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Australian president seeks truth at the margins

By Ruth Sandiford Phelan

The president of the Uniting Church in Australia considers himself deeply privileged to have been present at the Methodist Conference during the discussion of ordination of gay and lesbian people.

Rev Dr Dean Drayton was inducted as president four months ago. He came to the New Zealand conference in great part to explore the role of Te Taha Maori and how the partnership between Maori and Tauiwi works.

“I am so fortunate to see how another model works,” Dean says. “Out of strong disagreement came a future. It was amazing that I came to see this partnership and was present when it was really put into operation.”

His observation has persuaded him his church needs to learn about caucusing and he reflects on the way Conference listened to the voices of the numerically smaller groups such as Te Taha Maori and the Pacific Island bodies.

“It’s affirmed something I learned working in mission – that you don’t go to the centres of power to hear the voice of God but to the margins.

“That is where the future is being born. I think it’s at the edges that the Spirit of God speaks much louder.”

Dean believes that at the heart of the sexuality debate in the Methodist and Uniting Churches is a question that is at the heart of many debates within the church: “What is the nature of truth?”

“When I think about that I wonder if the revelation of truth is in what we bear witness to or is the truth expressed primarily in the unity of the church. In other words should we stand by our version of what we think is right in the face of all other views, or should we work towards keeping ourselves together in the best way possible?

“Here a forward-moving decision came at one point because the Evangelical Network agreed to disagree – for the sake of the unity of the church. It was remarkable. It makes me wonder about the Uniting Church and how far diversity goes before truth is betrayed.”

Deans says the sexuality debate has loomed large in his presidency so far.

“Sexuality is always a difficult issue and we live in a climate of fear. People are often nervous of deep questions about change and have a desire to retreat.

“The church has already spoken against so many things and sexuality is the new symbol for everything else. We are still grappling with how Scripture is read.”

Dean’s particular area of interest is mission and evangelism. He thinks 9/11 clearly presented the Christian church with a stark choice. We can choose to see Muslims as the face of evil or that God is at work in the midst of Islam.

“To know the best about a faith one should look at the best exponents of it, not the worst. And I have seen there is a hunger for peace and deep humanity at the heart of all major religions.

“So we can affirm other faiths and also not back away from Jesus Christ. In a sense we are in the same place as the people of the early church. There were a number of voices speaking out there but not everyone could actually hear what was being said.

“We see this in the story of Jesus and the woman at the well. The woman’s voice was generally not heard in society but Jesus knew her story and entrusted her with being the first evangelist. Her voice became important, very important.”