All of This Is Us:
2023 President's Conference, 26-29 July, Redcliffe
August 2, 2023
By Bethany Broadstock
People from across the Uniting Church gathered for four inspiring days last week at Redcliffe Uniting Church on Gubbi Gubbi land in Queensland for the 2023 President’s Conference.
Hosted by Rev Sharon Hollis, the conference created two communities, first gathering around 60 Uniting Church ministers from Wednesday to Friday before opening to the wider Church for dinner on Friday night and a packed Saturday program.
“Nowhere does Paul say that those hard things we face won’t be hard. But they do not have the final word. The final word is God’s whose love cannot be defeated.”
In opening worship on Wednesday morning, President Rev Sharon Hollis preached a powerful sermon on the hope and promise of God’s enduring love and presence, drawing on Romans 8:26-39 and her own experience of grief.
“Who will separate us from the love of God? No one, and nothing. In challenge, in vulnerability, in grief and in uncertainty, we know the company of the Spirit who groans with us in our pain. We know the love of our community which holds us and urges us to keep going. We know the risen Christ whose love bridges all things.”
“Nowhere does Paul say that those hard things we face won’t be hard. But they do not have the final word. The final word is God’s, whose love cannot be defeated.”
The President drew on insights of the National Church Life Survey to introduce the theme for the first part of the conference, ‘Ministry in Precarious Times’, seeking to name the fragility and challenge currently felt by many in ministry roles.
“What I want to do with this conference is not to dwell on these statistics,” said Rev Sharon Hollis, “but to spend time learning, reflecting on how we live with this precariousness, exploring how we find hope in this time and what practices and beliefs might strengthen us together.”
Speaking in a pre-recorded video, UK Anglican priest Rev Canon Dr Rachel Mann invited those gathered to lean into the vulnerability of love as the body of Christ so we might “do the work of loving and holding fast” in a weary world.
“Our bodies hold all of our stories. Our scars and wounds, our triumphs and our joys. It opens us to the possibility of blessing and shows the signs of violence we do to each other. It is a place of puncturing. We are punctured and pierced, as God is punctured and pierced.”
“Yet we are members of one body, sojourners on a fragile earth. Let us dare to want to be God’s body, God’s skin, ready to be pierced for the sake of the world. Ready to be an open border for grace. Let us bless one another. Let us touch heaven and let us be touched by heaven in the ordinary, stooped to earth in God’s new creation.”
Two keynotes from Uniting Church minister and scholar Rev Dr Cathie Lambert opened reflection on how we might lean on prayer and one another in uncertain times, drawing on the wisdom of the thirteenth century Beguine mystics – the subject of her doctoral research.
Instead of taking particular vows, the Beguines lived together in houses and communities of lay women. They were faithful to their call, despite a precarious existence due to both their gender and the suspicion of the institutional church. At various times the movement was suppressed and some women were killed, including Marguerite Porete, who was burnt at the stake in 1310 for heresy.
Cathie shared an experience she had while on retreat during her PhD when she felt the nearness of the women she had been studying, despite centuries in between, as she invited those gathered to “catch the courage” of the Beguines in our own precarious and vulnerable moment.
“Sitting in silence by an open fire, I watched the flames dance. In silence I pondered the lives of Hadewijch, Mechthild and Marguerite. I was reminded of the numerous strong and courageous women who have gone before me.”
“Captured by the warmth and intensity of the fire, I sensed an invitation from Marguerite, “Come, be courageous with me!”
Three panel conversations over two days gave participants insights into different areas and experiences of ministry – multicultural ministry, the work of formation, supervision and education, and ministry in non-congregational settings. Small group conversations each day were opportunities to share, pray, listen and support one another.
The first part of the conference closed on Friday afternoon with Communion led by Rev Sharon Hollis, drawing on words by American Lutheran scholar and wonderful liturgist Gail Ramshaw.
We pray for your Holy Spirit,
your breath, your fire, your wisdom,
who burns the truth into our lives,
Nourish us with the body and blood of Christ,
inspire your people for service,
lead us into wisdom and knowledge,
And renew the world with your mercy,
with your healing, your justice, and your peace,
that we might persevere in hope…
Some departed while others arrived for the second part of the conference, open to the whole Church and forming a new community around the theme, ‘All of This is Us’.
On Saturday morning Wakka Wakka woman and Aboriginal Christian leader Brooke Prentis preached on the parable of the Good Samaritan and love of neighbour, posing the challenge that we are only ‘all of us’ as First and Second Peoples together.
“Jesus said to love your neighbour as yourself. Have you ever actually asked yourself, who is my Aboriginal neighbour?”
“We are your neighbour and you are our neighbour. We are your first and oldest neighbours. Aboriginal peoples are part of God’s story and we always have been.”
Brooke invited people to reflect on an Aboriginal map of these lands now called Australia, reflecting 300 nations and more than 600 languages.
“Will you allow yourself to listen deeply to a picture that is thousands of years old and continues today? Which tells the story of the oldest living cultures? Those whom God placed here? Will you allow yourself to be unsettled by the great unsettler, Jesus?
“May the Uniting Church lead the way so we can truly call to our nation, all of this is us.”
Rev Sharon Hollis recorded three conversations across the day which will soon be available on her podcast Dwelling, the first with Brooke, discussing the upcoming referendum on the Voice to Parliament.
“The referendum is a once in a generation event,” said Brooke.
“My hope is for people to be armed with good information. I invite people to read the Uluru Statement from the Heart. It is the base information needed for the referendum and to understand the Voice.”
“There are some who believe the asks and invitations of the Statement from the Heart are new, but those calls for Voice, Treaty, Truth go back decades. And we have dreamed of an Australia built on truth, justice, love and hope for much longer.”
Uniting Church minister and theologian Rev Dr Sally Douglas gave two keynote presentations drawing on her book, The Church as Salt: Becoming the Community Jesus Speaks About, reflecting on the kind of disciples and communities Jesus is calling us to be in a time of ferment and change.
“As we seek faithful ways to be the church today, I would argue that it’s loving God and loving neighbour that is at the centre. Not the numbers, not the success, not the programs, not the cultural messaging of ‘big is best’. Like salt, it’s the little. It’s little work.”
“I suspect that one of the reasons (the focus of) our programs, our numbers, our outcomes have become so attractive is because they’re tangible while much of the work of discipleship is hidden and unnoticed. Yet those unnoticed things are the heart of it all.”
The President led a conversation with Pastor Sam McDonell, Coordinator of UnitingCare Queensland’s Connect100 program which is working to strengthen connections between Uniting Church congregations and UnitingCare across the state.
The gathering welcomed Rob Floyd and Jacqui Simpson from Frontier Services, Mardi Lumsden from UnitingWorld and Rev Lindsay Cullen from the Assembly Resourcing Unit for a final panel on the work of the Uniting Church Assembly. The President closed the final day of the Conference with prayer and reflection.
See a gallery of photos taken below, and posts from Day 1, Day 2 and 3, and the final day on our Facebook page.