12th Assembly 2009

Church can do more to quench nation's spiritual thirst, says new President

In his first address as President of the Uniting Church, the Rev. Alistair Macrae has drawn on biblical and human images of water, thirst and dry land to call on the church to reinvigorate its mission.

He said Christians were rightly in the forefront of providing for people’s physical needs. But Australians’ thirst for meaning, for the giving and receiving of love, went largely unrequited.

Mr Macrae was preaching following his installation as President during the opening service of the church’s 12th national Assembly, meeting at the University of New South Wales July 15-21 under the theme “Living Water, Thirsty Land”.

Noting how pollution and over-consumption had come to characterise the industrialised-world, he said the church should develop a new appreciation for the gift of water and its own vocation of stewardship of the earth.

The church was challenged, he said, to express the universal, all-encompassing love, grace and mercy of God and to share the gospel with creativity and joy.

Mr Macrae said, “There is a significant spiritual thirst among many of our neighbours in this land. Consumerist capitalism, the dominant ideology, doesn’t yield on its promises.” Claims that the church was the repository of “living water” or the dispenser of it had also been revealed as hollow.

Mr Macrae asked, “Are we going to contribute the unique insights of the Christian faith to movements to sustain the earth, to protect the living water, the air, the soil, the trees and the creatures of earth, sea and sky?”

He said, “It is becoming clear that the industrialised world’s collective failure to regulate pollution and curb gross over-consumption has put millions of the world’s most vulnerable people at increased risk of hunger, thirst, flooding, and disease.

“We cannot claim to care for the poor while complicit in the destruction of the most basic resources our neighbours need for survival. ‘Love for neighbour’ — a plank in our Lord’s great commandment — and care for the environment in which our neighbour lives cannot be separated.”

He said the scriptures did not directly address the benefits of coal vs nuclear vs solar power, or carbon taxes vs carbon markets. But they did indicate clear priorities for Christians that should frame and guide the debate.

“With any legislation, policy, or personal behaviour we should ask: Does this further our God-given mandate to ‘serve and preserve’ God’s creation? And, how do our decisions affect the world’s most vulnerable people?

“Decisions as basic as what we wear, what we eat, how we travel, how much and what type of power we use are becoming key questions for Christian disciples. If it costs more to purchase non-sweatshop garments, or install solar panels, or that water recycling system, without sounding banal, put that down to the cost of discipleship.”

Regarding the Uniting Church’s claims to be a multicultural church, Mr Macrae said, “We could give much better witness to Christ’s reconciling love by being more cross-cultural in how we live as church. Too often we remain, by and large, isolated in our ethnicities, more like a federation, a network of interconnected communities.

“This falls far short of what God calls us to be. When the New Testament talks about unity it is not about bureaucratic arrangements — it’s organic. It’s why we talk in terms of covenant in the church, not contract — it’s relational.”

Foreshadowing an Assembly debate on attempts make the preamble to the church’s Constitution a stepping stone for practical reconciliation, Mr Macrae said he hoped the Assembly could agree on some way to tell the truth about the relationship between Australia’s first and subsequent peoples.

“We like to say of ourselves that we are an Australian church. Let’s find ways, many ways to put substance into that claim by naming some truth and by renewing our efforts to build a fair and just society in partnership with our indigenous brothers and sisters. Let’s set the bar a bit higher for this nation, for other churches and most of all, ourselves.”

He asked, “Can we exorcise our demonic preoccupation with survival and risk losing everything for the sake of the gospel, the pearl of great price? Can we cease being anxious about so many things and concentrate on the one thing needful? To call thirsty people to drink, bathe, wash and play in the living water poured out for all in and through Jesus Christ?”

Mr Macrae concluded with the spreading of water as an image for the mission of the church — “casting the good news around — the living water who is Jesus Christ — releasing the fragrance of God’s glorious grace, mercy, justice and joy.”

View the photo gallery of the installation