SOME OF MY STORY - REFLECTIONS ON MINISTRY

[For "Forty Years On" and "Fifty Years On" Edited by Norman Marshall]

David Beswick, June 1992, updated June 2003

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[Note: a new edition including updates for the past ten years to 2003, "Fifty Years On", is being brought out by Norman Marshall. My contribution is in the form on an addition at the end of what was written in 1992 with some reflections upon it in the light of later experience.]

1992 reflections

The photograph of the Queen's College Theological Students, 1953, stands on a bookcase near my study door. My sense of identity is reaffirmed when I look at it from time to time, but it also brings back floods of memory that run in confused directions with mixed emotions. I know that my life would not make much sense without the sense of call with which I began at Queen's and the commission received at my ordination in 1962. I hold a high doctrine of ordination and could not have survived without it. At the same time the faces I see in the photograph remind me of the terrible losses the church has suffered since those happy and, for me, immensely rewarding days.

When I came to Queen's after a year of preparation in a quiet country district of Tasmania I was an innocent abroad with a simple faith and no great confidence in my ability to do well in the course of study. I had a clear sense that God had something particular for me to do, but I had no idea what kind of ministry it might be. Within a few months my whole world changed. I discovered the life of the mind and knew that I had potential in that area far beyond what I or any others had imagined although it was quite a few years before first class honours results confirmed that understanding. I was excited by the prospect of combining a life of faith and service in the church with the contribution to human well being and effective work in the church that might be made from modern scientific study of human behaviour, so I took an honours degree in psychology combined with the normal pass degree in philosophy etc. that the theological faculty required because they would not let me concentrate in psychology in the normal way.

That was the beginning of a time of tension between obedience to my own sense of call and submission to the discipline of the church. At the same time I was part of a group which studied contemporary theology more or less privately, reading books that were not taught at all in class and caching up with the frontier of current debate through discussion groups and mutual encouragement. The fellowship of College life was ideal for such development in those days, and it was natural that I should look to extending my studies. When some of us told Alan Walker we were not satisfied with our theological education he said, `Sell your boot laces to go overseas.' So after being a tutor in the Psychology Department and completing a masters degree in 1958 my wife Joan and I left for America on a Fulbright scholarship to Harvard. I went with the blessing of the church and remained active in the church but where my future lay in terms of employment was by no means clear.

The step from Melbourne to Harvard was almost as big as that from Tasmania to Melbourne, not so much in terms of academic standards, in which respect I was fairly well prepared, but in breadth of vision and range of stimulus. Yet while that was an enormously enriching experience and I combined psychology with some work in the divinity school and normal local church activities I became increasing uneasy that I could be moving too far from the ministry to which I was called. My senior professor, Gordon Allport, had written on a copy of his book `The Individual and his Religion' when he gave it to me, `with best wishes for the integration', but the appealing prospect of bridging the gap between church and university seemed too difficult and the balance needed to be redressed. Then I had one of those very personal experience of a definite call to come back, and wrote to the President of the Conference asking for an appointment. I came back before completing my PhD thesis and went to Geelong as an assistant to Stan Weeks wondering what I had done and why I was there.

Learning about ministry at Geelong was very good for a year or so. After ordination we went to Mornington with our little family growing, a fairly good circuit I suppose which soon had a second ordained minister. While there I completed my thesis and was active in the life of the Conference, even becoming convener of the Faith and Order Committee and very much involved in debates on Church Union and matters affecting the nature of the ordained ministry. Mornington was good in many ways and I served there happily for four years, but it seemed not to fulfil something within me. It lacked a sense of outreach and relevance to contemporary society. I was disillusioned too by the infighting in the Conference on what I believed were issues of the past, and I was impatient to break down barriers between the sacred and the secular. Not that I was sold on the `The Secular City' and `Honest to God', etc., and I published some criticism of that way of thinking, but I did think of myself as a radical concerned to explore new ways of ministry. So, again with the blessing of the church I returned to academic life, `in an approved appointment', as a lecturer in psychology at ANU.

It would be tiresome in this context to recount the progress of an academic career, teaching, researching, publishing, becoming a professor and director of a research centre at Melbourne and building it up into one of the top few centres of its kind in the world. I still felt all through those more than twenty years that I was exploring an alternative form of ministry. In the early years I was pleased that students used to come to talk with me more because they knew I was a minister than because I was a psychologist and I liked assisting as a minister in the local church. I remember one day in Canberra seeing one of my students and the dean of my faculty coming down the aisle in the same group to receive communion and I thought I could not be too far from `the integration'. I was pleased to contribute to national policy and university affairs on educational matters where the interests of the less advantaged in our society could be protected and improved. It was good also to be able to do work for Presbytery and Synod as a member of PRC or convener of the Strategy Committee and to prepare a special report on ministers without settlement. I did miss regular preaching and sacramental ministry although I willingly took opportunities to lead worship.

At one stage I even had an honorary settlement looking after a relatively small parish while employed full time as a professor - the tent making ministry had great appeal - but it was more than I could manage. Both in that ministry and in other ways, the tension of conflicting loyalties at times became too great for me, and yet it seemed to me wrong that it should be so, because I really believed that it should be possible to bridge the gap in a way that would be mutually beneficial. It seemed to me to be an institutional problem, the result of historical and cultural circumstances, but that there was no inherent conflict in combining church ministry and university service any more than there was between theology and science. But I think I was deceived in part by my own desires and I am not sure now what I should have done. I do think it was reasonable to try, to venture out and explore alternatives. The point was reached, however, when I simply had to return to something closer to the mainstream and so I took early retirement from the University at the age of 55 and sought a full time settlement.

These last few years as Presbytery Minister in Gippsland have been very rewarding, especially in being of service to fellow ministers. It is a great privilege and I wonder sometimes how it could have been entrusted to me. I am very grateful too for the support and companionship of my wife, Joan. She has not found my wandering ways easy, but has always been loyal and helpful. In these latter years my own personal devotional life and quiet study have become increasingly important and conflict with other requirements, especially the amount of car travel, in serving the Presbytery. Current trends in the Uniting Church departing from the Basis of Union worry me, but I have much for which to be thankful and I hope for continuing service in ministry.

Update 2003

The past decade has been the best of times and the worst of times in my experience of ministry and in my personal life. Continuing for a few more years in Gippsland as pastor to the Uniting Church ministers of that region was a very satisfying ministry, if somewhat challenging at times, and I left it reluctantly on account of the effects of the unavoidably extensive car travel on my arthritic spine. During those years I was active in Synod and Assembly affairs with a moderate level of leadership at the state and national levels of the Church organisation. I became increasingly isolated and alienated from the official leadership which seemed to have fallen into the trap of seeking to advance the mission of the Church by conforming to the demands of contemporary society, trying to be more modern than the moderns, without seeing how authoritarian and regressive progressive ideology had become. Then before retiring I had a few more years in parish ministry at Templestowe, returning as it were to the coal face, among people with whom it was a pleasure to work, but at a time when much of the excitement and passion of faith commitment had dissipated and church membership was obviously ageing. In one sense it was the best of times, being engaged "in the real work", but it was probably the hardest job I had in forty years: parish ministry had changed immensely since my early experience of it. Out of it also came a new interest.

I had been interested in computers for many years, since I first used an early IBM mainframe in Cambridge Mass in 1959 and later at Canberra in the sixties and seventies using the facilities of the CSIRO Computing Research Centre while at ANU. After only a few weeks at Templestowe I began to produce a written version of the sermon each week in response to requests for copies and a surprising number were taken regularly from the table in the narthex; these were archived and I decided to develop a resource of sermons and worship material for each Sunday of the three year cycle of the Revised Common Lectionary. Towards the end of my time I began to publish sermons and worship resources on my own web site. Further revision were made and new material was added over the following six years as a retirement project and some thousands of people from over sixty countries around the world made use of these resources. As most were preachers some elements of my work reached many more people through the Internet than I ever reached in preaching from the pulpit. The web site also became a constant source of interest in the email it generates with enquiries on matter of faith and other topics.

Personally the past decade has been the best and the worst with the death of my wife and constantly loyal and loving companion of many years, Joan, and then my subsequent marriage to Hazel, a friend especially of Joan from the time spent studying in the US and the widow of my old college friend Ron Williams who by strange coincidence happens to be standing next to me in that photo of the students of 1953 that I took as my starting point in 1992. I was greatly blessed while still grieving; and that peculiar combination of emotions is still with me, indeed I doubt that it will ever disappear. So God has been good to me. I have learned more of his grace from my personal experience in these later years than I would ever have known from abstract knowledge. Strangely, now that I am almost out of it altogether I feel better equipped personally for pastoral ministry than at any other time.

Retirement has been good. I have kept busy in diverse activities including occasional preaching and some interim ministry appointments (twice in the presbytery minister role and also in continuing education for ministers and in a parish). The web site has been a constant demand. In addition, I have returned to the University in an honorary capacity to continue research I began more than forty years ago on the sense of wonder, curiosity and the broader field of intrinsic motivation which has applications in education, management, science and arts as well as worship and spiritual exploration. There is some prospect in what I write now of moving towards the integration of diverse fields which I had discussed with Allport at Harvard so long ago but had since eluded me.

Through all of this there has been an overwhelming sadness at the loss of the vision of a renewed catholic and apostolic church moving towards visible unity and effectiveness in mission, breaking through the barriers of modern society and reaching all sorts of people, which had been my inspiration and the hope of many who took part in the formation of the Uniting Church. In 1999 I wrote in a piece for Joy Pain: Belonging in the Uniting Church, edited by Hugh McGinlay:-

Some of our hopes were being fulfilled. The role of elders and the presbytery, were definite improvements, as were the greater pastoral skills of recently trained ministers. The increased emphasis on the sacraments was very welcome, but the degree of freedom in forms of worship was not matched by the ability of ministers to create their own liturgies, while the quality of preaching had declined. Better lay leadership at all levels was beneficial, but ordained ministers lacked assurance in their essential tasks and I became concerned with the amount of stress to which ministers were subject. The presence of women as colleagues in ministry was a great improvement. Sadly, there was an intrusion of a secular ideology which had grown out of the cultural revolution of the sixties without the faith commitment and theological depth which had guided the work for union in that period. It had a damaging impact on the church at the 1991 Assembly when the commitments to catholicity in the Basis of Union were abandoned, and from about that time I wrote a good deal in defence of the Basis against pressure to conform to the dominant culture.

The attempt to appeal to the modern mind with an outdated leftist ideology presented as the gospel has been a disaster. Around 1990 many congregations were growing and we had more candidates for ordination than we could easily place. Under the tenure of those who think of themselves as progressive there have been massive losses and we now have scarcely as many candidates as there are staff in the Theological Hall. Sectarian sentiment has gained greater strength than I would ever have imagined as sectional interests and personal ideological preferences have been pursued in the church at the expense of the welfare of the body as a whole. I had thought fifty years ago that the old struggle between liberalism and fundamentalism was a thing of the past and now I have seen it revived in more divisive and destructive terms than ever before. It is very sad, and strangely I have found it necessary to make common cause with people I would never have seen as allies in order to help save a little of what really matters for future generations - so the old one time radical has come to look like a conservative to those who think such labels still mean something. But I am not without hope. There are now a number of very capable young theologians, both men and women, who are quite different in their thinking from those of us who began the journey fifty years ago, but they are able to see through, understand, and move beyond the confusing conformity of an intermediate generation who were so deeply misled by the cultural revolution. It has been a privilege to study contemporary theology with some of them. At the same time I have been impressed by the quality of congregational life and ministry which I have found in many places as I have moved around the church in the past few years. So I see some practical basis for hope that better days are ahead in a renewed if greatly weakened church. I have always believed, in spite of the gloom in these best and worst of times, that God is still with us and will raise up his people again. [Later addition, not included in the Norman Marshall collection:- By late 2003 I have had to revise my view in this regard and believe in the light of Assembly 2003 that, while we do not know how God will judge the Uniting Church and that renewal is always possible, we must see that it is at least possible that God has given up on this branch of the church catholic, that it might aleady have been cut from the vine, although it will take a long time to wither completely and die. DB October 2003.]

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