What is our story? We are frontier people who surge to the front. We go where others will not go, with energy and vision. We will not be defined by loss of comfort or lack of faith. We are a people who show belief by stepping into the unknown. We don’t look the applause or titles of people, but the security of God. We are people who serve and bend down. We don’t judge – we invite. We are resourceful. We are equal yet different. We know that Good News overcomes darkness. We live out a story that has continued for two thousand years and continues to invite new people into new chapters – for the sake of the world.
Story is too often interpreted as fantasy or sub-factual explanation. We apply this to fairy-tales and novels at our detriment. Think of a great novel and beneath the story lie layers of analysis, understanding and reflection. Think of a simple childhood fairy-tale and therein lie cultural values and moral-ethical application (for good or bad). Think even of a simple nursery rhyme and within is (an often melancholy) understanding. We should value story more. Where creeds and statements end, a story brings colour and possibility. Story is the best method that cultures have found to explain depth and self-understand what they are.
Andrew Menzies, Principal
A seemingly insignificant event occurs, being registered in the testimony of a few who have experienced by this event, an impetus for engaging new possibilities, decisions and commitments. Perhaps initiated by a singular decision and precariously testimonial in expression, such an event might appear to rest on nothing. Yet within the responses of a few, courageous decisions and creative iterations multiply testimonial encounters.
This is the minimalism of Churches of Christ origins: eventful as testimonial, revitalising the Christian venture of faith working through love, without needing to navigate definitive traditions or hierarchies; elusive too in spirit, analogous to the wind.
How then do we interpret and engage with fidelity what is minimal after first and subsequent impetuses? How are first events (an extended preaching picnic, a last will and testament, a tribunal and ministry termination) represented without solidifying eventfulness within time? Where do we orientate focus within the seeming insignificance of our inaugurating events and diverse iterations of testimonial imperative? What in these events can be present today and invoked in newness tomorrow?
Within the continuing eventfulness of our identity there is for us only one correlative reality—Christological focus expressed through generosity and veracity. This was the singular eventful focus from the beginning.
Stephen Curkpatrick, Lecturer and Academic Dean
Over the past nine to ten years, I have had the joy (and frustration) of representing Churches of Christ in Australia in an International Dialogue between the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the Roman Catholic Church. The focus of dialogue has been the Lord’s Supper (or Eucharist, in more Catholic language).
It seems to me that the experience of dialogue is, at heart, a thoroughly Churches of Christ thing, particularly with this focus. We think we know what we think, but we are at our best when we lay open our thinking to the scrutiny and interrogation of others. In the intellectual exercise of explaining, sometimes defending, and in turn interrogating and seeking deeper understanding, intellect and emotion are forced to journey together along a winding, fascinating road.
It is a journey that is best taken with others, including ‘others’ – those who do not necessarily agree with everything we think and practice, even as we do not necessarily agree with all they think and practise. On the journey, we celebrate the heart of our mutual belonging in the broad and colourful family of God: a family that we all agree is nurtured most fully around the table over which Christ presides, to which all are invited and from which all are sent in love and compassion for the good of the world. We also grieve together: for the rifts in our communion that fail to witness to the reconciling love of God and the gaps in each of our community’s ability to present Christ to a hurting world. Dialogue forces us to face these gaps and rifts and to stay on an often painful path towards living more fully Christ-like life.
Merryl Blair, Lecturer in Hebrew Bible
Vignettes: Part of the Vine
In the beginning (in Melbourne, at least) there were four evangelists each of whom was named ‘the first evangelist’ in Victorian Churches of Christ. Pioneering new frontiers matters in Churches of Christ, and one story eclipses another in the historical record. Our Enlightenment inheritance pushes us to sort out the conundrum of which of the four was really first. But like the four evangelists of the New Testament Gospels they offer us four perspectives on identity.
James Webb went on the road as a poor itinerant preacher in 1866, baptising in the creeks of the Victorian goldfields and the Torrens River (now Karrawirra Parri) at Hindmarsh. Migrating to California, this British-born man was remembered at Federation as an Australian evangelist (on Indigenous land). Identity is caught up in land and empire.
Henry Earl, the great showman evangelist, travelled from America and hired the biggest hall in Melbourne in 1863. He preached on ‘Treasures in Heaven and How Laid Up’, selling anti-materialism to a population possessed by gold-fever.
Thomas Milner was a Scottish publisher who sailed to the ‘golden colony’ in 1862. His work here ‘consisted as well in righting what was wrong as in preaching the gospel’. Orthodoxy and Puritanism had a long reach.
Isaac Mermelstein, a converted Polish Jew, became a full-time evangelist in 1861. Zealous, argumentative, and convinced of the Spirit’s leading, he was celebrated at first. Those same traits saw him disowned: vanished from our story. History is lost, and found when we have ears to hear.
Kerrie Handasyde, Lecturer in Early Church History (linked publication: Pioneering Leadership)
Along the road...
The risk of history is the temptation to maintain things exactly ‘as they were,’ while failing to acknowledge that time and culture have shifted. For the church, this leads to increasing disconnection from the prevailing culture, eventual irrelevance and demise. But we must risk doing history, because historical understanding will influence our present and future.
As well as shaping group identity and passing on learned wisdom, history promotes belonging as our own stories intertwine with greater, collective stories, especially when there is a family connection. In the church, this translates into a high sense of ownership and involvement by those who have a family history within the community.
These connections and sense of belonging can be a strength. But what about the new arrival? Or the outsider? Intrinsic bonds carried within history and relationships may become a barrier to community cohesion, blocking newcomers from grafting into collective identity. The church is the gathering of all of God’s people.
History is our story of how we arrived at our present location. While it can narrate our values, it is only ever the story of the journey thus far: we have never finally arrived. Will we stop on the side of the road and gaze fondly backwards as the world moves on? Or will we set off to explore what lies ahead, secure enough in our identity to embrace the changing scenery as we go?
Belinda Waterhouse, Director of Operations; Tutor in New Testament
Living within the story of God
There are many layers of stories that exist in each of our lives. Stories of childhood, family, friends, milestones, faith, church life, and vocation. Coming from an Anglican background to a local Church of Christ in the early 1990’s was a life changing experience in many ways. There is such diversity within the Churches of Christ as there is in many other churches. The current church I worship in has women in ministry positions, ‘lay people’ who lead worship and serve communion, a real sense of the priesthood of all believers and, importantly for me, an open table where all people are invited to share in God’s goodness and blessing.
Attending a local Church of Christ was, for me, a real shift in church culture. But I wonder if this remarkable movement of the people of God still reflects those things that first appealed to me: are we a meaningful presence in society and people’s lives? This central question shapes our movement: are we a church for all people, a people who can move within our respective communities with grace, compassion, respect for others and the love and witness of the spirit of God?
Each person and church have their own history and story to tell. But these stories do not make us who we are. Instead, our stories serve a greater reality. They are a way into the Mystery revealed in Jesus Christ, but they are not the Mystery. We live within a much bigger divine and wonderful story of love.
Glynnis Hearn, Chaplain
Who are we? This question is not about stockpiling ammunition for threatened self-assertion. It is about the gentle and joyous discovery of family—the gift of a place, a people and a purpose; the bounded freedom given to one another in the dignity of love. With a Christological origin point, we discover and grow together into all we can be, finding optimum conditions in which to bloom into full colour. Every church of Christ family is shaped as we shape our responses to one another.
How did we end up here? Was it by accident or mistake, folly or fate? By fearful response to a divine imposition carrying heavy injunctions? No. We find ourselves here by gift, and the gift is given freely, inviting our intentional response. As stewards of all we have received, we serve Christ’s beloved—every unique person who exists. After all, gifts are always best when shared.
Where to now? Is there a hidden path, surrounded by ditches and thorns, edged by danger, that must be discovered at the peril of a descending doom? Or is this a journey of courageous blossoming and growth? Given all the tools we need, our creativity is now evoked in using hearts, minds, soul and strength to forge together our presence in a world created by love, for love—in one whose loving footsteps all our feet will fit within.
Sarah Backholer, Tutor in Theology
Speaking To Be Heard
Words are inseparable from Christian proclamation. Yet as time and culture changes, so does language. Christians are responsible for renewing language so that the gospel is spoken to be heard and precipitates ongoing witness.
Our present language and understanding of faith can find much inspiration in words of the past. But language is also littered with expressions in various states of obscurity or incomprehension. This can lead to confusion and avoidance: old language requires critical interpretation to wrench it into the present.
Speaking to be heard entails flexibility in the way we use language, where imagination is not anathema to truth. As speakers without authority to circumscribe or prescribe God’s truth, our fumbling with words to express faith exhibits vulnerability and encourages trust in God.
Restoration occurs on the frontier of language. Disentangled from centuries of orthodox, formulaic accumulation, restoration seeks the imminent Word of Christ in its indigenous sufficiency and dynamism. Apostolic origins inspire creative, courageous speaking that is animated by an efficacious Spirit.
We are challenged to offer clear, disentangled words in service to God, that a renewing word might be heard in the everyday, speaking to be heard with intimacy and vulnerability.
Sam Curkpatrick, Curator of the Hindmarsh Research Centre; Tutor in Theology