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Take a long view

Sermon preached by Rev Dr Ken Manley at the induction of Rev Keith Jobberns as National Ministries Director, Australian Baptist Ministries, Melbourne, 22 May 2012

1 Corinthians 3: 1-17

Introduction

To share in Keith’s induction is a pleasure and an honour. In any case, who could say ‘No’ to our smiling new National Ministries Director? Characteristically, Keith gave me a suggestion as to what I might say. Something about ‘how we got here’ – as Australian Baptists, I think he meant ­– and, as usual, I am doing (more or less!) what I was told! But let me first recall a famous prayer.

1.        A prayer: ‘take a long view’

The prayer is attributed, wrongly it would seem, to the martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero:

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.

The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.

No prayer fully expresses our faith.

No confession brings perfection.

No pastoral visit brings wholeness.

No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.

No set of goals and objectives includes everything…

Someone has spoken about ‘the societal disease of our time’ as short-term thinking. What the latest poll or focus group is saying, not what’s best for the country and our future determines much of our political action. That national obsession has also infected the church.

Good leaders take a long view. Of course, all of us often take the long view. We are educated. We have children. We take out insurance policies. We make wills. We imagine (unrealistically, I might add) what retirement will be like. We value museums and libraries (some of us, even value church archives!). Even our fairy stories take the long view: ‘and they lived happily ever after’.

This is not be used as an excuse for missing timely opportunities. Remember Eph 5: 16: ‘make the most of the time’ – although, sadly, the phrase ‘seize the day’ [carpe diem] is not in the Bible!

There is a balance to be sought and we can be overwhelmed by the immediate. Happily many see the virtue and necessity of taking a long view. Indeed, a 2010 report by Dr Peter Roderick for the Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development in the UK is called: ‘Taking the longer view: UK governance options for a finite planet’. Environmentalism is teaching us to think long term.

Yes, Baptists too are prone to the temptations of an age of instant gratification. We do not always opt for a longer view. Back to the poem:

This is what we are about.

We plant the seeds that one day will grow.

We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development.

We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.

 

2.        The Bible encourages us to ‘take a long view’

We might, for example, reflect on Genesis 29 and the story of how Jacob worked for seven years for the hand of his beloved Rachel only to be tricked by his father-in-law and obliged to take her sister Leah first and serve his father-in-law a total of fourteen years! Some former Theological College students who in previous years were obliged to endure long engagements will identify with at least a part of this story! Yet, as romantics among us will remember, the Bible tells us that the seven years ‘seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her’.

Treacherous brothers later sold Joseph, one of Jacob’s sons, into slavery. Years afterwards he was able to take a long view and made that grand assertion of providence: ‘It was not you who sent me here but God’ (Gen 45: 8).

We recall that is was said of Jesus, that ‘for the joy that was set before him (he) endured the cross, disregarding its shame’ (Heb 12:2). Remember Paul’s absolute affirmation about taking a long view: ‘We know that all things work together for good for those who love God’ (Rom 8:28). When times are tough, such a long view brings comfort and confidence in God.

The imagery of the prayer points to the parables about the Kingdom of God, such as in Matthew 13. ‘We plant the seeds that one day will grow …’ This is how it is in the realm of God. The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed that becomes a great bush that shelters birds and their nests. The kingdom is like yeast that is mixed into the flour and changes it into bread. To pursue the realm of God is to take the long view!

Our prayer also echoes 1 Cor 3:5-9. We are servants, farmers, builders.  ‘We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities’.

Isn’t this true of the long history of GIA which you are encouraging us to understand and appreciate Keith? ‘We are workers, not master builders, ministers, not messiahs, prophets of a future not our own’. Yes, the long view is liberating: last stanza.

 

3.        The history of the BUA: ‘a long view’

Now I want briefly to note successive stages in the story of the Baptist Union of Australia, looking for clues as to how we got here.

Stage 1: Hopes and Dreams (1885-1926)

As early as 1885 Silas Mead of South Australia was advocating a national Baptist body. He certainly promoted a national ‘foreign’ mission body long before the ABFM was formed in 1913. Inter-colonial delegates regularly visited annual assemblies and envisioned a national body.

What did they hope to achieve? They wanted standard ministerial requirements in all the colonies, a federal theological college, cooperation in home missions, a federal paper (the Australian Baptist did also start in 1913 amidst great expectations), a ministers’ retirement fund, an advisory board to help with pastoral settlements, and much more! Federation of the Commonwealth of Australia at the turn of the century and formation of the BWA in 1905 inspired locals to want an alliance here. A series of conferences and congresses (for a while including New Zealand) were held and impressive volumes of reports were published. But it was not until 1926 that the BUA was eventually formed.

Why had it taken so long? Martin Sutherland’s recent book about New Zealand Baptists is titled, Conflict and Connection. His theme is that whilst Baptists often struggled with each other and conflicts multiplied (he tells some dramatic stories!) there was also a consistent desire for connection. Similarly here, Baptist identity has been in part determined by both conflict and connection. Our conflicts included differences about church membership, theological attitudes to the Bible, and scepticism about the need for a national body.

Others, however, deplored what one described as an ‘arrogant and stupid isolation’. Was union possible? One despairing delegate complained that the interim body, the Federal Council, had degenerated into ‘an Australian Baptist Debating Society’. As the 1922 Congress was told, ‘The most important thing Baptists in Australia have to learn is that we shall never all think alike, or we should not be Baptists’. But after long and protracted negotiations, the Union was achieved.

Stage 2: Formation and excited optimism, some significant achievements (1926-75)

We can scarcely recapture the excitement and optimism when the Baptist Union of Australia was formally constituted at a special service in the Burton Street Church in Sydney on 25 August 1926. A special ‘Inaugural Hymn’ composed for the occasion by Fred Morris of Victoria was sung to the tune ‘Melita’ (most commonly associated with the hymn that prays ‘for those in peril on the sea’, not the most encouraging of associations):

Our fathers’ God! from sea to sea,

Foregathered in Thy name we meet,

To seal the bond of unity,

In solemn splendour at Thy feet;

Australia needs our witness yet –

That last command, can we forget? …

 

Bedewed with grace, from far and near,

From bushland and from city mart;

With purpose strong and vision clear

We come to play our sacred part; …

 

Sublime the task, we forward press,

Undaunted by the vast demand;

Bengali millions, too, shall bless

The Name we cherish in this land;

In unity our strength shall be,

Our All in All, O Lord, in Thee.

 

Australian Baptists felt that they had really arrived as a denomination. Officers were appointed, boards were constituted and the national body, a union of state unions, took its place among world Baptist bodies.

J A Packer, editor of the Australian Baptist,tried to summarise the differences between the states. South Australian Baptists were ‘of broad spiritual sympathies and cultivated habit of spiritual life … the temper of mind has been most radical. Open membership has been encouraged. The expression of religious faith has been more daring than elsewhere in Australia’. New South Wales by contrast had a ‘more Spurgeonic colour’ and was ‘more influenced by a stricter Baptist ancestry’. Victoria stood ‘midway between SA and NSW’. Baptists in WA and Queensland, because of isolation and detachment, had been largely left to their own spiritual resources whilst Tasmania would benefit significantly from a national body.

Rev Henry Clark perceptively prayed at the inaugural service, ‘We pray that we may have a more kindly and sympathetic understanding of each other’s views and convictions, remembering that truth is many-sided, and that we can only have a very incomplete and imperfect vision of the whole’.

Much was accomplished over the next fifty years, not least being the establishment of Baptist work in Canberra, and the beginnings of work among Aborigines in the 1950s. Baptists today can scarcely appreciate the range of activities and the size of some BUA enterprises, such as the production of Sunday School literature and numerous publications. Full-time evangelists were appointed, even if the first Australian Baptist federal evangelist was an American! Women’s, men’s and youth work were developed. Assemblies were held every three years and some of the leading Baptists from around the states served as ‘Presidents-General’ (to distinguish them from mere Presidents in each state): men like J H Goble, C J Tinsley, A J Waldock, W L Jarvis, G H Morling, G H Blackburn, G N Vose, F J Church, J D Williams, E G Gibson, and Tim Costello. The first woman was Gwyn Milne in 2003.

Yet there were always critics and doubters. John Paynter in 1929 thought the BUA was only ‘a conglomeration of incompatibles without fusion, cohesion or spiritual affinity’. S M Potter in 1936 commented that ‘our hopes had not been realised’ and that the Congresses ‘savoured of a mock parliament’ where state barriers still divided Baptists. J A Packer also asked in 1936: ‘Is our federation nearer than when we believed?’ In 1961 A C Prior made caustic comments about the BUA, regarding it as a ‘hybrid and a compromise’ with neither the true characteristics of a church or an association. ‘Its structure perpetuates some of the worst features of Australian colonial history and of distrust and disrespect that smell of our national convict origins’.

These rather jaundiced opinions devalue much that was accomplished. The major unifying forces among Australian Baptists had grown out of the original vision: the ABFM/ABMS/GIA; The Australian Baptist, a weekly paper for almost eight decades; Australian Baptist World Aid grew out of BUA initiatives. Along with Baptist Care these are the major national agencies among Australian Baptists today and all owe something to the impulse to federation that included the BUA.

Stage 3. From slow decline to virtual eclipse (1975 – 2012)

A bold initiative was to change from holding triennial Assemblies to Family Conventions, the first of which was at the Gold Coast in January 1975. Over a thousand participated when Canadian Bob Roxburgh spoke about ‘The Future Shape of the Church’. He criticised the rigidity of ‘the institutional church’ and urged Baptists to be open to renewal movements. Alan Prior, finishing as editor of the Australian Baptist and an old warhorse of many a Baptist assembly, was singularly unimpressed by the speaker’s ‘chaos of thinking’. Despite his earlier criticisms, he now regretted that so many young people had been brought into contact with the BUA only to be subjected to ‘a denigration of the structures and channels of service created over the years through faithful stewardship, wise organisation, and guided service’.

This tension between the generations announced the struggles that the BUA would now endure over several decades. The family conventions were more or less successful for several years in that they brought significant numbers of Baptists together not least for the Australian Bicentennial Assembly in Sydney in 1988. But something was lost. The ‘business’ of the Union was effectively relegated to a handful of dedicated individuals. This set the pattern for the future and led to the eventual demise of any larger national gathering. The last of these family conventions was at Hobart in 1997. Basil Brown had earlier suggested in 1987 that the BUA was thought by many Baptists to be  ‘some dim spectral figure lurking in the shadows’.

A loss of Baptist identity across the nation was as much the cause as the result of the failure of these national gatherings for Baptists. This is far from the whole truth of course. Much was and is still done together, but when awareness of the state Baptist Union in a local church is minimal it is scarcely a wonder that the BUA is virtually unknown. Does that matter? Perhaps what we have now is simply the latest reinvention of life among Australian Baptists and as long as the State leaders are able to meet from time to time and work together much good is done. Other movements such as ‘Hillsong’ now provide large national convention-style gatherings which attract many Baptists. So, what now is the BUA?

Certainly the national Baptist agencies benefit from their ongoing association in the BUA. Crossover’s success is because it is designed to support local churches in their mission. Important links with the BWA are maintained through the BUA. The ability to speak with a national voice on social issues, however, is fraught with tensions as the release of some recent statements on controversial themes reveals. ‘Who can speak for Australian Baptists?’ is a perennial if unanswerable question. Supporting multicultural ministries and the provision of insurance and financial services on a national basis remain significant aspects of what we still do together.

Sutherland has described the most recent decades in New Zealand as moving ‘from confidence to confusion’. The NZBU is more like a state Baptist Union in its size and work but he describes regular reviews and ‘restructures’, decentralisation and experiments with a bewildering range of leadership styles. It would be an impertinence for me to imply that the BUA or our state unions are confused but I guess that some confusion is inevitable in such a changing and dynamic time as ours.

Certainly we do not do as much together as we used to do. Have we lost by this? We do not know what others are doing as once we did. We used to have regular conferences of College principals and staff, sponsored by a BUA board. For some years past the only time I have met with other state leaders was at BWA gatherings in distant places! My own memories of triennial assemblies are filled with friendships formed across the states and of learning from gifted leaders with whom otherwise I had little contact. We sensed a national mission. Can we recapture anything of that wider fellowship in real life or are we obliged to do so by Facebook and other means where certain personality types seem to flourish?

Are state differences and misunderstandings being perpetuated in ways that diminish our corporate witness? Are political tensions between Canberra and the states being duplicated in our Baptist life? Are we open to fresh challenges from those with whom we may differ but with whom we share a commitment to the Baptist way of being church?  Beyond the privileged representative few who meet regularly – such as during this week – how much do Baptists know about our national work? We have no Australian Baptist (for reasons that I know only too well) and now within our states we are bombarded with what is little more than promotional literature. We have GIA, Baptist World Aid Australia and Crossover – thank God – but how can we foster a national vision that goes beyond promoting programs or raising funds?

Perhaps this is scarcely calculated to excite Keith. But it does serve to underline the strategic nature of his task. The BUA is to be congratulated on appointing one of our most respected and able former missionaries and pastors to this role. Keith’s qualities as a servant leader, a strategic thinker and a sensitive team leader have been shown through his time at GIA. But at GIA Keith was clearly a CEO and this will now be different!

We must not minimize the importance and value of facilitating regular meetings and cooperative ventures across all states. You will bring necessary administrative skills to this task. But Keith is not to be simply an efficient functionary which I suspect is a particular hazard in the rather isolated office you have accepted and the structures you have inherited. You and we look for more. The long view calls for a visionary perspective, an ability to read ‘the signs of the times’.

The long view backwards leads us to honour many who have served faithfully in their own days in ways that were meaningful and blessed. We need to realise that the context of our living and our mission has changed and is changing. We pray that you will help us take a long view. Australian Baptists, along with all Christians, need a spirituality to match these remarkable days. We ask of you to do nothing else than to walk with us into what Christopher Fry famously called ‘an exploration into God’. Be assured of our prayers and support as you accept these challenges.

Take a long view. Look backwards to see where we have been. Look forward to embrace the work of the Kingdom.  Martin Luther knew about taking a long view.

It is not we who can sustain the church, nor was it those who came before us, or will it be those who come after us. It was, and is, and will be, the one who says, ‘I am with you always, even to the end of time’. As it says in Hebrews 13, ‘Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today and forever’. And in Revelation 1, ‘Who was, and is, and is to come’. Truly he is that one, and no one else is, or ever can be.

For you and I were not alive thousands of years ago, yet the church was sustained without us – and it was done by the one of whom it says, ‘Who was’, and ‘yesterday’ … the church would perish before our very eyes and we along with it (as we daily prove), were it not for that other Man who so obviously holds the church and us. This we can lay hold of and feel, even though we are reluctant to believe it. We must give ourselves to the one of whom it is said, ‘Who is’ and ‘Today’.

Again, we can do nothing to sustain the church when we are dead. But he will do it, of whom it is said ‘Who is to come’ and ‘Forever’.

Hear the last stanza of the Romero prayer:

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.

This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.

It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.

We are prophets of a future not our own.

 

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Rev Dr Ken Manley is Distinguished Professor of Church History and former Principal of Whitley College, Melbourne, and Vice President of the Baptist World Alliance (2000-2005).

Categories: sermons

Rod Benson

Theologian, researcher, teacher, writer, foodie, husband, dad. Works at Moore Theological College.

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