Thursday, 25 June 2015

"To be ecumenical in Tasmania is to be very ecumenical indeed.": report of the Liaison Officer of the Tasmanian Council of Churches to the TCC's Annual Meeting (Saturday, 27th June 2015, Launceston).

As I prepare this report, I do so knowing that this is a report both on my past year as Liaison Officer for the TCC and on my past three years as Liaison Officer.  In many ways, this is also a reflection on a career of thirty-five years of ordained ministry with a strong personal commitment to the ecumenical movement, including a total of twelve years (in two distinct blocks of time) spent as an ecumenical staffer here in Tasmania. 

(Please note that any comments made in this report are comments I am making to the Annual Meeting, and are not statements being made by the Tasmanian Council of Churches.  As well, when I speak to this report at the Annual Meeting, I will make some appreciative comments about others which are not found in this written report.)

Anyway, I’ll try to be brief.

To begin with, to be ecumenical in Tasmania is to be very ecumenical indeed.  Tasmania is the spiritual home of ecumenism in Australia, and has been so ever since the friendship of the colonial chaplains Robert Knopwood and Philip Conolly in the early years of Hobart Town.  Over the years, Tasmania has thankfully escaped the worst of the destructive sectarian bigotries that have provided long-term damage to relations between the churches in some mainland capitals.  In 1970, the Tasmanian Council of Churches became the first ecumenical council in Australia (and one of the first in the world) in which the Roman Catholic Church is a member. 

Like many similar ecumenical bodies, this Council has experienced mixed fortunes over the years since those heady years of ecumenical optimism following the Second Vatican Council.  In many ways, like many other ecumenical bodies, we’re unsure about our task, our focus, and our future.  The current ecumenical malaise is not unique to Tasmania or to Australia.  It has many sources, not least of which is the fact that bitter and divisive internal arguments within many denominations have led to a general lack of emotional energy for ecumenical involvement on the part of many church leaders and other active participants in the life of the churches.

Here in Australia, this lack of focus for state-based ecumenical bodies has been complicated by the decision by Act for Peace a few years ago (in my opinion, a very unwise decision) to remove the “sharp end” of Act for Peace promotion (including Christmas Bowl promotion) from ecumenical bodies based in the states.  This decision has created an unnecessary geographical barrier between these excellent programmes and the lives of local congregations.  It has also removed one significant area of direct relevance for bodies such as the TCC in the lives of local congregations.

Nevertheless, I believe there is still a great necessity for a body such as the TCC within the life of the Tasmanian community.  To give merely two examples:

·        If we did not provide an institutional base for the ecumenical and interfaith Emergencies Ministry, such a base would need to be created.

·        If we did not provide a link between Jane Franklin Hall and the churches, such a link would need to be created.

But, at a broader level, the need for an ecumenical body such as the Tasmanian Council of Churches is grounded in the need for the churches to have a forum in which we can speak with each other in terms of the faith we share, the ministry we share to our community, and on our differing perspectives on our shared faith and ministry, and to take shared action within the community on the basis of what we have learned from each other.

And, sometimes, this process leads to public statements by church leaders.  In my observation, one of two things normally happens when a group of church leaders makes a public statement:

·        A group of church leaders makes a well-researched, well-argued, nuanced, and compassionate statement on indigenous people, refugees, asylum-seekers, immigration, the homeless, the unemployed, etc. … and the statement is ignored by most – if not all – media outlets. … or …

·        A group of church leaders (including many of those involved in the first statement) gets hot under their collars over an issue related to sex … and the coverage gets a huge amount of airtime and column inches.

The reason for this difference in coverage is easy.  The first example doesn’t make for an entertaining news story, while the second does.  And the reason the second example is considered so entertaining is that it reinforces the popular (and negative) fictional image that many of our neighbours have about those of us who inhabit the Christian churches in our communities. 

This situation is even more critical when we add to it the long-running public issue of child sexual abuse in religious, educational, and other institutional contexts.  None of our member churches are untouched by this issue.  It threatens our moral credibility in all areas of each of our churches’ lives.  All faith communities in this country need to realise that, collectively, our moral credibility with the wider community – and with much of our own membership - on issues of sex is now precisely zero, and that we need to rebuild our credibility on these issues from the ground up. 

In response to this, I personally believe that (until the day in the future when every faith community – Christian and otherwise – in Australia has fully dealt with issues of child sexual abuse in their own contexts) all faith communities in Australia need to establish a voluntary moratorium on any public comment on issues relating to sex.  Yes, let’s talk about these issues within our own communities and among our diverse communities, but let’s keep these conversations reasonably in-house until we’ve re-established our moral credibility on these issues. 

In terms of reporting on my own work as Liaison Officer, I’d prefer not to concentrate on the time spent sitting in front of a computer screen, or on the telephone organising meetings, or similar tasks.  I’d prefer to speak of a few events which were among the highlights of that part of my job description that deals with promoting relations among the churches.

1.     Soon after my return to Tasmania in 2012, I started to regularly attend the monthly Pints of Faith gatherings.  These gatherings are an opportunity to build community and discuss issues of faith and life in a casual setting over a meal.  While it was developed for young adults by Catholic Youth Ministry, a real diversity of ages and denominational backgrounds can frequently be found in these events.  Attending these gatherings provides a good opportunity to relate to some younger adults who are strongly committed both to their own church and to the wider Christian faith.

2.     As a result, initially, of being a member of an interfaith panel at one of these Pints of Faith gatherings (in which a leading Mormon was another participant), I’ve increasingly been receiving invitations to attend various regional gatherings of the Latter-day Saints.  In attending these gatherings, I find myself encountering a community that regards itself as profoundly Christian and is profoundly saddened by the fact that many Christians do not regard them as fellow-Christians.  I find myself encountering a community that seems earnestly sincere in its desire to build its ecumenical and interfaith relations, but which is saddened by the level of prejudice it sometimes encounters.  Despite the theological eccentricities and the excessive (in my opinion) social conservatism of the LDS, I see something profoundly decent about this community of Christians.  Those of us involved in ecumenical Christian bodies such as the TCC really need to get to know our Mormon neighbours.

3.     I was asked by the youth worker of All Saints’ Anglican Church in South Hobart to assist her in designing a programme on ecumenical and interfaith relations for the church’s young adult group.  In the process, we developed a series of gatherings in which people from various Christian churches – and from other faith communities – met with the group and shared some of the beliefs and practices of their communities, and enabled the All Saints’ people to do the same kind of sharing.

I personally believe that there still needs to be someone in Tasmania whose job description in her / his “day job” includes an active concern for the well-being of the relationships among the Christian churches in Tasmania and among the wider range of faith communities in Tasmania.  As the Tasmanian Council of Churches continues the process of searching for a person in this role, I wish my successor (whomever she or he may be) well in this task.

In this context, may I plead that whoever is chosen for this role is someone who already knows Tasmania well.  In my observation over the past thirty-five years (twenty-one of which were spent in Tasmania), many Tasmanian churches (and other areas of Tasmanian life) have been badly hurt by those in high profile roles who arrive from interstate with no local knowledge, and no real respect for the intelligence and wisdom already present among Tasmanians.  The “mainland guru” arrives with a sense of “I’m an expert; listen to me,” and frequently departs, leaving a great reserve of resentment.  I believe a track record of solid respect for Tasmanians needs to be a prerequisite for such a role.

In closing, the late Krister Stendahl, a Swedish Lutheran theologian who served as Professor of New Testament at Harvard, as Bishop of Stockholm, and as a participant in many ecumenical and interfaith dialogues, formulated “Stendahl’s Laws of Religious Encounter” in the 1980s.  These are as relevant now (both for ecumenical relations among Christians and for interfaith relations) as they were when they were first proposed.  In a simple way, and somewhat paraphrased, they are:

1.     When attempting to learn about another faith community, first listen to the community’s adherents, not the community’s enemies.

2.     Compare like with like.  Never compare your own community at its best with another community at its worst.   (Perhaps, for those of us who are inclined to be “ecumenical tourists”, we could also have “Faser’s Corollary to Stendahl’s Second Law”:  “Never compare your own community at its worst with another community at its best.”)

3.     Always leave room for “holy envy” (i.e., the feeling that there is something in the life of another faith community that you’d really want to see in your own).

For each of us, may we cultivate this “holy envy” in each of our lives and in the lives of our churches.

Grace and Peace,

The Rev. Dr. Bob Faser,

Liaison Officer.

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Constructive comments, from a diversity of viewpoints, are always welcome. I reserve the right to choose which comments will be printed. I'm happy to post opinions differing from mine. Courtesy, an ecumenical attitude, and a willingness to give your name always help. A sense of humour is a definite "plus", as well.