Moderator's Comments - Posted 23 July 2017
10.00am, forty years ago, the words of Psalm 118 rang out in Scots’ Church Sydney: ‘This is the day the LORD has made; we will rejoice and be glad in it.’
Today, Friday 23rd June 2017 – it’s forty years to the day when the Presbyterian Church of Australia was refreshed. And, it’s fair to ask: What became of that bold decision to remain as a Presbyterian church? What distinctives of the Christian faith do we offer? What does PCA stand for?
Permit this man’s reminiscing … through the eyes of a Catholic Father, liberal theologians, an African pastor and an Orthodox Priest.
Picture a school hall of secondary students listening to a ‘religion in life’ program cobbled together by the town’s clergy. Frustrated by this seminar of limp ‘do-goodism’ in the name of the Christian Church, this newly ordained Presbyterian minister took to the microphone and spoke about the gospel of salvation and new life in Jesus Christ. For ten minutes I was able to communicate freely with over 200 teens about Christ, the Cross and the offer of new life. Staff choked, other church leaders of town disowned me and hung their heads, BUT the Roman Catholic Father glowed. This young Catholic priest propelled himself to me with the warmest handshake, and with urgency said: ‘thank you for that – you Presbyterians get to the heart of the matter – you speak of Christ and a crucified Saviour.’
Ever studied with the Philistines? In order to grow in my faith, I took my Masters degree at an ‘outside’ theological institution – outside of my presbyterian/reformed comfort zone. During a collegial weekend away, I was shocked at the ridicule given to anything or anyone of evangelical persuasion. Being the sole evangelical among 70, I maintained my cover until the denigration of the Scriptures forced me out. I blew it with an outburst of evangelical indignation declaring the church’s long-held conviction of the inspiration, unity and reliability of the Old and New Testaments. I didn’t dare use the other “i” word (inerrant) for fear of being expelled, but I managed to add that even Jesus trusted and quoted from Scripture. Then it came, with a chorus of agreeing murmurs and nodding heads from what seemed like the whole enclave of smirking liberal theologians: ‘Yes I was Presbyterian once, that was my kindergarten faith, but we gave up all that bibliolatry when we started reading.’
Malawi is a wonderful place to visit as a Christian – because the Christian church is a vital and well-accepted part of society. To see streets thronging with people walking to church on Sunday mornings is normal. To have a Christian church, medical centre and school in every village is taken for granted. But what are PCA visitors known for? We’re loved because we boost the morale of prisoners, we supply grain in famine, and we build school buildings and orphan-care facilities. And all of that is a wonderful blessing. I worked alongside one of our African pastors in Blantyre: encouraging him in the Word, preaching to his congregation, teaching at his village school and speaking at his mid-week evening home groups. Recently, I received an email from him pleading with me to return. I expected to read that his congregation was starving, the roof of the church had blown away or that his computer ink cartridges had run dry. But all he said was: ‘John, you people from the PCA know how to preach grace – we need to hear more of your message on the grace of Christ here – our people don’t really get it.’
Mixed-faith and multi-church forums are not on my list of favourite things. But we were sharing our views with MPs recently – our concerns about proposed legislation for assisted suicide and euthanasia. Round the table we went … view after view from this mixed group of churches and other religious faiths. I gave what I thought was a brief but barely adequate defense of our view of the sanctity of life and how that our view of God and creation forbids us to support any form of assisted dying legislation. The two Orthodox priests (I forget which orthodox traditions) were the first to warmly embrace me afterwards with grateful thanks for my contribution. One priest said: ‘You Presbyterians, you know what you believe in, and you say it.’
Qn. What does a Catholic Father, liberal theologian, African pastor and Orthodox Priest have in common?
Ans. They each, in their own way, shed light on what the PCA stands for and what we’ve been refreshed in for the past forty years:
- the heart of what PCA is about is Christ and Christ crucified;
- the foundation for PCA is an unswerving commitment to the inspiration, unity and reliability of the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments;
- the best offer PCA makes is that of grace – the message that by the mercy of God hope is extended, and that we are saved by grace, alone;
- the consistency of what we believe and teach in the PCA is because we are held accountable to the doctrine set out in the Confession of Faith.
- Jesus Christ
- confession of faith
PCA stands for more than this, of course, and these four points emerge anecdotally from my own experiences. Nevertheless, this might be a good starting point for discussion in your session and congregation. What do you see as the strengths of PCA?
Let’s use this 40th anniversary creatively. Let’s use it to ask some key questions of ourselves. Eg What became of that bold decision to remain as a Presbyterian church in 1977? Pray that we’ll do better – much better.
Finally, I’m pleased to commend to you a very excellent book written by Paul Cooper and David Burke and published to coincide with this anniversary:
Eider Books is a family publishing group (not for profit) – you may look on the website to see what else they have published.
Burning or Bushed is a great read, and worthy of wide distribution.
[please take this to be the July edition of the M-G’s pastoral letter, published early to make the most of the occasion]
John P Wilson