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Nearly ﬁfteen years ago, I joined the Army. There were a number of reasons for this. There was no doubt that I wanted a change from Parish ministry, but I wanted to remain within the Church. I think I was looking for an opportunity to stand outside the Church to minster in a different context and see the Church from a new perspective, I wanted to see what it looked like! I wanted to see what others saw, those outside the Church and those in different denominations and traditions.
I arrived in my unit, completely untrained, having no military experience whatsoever, I was ushered into the CO’s ofﬁce — Lieutenant Colonel Simon Stuart. He was warm, friendly, I felt at ease. But he also exuded a presence which commanded my respect. He wasn't really interested in whether I knew the finer points of warfare, or even how to salute. I knew neither, let alone the jargon! His expectations of me were simple, direct and uncompromising: look after my people, care for each one of them. The unit was the 8th/9th Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment. It had been disbanded after the Vietnam War and it was his role to re-establish the unit. Resources were scarce; we were part of the creation of an ethic within the army that said our most valuable resource is our people. I was to be the first full time Chaplain of the re raised unit.
Over the coming weeks I began to realise that we lacked the resources of many of other infantry battalions. We were being called back to basics, to the fundamentals of soldiering. I was the ﬁrst Chaplain in the Brigade not to have a car; I got around on pushbike! The CO was unflinching in his project to rebuild this unit. His message and mantra were always the same — and remember we are dealing with a largely young, male, cohort. Simplicity and consistency were key. His message at the weekly ‘boozer parade’ was always this: Do no harm, do the right thing, do things right, do what you can with what you've got. The unit successfully deployed under his command to East Timor and equally successfully under his successor to Afghanistan. He is now Lieutenant General Stuart AO DSC, the Chief of Army. I feel privileged to have served under his command.
Why am I saying this? There is a saying in the Church which is attributed to St Augustine: Ecclesia semper reformanda, The Church must always be reformed. It has been adopted by differing wings of the Church, Catholic and Protestant, and has been given a different spin by both. What I am taking from it is a need always to be returning to the basics, to the core, for the essence to be revived.
We have stepped outside the Church today as it were, to enable us to look at it from a different perspective and to ask ourselves ‘what does it look like?’ It is so familiar to us that we tend to forget that for others new to us it is incredibly unfamiliar, daunting even.
There is clearly a sense in which we need to be revived, renewed, the COVID pandemic had an impact, it's true. The ramifications of the Royal Commission are still being felt, yes. And there are other issues that distract us. Many of them we share with the wider Church. But the Church faces some fundamental issues that have been coming for years, decades. We are a small parish, yes, and we lack the resources of some of our larger neighbours, but clearly our greatest resource are the people of our parish, and in an age when community is often dispersed or virtual we need to be intentional about gathered community, how we nurture it and how we express the faith that binds us. It is my hope that today we can consider ‘what is the essence of St Philip's?’ Is there a simple mantra that gives voice to who we are, and which calls us back to the centre, to the essence? I have rarely been convinced by mission statements and grand plans. Hence today is an opportunity to reflect on where we have been and where we are being called. I hope that together we will enjoy this short journey today.