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Streams of thought mingle at Uniting Congregations’ Forum

By Paul Titus

A lively abstract painting of two South Island rivers viewed from on high had pride of place at the sixth biennial Forum of the Uniting Congregations of Aotearoa New Zealand (UCANZ). Lorraine Reid’s painting was the ideal icon for the three-day Forum, which was held in Dunedin last month and had the theme of Braided Rivers.

In the soft natural light that streamed through large windows of the St Andrew Street Church of Christ the 100 people who attended the Forum from throughout the country worshipped together, listened to presentations, held discussions, and conducted business. UCANZ executive officer John Jones says Forum is an opportunity for Uniting Congregations (formally known as Cooperative Ventures) to celebrate, organize, and share the visual expression of the Ppartner denominations worshipping and witnessing together.

“At the Forum we share the experiences of the widely diverse ways congregations and regional committees are working together and we renew visions of moving beyond the local actions of uniting as congregations to a more comprehensive understanding of unity within the Body of Christ in Aotearoa.”

Outgoing UCANZ chairperson Rev Ray Coats headed the arrangements committee that put together the Forum. Worship leaders were Rev David Brown, who ministers at the St Andrew Street Church of Christ, and Rev Geraldine Coats, who is minister at Alexandra-Clyde-Lauder Union Parish.

Delegates were assigned to discussion groups in which they pondered ideas raised during presentations. Among them was a joint presentation by Christian World Service and the Churches Agency on Social Issues, after which groups discussed their congregations’ outreach work.

Keynote speaker Rev Dr Kevin Ward gave a lecture on each day of the Forum. Kevin is dean of studies and senior lecturer at the School of Ministry, Knox College, Dunedin and associate lecture in theology at the University of Otago. His PhD thesis is on the impact of social and cultural changes since the 1960s on the church in NZ.

His three lectures were linked and explored how Christians are redefining themselves and their mission in the contemporary world. His first lecture discussed the ‘post-modern’ nature of contemporary society and how it has affected people’s attitudes toward religion. His second lecture asked what beliefs and practices remain at the core of Christianity. And his third lectures explored what it means to be church in a post-denominational era.

Leaders of the five partner churches – Presbyterian, Methodist, Anglican, Church of Christ, and Congregational – addressed the Forum about their vision of ecumenism. Methodist ex-president Ron Malpass discussed the increasingly multi-ethnic nature of the church and the challenges this presents.

Anglican bishop Rt Rev Dr David Cole said he expects leaders of the five partner churches to meet more frequently. However, with a new ecumenical body taking shape to replace the Christian Conference of Aotearoa NZ (CCANZ), they will become part of a broader ecumenical movement.

Presbyterian moderator Rt Rev Garry Marquand said the new ecumenical movement differs from its predecessor. The old ecumenical movement was top-down, led by clergy, and theology-driven. The new ecumenical movement is bottom-up, often led by lay people, and driven by pragmatics.

Garry expects the Forum to begin to “disentangle” itself from its parent churches and gain a better sense of having control of its own destiny.

One of the key points raised in the business section of Forurm was that all Uniting Congregations should make sure they have their property’s trust deeds in hand.

Along with the serious ‘head’ stuff there was also a drama presentation and Rev Dr Sarah Mitchell led a musical workshop in which she led delegates in some of her favourite hymns. In keeping with the host city’s Scottish heritage, there was also a haggis ceremony that saw Forum delegates David Dittmer, Raoy Hotter, and Tony Bell take the roles of bearer of the haggis, bearer of the whisky, and swordsman.