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Recapturing a lost ethos ::

Craig Tucker dips into the archives and unearths the wisdom of his Presbyterian forebears. Maybe there are some good lessons for today…
Source: Perspective Vo8 No1 © Pearl Beach Press 2000

Normally reviews are written on recently published books. But I’ve just been pawing back through a very old book, and found it a fascinating read. However, I must warn you, this is more a spray on my reflections from the book, than a recommendation to buy it and read it. In 1950, C A White, a Presbyterian minister, published “The Challenge Of The Years”, a history of the Presbyterian Church of Australia from the first white settlers until 1950. Okay, it’s not scintillating reading from cover to cover – it’s a history book. But I found it fascinating. Fascinating, because my 19th century forebears were so very different to so many Presbyterians today. For starters, my forefathers were church planters. They had to be, there weren’t lots of established parishes to go to! But more to the point, towns and cities were springing up everywhere without any gospel work.

These days, we talk about church planting as something new and exotic, and even un-Presbyterian. It’s often said that our structures work against it. Yet, even a glance at our history shows that pioneering church planting was part of our heritage. Our forefathers were innovators. The seaside suburb of Manly is a great example, and I cite it because I grew up there.. Almost as soon as the church was established, the minister began meetings all the way up the peninsula, in the neighbouring suburbs of Harbord, Dee Why, and Narrabeen. They met in homes. They rented school halls. They held church, not on the Sabbath, but mid-week. They used the church buildings of other groups on a Saturday. In their era, they scandalized other denominations with their willingness to be flexible. They established churches, but not to expand their own empire. They recruited young men from Britain, carved those pieces off their parish and delighted to see them grow. Often as the colony expanded these newer works dwarfed the churches that sponsored them. There were dreadful problems, nasty fights, even places where congregation and minister parted company – the problems that often come with growth and change. But most of all, my Presbyterian forefathers were risk takers.

Men came from Scotland with no idea of what lay ahead of them. The difficulties of climate and travelling great distance must have been formidable. They went to towns with no established church, perhaps a hand full of contacts, and set to work. Not all their risks paid off – sometimes a church-planter would labour in a town for years with no result, and then move to another town and see great fruit. Reading between the lines, much of that was lost in the 20th century. No doubt the rise of liberalism was a factor. There was a clear change from “advancing the kingdom” to a focus on religion and liturgy. But perhaps even more, there was a shift even in theologically conservative circles – to put up the walls, and protect the empire that had been established from an increasingly secular society.

Risk taking pioneers were replaced with museum curators – leaders simply intent of preserving what they had. Change became the enemy. Of course, the kingdom doesn’t work that way – when you stop growing and changing, you begin to die. Somehow, we modern-day Presbyterians have lost something that was once at the heart of who we are. Some things are different about our times. We live in a post Christian era. The gospel is more foreign than it used to be. We live in a post-church era. In some parts of Sydney the Presbyterian population is 0.1%. You can’t start a new work by putting up a building and inviting all the Presbyterians to come!

Our demographics are changing, our major cities continue to grow as our rural cities shrink – and yet increasingly, our cities are the places where people are not being reached with the gospel. But the most disturbing change is not societal – it’s in us. We are no longer risk takers and pioneers. We put our energy into propping up old structures and ways of doing things that have ceased long ago to be useful. It would make our forefathers shake their heads.

In particular, there seems something very un-Presbyterian in the ethos of our training. We seem to produce leaders who for all their doctrinal purity, simply keep the status quo, maintain the ministry that is already running (or preside over its gradual decline), never rock the boat, and never think outside the square. In the light of our history, nothing could be more unlike the faith of our forefathers.

Craig Tucker is pastor of Drummoyne Presbyterian Church

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