Category Archives: LitBits

November 24 – John Knox

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

John Knox (c. 1514-72), reformer of the Church

 Almost everyone has an opinion about John Knox. His character has been the subject of long and bitter controversy. To some he is the apostle of truth, the fearless warrior of God, a great hero of Scotland, and the founder of the Protestant Church; to others he is the architect of evil, a rabble-rouser, the father of intolerance and the destroyer of the old and beautiful. The poet Matthew Arnold quipped that there was more of Jesus in St Theresa’s little finger than in John Knox’s whole body.

Carlyle, the Scottish historian, rejected the conventional caricature of Knox as a gloomy, opinionated fanatic, describing him as a practical, patient and discerning man. Robert Louis Stevenson perhaps comes close to the truth: “He (Knox) had a grim reliance in himself, or rather, in his mission; if he were not sure he was a great man, he was at least sure that he was one set apart to do great things.”

While opinions about Knox’s character may differ widely, there is more general agreement as to his legacy. For good and for bad Knox set his stamp upon the Scottish Reformation. While it is no longer popular to speak of Knox as the “hero”, or the “maker of the Scottish Reformation”, his energy, courageous faith, and single-minded determination gave the reform movement a purpose and direction that marked it for all time.

Above all, Knox was a preacher: this was the source of his power and influence. He called himself God’s mouthpiece, a trumpeter for the Word of God. He believed himself to be “called of God to instruct the ignorant, comfort the sorrowful, confirm the weak, and rebuke the proud, by tongue and lively voice”. His preaching was often lively, volatile, and violent.

His first sermon at St Andrews (1547) declared that the lives of the clergy (including the Pope) were evil and corrupt and that the Church of Rome was “the whore of Babylon”. At the Reformation Parliament in 1560, his powerful preaching on Haggai contributed to the Parliament’s action in abolishing papal jurisdiction and approving a confession of faith as the basis of belief in Scotland.

Knox was not a systematic theologian. His ideas, however, though not particularly original, have had a long-term influence upon Scottish thought. Apart from one theological work on predestination, almost all of his surviving works (six volumes) are polemical tracts written in response to specific circumstances. There are, however, three defining works of the Scottish Reformation in which Knox had a major hand—the Scots Confession of Faith (1560), The First Book of Discipline (1560), and the Anglo-Genevan Book of Common Order (1556–64), also known as “Knox’s Liturgy”. The Confession embodies the true spirit of the Scottish reformers. It is a typical Calvinistic document, and is simple, straightforward, frank, nationalistic, revolutionary in sentiment, and fiercely anti-Roman. The Confession sets forth three “notes” by which a true church could always be distinguished—the true preaching of the Word, the right administration of the Sacraments, and ecclesiastical discipline uprightly administered. Due to the Confession and Knox’s influence the Church of Scotland became Calvinist rather than Anglican, and after his death became Presbyterian rather than episcopal.

The Book of Discipline provided for the enforcement of moral discipline, the recognition of five classes of office bearers—superintendent, minister, elder, deacon, and reader—and for the organisation of the Church into courts known as Kirk Session, Synod, and General Assembly. (Presbyteries came later.) The Book of Discipline advocated universal compulsory education and relief for the poor—ideas well in advance of their time. Although the Book of Discipline was never authorised by Parliament, it nonetheless helped to mould the life of Scotland for centuries. It is commonly believed that the Book of Discipline helped produce a race of people who admired discipline and honest work, valued moral integrity, and prized education.

Knox was not always tactful and diplomatic. His conduct in politics was fumbling and uncompromising. In public and political life, he was his own worst enemy. His hatred of Catholicism, his dogmatism, his invective sprinkled with his favourite adjectives—“bloody”, “beastly”, “rotten”, and “stinking”—made him many enemies and alienated some of his friends. His tract, The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women (1558), a violent diatribe against Mary Tudor, asserting that government by a woman is contrary to the law of nature and to divine ordinance, earned him the hostility of Protestant English Queen Elizabeth and persuaded many Scottish Protestants that Knox was a liability to the fledgling reform movement. Knox’s reasoning from nature and Scripture for the exclusion of women from power was not unusual for his time; what was extraordinary, however, was his call to the English to remove their Queen by whatever means necessary. The First Blast was, essentially, a call to revolution, a justification for armed resistance.

Of all Knox’s writings, the most brilliant is his History of the Reformation of Religion in Scotland. This began as a record of events of the Scottish Reformation of 1559–60, but during Mary Queen of Scots’ short reign, it evolved into a long sermon on Scotland’s covenanted status and the folly of breaching God’s law by tolerating a Catholic sovereign.

A constant theme in the History is the absolute necessity of avoiding idolatry, which Knox identified specifically with the Mass. He believed Scotland (and England), like ancient Israel, were bound to promote and defend “true religion”.

Late in his life Knox wrote: “What I have been to my country, albeit this unthankful age will not know, yet the ages to come will be compelled to bear witness to the truth.”  History seems to have vindicated Knox.  The role he played in the upheaval of the sixteenth century is of prime importance to our understanding of the church and Christian theology today. Knox not only helped to establish the Church of Scotland; his teachings formed the basis of Presbyterian theology as it developed in Scotland and elsewhere.

William Emilsen

October 12 – Elizabeth Fry

Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845), renewer of society

The year was 1813. As Elizabeth entered the Women’s Cell of the Newgate Prison in England she saw a child, dead. Beside him were two women stripping the corpse of the clothing. The clothes were then placed on another child, who might have been five years of age.

This experience prompted Elizabeth to speak to the prisoners from her own perspective of motherhood and in so doing gradually brought about radical prison reform. And radical reform was needed. In Newgate there were three hundred women prisoners with their children. The prison was indescribably filthy. Prisoners were unclassified and unemployed. Favours, and what money was available, brought ample quantities of liquor into the women’s prison. In those days prisoners were treated as if they were less than human.     Hundreds died of starvation, and of disease caused by foul air and cramped quarters. And once when a fire broke out in an Irish gaol, fifty-four prisoners were left to perish. Men and women, murderers, those suffering severe psychiatric disorders, debtors, pickpockets and children were thrown together in stinking underground cellars without light or bedding.

Elizabeth Fry grew up in a Quaker home which was not ready for her determination, commitment and passion for the wellbeing of the prisoners of Newgate. Her father actively tried to dissuade her. But aided by her husband Joseph she kept an open and frugal house from which she fulfilled her ministry. She arranged schools for the poor and the distribution of garments, medicine and food to the destitute. And all this in addition to the work of prison reform for which she is justly revered.

In 1817 Elizabeth founded the Association for the Improvement of Female Prisons. The beneficial work that the Association did soon became known right around the world. She travelled to many European countries in the cause of prison reform. And this reform included the prison ships that brought convicts to Australia. At her urging the colony of New South Wales had to organize appropriate housing and work for the new arrivals.

Her work did not stop with prison reform. In the notably severe winter of 1819/20 Elizabeth organized shelter and soup kitchens for the homeless in London and in Brighton. Aware that some occupations, like the Coastguard Service, could at times create idleness and boredom, she started a library service to relieve that problem.

Some of Elizabeth’s convictions are worthy of note even now, especially now. She protested against solitary confinement and the darkness of prison cells. “Solitary confinement”, she said, “was too cruel even for the greatest crimes, and sufficient to unhinge the mind.”

Elizabeth Fry died on 12 October 1845. In the words of one biographer “Elizabeth lit, in the black hell of women’s prisons in Europe, a spark that was to grow into the floodlight of reform.”

Grahame Ellis

September 22 – Lazarus Lamilami

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.


Lazarus Lamilami, faithful servant

By any measure Lazarus Lamilami Namadumbur (1906–77) was a remarkable man. He was handsome, intelligent and physically strong. His broad smile, quiet chuckle and warmth of presence instantly drew people to him. He was a sailor, carpenter, pastor, translator, and interpreter. He spoke five Aboriginal languages as well as English. He initiated the beginnings of an Aboriginal literary tradition. He was awarded an MBE (1968), elected to the council of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, a part–time lecturer at Nungalinya College in Darwin, and the first ordained Aboriginal Methodist Minister in Australia. Lamilami moved almost effortlessly between two cultures and was much respected by Indigenous and European alike.

Lamilami was born among the Maung people on the Northern Territory mainland directly opposite South Goulburn Island (Warruwi). At about the age of eight he attended the school on Goulburn Island established by James Watson, the first Methodist missionary to Arnhem Land, in 1916. Amy Corfield was the teacher in the school for its first three years and her unpublished diary in the Mitchell Library in Sydney gives a unique perspective of the carefree life of the pupils in the school. Schoolboys like the young Lazarus spent much of their time before or after lessons fishing, hunting, trepanging, singing, corroboreeing and even learning to play rugby. Though his schooling was restricted Lamilami took advantage of the opportunities he was given. He was taught elementary English, mathematics, scripture, animal husbandry and gardening. Later, as an adolescent he learnt carpentry at the Mission and worked in that trade during the war years and afterwards. The anthropologist Ronald Berndt says in the Foreword to Lamilami’s autobiography, Lamilami Speaks (1975) that he was “fortunate in having Methodist teachers and guides who were not bigots and who, although they knew little of the traditional life going on around them, were not actively opposed to it.” 

As a young man Lamilami worked on the mission lugger and various boats in and out of Darwin. It was during this time (c.1946) that he was converted by the prayerful example of a wireless operator, named Bell, about whom we have no other details. A few years after Lamilami’s conversion, George Calvert Barber, the President–General of the Methodist Church in Australasia, met up with Lamilami on a visit to North Australia. In Calvert Barber’s report on the visit, he described Lamilami as a “sturdy figure with a radiant face and steadfast assurance [who] appealed for a deeper understanding among all the people of the world.” Calvert Barber was particularly impressed by the reality of Jesus in Lamilami’s life: “Jesus”, Lamilami told Calvert Barber, “is my friend and I must keep on trying to do my best for Him. He does not fail me and he won’t fail anyone who comes to Him. Colour does not matter to Jesus, and we must not let colour stop us from being friends in Him.”

In the mid 1950s Lamilami was trained as a Local Preacher and then selected to deputation work in New South Wales, Victoria, and Tasmania. It was the heyday of the Federal Government’s and the Methodist Church’s policy of assimilation and there were huge expectations placed on Lamilami’s shoulders. He was held up as an example of what the Methodist Mission could produce in Arnhem Land. He was variously named a “trail blazer”, a “worthy ambassador”, the face of assimilation, and the “first fruits” of what was generally considered slow and difficult work among the Aboriginal people in the North. Throughout the 1950s and ’60s the Methodist Missionary Magazine published numerous photographs (including the accompanying charcoal sketch) of a smiling, smartly–dressed Lamilami meeting church dignitaries, opening new churches, preaching in the open air, and speaking to the General Conference of the Methodist Church. For Australian Methodism Lamilami represented a “new era” in mission and a new future for Aboriginal people. Now that the protection days were over, the “Christian conscience” believed that Australian Aboriginals would now be “educated for Australian citizenship, and . . . be integrated into the Australian community.”

In 1966, at the age of 57, Lamilami was ordained in the small but picturesque church at Warruwi. His ordination was further evidence to the church of “spiritual advance”—an Aboriginal man had become a minister in a district where until then only Europeans, Fijians, Tongans and Rotumans had laboured. For the next ten years Lamilami faithfully ministered to an Aboriginal and European congregation at Croker Island (Minjilang). With great grace and dignity he straddled two cultures, becoming for many a “bridge of understanding”.  Although he did embrace some European ways and values, especially the importance of education for his people, he remained proud of his Aboriginal culture and never lost touch with his Maung “homeland. His dream, yet unfulfilled, was that one day there would be centre for Maung, Gunwinggu and Iwidja culture set up in West Arnhem Land, where the heritage of language, dance and song could be passed on.

Lamilami died on 21 September 1977 after a short illness. At his funeral in Darwin, Bernard Clarke, the Director of Mission and Service in the United Church in North Australia, identified Lazarus Lamilami’s lasting legacy: “As he [Lamilami] sought understanding and reconciliation between cultures, so he sought to understand the Gospel as an Aboriginal man. . . . [H]e understood that the challenge of the Gospel was to follow in Christ’s footsteps. He knew this was a narrow path, but he also knew that not all the signposts were in English. . . . As he found other signposts drawn from his heritage and culture he shared them and the way was clearer for us all.”

William Emilsen

September 1 – John Thomas

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

John Thomas, Christian pioneer

 The Rev. John Thomas (1797 – 1881) and his wife Sarah were sent by the Methodist Missionary Society in Great Britain to serve in Tonga.  They were there from 1826 until 1850 and from 1856 until 1859.  Even though John Thomas was not the first missionary to arrive in Tonga he is regarded by the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga as the Father of the Church.

John Thomas, the son of a blacksmith and a blacksmith himself, was very aware of his academic limitations.  He wrote of himself in his personal journal,

my own rough and knotty mind . . . what a raw, weak and uncultivated wretch was I when I left our England.

 This self-deprecation appears quite frequently in his personal writing.  Limited education he may have had, but he was an outstanding observer of life.  He may not have had a sparkling personality but he had great plodding persistence.  Those qualities enabled him to write an amazing chronicle of the history of Tonga which covers a period prior to the arrival of European influences.  He also records the establishment and growth of the Church.

He provides the genealogies of significant people, records the arrivals and departures of ships and geographical information about the Island group.  It is evident that John Thomas had the confidence of the people for they shared their stories and beliefs with him.

While John and Sarah Thomas were in Sydney preparing to go to Tonga there was a lot of pressure put on him to remain in Sydney, to serve in one of the circuits there.  He was, however, very clear in his own mind that the Mission Committee had appointed him to Tonga and to Tonga he would go. John and Sarah Thomas had tragedy in their lives when Mrs Thomas had a number of miscarriages.  At last a son was born and named John.  Nine years later tragedy struck again when the child died.  Later when they returned to England, Mrs Thomas also died.  When John remarried his new wife had a son but sadly that child too died when he was nine years of age.  John Thomas lamented there was no one to pass his written material to.  He thought he might destroy it.  Fortunately, he did not and his History of Tonga is a goldmine of information for Tongan people and for students of Tongan history.

John Thomas was a very spiritual man and a number of stories have grown up around his life.  A Tongan preacher told the story of John Thomas landing on an island to share the gospel of Jesus.  He knelt on the beach to pray.  Even though the water lapped around him his trousers were not wet.

Some people would be critical of John Thomas because he was pivotal in many people forsaking their traditional gods and becoming followers of Jesus Christ.  The value of that was indicated by a story written by John Thomas.  A King was gravely ill and one of his sons was strangled to appease the gods and to facilitate his father’s recovery.  Even though John Thomas worked relentlessly to bring change in Tonga and to have the people follow a new way, the way of Jesus, no one did more to record the beliefs and history and genealogy of the Tongan people.  He believed that there would come a time when people would want to know their history and about their culture.  When they did, John Thomas has recorded it for them.

He was truly the Father of the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga.

Rev John Mavor

August 18 – Helena, mother of Constantine

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.


Helena, mother of Constantine, faithful servant

Flavia Iulia Helena (c.248-c.328) was probably born in Drepanum in Bithynia – later renamed Helenopolis in her honor – in humble circumstances. She was of low social origin and worked as a maid in an inn when she met Constantius. Out of their concubinage the later emperor Constantine the Great (306-337) was born in Naissus (modern Niš) c. 272/3. Constantius left her when he became member of the tetrarchy in 293. Constantine’s rise to power in 306 brought Helena to the imperial court where she gradually gained a prominent position. Coins and inscriptions mention her as Nobilissima Femina and from 324 until her death she held the title of Augusta, indicating that she was considered an important member of the imperial family. She may have lived at Constantine’s court in Trier until 312. After Constantine had defeated Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge (28 October 312), Helena probably came to live in Rome.

The fundus Laurentus in the south-east corner of Rome, which included the Palatium Sessorianum, a circus and public baths (later called Thermae Helenae), came into her possession. Several inscriptions (e.g. CIL, 6.1134, 1135, 1136) found in the area, are evidence for a close connection between Helena and the fundus Laurentus. So is her interest in the newly found basilica Ss. Marcellino e Pietro which was built in the area that belonged to the estate (Lib. Pont. I, 183); she was buried in a mausoleum attached to this basilica. Part of the Palatium Sessorianum was possibly shortly after her death transformed into a chapel, now known as the church of S. Croce in Gerusalemme.

Although it has been suggested that she was sympathetic towards the Christian faith from her childhood on, Helena most probably converted to Christianity following Constantine who after 312 began to protect and favour the Christian church.

At the end of her life she journeyed through the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire. This journey, which took place ca. 326-327, is elaborately described by the church father Eusebius in his Life of Constantine (VC 3.41-47). Because of Eusebius’ description – he is mainly concerned with her visit to Palestine, he describes her religious enthusiasm, her desire to pray at places where Christ had been, her care for the poor and needy – her journey is generally considered a pilgrimage. However, it is more likely that she travelled through the East for political purposes having to do with problems within the Constantinian family. Eusebius ascribes the foundation of the Constantinian churches in Bethlehem and on the Mount of Olives to her. He also connects her with the construction of the Church of Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

Shortly after her visit to the East she died at the age of about 80 in the presence of her son (Eus. VC 3.46) either late in 328 or the beginning of 329. Her porphyry sarcophagus is now in the Vatican Museums.

Her greatest fame Helena acquired by her alleged discovery of the True Cross. Her presence in Jerusalem and the description Eusebius presented of her stay in Palestine led ultimately to connecting Helena with the discovery of the Cross. The connection between the Cross, relics of which were present and venerated in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre since at least the 340s, is only first attested in the sources at the end of the fourth century. The legend of Helena’s discovery of the Cross most probably originated in Jerusalem in the last quarter of the fourth century and rapidly spread over the whole Roman Empire. The story is told by prominent late antique Christian authors such as Ambrose, Paulinus of Nola, and the church historians Socrates, Sozomen and Theodoret. The legend is known in various versions of which the best known is the Judas Kyriakos legend. According to this version Helena found the Cross with the help of the Jew Judas who afterwards converted to Christianity and became bishop of Jerusalem. This version, known in particular from Jacobus de Voragine’s Legenda Aurea (13th century), was wide-spread in the Middle Ages; it was translated into vernacular languages and a favorite subject for iconographic representation, of which Piero della Francesca’s frescoes in Arezzo are the most famous.

Apart from Rome, Trier and Hautvillers, which claims to possess her remains, have a lively Helena folklore. So does Britain: according to a medieval tradition she was a native of England; it gave rise to various British Helena legends. She is often venerated together with her son Constantine, in particular in the Eastern Church. Her feast day in the Eastern Church is 21 May and in the Roman Catholic Church 18 August.

Jan Willem Drijvers


July 30 – William Wilberforce

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

William Wilberforce, renewer of society

Born on 24 August, 1759 in Hull, he was the son of a wealthy merchant, who died in 1768. Brought up by an aunt, he attended Hull Grammar and then St John’s College Cambridge in 1776..  In 1780, he became member for Kingston upon Hull. He was a close friend of William Pitt and an important independent, because of his eloquence and membership of networks. In 1784 he moved to the influential constituency of Yorkshire and travelled round Europe during 1784-85 in the company of Isaac Milner, who guided him into a deeper commitment to Christ and persuaded him to see a parliamentary career as a Christian vocation. He had two priorities – the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners, setting up a society for that purpose in 1787.

He married Barbara Spooner in 1797. They had two daughters and four sons, brought up in Clapham, where he was part of an influential network of Christian activists. Concerned about the nominal commitment of many Christians, he wrote a best- selling book of 500 pages in 1797 to challenge their limitations. Entitled A practical view of the prevailing religious system of professed Christians of  the higher and middle classes of this country contrasted with real Christianity, it went through many editions.

Wilberforce wrote passionately about the need for recognition of humanity’s sinful nature, the need for redemption and the importance of holiness, based on total commitment to the crucified and risen Lord. He thus outlined the main features of 19th century British Evangelicalism and its implications.

In addition, Wilberforce actively supported bodies such as the Church Missionary Society and the Bible Society, as well as assisting Hannah Moore’s work. He worked with Thomas Clarkson to achieve the abolition of the British slave trade in 1807, after a wide-ranging combination of debate and publication. Initially supportive of Catholic Emancipation, he became more cautious on this after observing the results of the French Revolution. He helped to open India to Christian missions and was a strong ally of those working for comprehensive Sunday observance.

From 1823, he and his allies worked diligently for the abolition of slavery in the British Empire, a goal achieved just three days before his death, 29 July, 1833.

Not always sensitive to social injustice in Britain and becoming more conservative in his later years, he nevertheless contributed to many changes which benefited the poor. His example continues to inspire Evangelicals worldwide to work for spiritual renewal and social justice.

J.Pollock, Wilberforce, 1977; J. Wolffe, The expansion of Evangelicalism, 2007

 Ian Breward

July 7 – Jan Hus & Peter Waldo                                           

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

Jan Hus & Peter Waldo, reformers of the Church

These two men were ‘reformers before the Reformation’, and the 16th century European Reformers entered into their tradition. Waldo of Lyons, a merchant, was converted ca 1170 and began preaching in the streets, calling his considerable audiences to a faith and life of evangelical simplicity. His movement was one of lay people, and spread into Europe until settling in the Alpine Valleys and around the River Po in northern Italy where the Waldensian Church of today is still centred. They applied to Calvin in 1732 to join his reform. Throughout their history, they have been a persecuted community in a country dominated by the Roman Catholic Church (Pope Francis apologised for this in 2015) and now form a ‘double Synod’ with the Methodist Church of Italy.

Jan Hus (or John Hus) was born ca 1369. He was a bright student and graduated from the University of Prague; soon after his ordination in 1400 he became the University’s Vice-Chancellor. He was known for his public criticism of the morals of the clergy, bishops and the papacy, but the influence on him of the English divine John Wyclif (ca 1331-1384), regarded also as an early reformer, brought him to attention of the papal powers, who had issued a decree against Wyclif, especially over his views on the eucharist. Ironically, the criticism of the papacy occurred at the time when a schism occurred which produced two rival popes. It was a low point in Catholic history, and Wyclif and Hus were both condemned by the Council of Constance; Wyclif had already died, but Hus was burned at the stake and died on this day in 1415. These reformers were part of a movement in Bohemia for frequent communion, and the regular offer of the chalice to the laity, a century before Luther. Hus’s death encouraged this movement further, until the revolution in his name in 1419 was defeated by the king and they were forced underground.  Their views emerged again in the Unitas Fratrum (Unity of Brethren), the spiritual ancestors of the Moravian church, who also influenced John Wesley.

It is now ecumenically agreed that the Church is semper reformanda, always being reformed. This principle is at the heart of the Uniting Church, which, like Waldo and Hus, insists that reform is led by the Holy Spirit, and soundly based in a reading of the Holy Scriptures (Basis of Union, para. 10-11).

Robert Gribben

May 14 – Matthias, Simon, Jude

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

Matthias, Simon, Jude,  apostles

Matthias filled the place left vacant by Judas Iscariot after his betrayal of Jesus subsequent demise (Acts 1:23-26). Peter depicts his death as foreshadowed in scripture and then points to the need to replace him as apostle with someone who had been with them throughout Jesus’ ministry. “So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias” (Acts 1:23). Having prayed, they cast lots, and Matthias was chosen. The author, Luke, assumes that praying and doing the equivalent of tossing a coin would achieve the desired outcome. We hear nothing more of Matthias. Luke’s story of Matthias reflects his view that there were (and needed to be) twelve apostles, almost certainly as symbolic of the twelve tribes of Israel. Limiting who could be called an apostle to the twelve stands in some tension with Paul’s view, who claimed also to be an apostle (1 Cor 9:1). In his day some denied his right to be so, possibly because they understood “apostle” as Luke or Luke’s source had done, although Luke also knew stories which called Paul and Barnabas “apostles” (14:14). Otherwise we know nothing of Mattias except for sayings attributed to him as part of a Gospel or Tradition of Matthias believed to have been composed early in the second century.

Simon, named as one of the twelve disciples, is sometimes called the “Cananean”, an Aramaic word (Matt 10:4; Mark 3:18), which Luke translates as “Zealot” (Luke 6:13; Acts 1:13). A group called “Zealots” were part of the uprising against Rome in Jerusalem which Rome crushed in 70 CE, but the term could also be used for zealous devout Jews, although readers of the gospels which appeared after 70 CE may well have understood him to have been a sympathiser with those who resisted Rome. He is not to be confused with Simon Peter, Simon the brother of Jesus (Mark 6:3), Simon of Cyrene (Mark 15:21), Simon the magician (Acts 8:9), or Simon the tanner (Acts 9:43).

Jude (also called Judas) was one of Jesus’ brothers along with James (Jacob), Joses (Joseph), and Simon (Simeon, not “the Zealot”). He is not to be confused with the two disciples with that name among the twelve: Judas Iscariot and “Judas, son of James” (Luke 6:16; Acts 1:13; John 14:22), nor with Judas of Damascus (Acts 9:11), nor with “Judas called Barsabbas” (Acts 15:22). Mark tells us that he and his family once wanted to take Jesus home because they thought he was beside himself (3:20-21) and that his family did not accept him (6:4). The image of Jesus’ family in Matthew and Luke is more positive. Eventually we find his brother James running the church in Jerusalem, but also Jude being attributed with leadership and penning the Letter of Jude. He may have done so, although many conclude that it was more likely written in his name much later like the Letter attributed to James.

William Loader

April 28 – Dorothy Soelle

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

Dorothy Soelle, Christian thinker

“God, your Spirit renews the face of the earth.
Renew our hearts also
And give us your spirit of lucidity and courage.
For the law of the Spirit
Who makes us alive in Christ
Has set us free from the law of resignation.
Teach us how to live
With the power of the wind and of the sun
And to let other creatures live.”
~ Dorothee Soelle

Dorothee Soelle was born in Cologne, Germany, in 1929.  As a child she played no personal role in the rise and fall of the Third Reich; she was fifteen when the war ended.  But as revelations unfolded about the full extent of the Nazi crimes she was filled with an “ineradicable shame”: the shame of “belonging to this people, speaking the language of the concentration camp guards, singing the songs that were also sung in the Hitler Youth.”  Her young adulthood was spent reflecting on the great question of her generation: How could this have happened?  The hollow answer of the older generation, that “we didn’t know what was happening,” impressed on her the duty to question authority, to rebel, and to remember “the lessons of the dead.”

The moral and existential challenge of her times led Soelle to study philosophy and, later, theology.  She was one of the principal authors of the so-called “political theology” – an effort to counter the privatized and spiritualized character of “bourgeois” religion through the subversive memory of Jesus and his social message.  In light of the Holocaust she was particularly critical of a “superficial understanding of sin” largely confined to personal morality.  “Sin,” she wrote, “has to do not just with what we do, but with what we allow to happen.”  Her initial challenge was to develop a “post-Auschwitz theology,” an understanding of God who does not float above history and its trauma but who shares intimately in the suffering of the victims.  Such an understanding of God defined, in turn, a new meaning of Christian discipleship.

A true prophet, Soelle did not simply denounce the way things were, but looked forward to a “new heaven and a new earth.”  Her theology was inflected with poetry and drew on her wide reading of literature and her love of music and art.  She bore four children from a first marriage.  The experience of motherhood strengthened her hope for the future, while reminding her that pain and joy are inextricably combined in the struggle for new life.  She met her second husband, at the time a Benedictine monk, when they collaborated as organizers of a “Political Evensong” in Cologne.  Beginning in 1968, this ecumenical gathering of Christians joined to worship and reflect on scripture in light of the political challenges of the day – whether the Vietnam War, human rights, or the campaign for social justice.

It became a hugely popular event, regularly drawing up to a thousand participants.  The gatherings were controversial, however.  Their notoriety was among the factors that prevented Soelle – despite her thirty books – from ever receiving a full professorship in a German university.

Nevertheless, from 1975 to 1987 she spent six months each year as a professor of systematic theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York.  It was a particularly fruitful time for her, as she broadened her theological perspective in dialogue with feminism, ecological consciousness, and third-world liberation theologies.  She also continued to translate her theology into political activism – in solidarity with embattled Christians in Central and South America, in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, and in particular in resisting the nuclear arms race.

The decision of NATO in 1979 to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in Europe made her decide “to spend the rest of my life in the service of peace.”  She was arrested several times for civil disobedience and was tireless in challenging the churches to take action against what she saw as preparations for a new global holocaust.  In an address to the Geneva Assembly of the World Council of Churches in 1983 she began, “Dear sisters and brothers, I speak to you as a woman from one of the richest countries of the earth.  A country with a bloody history that reeks of gas, a history some of us Germans have not been able to forget.”  It was this experience that impelled her to raise a cry of alarm.  Never again should a generation of Christians employ the excuse that “we didn’t know” about plans and preparations for mass murder.

In her later writings she increasingly spoke of the need to join mysticism and political commitment.  She defined mysticism not as a new vision of God, “but a different relationship with the world – one that has borrowed the eyes of God.”  Soelle died on April 17, 2003, at the age of seventy-three

Robert Ellsberg

March 31 – Fred McKay

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

Fred McKay, faithful servant

Fred McKay was a great Australian with a record of achievement and service, both within the life of the Church and across the wider Australian community, that would be difficult to surpass.  Like Rev John Flynn before him, Fred became a legend in the inland for breaking down the vast ‘tyranny of distance’ for people living in isolation. Whereas Flynn became known for creating a “Mantle of Safety” across the inland, McKay became known for creating a “Mantle of Caring”.

When Flynn died in 1951, Fred succeeded his old boss as Superintendent of the Australian Inland Mission of the Presbyterian Church (AIM), and served in that role for 23 years. His achievements in that time were incredible! Among them included the personal supervision of the building of the three main Uniting Church facilities in Alice Springs – the John Flynn Memorial Church, St Philip’s College and the initial building of the Old Timers Aged Care Home. There were nine new hospitals opened throughout these years, as well as pre- schools and hostels, and he played a major role in the planning and developing of Karratha in Western Australia, as the AIM sought to find creative ways of ministering to the burgeoning mining communities of the Pilbara.

He was Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in NSW and in 1970 began a three year term as Moderator General of the Presbyterian Church of Australia. When the Uniting Church came into being in 1977 he played a critical role in resolving some of the thorny property issues in NSW and with the division of assets of the AIM. Together with a team of negotiators he travelled to many locations in the state helping to determine which property would become part of the Uniting Church and which would be part of the Continuing Presbyterian Church. It was a tough time and called on all of Fred’s considerable negotiating skills.

Throughout his long life Fred McKay was regarded as a friend and confidante by thousands of Australians from all walks of life. He died aged 92 in March, 2000, in Richmond, NSW, and at his funeral service, and at subsequent memorial services held across the country, he was honoured by Prime Ministers and Governors General, parliamentarians, corporate and ecclesiastical leaders, battlers from the Outback, as well as members of the Australian Armed Forces who served overseas in World War 2. All regarded Fred as a personal friend, and he was their friend too, for he had genuine love of people and the great gift of making a person feel like the most important person in the world.

A great Australian he might have been, but he first and foremost a ‘man of God’. Born in 1907, one of nine surviving children, he grew up on a sugar cane and dairy farm near Walkerston in North Queensland. Throughout his life he had a strong sense of destiny and a powerful awareness of the Call of God on his life. When he was six years old he suffered a ruptured appendix and developed peritonitis which the doctor said was inoperable. His mother begged the doctor to operate and leaning over the bed said, “God, if you let my boy live, I will make him a minister for you”. Fred survived the complicated surgery and never wavered in carrying out his part in the covenant his mother made with God.

He attended Thornburgh College in Charters Towers, becoming school captain, and then attended Emmanuel College within the University of Queensland in Brisbane, graduating in 1932 with a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Divinity. He had the opportunity of studying for his Doctorate at the University of Edinburgh, but his destiny took a dramatic turn after meeting John Flynn. While working as a Home Missionary at Southport on the Gold Coast in 1933 he was visited by Flynn, and while sitting on the beach sifting sand through his fingers and talking about the Flying Doctor, Flynn famously said: “You know, Fred, the sand out at Birdsville is a lot lovelier than this!”

After much soul searching, he agreed, thus beginning one of the great stories of Christian ministry in inland Australia. He was ordained in December, 1935, and appointed to the vast Western Queensland Patrol centred on the Flying Doctor Base at Cloncurry, a patrol area of 452,000 square kilometres, and covering some of the toughest and most inhospitable country in Australia. Fred cut his teeth in ministry here!  He arrived in Cloncurry in April 1936 and on his first patrol conducted an informal Church service to 17 perspiring shearers in a woolshed on Devoncourt Station. Fred would later say that he had no church, no home and no set program, but if someone died, or needed help with their children’s lessons, he would get a call on the radio and respond. He came to love the people!

Fred married Margaret Robertson in 1938 and together they forged one of the great ministry partnerships, with ‘Meg’, as she became known, bringing her own gifts and abilities as a nursing sister whenever they went out on patrol. They stayed five years before the war intervened and Fred joined the Armed Forces, becoming a revered RAAF chaplain in the Middle East and Europe. Fred had two brothers who also became ministers, and his brother Les would later take up the Western Queensland patrol for the AIM. After the war Fred was minister at Toowong for four years having the opportunity to spend time with Meg and their growing family. Together they raised four children: Margaret, Ruth, Bruce and Elizabeth. He was nominated as John Flynn’s successor in 1950 and became the second Superintendent of the AIM in November 1951, following Flynn’s death in May. Upon retiring from the AIM in January, 1974, he spent seven years as assistant minister at St Stephen’s in Sydney.

At the General Assembly of 1973, as he prepared to retire both as Moderator General and as Superintendent of the AIM, the new chairman of the AIM Board, Rev Colin McKeith, said of Fred:

“…a fortunate man in that he was blessed with so many talents: – a very effective witness for Christ, a leader among men, a business man of the highest calibre, a Public Relations expert with very few peers. And this had been all placed at the disposal of the AIM, so the Church owed him a great deal”.

Fred McKay was honoured on three separate occasions by Her majesty the Queen, with an MBE in 1953, an OBE in 1965, and the CMG in 1972. He received an AC in 1999.

Reference: “Outback Achiever” Fred McKay, Successor to Flynn of The Inland, by Maisie McKenzie, Boolarong Press, Moorooka, Qld, 1997

 John Lamont

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