Geoff Boyce, Pilgrim’s Chaplain at Large, is our guest contributor to Messages of Hope. I wonder what you think Pilgrim is known for, what its reputation is among other churches, and within the wider community? And what is the word or phrase that first comes to mind if I were to say the words, ‘Pilgrim Uniting Church’, to you?
During my time as Chaplain at Flinders University I quickly found out about attitudes to the chaplain, and to the Churches, and religion in general. The vast majority were politely disinterested or suspicious. A few were antagonistic – ‘there is no place for religion in a secular university – we didn’t invite you – we don’t need you’.
Of course, the Christian turf wars, the cultural battle for students’ hearts and minds, did not help – particularly between religious conservatives and the more open, and theologically progressive. But the other 99% of the university couldn’t have cared less! Histories of complicity of the churches in colonial violence and genocides, rumours, then current, of corruption and sexual abuse perpetrated by trusted church leaders, and the unexamined hubris and sense of entitlement by some church leaders, made the pastoral role of the chaplain within the university well-nigh impossible.
All that began to change as the university began to internationalise in the late 90’s. Money from overseas students gave the university a financial source to prop up its research sector as successive governments slashed university funding. A senior manager commented to me, ‘Meeting the needs of local students is easy – beer and sports. But overseas students bring their faith with them’. Suddenly we were needed!
I discovered that without embracing the outsider – whatever religion, creed, colour or race – we slowly die. We die in comfort, yes, but not in joy. We are trapped in our own bubble.
This pandemic period of radical disruption from routine gives us an opportunity to re-assess along with the rest of the community. For us – what does Pilgrim stand for? And how free do we feel to say to anyone in the public sphere – ‘I’m a member of Pilgrim Church’ and expect a warm response? And if a barrier, how far out do we go to build the trust needed for the outsider to see that their barrier from potential abuse is not needed?
‘The World Service’ may not be your cup of tea. Equally, other Pilgrim services may not be theirs! It is an attempt to reach out to the on-line majority to provide spiritual support and encouragement, to expose the Jesus values that lead to wellness and life, and to give witness to expressions of God’s activity in the world – without the cues that enliven the barriers I have mentioned, particularly religious forms, language and dogma. Rather, creating a hospitable space, ‘empty signifiers’ that prompt the viewer to make their own meaning and create their own life-giving rituals. And then for me to be regularly available for conversation by Zoom to make more personal connections.
It may turn out to be yet another Pilgrim service with its own congregation.
Check out an episode at geoffboyce.com and let me know what you think.
Pilgrim Chaplain at Large