Monday, 14 October 2013

Some incidents that shaped my ministry (1): Launceston, Tasmania, 1983.

This is the first of four posts in which I'm taking an incident from my early life and thinking of how it affected my later ministry.

I decided to post these in reverse order to which they happened, so this first post is about the most comparatively recent incident.

It was 1983.  I was thirty.  I had lived in Australia - and in Tasmania - for about three-and-a-half years.  I was serving my second parish appointment as a minister in the Uniting Church in Australia, in a rural community near the city of Launceston, Tasmania. 

I was in Launceston one afternoon. 
  • I must have been in town to do some hospital visiting, because I was wearing my clerical collar.
  • I must have been in a hurry, because I crossed a street against a red light.
A drunk coming out of a pub was watching me as I jaywalked.  He staggered up to me and said, "Hey, mate, I thought your job was to tell the rest of us to obey the rules."

As he staggered away, I started to realise the implications of what he said.  It related to the handful of books I'd read by that time on the role of religion in Australian society.  I was provided with a concrete example of an important insight about how Australians regard religion.

Many Australians - particularly those who are not themselves participants in the life of congregations (whether Christian or of any other faith) - regard religion as a form of "social control", as a way in which the wider community tells individuals "to obey the rules".  This perception began back in the days of the convicts (when chaplains also functioned as magistrates), but continued on to our present day, with the result that many congregations of many denominations have been almost emptied of young people, working class people, and men.

In this incident, I learned that ministry in the Australian context will always involve struggling against this perception of churches and other faith communities that has been part of our heritage in Australia since the convict era.  This perception is why the churches are frequently either arrogantly dismissed or politely ignored by many of our neighbours.

My next post in this series will be set in Miles City, Montana, in 1977 (a few years earlier than this one), and will deal with why I don't like to "Give 'em a little guilt."

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