Goodbye to all that: 3. Office

1 Dec

I have been clearing out my office. So many trees have given their lives for my career! Yes, I am leaving my lovely office and I am sad about that. But it is not that sense of office that I am saying ‘goodbye’ to here. I am referring to the idea of a position of responsibility and leadership. This is the position I have held as an appointee of the Baptist Union of Victoria, to be one of the Professors in their college and, for the last 11 years, as Principal.

It has been a wonderful privilege and I do not regret it for one second, despite some occasional unpleasant things in the role or that have happened from time to time. I cannot begin to say how grateful I am to both colleagues and students, for all I have learned and have been allowed to share, in the journey of their lives and my own.

After an earlier post about ‘Goodbye to all that’, a Facebook friend asked me to say some of the things I will not miss. Here I will do that, but not before naming some of the things I will miss desperately, in the life of Whitley College and my life within this community.

I will miss the defining quality of the community as a Christian community of learning: its commitment to the Gospel and thus to a theology that relates Word and world. Fundamentally, this College engages with the world around us as God’s creation, and therefore a world to whom we are called, because ‘God so loved the world …’.

The practical implications of this commitment include serious reading of the Bible and critical engagement with the society in which we live, seeking to reflect theologically: asking where is God in this our situation and what is God doing, and therefore what should we be doing to join God in that mission and purpose.

I will miss teaching, though I really hope that I will be invited to do some teaching sometime in the near future. (On ethical grounds, I have said that I will not teach at Whitley unless and until my successor invites me to do so.) Teaching is so life-giving for me, and I just love participating in the growth and self-discovery that good theology enables for students and teacher alike. I know, for lots of people the study of theology has not been like that, and I am so sad about that.

I have also been greatly privileged to be deeply involved with the formation of ordination candidates, as they wrestle with the specific implications of their own vocation and relating it to the life of the churches in this rather troubled time. I have been part of the processes in which almost 200 pastors have been trained and ordained. One thing I am very pleased about in all this is that our ordinands are enabled and permitted to be themselves, most truly themselves, and not required to conform to some imagined ideal of the Baptist pastor. I will miss all this, including the fabulous ordination services.

Finally, I will miss my active engagement with the multicultural dimensions of Whitley College’s life. This is something of which we can all be deeply proud. We have been strongly committed to developing faculty members for other colleges in the Asia-Pacfic region, including several who have become Principal of such institutions. Here, too, our TransFormation Program has trained hundreds of leaders for the refugee communities in our church. Working with them is a very exciting and rewarding dimension of this role.

Having said all that, there are indeed some things I will not miss. Here I need to say something about the word office. Historically the churches of the radical protestant movement (led by Baptists) have rejected the idea of priests or pastors holding ‘office’—where this word has meant some kind of special authority and empowerment to do things other Christians cannot do. This idea means that a priest or pastor is ‘licensed’ by higher authorities to hold that office: and at times the ‘office’ is seen as distinct from the person, so that when he or she exercises this authority it is not really them, but the office that is operative. This (or more particularly the perversions arising from this kind of thinking) was one of the big things at stake in the ‘reformation’ of the church in the 16th and 17th centuries.

But while Baptists reject this kind of thinking, still we are placed in a position and then other mechanisms of power begin to operate. They can be all the more insidious and at times destructive precisely because we pretend they are not there. In fact they are political and all too often popularist factors, which can be helpful for a time but equally can work against genuine ministry, especially teaching and prophetic ministries.

I will not miss the often unspoken implications that the problems of Baptist churches are really the fault of the College, and if we could only get a different person to teach or lead there, all would be so much better. It may be said that this difficulty goes with the territory, and in some senses it does. But the facts are that church life as such is in deep malaise, that these factors have been some centuries in the making, and those of us who can see this and are trying to engage with these issues do not have any magic solutions to ‘fix’ this situation. It seems to be the case in all denominations, but perhaps the Baptists (with the current emphasis on being ‘autonomous’, in extremis) have an extra strong dose of this desire to blame the college—as if history and social context aren’t fundamental in shaping what happens and who we are. Sure, there are always things we could do better, but the kinds of challenges we face have been generations in the making and will take generations to work through.

This angst about the church arises from, and in some ways leads to, a new kind of narrowness, even sectarianism, that has been increasing in recent times. Perhaps it is an expression of an unacknowledged awareness that the church is in fact losing out, massively. I am so looking forward to a role which is more directly engaged with the ecumenical life of the Church. I will not miss this awful pretence that our group are the real Christians and we are defined by how we are different. I want to begin with how we hold the Faith in common, before discussing any supposed ‘distinctives’.

Again, along with this growing narrowness is the depressing feeling that we have made so little progress on the matter of gender equality in the Church. It is great that we have ordained women to be pastors, but so few have ever been invited to the ‘senior’ pastoral positions, and we still have a majority of our denominational leaders who speak and act as if a pastor is ‘he’. We do not model gender equality. We have gone backwards on gender inclusive language in many of our official events. These elements include a resurgence of emphasis on God as Father, without any balancing awareness of other ways of naming God.

Along with these aspects, I would add that I will not miss so many of the meetings I have had to attend, which in fact have not produced any outcome. For some time I have blogged about the importance and value of meetings: if they are led well and have a purpose. Achievements can be made out of a series of meetings, any one of which may seem not be getting anywhere. Nonetheless, there are meetings which seem never to achieve anything, and one wonders what really is the point.

So it is goodbye to some of these things, with deep regret, and to some others, with no regret. And from all this I can say very clearly what I am looking forward to. I am looking forward to deeper ecumenical engagement. I am looking forward to the opportunity to reflect and write theologically, including on the possibility of a ‘church after religion’. And I am looking forward to participating more directly in pastoral activities, preaching and working with a local church or two. These are my calling and always have been. It’s only goodbye to the specific expressions of them, along with a few of the unwelcome aspects of ‘office’.


One thought on “Goodbye to all that: 3. Office

  1. Thank you Frank for your words. Well said and you have my support for what you say and what you hope for your future. If you were to leave us – it would be an immense loss. Being a “retired pastor” I have found the years since full time pastoring (now 18 years) to be satisfying – and I hope helpful to churches and people. You will find the same as you have a great gift that not everyone has – EXPERIENCE! You have been a gift to us (BUV) and will continue to keep on giving. Now to really start living!

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