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Uniting for the Common Good

Doug Taylor is the Director for Strategic Engagement and a lay preacher in his local Uniting Church congregation. In this series of blogs he reflects on the call for the church to be people of the common good and what this means for the church’s future mission?

During the mid-1990’s I worked as an outreach worker in a small church based charity in the inner city of Sydney. At the same time I would spend every spare moment in the Mitchell Library in Sydney working on an Honours Thesis. This thesis researched the series of conventions in the 1890s’s, that lead up to the creation of the Australian Federation and the decision to name this new nation ‘The Commonwealth of Australia.’ I discovered the rich meaning of the Common Good which is at the heart of Australia’s new name.

Writing this thesis was a juxtaposing experience, for by day I would be faced with harrowing stories of homelessness and addiction and by night I would read about our founding fathers hopes for the people of this new nation. These hopes were best captured in the idea of the Common Good which would have seen somewhat utopian given that they were in the middle of the 1890’s depression. Despite this they hoped for a better future and in fact for the first few decades of our nation’s history we really were the ‘social laboratory’ of the world with radical reforms that are a given today such as working conditions, social welfare and electoral laws.

In recent years the Synod of NSW & ACT has developed a mission of ‘Uniting for the Common Good.’ As someone who has studied the history and application of the term, I think it’s a prophetic decision. It insightfully captures the essence of the Uniting Churches purpose and place in the Australian community. However I wonder if we have really stopped to think what it means to be people of the Common Good and what this means for the church’s future mission? We can too easily adopt new language, without understanding its rich meaning and the challenges and opportunities it might also present.

Over time the idea of the individual working for the common welfare of the community was encapsulated in the ‘common weal’ (of the 14th Century) and later became subsumed by the word ‘commonwealth’ which was increasingly becoming used to describe nation states and ultimately the new nation ‘The Commonwealth of Australia.’

In my thesis I discovered that the origin of the term is found in the ancient Greek words Symphero (‘to gather’, ‘to be of use’, ‘to unite’) and koinos (‘the common, mutual, and public’). St Paul used these words in describing a vision of the Early Church that works for the good of the whole when he wrote ‘Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.’ (1 Corinthians 12:7). Early church fathers developed the idea further, John Chrysostom (c. 347–407), once wrote: “This is the rule of most perfect Christianity, it’s most exact definition, its highest point, and namely, the seeking of the common good . . . for nothing can so make a person an imitator of Christ as caring for his neighbors.” Over time the idea of the individual working for the common welfare of the community was encapsulated in the ‘common weal’ (of the 14th Century) and later became subsumed by the word ‘commonwealth’ which was increasingly becoming used to describe nation states and ultimately the new nation ‘The Commonwealth of Australia.’

I argued in my thesis that Sir Henry Parkes and Sir Alfred Deakin, the greatest proponents of this new name, saw in the idea of the Common Good an idealistic vision of this new nation and something that would unify the diverse strands of the Australian people; liberal and conservative, communitarian and individualism as well as the idealist and pragmatist. In using this word there really was a desire to create a nation that would be inclusive, a ‘broad church’ at least for those times. It sounds a lot like the desire of the founders of the Uniting Church in 1977. More specifically the Common Good was there at the outset of the Uniting Church in Australia through the Basis of Union but especially through Statement to the Nation as seen in the closing words ‘We pledge ourselves to hope and work for a nation whose goals are not guided by self-interest alone, but by concern for the welfare of all persons everywhere — the family of the One God — the God made known in Jesus of Nazareth the One who gave His life for others.’

The notion of the Common Good clearly has great resonance with the people of the Uniting Church and is particularly evident in the nature of church’s commitment to social concern and community services. But how will the churches commitment to the Common Good be manifest into the future? Every generation of church leaders is required to interpret biblical teaching for their own time in history taking into account the churches place in the community and broader social and economic changes.

This is precisely the questions a group of representatives from Uniting Church NSW & ACT Synod, Presbytery and Agencies, such as Uniting, set for ourselves in a forum in February 2015. The Workshop was facilitated by Dr Robert Burke from Futureware, a Futurist consultancy and identified a number of themes, outlined fully in Appendix 1. At this Futures Forum many of our church leaders saw the essence of the churches future best encapsulated in Christ’s Parables in Mathew that calls us to be the ‘yeast, salt and light.’ Of course, each is transformative in its own way. The salt preserves, agitates and adds taste; light leads and yeast transforms the bread. This isn’t new to many parts of our church but it will become necessary and not an optional extra. This forum’s conclusion and our call to be ‘Uniting for the Common Good’ has got me thinking about some strategies that will be critically important for our church in the future. These four strategies will be the feature of my next blog.

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