With EFAC Victoria calling together a conference on Gospel, Mission and Church in March 2010, I thought it might be helpful if I put pen to paper on my experiences of a life-time of Christian mission and ministry in an Australia that is very different from what it was like when I began.
From the beginning I have always been part of the evangelical side of the church. The great strength of evangelical ministry is its emphasis on evangelism. Evangelicals have a Gospel to proclaim. They are people who know that God has a message which is solidly based on what God has already done for us in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. They know that God uses this message in the power of the Holy Spirit to change lives. They know that there are millions who live their lives 'having no hope and without God in the world' (Ephesians 2:12). God desires that these people repent of their sin, and turn to him in faith, and enjoy his salvation. Evangelicals are not afraid to share this Gospel message and see people changed by God. And because this gospel is proclaimed in all sorts of ways, people are being converted and changed, and churches are growing, sometimes slowly and sometimes dramatically. So the Gospel is at the heart of evangelical ministry and is its great strength.
But what is to happen next? Let me reflect on this through my personal experiences. I grew up in the northern beachside Sydney suburb of Manly. My parents were not church goers at all. Both had lost their mothers when they were young. My mother came out of that strange religious amalgam of theosophy; my father out of a strict Presbyterianism, which he had rejected as harsh but without rejecting a belief in God. He had been a commercial traveller for my grandfather's stationery business in New Zealand but for most of his life he was, incredible as it may sound, an SP bookmaker running a betting business on horse racing out of our home. He got into this when coming to Australia in the depression and not being able to find work. My mother followed him here. They married in Christ Church, St Kilda and then moved to Sydney where my mother found work as a hairdresser. My father then began his SP bookmaking business. This provided a modest but comfortable income for our family although only in 1960 were we able to move out of a rented flat into my parents' own home.
In spite of his business being illegal, I always respected my father as a person of integrity and compassion who cared well for me and my two sisters. In all I had a very happy childhood in a great place to grow up. One thing I was excessively shy, which had a lot to do, I am sure, with my father's work. It took many years to overcome this. But my shyness was balanced by never ending enthusiasm, full of ideas of what were life's potentials.
My parents had me (and later my two sisters) baptised at St Matthew's Church of England in Manly. The minister was Mr Ebbs of whom I have no personal memory but who is an important part of Murray Seiffert's Refuge on the Roper as previously the CMA representative in Victoria and a great visionary supporter of mission. He obviously made a lasting good impression on my parents who spoke of him with the utmost respect. But the main thing to note is that he was welcoming and baptised me.
As it happened we lived about three minutes walk from the Manly Baptist Church and my parents decided on the basis that you can only properly choose when you knew something about the choice. So they sent us to the Baptist Sunday School which must have been one of the most brilliant in existence. It met on a Sunday afternoon with a full set of graded Bible classes, a carefully planned curriculum, offering Bible exams once you reached a certain level. Each year they ran a children's evangelistic mission, usually with Wally Gilbert a most gifted illustrator and storyteller. They had lots of fun events including a wonderful annual Sunday School picnic at the North Harbour reserve. We had what were called Annual Sunday School Demonstrations - in the church, and I also remember a State one in the Sydney Town Hall. This was a Sunday School one could never forget. And yet there is a sense in which it failed in the end as we grew up. Somehow it began to seem a small world as we found our lives located in another world of ideas and interests.
Turning 15 was very significant for me. It was then that I decided that I really was a committed Christian and so set the course for the rest of my life. It was then that I moved across into the Church of England as it was then known. This was with help from my lifelong friend from school John Clarke. I did not find it altogether easy as I had to get used to the Book of Common Prayer. Our parish church was All Saints Balgowlah, where the assistant curate was the charismatic Barry Thiering. He was married to a language teacher and Bible scholar Barbara Thiering. Although she later wrote her totally unconvincing and way-out books on Jesus, at that time she was orthodox in her theology and a most helpful Bible teacher and I owe her a lot.
Entering the Anglican Church was entering a much larger world. This joined one in exciting ways to what I would now call the Church Catholic of every nation, language and tribe, through time from the beginning. It is well expressed by a wonderful phrase in the Psalms where David testifies that when he called to the Lord in his distress, 'the LORD answered me and set me in a broad place' (Psalm 118:5; also 18:19). The church is intended to be a place of freedom, of security, with room to do things, to make choices, a place with a wide horizon, where you can look around and get a clear view. I had moved into such a place.
The church was soon to move from using the King James Version to the Revised Standard Version, a very important step. We also benefited greatly in those days from the translation of the Epistles by J.B. Phillips, called 'Letters to Young Churches'. And it was at this time that CS Lewis was becoming well known for his books 'Mere Christianity' and 'The Screwtape Letters'.
All Saints had a huge youth ministry. We went to church on Sunday evenings where the service was Evening Prayer, with two lessons (Old and New Testament), plus Canticles and Psalms, plus a sermon at the end. Each month we held a fellowship tea at 5pm with a guest speaker, usually looking for someone who would speak evangelistically. In between we had 6pm Bible Studies - this was where Barbara Thiering helped us prepare notes and questions. We did a series on the letter to the Galatians which was really stretching but was one of those milestones of understanding in which I learnt to read a book of the Bible as a whole rather than as a series of loosely connected passages.
Our Rector, Bill Deasey, seemed in some ways a dour figure but as I look back, he and Mrs Deasey were incredibly hospitable to us young people. We were freely in their home which was an appallingly poor rectory until a new one was built at Seaforth. They had a large family, all of whom were part of our youth activities. It must have been a financial struggle for them but I can only give thanks for the kindness and welcome they gave and for all the encouragement they offered.
My other life-long friend from those days with John Clarke was Peter Smart. We three were all to be ordained in the Diocese of Armidale. But before we ever went to theological college, Bill Deasey had us preaching at the various four centres which made up the parish of West Manly. There were others who were to be ordained from this parish, including Bishop Don Cameron. I remember vividly the two sermons I heard him preach at that time at All Saints. These were rich years for us. I became leader of the Youth Fellowship and after I went off to Teachers' College, it was Peter's turn and next John's turn, all of us working with a succession of fine young assistant curates.
John Clarke and I believed we were called to ordained ministry while still at school. In fact I remember John sharing this with me on a school bus on the way to swimming. My parents thought it was youthful enthusiasm and I guess they hoped it would fade. In any case I was too young and so, rather than go to University, I accepted a cadetship with the Department of Territories to train as a teacher at Bathurst Teacher's College and to do at least two years as a government school teacher in Papua New Guinea. I actually stayed three years for what was a time that I loved and still regard as very special in every way. For two years in PNG I lived alone in a small government station in the mountains between Port Moresby and Lae. These years taught me about the ongoing providential care of our God in isolated places. There was no church to attend except when I occasionally visited Port Moresby but I never lacked the loving presence of the Lord.
I was there encouraged to go country when seeking ordination rather than just returning to Sydney. So I wrote to Bishop John Moyes of the Diocese of Armidale who accepted me as his student without ever laying eyes on me. At the same time, through completely different circumstances, he accepted my friend John Clarke and we were to share a room in Sadlier at Ridley in 1960. Bishop Moyes had written to us explaining that he was receiving criticism in his Diocese because of the number of clergy he was ordaining who trained at Moore College. He asked if we would be willing to go to Ridley College in Melbourne. After doing some homework, Ridley sounded a good College to attend and that is how we came to Melbourne, a move I have never regretted for a minute. Ridley, with Dr Babbage and Dr Frank Andersen and others was the most exciting place I had ever been to! Compared especially to Teachers College, I thought I had arrived in a kind of paradise, except for Melbourne's weather which is extra severe when living in the old stable which was the Sadlier building at Ridley.
We certainly had a lot of services in those days at Ridley, always using the BCP whether Holy Communion, Morning Prayer or Evening Prayer, or the Litany.
In my understanding of the English reformation Crammer's liturgical reforms were central. They put the Bible at the heart of worship so that we were continually reading the Old and the New Testaments and using the Psalms and the New Testament hymns, with the Collects and other prayers closely related to the Scriptures. The sermon was definitely secondary to this and so the Reformation was made dependent on the Scriptures more than anything else.
Here is where I have grave concerns about what seems to be happening here now. I find myself attending services where the Bible Readings have been reduced to one from one book only. The lectionary has been abandoned and the Psalms are seldom heard of. We no longer learn to incorporate them in our praise and prayer. The sermon had become primary and it is given in an exegetical, lecturing style.
Nowhere in the New Testament are exegetical lectures sent to people. The New Testament letters address real people in real situations with real responses to their needs, but I now listen to sermons which repeat the Bible reading by explaining it and then add on some application. Often these belong to a series which may go on for months on the one book of the Bible, without reading other parts of the Scriptures.
This surely needs a rethink. A great clue to what one should be doing is found in Ephesians 4:11-12 where Paul gives a kind of chronological view of the way in which the church was founded and grew. First there were apostles, then the N.T. prophets, and then the evangelists, all of whom are represented in the early chapters of the Acts of the Apostles. Then came the pastors and teachers. It is striking how 'pastors and teachers' go together in Paul's list as one group. They are covered by one article in the Greek text. These were to be, and continue to be, the mainstay of church leadership on whom the ongoing life of the church depends and whose task it is, as the passage goes on to say, to equip every member for ministry.
The recovery of the idea of 'pastor and teacher' is surely important. Pastor is a central ministry in the New Testament, modelled by Jesus, the great Shepherd of the Sheep. Jesus is the greatest preacher of all time and in his sermons which we hardly think as sermons, he addresses people in parable and poetry on the great issues for the individual and the community. The pastor applies the message; he does not hand out lecture material. Jesus and Paul and the other N.T. letter writers are models for us as they take the Gospel and use the Old Testament Scriptures to address people where they are presently in their lives or where the community of God's people is located in their journey of faith. Preaching, teaching is related to ongoing pastoral involvement with people.
Being a 'pastor and teacher' is a kind of leadership based on closeness to people. In recent days a kind of managerial leadership is being advocated, which has too often removed the leader from those he is supposed to be leading. He or she is a kind of organiser of programmes which is all very well but my experience suggests it is a way of ministry which may work well only with certain groups of people whereas we are living in a world in which families are increasingly dysfunctional and in which a kind of pastoral care is needed which will relate to many complex situations in people's lives. Never has the pastor been needed more and yet the pastors must also be teachers of the Word as it is the Word of God which is sharper than the two edged sword and able to take us to the heart of things (Hebrews 4:12-13). It is the Gospel message which carries with it the power of God for salvation to all who believe (Romans 1:16). Pastor and Teacher today need to be one and together, just as they are bound together in Ephesians 4:11-12.
In any case as we reflect on the kind of ministry needed today we should remember that the New Testament never tires of exhorting us to love one another as Christ loved us (eg. John 15:12-17). We can't love unless we go to where people are and that is what Jesus did. He came to us where we were and there he found us and brought us home.
So I write this praying that we might return to a more balanced diet of worship in which there is the regular reading of the Old and New Testaments according to some systematic lectionary plan. We will also learn again to use the Psalms and the N.T. hymns as prayers and as part of our daily and weekly devotions. We will regard the sermons important but never as superior to Bible readings which will be read in such a way that they are able to speak to people directly. I pray that people will be considered intelligent enough to listen to Scripture and to reflect on it as they do. I hope to see the seasons of the church calendar used once again with understanding as a way of ensuring that each of the central teachings of the Gospel are covered during the year. I especially hope to find clergy with a better understanding of liturgy because too many seem to regard it as a collection of set prayers without much logic or necessary connection in the way they are arranged so they see no difficulty in just inserting their own spontaneous compositions into the mix. But my foremost prayer is that clergy will see that 'pastor and teacher' go together, and together they will produce sermons that connect easily to people's lives.
I never cease to give thanks to God that he called me while still at school to be a pastor and teacher in his work of equipping the saints for the task of ministry (Ephesians 4:11-16). It is a wonderful vocation for the Lord to give me. It remained at the heart of the work I did for the thirteen years at Ridley and for my work as bishop for 22 years. The opportunities have always been there to do good things, sometimes in season, sometimes out of season. Today we need many more 'pastors and teachers', both men and women, with life long vocations who love people and who will apply the Scriptures as they walk and talk with those they are called to serve. So pray earnestly that the lord of the harvest will raise up labourers to send out into his harvest (Luke 10:2). There remains much to be done.
Bishop John W. Wilson