Avril at Romsey

… and Lancefield and Riddells Creek and Mount Macedon

One absolutely insane week …

The article I wrote for the congregational newsletter, explaining to the Macedon Ranges congregations what had happened.

In last month’s edition of The Link I explained to you all why I was going to be holding what I called a ‘Sci Fi and Fantasy Friendly Church Service’ at Romsey Uniting Church on the tenth of April. I suspected that the idea might be criticised by some non-Uniting Church people in the local area, and I wanted to prepare you to answer any accusations that might be levelled at the Uniting Church for going beyond the boundaries of the Christian faith. (Which we definitely weren’t.)

What I didn’t expect was that this one small church service would become global news.

Every time we do something a little bit different in the churches (blessing animals or giving thanks for the work of the emergency services, for example), I let the local media know. So I emailed the Macedon Ranges Leader and the Free Press and told them about the upcoming service. The Leader thought it sounded like a good photo opportunity, and came to Romsey to take photos of me holding a toy lightsaber (and feeling a bit silly).

I was at a Presbytery meeting in Geelong on the day that the Leader story came out, and the first I knew of wider interest in it was when I got a phone call from a Herald-Sun reporter asking for a comment and a photo. Since I was at a Presbytery meeting, I turned everything over to the Presbytery Minister – Pastoral Care, Rev. Ann Key, and we rang the Synod and talked to the Moderator and one of the members of the media liaison unit. Together we all decided to send the Herald-Sun a version of the piece I wrote for the April Link, which went from Jay Brook’s computer to the Herald-Sun office via the Moderator, who edited it for me. Since I was in Geelong I said that I wasn’t available for photos, but a photographer came to Romsey to take a photo of Jay, also with lightsabers.

The Herald-Sun article came out on Wednesday the 6th of April. At six am that morning I was woken up by phone calls from two Melbourne radio stations asking me to speak on air about the service. I told them that I couldn’t speak without consulting the Synod, and no one was going to be in the Synod office at six am! Then at seven-thirty, as I was on my way out to the gym, a crew from Channel 7’s Today Tonight knocked on my front door. I gave them the same answer. I couldn’t speak to them without consulting the Synod, and no one was going to be in the Synod office at 7.30 am. I went to the gym; the Today Tonight crew went for coffee.

After lots of discussion by phone with various Synod staffers, including the Moderator, Isabel Thomas Dobson, who was great, I agreed to be interviewed by Today Tonight if they would wait until a media liaison staffer came up from Melbourne. I couldn’t leave them sitting on my nature strip all that time, so I invited them into the manse for one of the weirdest morning coffees I have ever had.

The Synod staffer, Michael, arrived from Melbourne at about eleven, and Today Tonight interviewed me, first in the manse, and then inside the church. It was all a bit strange, but not particularly frightening, especially since I knew I had the support of the church behind me.

After that, the story apparently went global. I haven’t been able to understand what the Italians were saying about it (but one story was illustrated with a picture of Harry Potter in the style of an icon). I was very amused to find that the story was reported on www.richarddawkins.net, the site for The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, and a comment was made on that atheist site that: “DON’T BE MISLED BY THIS MONSTROUS EVIL. The priest, Avril Hannah-Jones, is far more dangerous than mere panderers and apologists like Ratzenberger, [did they mean Ratzinger?] or misguided creationists like Beck. SHE WANTS TO MAKE RELIGION FUN!!!!!”

The story was reported so widely, I think, because the media love controversy, and if there isn’t any available they happily make it up. The Herald-Sun article began: “A church service where the angels and saints make way for wizards and warlocks has been damned by conservative Christians.” They quoted “Mentone Baptist minister Murray Campbell” and “Catholic priest Gerald O’Collins” in opposition, but they did finish with a quote from Isabel Thomas Dobson, who said that the service had the full support of the church authorities. Today Tonight did something similar, introducing the story as being about “a minister at odds with her church” which just wasn’t true.

There were two other ways the story was told that I found equally irritating. One was the suggestion that I was replacing the Bible with fantasy and sci fi stories, rather than using fantasy and sci fi as another way of exploring the truth of Christianity. Many conservative Christians commenting on the internet (and I did develop a morbid habit of googling my name to see what people were saying about me) condemned me for that. If they’d came to the service they would have found a standard call to worship and blessing, three Bible readings, four widely used hymns, and a traditional prayer of intercession – as well as video clips from films and television shows. But those criticising the service didn’t, of course, come to it.

The second, equally irritating, misreporting was that this service was all about, in the words of the Herald-Sun, “getting more bums on pews”. No matter how many times I contradicted this, that was the way it was reported.

So, those were the annoying and frustrating aspects of this whole experience. I didn’t enjoy the early morning media intrusions, or being misread and misrepresented. But the positive parts of this story definitely outweigh the bad.

First, there was all the support I received. The support from the members of these four congregations has been over-whelming, but I have to say I pretty much expected that. I think Noel Shaw said it best when he told me that he didn’t like sci fi shows himself, but he trusted that I knew what I was doing. It was terrific to see so many congregation members at the service (and organising and serving the afternoon tea that followed) and to get calls from others who couldn’t make it to the service but wanted me to know that they were behind me. I’m very grateful.

I was also delighted, but not surprised, with the support I received from my colleagues. I think maybe a tenth of the congregation on Sunday was other Uniting Church ministers. Rev. Susan Malthouse and Rev. Caro Field did the Bible readings; Rev. Andrew Gall came from Gisborne in full Darth Vader costume; from Brisbane Rev. Blair Cameron defended me by commenting on the blog of a critical Catholic priest and Rev. Dr Paul Walton wrote a helpful entry on his blog … I was surrounded with the encouragement and well-wishes of my generation of Uniting Church ministers.

What I hadn’t been quite so confident of was the backing of the Uniting Church hierarchy (not that we really have a hierarchy), but I needn’t have worried. I was supported by the Presbytery, Synod and Assembly, and there was never any doubt that what I was doing was accepted and even encouraged by the broader Uniting Church. The comments I’ve received from my elders and mentors on the service itself and the amazing coverage of it on Adam Hills in Gordon Street Tonight have been wonderful. Rev. Prof Robert Gribben said of the coverage of the service that “money couldn’t buy the good will – over against the endless ignorant uninformed boring attack on the faith at the moment.” Rev. Dr Rob Macfarlane said of the Adam Hills coverage that “That was such a good wrap-up – beyond just seeing this as a stunt, but authentic gospel.” Rev. Dr Peter Blackwood sent me a card saying: “I have followed the “Geek” project with delight and admiration. Well done!!”

(Yes, I’m name-dropping, or Rev. Dr-dropping, because I’m so pleased and proud at their comments.)

The most important thing about the service, and the reason that at the end of it all I’m glad that it happened, was that through this one service I suspect I got to reach more people with the message of the gospel than I have on any other occasion during my time in ministry. The church was full to overflowing, and the congregation included lots of children who were actually excited about being at church. The service itself, in the words of Caro Field, was: “essentially a fairly standard UCA service (which is what Avril always intended it to be), with prayers, readings, sermon and hymns, and a few added film clips from the genre.” And people came and participated in that ‘fairly standard’ service.

It wasn’t just the people in the congregation on the day who had the chance to hear something of the gospel. The media coverage from Adam Hills in Gordon Street Tonight was brilliant. As Tom Gleeson summed it up: “I came here looking for controversy, and all I found was a group of like-minded worshippers in fancy dress enjoying themselves. That’s not news. It’s actually quite uplifting. I’m going to go home and think about it.”

This was never about getting “more bums on pews”, but I did hope that the service would help people to see the church in a different light, as a place of warmth and acceptance and welcome, rather than as the source of cold condemnation that the media so often portrays it. I think that definitely happened – at least for those people who watch Adam Hills. So it won’t surprise you that I’m hoping to make this service an annual event, to join the Blessing of the Animals and the Blessing of the Emergency Services in our local church calendar.

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April 26, 2011 - Posted by | Ministry | , ,

10 Comments »

  1. Great reflection on the whole event, Avril. In addition to Tom Gleeson’s comments, which you quoted, I was also impressed by the choice of ‘soundbyte’ that the Adam Hills’ show used, when they showed you saying from the pulpit words to the effect that if even Darth Vader could be redeemed, then there is *nothing* any of *us* could do that is beyond God’s forgiveness.

    This encapsulates the Gospel in a nutshell, and was broadcast on national television in prime time, and also spread abroad via the internet.

    I look forward to next year’s effort 🙂

    Comment by Caro | April 26, 2011 | Reply

    • So glad you’re looking forward to next year’s service, because I think it should be a group effort. Why should worshippers be limited to MY favourite sci fi and fantasy, when there are so many other UCA ministers (not looking at anyone in particualr, Caro, of course) who could make similar links between the genre and the gospel.

      Comment by avrilhj | April 26, 2011 | Reply

  2. Thanks for sharing these thoughts and your exciting adventures with the media Avril – so well conducted and what Caro said!

    Comment by Robyn Hodge | April 26, 2011 | Reply

    • So, I’m assuming that you won’t be having a baby at the same time as next year’s service and will be able to come?

      Comment by avrilhj | April 26, 2011 | Reply

  3. Dear Avril, this sounds lovely.

    And, your links to the critical Catholic priest, and the supporter, have an extra html in it.

    Hope you are well!

    Julie.

    Comment by Julie | April 26, 2011 | Reply

    • Thanks, Julie! And, thanks, Julie – I think I’ve fixed that.

      Comment by avrilhj | April 26, 2011 | Reply

  4. […] dio reale, la Bibbia”, riporta l’Herald Sun. Hannah-Jones difende la sua posizione sul suo blog: scrive di avere il supporto della sua chiesa, e vorrebbe rendere l’evento un appuntamento […]

    Pingback by Australia, cosplayer a messa - UAAR Ultimissime | May 5, 2011 | Reply

  5. Will you be celebrating Towel Day on May 25th?
    http://www.towelday.org/

    Comment by Maureen Howland | May 12, 2011 | Reply

  6. What fun you are having. Sounds great. I found this story by chance when trying to find a phone number! Best wishes from me – Wendy at Geelong East Uniting.

    Comment by Wendy | November 3, 2011 | Reply

    • Thanks for this comment. I’ve started thinking about next year’s service – maybe you’ll be able to come?

      Comment by avrilhj | November 3, 2011 | Reply


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