A calling for all God's people
The Uniting Church affirms that every member of the Church is engaged to confess the faith of Christ crucified and to be his faithful servant. It acknowledges with thanksgiving that the one Spirit has endowed the members of Christ's Church with a diversity of gifts, and that there is no gift without its corresponding service: all ministries have a part in the ministry of Christ. - Uniting Church Basis of Union, paragraph 13
It has been part of the identity of the Uniting Church from the very beginning to celebrate the participation of every person in God’s mission and ministry in the world.
Revisiting this foundational aspect of our Church was the focus of the second President’s Conference which took place from 29 April – 2 May.
More than 50 people gathered in person at U-City, a venue of Uniting Communities in the heart of Adelaide. It was a joy for people to finally gather after the Conference was postponed last year due to COVID-19 and instead a series of webinars opened up reflection on the theme Called By God.
Over three and a half days the conference weaved together worship, theological reflection, panel conversations, and deep personal sharing.
In the opening Bible study, Rev Dr Ockert Meyer, Lecturer in Preaching, Worship and Theology at United Theological College in Sydney, posed a broad vision of God’s call as that which encompasses and shapes the whole of life and is responded to with the whole of life.
"What's being said [in the Biblical text] is that vocation is not only about what you should do, it's about who you should be.”
“We tend to understand it as the tasks, the profession, the activities we are commissioned or think we are commissioned to do, but vocation always begins with who I am. It begins with who we are. Calling is never simply about a task, profession, activity. It is about identity."
The shape of the conference sought to reflect how discerning this identity leads in many directions – into models of life, to vocations that marry personal gifts with places of need, to the pursuit of justice, into public advocacy, and on unexpected pathways.
“The call of God is wide and great … you will hear it in the midst of many things”, said Rev Dr Stephen Robinson, National Disaster Recovery Officer for the Uniting Church, as he spoke about the call to be present in the experience of crisis and trauma.
“And I see it as a very dynamic process.”
A key aspect of the vision for the conference was to affirm the many contexts for God’s call, which meant reflecting on the intersection of discipleship and daily life.
In the Uniting Church, discernment is the task of both individuals and communities.
“A key assumption for me in the Christian life in terms of discernment of call, is that it’s a corporate activity,” said Rev Dr Alistair Macrae. Discernment of call is then outworked in many directions.
A panel conversation between Dr Joanna Palmer, Rhanee Tsetsakos, and Emma Dubrich explored the shape of discipleship in their professional vocations and work in their communities. Another, with Rev Peter Morel, Rev Radhika Sukumar-White, Rev Adrian Sukumar-White, Rev Jesse Size, and Rev Charissa Suli, explored living the call of God through specified ministries.
A joyful showcase highlighted creative ministries as the gathering was joined by those whose discipleship is expressed in art, music, poetry and theatre.
A conversation with Ian Milne, Kate Tretheway, and Dr Sureka Goringe recognised how God’s call can lead to surprising vocations we did not anticipate.
“Following God’s call might not be so much about finding the right road God has marked out but taking every next step in faith and in obedience, motivated by love for other people,” said Dr Sureka Goringe, National Director of UnitingWorld.
“So we make that road by walking and trusting God that God will put us somewhere where we can be useful.”
Other sessions explored how the church itself is called to be a witness and presence in the world.
Dr Catherine Pepper and Pastor Mark Kickett explored the ongoing relevance of Our Vision For A Just Australia, a collaborative document released ahead of the 2019 Federal election that articulates the vision of the Uniting Church for a just, compassionate and inclusive nation.
The conversation focussed on two commitments of the Uniting Church: care for creation, climate and environment; and reconciliation and covenant with First Peoples.
Catherine spoke about how a vision for environmental justice involves decentring humans in creation and reimaging our relationship to God and to the world. “The Triune God invites us into the ongoing work of creation and incarnation.”
The conference was also joined by Jordan Sumner, Sean Weetra-Newchurch, and elder Uncle Clyde Rigney, from the Raukkan community in South Australia. This panel articulated the call of the church and nation to seek reconciliation as a priority.
“This is a celebration of who we are – called by God,” said Uncle Clyde. “In Australia, that call is about facing history. We’ve got a history, a shared history, and we’ve got to face it if we’re going to have a shared future.”
The final Bible study of the Conference, given by Dr Victoria Lorrimar, reminded the gathering that part of the church’s call is to the practice of Christian hope. “Hoping is not incongruous with lament. It is about understanding the future in the light of Christ.”
Conference participants noted the rich and generative personal story sharing which was the content of much of the program.
“I am excited to be hearing the diversity of ways that God makes God’s self known to individuals and communities. I think it’s great that God works in a myriad of ways for a diversity of people,” said Rev Radhika Sukumar-White.
“A highlight for me has been hearing other people’s stories, and how one event in their life has led to another”, said Rev Anne Hewitt. “It’s not that we are all moving to a known end goal, but we actually travel the journey. So, our life is really an Emmaus journey.”
Worship and a reaffirmation of baptism marked the end of the conference, reminding participants of their commissioning for discipleship and identity in belonging to God.
In a closing sermon, President Dr Deidre Palmer reflected on all that had been shared.
“We are called, like those first disciples, to respond to the radical call of Jesus on our lives – to be part of a movement of the Holy Spirit.”
“We are all called to be part of the reconciling and renewing work of Christ. We are all invited to participate in God’s mission of love, justice, peace and abundance.”