THE THIRD COMMON DREAMS CONFERENCE, CANBERRA, SEPTEMBER 2013
MIDWIVES OF CHANGE: PROGRESSIVES SHAPING RELIGIOUS COMMUNITIES
An Overview by Ros Chittleborough
BIRTHING SOME CHALLENGING THOUGHTS AND QUESTIONS
For me the conference was stimulating and rich with progressive principles which made it a deeply worthwhile experience. There was a feeling of cohesiveness, of having a common focus. It seemed that we were all on the same path; seeking truth and meaning within our own communities; seeking to live authentic lives; questioning with integrity. Of course, within this large group of over 400 conference attendees, there was diversity of thought which became apparent during the talks and then question time. And this sparked more ideas and added interest to the discussion.
The Speakers were excellent. They presented a smorgasbord of ideas, wisdom and challenging thoughts. This is the reason that my main focus will be on a few of them and some of their ideas. This will be just a taste, chosen by me, a layperson, from my personal notes, written during lectures, workshops and Q&A times. You will have an opportunity to find your own highlights when the conference talks are posted on the internet in about a month. Val Webb’s is already “up there”.
What is Progressive Christianity?
It is a Christian movement characterised by a willingness to question tradition, by an acceptance of Christian diversity, by a strong emphasis on social justice by standing up for the oppressed and the marginalised and by a commitment to environmental stewardship of the Earth.
Bob Douglas1 clarified the differences between Progressives and Conservatives in his recent report of the Common Dreams Conference in the Canberra Times.
He wrote that Progressives prefer to say that Jesus was a real man on a mission to transform human society into a better world. His teachings, when understood in their context, spell out the personal characteristics that we should all seek to cultivate, to help reach that end.
By contrast, he wrote that conventional theology can be summarised in shorthand by the statement that “Jesus was God in the flesh and he died as the price for all our sins so that we could go on to heaven after our earthly death.”
Here are some of the significant thoughts arising from the conference
- About God
- Val Webb2said that God is “not out there” as an interventionist being but is a presence, or personal conscience, the Sacred, the Divine Creativity from within the Universe. “God” is life, “God” is love.
- For Marcus Borg3 “God” is grounded in the whole Universe.
- Glynn Cardy4 named G.O.D as Sacred, not as a being.
- Bruce Sanguin5said, pursue “God” with intellectual integrity, honesty and critical reflection. He talked of the “Kin-dom” of God, “God, the originating mystery involved in the adventure of being”.
- About Jesus
- Marcus Borg talked of Jesus being about life rather than about the after-life. Resurrection is radical transformation in this life. Salvation is in this life. “The cross is not about Jesus doing it for us so that we can be forgiven, but is an invitation to participate in the path and passion we see in Jesus.”
- Val Webb encouraged us to “find ethical ways to live like Jesus with justice and kindness.”
- Lorraine Parkinson6 talked about Constantine and the alliance between Jesus Christ and the Roman Empire in the 4th Century AD. She said that we need to turn back to Jesus of Nazareth.
- Nigel Leaves7 saw Jesus as a wisdom teacher, prophetic teacher, an inclusive, religious figure.
- About Jesus
- About the Bible
- Marcus Borg urged us to put ancient texts in ancient contexts and bring texts alive for today. A metaphorical interpretation of the Bible is about meaning, not factual reports. There is no conflict between religion and science.
- Val Webb – “Go to the Bible and hark back to the past for retrieval and renewal.”
- Nigel Leaves – “It is important to be biblically responsible and intellectually honest.”
- Margaret Mayman8 encouraged us to not just brush some parts of scripture away if they seem irredeemable. Rather, read, interpret and bring an ethical lens to them.
I believe that a general perception from the conference was of the need to carefully consider the traditions we value but to create new songs, liturgies and prayers through a lens that reflects life and thought in the 21st century. Here are some more impressions along those lines.
- About our Tradition (some examples of what to keep or adapt)
- Val Webb talked about Creeds that were declared and then set in concrete. This has dampened creative thought. Our living traditions lend themselves to a wide range of interpretation.
- Lorraine Parkinson provided us with some examples of creative, progressive thought. For those who find the 4th Century AD Nicene Creed difficult, she has written The Jesus Creed, based on The Beatitudes. She has written The Beatitudes in a modern context too.
- Rex A. E. Hunt9 has rewritten and created many liturgies for use in services and celebrations and you will find these on his website. He presented a workshop on some of these.
- Steven Ogden10 – “Look at old things with new eyes.”
- Bruce Sanguin reminded us of the power of the parable.
- About Prayer
- Glynn Cardydiscussed prayer in many non-theistic ways. God is not a “behind-the-scenes fixer.” Prayer can be self-talk and together-talk. Sometimes no words are needed. Learn to be silent, attentive and mindful. The focus can sometimes be on a candle, on something of beauty or a work of art. Discern the actions to be taken. Hold people or the situation in Love. Prayer is living the vision. This conflicts with the vision of a God of power.
- About Power
- Steven Ogden was concerned about the power that is used to establish norms which then become encoded in society and into our heads. A misuse of power relies on compliance. A misuse of power can be seen in sovereign power, hierarchical power and patriarchal power; and also through managerial behaviour and bullying. Power should be about mutual accountability. Resistance, truth-telling and social critique are clues for a Christian Theology of Freedom. Freedom finds its voice in justice and compassion.
- Glynn Cardy talked about the power of mutual love and justice rather than the power of domination and control. The latter is founded on fear.
- About Progressive Christianity and the future
- Where are we going?
- Bruce Sanguin urged us to “Put the progress back in Progressive Christianity.” His important theme now, for the church and for the future of the planet is Evolutionary and Ecological Christianity. Live with joy, radical amazement and positive thinking. Believe in the enduring power of love.
- Val Webb talked about the progressive future as a way of life rather than a set of beliefs. A question was asked of her. “Have we failed the next generation and the next? So many do not go to church and therefore will not be carrying Christianity forward into the future? She said “No”. She passed on the view of one young woman. “You have not failed us. You have taught us how to think and have given us freedom”. Her advice to grandparents was to tell their grandchildren about Jesus as a good man and to impart to them a passionate love of nature. “Tell them the history of our world through stories of the great book of nature.” Children are the future custodians of our sacred planet Earth.
- Nigel Leaves – Go into the future, “inspired by the possibility that one’s head and one’s heart can be equal partners in faith”. “Radical truth-telling is part of the job prescription for those going into the future. Be biblically responsible, intellectually honest, emotionally satisfied and socially significant.”
- Where are we going?
- Go out to the Market Place of Ideas to seek the common good, not to convert, said Margaret Mayman. She talked about Public Theology but approach this with humility. Immerse ourselves in society, in other faiths. She reminded us of Martin Luther King. The Christian story shaped his political influence and brought forth the 1964 Civil Rights Act. His speech, “I have a dream” was powerful theology – all people are created equal. To bring about political change, one must name the evil.
- Stand up for the marginalised said Nigel Leaves. He believes in Gay Marriage because that’s what the Gospel of Jesus demands of us.
- Go out and march, urged Glynn Cardy. It’s the issue that’s important and joining together, standing together.
- Change language, change discourse, said Steven Ogden10 .
- Create slogans. Val Webb, with a wry smile, suggested, “Christians without Borders”. She came up with another one, “Progressives are Seekers of the Sacred.”
- Join the group, “A Progressive Christian Voice” (Australia) which stands in contrast to The Australian Christian Lobby.
- Sign a petition, said our Minister, Jana, waving around a paper as she stood on a chair near the book sale area. We signed, to challenge the Government on issues such as lack of female ministers in Cabinet, refugees, gender equality, racism, gay issues, climate change …
- Read books on Progressive Christianity. Join Progressive Christianity discussion groups. Discuss and plan social justice action.
- How can we be in community together?
- Nigel Leaves – People need a sense of belonging. Community was central to early worship, practices, celebrating life and creating an alternative world. We need a place that is socially satisfying and socially significant, a place where we have the confidence to ask questions. He said that true faith is a roller coaster of exploration and doubts.
- Margaret Mayman believes that we need celebrations – resistance to evil is joy – ritualise and celebrate all that is good and life-giving – dance at the rituals – “Life is worth the labour.”
- Bruce Sanguin would like to see us create communities of compassion and love. “Drop into awe and wonder. Bring forth hope and positivity and take it to the world with joy. Be mindful and intentional. The “Kin-dom” of God” occurs in the self, in the institution, in evolution. It evolves in all domains. Be a movement of social justice and peace.”
- Along with Marcus Borg we can be a part of the Jesus Movement, a movement that can set us free and enable us to flourish.
And so, this is My Dream: to be a part of a community of compassion and love, joy and celebration. I have not come away from the conference wearing rose-tinted glasses. And in fact, I would have appreciated more “spiritual” input of poetry and gentle meditation to “feed the soul”. I would have liked more emphasis on the contemplative, on the “Divine Mystery”, on ways “to intuit a deeper wisdom”. But, back to “My Dream of Community”; I know what difficulties there can be within communities. We are, after all, human. But, with Jesus of Nazareth as our guide, we can at least walk this path of compassion and love together.
Ros Chittleborough is Chair of Pilgrim Pathways, Pilgrim Uniting Church, Adelaide and a Committee Member of the Progressive Christianity Network S.A.
- Bob Douglas, Report of the Common Dreams Conference, Canberra Times, September 25, 2013.
- Dr Val Webb, has a PhD in theology; holds a graduate degree in science. An Australian living in USA.
- Professor Marcus Borg, Canon Theologian, Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Portland, Oregan, USA
- Rev Glynn Cardy, recently called to The Community of St Luke (Presbyterian), Auckland, NZ.
- Rev Bruce Sanguin, a minister of The United Church of Canada.
- Rev Dr Lorraine Parkinson, retired UCA minister, formerly part-time chaplain with city ministries.
- Rev Dr Nigel Leaves, the Canon of St John’s Anglican Cathedral, Brisbane.
- Rev Dr Margaret Mayman, minister at St Andrew’s on The Terrace, Wellington, NZ.
- Rev Rex AE Hunt, retired UCA minister, Founder & Life Member, Network of Biblical Storytellers.
- Rev Dr Stephen Ogden, Principal, St Francis Anglican Theological College Brisbane, Australia.