corporate shenanigans are being done in this corner of the CBD, this little band of Christians are the ones who know how to die, and therefore how to live. 

Sept 2006 They failed to consult me again

Unaccountably the Standing Committee and synod of this diocese have failed to consult me. Again. This time it is over the decision to change the word ‘priest’ to ‘presbyter’ on some internal church documents.

As these church regulations are hugely unread by anybody even Sydney Anglicans (whose favourite publication remains the Sydney Morning Herald despite and probably because it is regularly denounced in the most correct line of pulpits), who cares?

Don’t get me wrong. There are probably enough people out there who know that a priest is defined in the dictionary as someone who offers a sacrifice, to make it worthwhile to change it. Jesus is our great high priest and we only need one. Agreed.

But presbyter? Why do we need weird churchy-sounding language, even if it is etymologically correct to say that ‘elder’ not ‘sacrificer’ was what the 1662 prayer book meant to say.

What about ‘pastor’ or even ‘minister’ – the words most people use anyway?

“Hi, I’m xxxx, the presbyter of the church that meets down the road,” doesn’t get my vote.  The local branch of the Church of Scotland might be a tad upset with us.

If a church that has bishops can be called ‘Episcopal’ (from the Greek for overseer) and that’s the word some Anglicans overseas use instead of ‘Anglican’, then a church with presbyters could be Presbyterian. And is – down the road from you.

Which raises an urgent point. Well, urgent for this column anyway.

Some of the best and possibly more biblical ways of labeling things have already been used by other people.

The Uniting Church have just voted to call their ministers ‘pastors’. 
And couldn’t we get rid of the confusion about calling our buildings ‘churches’, by calling them, let’s see… kingdom halls?

And seeing that ‘church’ means the assembling of God’s people together let’s call our local branches ‘Assemblies of God’. Well that one just might be free if the name ‘Australian Christian Church’ replaces it.

I have always liked the way some charismatic churches call their church committee ‘the oversight’. I would like to be the author of a pew bulletin (or in their case a chair bulletin) that had to explain a mistake. I would call it ‘an oversight by the oversight’. It might be worth sitting through the repetitive choruses for.

‘Oversight’ is another term that is sort of Biblical but hardly practical in English.

Still, let’s not get stuck into others. We have lots of funny language. How many people call their presbyter ‘rector’ or ‘vicar’ or even ‘area dean’?  Well only to fellow Christians, not to outsiders.

The Synod motion is politically correct in a reformed protestant sort of way but it doesn’t go far enough.

Let’s talk about church in a language understood by normal people (a good protestant principle).

One good place to start slimming down our language would be honorifics. Do we need the titles ‘the Reverend’ (for a local pastor), ‘the Right Rev’ (for a bishop), or even ‘the Venerable’ (for an archdeacon)? The last archdeacon I met didn’t look too venerable, he looked like a normal bloke. And to be fair I don’t think the locals use ‘the Ven’.

The old language is gorgeous if you are a fan of Trollope’s 19th-century church novels. But most of us want things to be clear and not pompous. Which makes the use of ‘presbyter’ unlikely to move far beyond the walls of the diocesan headquarters at St Andrew’s House.

June 2006 A cold shower for Triumphalism

How to put ecclesiastical sandstone to good use

IF you are friends with a well-known Sydney Anglican, any well-known one will do, here is an early Christmas present suggestion for you. What about a picture of a large, tall, faux-Gothic 19th- century sandstone building?

Think of dappled sunshine on pointed arches, the city against the pinnacles, golden Sydney stonework.

No, not the rain shelter you are thinking of, but one plonked down on barren North Head. A thousand miles from care.

These days it is a hotel training school.  But once – some pewsitters will have guessed the provenance – it was St Patrick’s seminary.  ‘The Priest factory’, as the title of Chris Geraghty’s memoirs calls it.

In the early 1960s it was so full of young Catholic men that they could not fit in the chapel stalls. It seemed that there was an inexhaustible supply of students. The place was overflowing.

But by 1995 Judge Geraghty returned to an echoing institution that had almost emptied of students and was about to be decanted into much humbler premises, an old Telstra training site built along the lines of a country pub in the inner west. The last student was about to turn out the lights, or snuff the last candle.

As Geraghty tells it a ‘naïve and trumphalist’ church had allowed itself to become frozen. A flood of vocations had encouraged complacency. “It had grown smug.”

It could never happen to us, could it? A few pictures of St Patrick’s towering above Manly might just help prevent it. They would be a reminder that the graph does not keep sloping up, just because it has developed the habit, recently. 

A photo, drawing, screen saver or a bas relief of St Patrick’s would remind us that our diocesan-wide ‘Uluru’ (church growth and decline) diagram would explain just like parishes, pleasurable decline will tempt all in our Diocese.

Let’s pause here to allow some of you to point out reasonably enough that we are not Roman Catholic, clinging to Latin, and there is no Vatican II coming down the track to swamp us.

Rather it is to be expected that our temptations might come from a more contemporary direction. ‘God has been good to us’ is the pious mantra we hear when the numbers dance upwards. 

And it is true. When this happens our heavenly father has been, just, heavenly.

And an army of mostly unknown heroes has laboured for this harvest.

Yet close by these good things lurks the prosperity gospel (Sydney Anglican version). It goes like this: somehow we must be doing the right thing because God has blessed us.

Okay, we don’t actually think this, but there are times our thoughts drift that way. Or at least mine do. I might be the only one…

Naturally we would not think of money as proof of God’s favour on us. But an increase in Sunday attendance? The biggest church in the district – or the fastest growing one? You don’t have to be a Zebedee to want to be recognised as a good leader. 

So consider a gift of St Patrick’s for the study wall. Think of it as a virtual cold shower for our triumphalism.

Dec 2005: Clergy what not to wear

Your pewsitter was taught at early age that staring at other people was RUDE. But all of us make a big exception. Ministers. We stare at them for up-to-forty minutes a week. Unless you are one of those keen types – usually to be found in university churches – that take notes.

If truth be told we spend some of that up-to-forty minutes a week wondering why on earth the minister chose that shirt, or that tie or whatever.

At Moore College students are sometimes told to dress just a little smarter than the congregation. Those of you reading SC when you shouldn’t can take a peek now. If THAT’s smarter than you, then boy are we dags.

Ever since most Sydney ministers gave up wearing robes they have had a problem. What not to wear?

Sydney is a city of tribal costume: the studied casual of the eastern suburbs or the advertising agency look, CBD Zegna sharp. Northern beaches boardies. North shore rugby sports coat with leather elbow patches, T-shirt and jeans. Or just plain dorky like your columnist.

The tribal culture changes fast. In the CBD for example you can plot to the day when the fashions in ties change. There was a period of a few weeks some years ago when bottle green ties were the go. Then suddenly green was so last week.

Making my usual pretence of actually researching this column I called up the Fairfax photo library for one Peter Jensen. An exquisite irony emerged really fast. He looks good in red robes because bright colours look good on him. His complexion means a dark business suit is not always the best look for him on camera.

Our leader captures the clergy dilemma, looking medieval is ridiculous in modern Australia but working out what is the modern version of monks robes – humble but neat – is not that easy.

A minister I know has a style consultant. It helps. Of course if every Sydney minister took another bloke shopping it might lead to colourful rumours. “Does my face look Calvinist in this”?

There is something wonderfully unworldly about our clergy in sinful Sydney. The “empty display and false values of this world” are what this town is good at.  So our Diocese should wear as a badge of honour our clergy’s unworldly attire.

The alternative of a fashion conscious clergy is too awful to contemplate. It would be enough to make me turn Baptist again.

Nov 2005 Synod is not the real thing, folks

A better offer came the way of one of our Synod reps and in a temporary lapse of taste parish council sent your pewsitter instead. So I got to try out the comfy chairs in the Wesley Centre, Pitt Street, where Synod meets deep underground.

It was a real shock. Synod is very professional/middle class, old and very white. I live a sheltered life and it is not often I come across this type of crowd. Not at work, church, or on the train.

Now, as someone who celebrated his 100th birthday party this year (together with my twin), I can’t afford to be anti-old. Sending your elders to Synod might even be biblical.

But it was the whiteness of the crowd that got to me. It felt like I wasn’t in Sydney. Many of my fellow pewsitters were not there.

From some well-meant-but-revealing speeches it was clear that the “house” considers itself as made up of the “well educated”. “The poor” were outsiders.

Fair enough, five days of Synod meeting in the afternoon and evening in the CBD does serve to select the membership somewhat.

“I’m glad we’re [a] provisional [parish]”, one rector I sat next to at random told me. “I only have to find one Synod rep. In plenty of parishes Synod rep possies go begging.” No, it wasn’t a North Shore parish.

One day the tidal wave of reform may get around to changing Synod to make it look more like the Diocese. I hope so, because “synod” simply means meeting. It should include all the sorts of people we are; no longer Anglo yet Anglican.

In the meantime we should be grateful that Synod keeps a lot of lawyers off the street. They do useful things, like tightening sex abuse regulations so that charges will stick, or loosening rules to let independent congregations join with us.

The meeting rules resemble parliament’s; they are more your Gothic cathedral than your shelter shed. Synod is roughly the size of the British House of Commons or the US House of Reps. But better behaved.

The scariest thing is that I am the sort of guy who might memorise the “rules of Synod” for the fun of it and get to enjoy Synod. 
But my church is too smart to send me more than once.

In short, Synod is both imperfect and impressive. A French general once said “C’est magnifique. Mais ce n’est pas la guerre”. Roughly translated it means the parish is the real thing, folks.

Oct 2005 Already sick of the ’emergent church’

Is it just me, or is the news that America’s latest guru on how-to-do-church, Brian McLaren, is to tour Australia next year kind of ironic?

McLaren (who has sharp things to say about how colonialism has distorted the church) is a figurehead in what is being called the emergent church movement, and it is a sure bet that some of us will be sick of the word ‘emergent’ sometime during 2006, or earlier – possibly by the end of this column.

It is a broad movement, ranging from people who tinker with the look and feel of church for the millennium generation, to those who rethink theology. 
The theology begins to look like something you’ve read before, somewhere. That theological polymath, Don Carson, has written the self-explanatory Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church, which is on the bedside tables of our trendier clergy. McLaren seems to me like so-last-century-liberal in some of his theology.

But of course, this column is not concerned with weighty stuff, rather the frippery of emergent church.

They don’t like church-as-performance. Mega church is not mega for them. Instead, they want participation. Some stuff that looks like ritual, or structure. They want to devise Sunday themselves.

The studied informality of the seeker church looks artificial to post-boomers.  It is not surprising that what might work for baby boomers would not work for those who come after.

It will be interesting to note how flexible those of us who have changed things prove to be when it is our changes under challenge.

Not unusually for this pewsitter, I made a leap of logic a moment ago. I summarised Don Carson’s book as though he had done the conventional thing and listed what was wrong with this movement. Instead, he tries to have real engagement with it.

He recognises that it is multi-stranded in a post-modern way and is ready to commend any good stuff they do. 
Carson is much admired in Sydney. I think his approach to emergents, who may well be flirting with problematic ideas as well some ideas that are useful, is worth adopting.

This is a time when conservative evangelicalism could be outgoing and confident. That’s one benefit of the diocesan mission. Like Carson, we don’t have to be defensive in the negative sense of that word when we meet something new.

In short, I wish Southern Cross had thought of the title of McLaren’s book first. It’s calledGenerous Orthodoxy. It sums up what we should be and are at our best.