Sunday, 14 January, 2001: In which I face an ultimatum, and list the pros and cons

I am down at Philip Island, with Cathy and the girls, Cathy's parents, and her Uncle and Aunt. We arrived last night. I woke up at 9:20am and immediately dressed and went off on my own to mass at the local Catholic Church. Mass had begun at 9:00am, and I arrived just during the offertory. It was packed! At least 350 people there, with no more seats spare, and people standing or sitting on the floor at the back and in the porch; people of all ages and races. It was a powerful reminder to me that the Catholic Church is a living and dynamic community. Numbers alone have never impressed me, but here is the catholic faith in a living community--it was very reassuring.

Especially because at this point in time, I am facing an ultimatum from my district president: take this call or take leave of absence.

I have just re-read this entire journal (it has taken me all afternoon). Now, I am going to attempt to put down all the things that have taken place in the last 10 days or so (I have taken hand written notes of most conversations) including my interview with the president last Wednesday, and also revisit a couple of statements from the journal itself in the light of his ultimatum.

First, here are some reasons that I should take the call to Hope Valley:

  • I would have support in my ministry from another pastor (and that pastor would be one whom I count a good friend and have worked with in the past)
  • Being a second (rather than senior) pastor.
  • New, spacious, well appointed home.
  • Full time position and salary (Lutheran Homes Incorporated are a “money no object” prospect).
  • Walking distance to all parishoners.
  • Clear boundaries to time and responsibility.
  • Proximity to my family (especially my grandmother) and Cathy’s cousins live there; and one of her oldest friends have just told her they are going to live there.
  • Able to develop Pastoral Care of the Aged as a career direction.
  • Three congregations nearby where Cathy could worship and be able to find work
  • but if Cathy cannot find work, she may give attention to herself and our daughters.
  • Sunday responsibilities would be moderate, allowing me to worship with my family in their congregation occassionaly.
  • Safe environment for the children and Lutheran schools are nearby.
  • Time and room to walk the dog!
  • For that matter--time full stop: to read, study, pray (Divine Office with John?), to spend time with my wife and daughter.
  • A two million dollar, liturgically well appointed, “to die for” worship centre.
  • My President wants me to take a call.
  • Time now to leave Knox, I reckon (and Casey?)

I’m sure there are other reasons, but this will do for a start. In short, there is every human reason for accepting this call.

Here are the reasons I should not accept the call:

  • Separation of the children from their Godparents
  • Cathy’s dislocation
  • Cathy is not willing to go
  • Distance from Cathy’s family
  • We would not be able to do what we are doing now, leaving Maddy with Mama and Grandad for a whole day--may require day in childcare if Cathy works.
  • I would be going back to the very theologically divided SA Pastors Conference and a district president with whom I would find it difficult to work.
  • Not the time to leave Frankston (or Casey?)
  • Extended involvment with families would require travel all over Adelaide, and sometimes, with funerals, requires travel to country.
  • I’ve started a process, and received full episcopal assurances in connection with that process, here in Melbourne.
  • A move to Adelaide will mean that I will not be able to continue my preparation for reception into the Catholic Church in Melbourne Diocese.
  • I would be required to make my vows as a Lutheran pastor again.
  • It would be unjust to my new employers if I accepted the call on the false pretence of being a “Lutheran” pastor.

Those last four reasons are most significant.

I have been at this all day, and have to take a break now.

Wednesday, 3 January, 2001 - In which I face the greatest temptation of my life

Things have been slow lately. Last night was Mia’s baptism preparation, and both Cathy's pastor (who is doing the baptism) and Mia's godmother knew about my journey but didn't know that the other knew. They were being a bit coy about the topic, until I told them both that the other knew.

Parish matters have been taking first priority, as the congregation at Knox decided to keep their building (at a cost of $1000 a month) and the congregation at Frankston has sold theirs (for $500,000) and are moving in with the Uniting Church at Karingal in March. Then there was Christmas to get ready for. I found myself in church at Frankston on Christmas Eve thinking not only that this was the last Christmas service in this Lutheran Church, but that it might well be the last Christmas Service I ever took in the Lutheran Church. I said to Cathy when I got home on Christmas day that if the road to Rome means I spend a few years as a layman and don’t have to do the Christmas and Easter marathons, I won’t mind in the least!

We went home on Boxing Day to Pinnaroo. There I had long discussions with Mum and Dad about my decision to enter the Catholic Church. Dad really is not very happy about it, and Mum says that she wishes that there was some way I could follow my beliefs and still stay in the LCA. Their own local pastor (with whom I was at seminary for a bit) came for a visit, and we had a long discussion about matters ecumenical, Catholic and Lutheran.

He said a couple of things that I have put away in my kit-bag. Firstly, that many people mistake as arrogance, what is simply confidence, or the need for confidence. Hence, many would see Peter Holmes' questions regarding scripture and the epistemology of the Faith as “arrogant” when what Peter is searching for is confidence.

Secondly, he very pointedly asked me the old stock question: “If you died tonight, where would you go?”. I said, “I don’t like that style of question, because it is posited in terms with which I do not agree, but be that as it may, the answer would be “Heaven”.” “How do you know?”, he said. “Because I am baptised”. “How do you know that Baptism will get you to heaven?”. “Because it has made me a part of the Christian Community, and the Christian Community has taught me to know that I have been baptised into Christ, and to know this Christ and what he has done for me. They have given me the scriptures and all the heritage of the church etc.”. “Right,” he said, “there’s your authority.” It was a good exercise. I don't think he intended it this way, but it affirms that I am doing the right thing in seeking the Church that is the true Christian community, and that I am seeking to put myself under its authority.

On the way back to Melbourne, we stayed overnight with my godmother and her husband. After tea, I told them of my decision. My aunt said she had heard a whisper that there were some pastors in Melbourne (including me) who were inclining towards Rome. The discussion that followed was lengthy, and only ended at 12:30am (Cathy went to bed about 10:30, and my aunt at about 11:30, leaving her husband and I to talk).

My aunt was not really sympathetic. She heartily agreed with me when I said that I do not feel any great loyalty to the Lutheran Church of Australia, but she disagreed with where I was placing me new loyalties--although she said she herself had once considered becoming Catholic, and could still do so, but it would be for very different reasons. She said that her understanding of Christianity was totally different from mine--she was referring to my emphasis on authority, whereas she preferred to put her emphasis on service. Yes, I said, I could understand that, and made it clear that my problem and my approach to answering that problem was not the problem or approach of a layperson, but of one who was committed with the responsibility of preaching and teaching the faith. I also pointed out that anyone who feels called to service, must recognise who it is that they are serving, and that such service implies an authority under which you serve (as in the Lutheran formula of absolution: “I, as a called and ordained servant of the Word, on behalf of my Lord, Jesus Christ...”).

She also said that she did not need any authority to tell her what she already knew, namely, Christ and his love, God and his word. Here I took a different tack (making it clear that my purpose was not to try to win her to my understanding, but simply to help understand my decision), that she only knew these things through her Christian community (Greg Graham’s argument), and that this implies an authority that has enabled her to know.

In truth, I don’t think she was very happy about it all. A bit disappointed. Where she has become more liberal in all her views over the years (except her bioethical views—which curiously is a point of contact between her and the teaching magisterium of the Catholic Church which she highly admires), I have become more conservative in my own views. We travelled home the next day, after spending time with one of our close friends, who is a pastor in Horsham.

I was unwell for the Eve of the Third Millenium, and confined to bed. It has been very hot these first few days of 2001. Yesterday, as I was preparing to go up to Martin Luther Homes (where I knew there would be airconditioning and hence a much better working environment), I received a phone call from JH, the pastor with whom I had first worked when I was ordained in South Australia. He is now the head chaplain of a very large retirement village and nursing home in South Australia where my grandmother lives, Hope Valley Lutheran Homes.

Now this call was not at all unexpected, but I had been trying to avoid it. You see, while at Horsham for the Chaplain’s conference in June, I spoke to the Hope Valley assistant chaplain and was conscious of the fact that he did not want to remain in that position for much longer. I told him at the time that he would be mad if he ever left, and if such an idea ever struck him, he should let me know and we could do a one month swap--and if he was lucky, I might let him come back! When he asked why I thought it was such a good position, I said to him: “How many nights out have you had to spend for your work there in the last month?” “None.” “Precisely my point.”

Then he took a call to Murray Bridge as a school chaplain (the dolt!). And immediately I thought, “That is the one job I would most like to have in the LCA, if I were moving in other directions.” My time with JH at the Warradale parish in the early 1990's was one of my happiest periods in the ministry, and I would dearly like to work with him again, especially in those circumstances. Add to that that my Grandmother lives in the Homes, that my brothers live nearby, that my family home would be within a couple of hours' driving distance, that the manse is brand new (with air conditioning); that there are Lutheran schools nearby for the kids, that the work would be rewarding and satisfying (a kind of work in which I have a mild interest, if not a burning passion, and some experience), that there would be very strict limits to the “parish” where all the "members" would live within walking distance, that there would be only one place for services on Sunday (only one service?), that there would be no evening commitments, that the job is now full-time (I am still only 0.875 time here), and above all, that I would be working as second fiddle to JH, who, as senior pastor, would take the brunt of the organisational and pastoral decisions (much as he did at Warradale), and the result seems to be a perfect score of 10 on the scale of 1-10 for plum jobs in the LCA. It beats “being West of Woopwoop”, as Cathy put it (and as I said, it wasn't Hermannsburg! [I turned down a call to the central Australian mission of Hermannsburg—west of Alice Springs—in 1996 in order to marry Cathy]).

BUT...and a very big BUT...Cathy does not want to leave Melbourne, and I want even more to enter the Catholic Church (I think....).

So I intentionally did not ring JH or show any interest in the position. I thought, if it is God’s will, then maybe a call will come, and then maybe I will have to consider it. If not, then it is definitely not God’s will for me, matter closed. So I left it. Cathy and I talked about it from time to time, but that was it. Then I read President Semmler’s newsletter on Sunday and saw that another pastor had received the call. “Good,” I thought, “that proves it wasn’t for me.” Then I noticed on the same page at the bottom under “Calls declined” that the same pastor had turned it down. Oh dear.

Then came JH’s call yesterday morning. I knew immediately what it was about. “Were you serious back in June when you said you would like my assistant's job?” They were to have a call meeting that afternoon, and he wanted to put my name forward. “Yes,” I said, and I told him about my discussions with Cathy recently about the vacancy, “but there is a complication.” So I told him about my desire to enter the Roman Church, and the complications involved. Still, I said, if he wanted to put my name forward, he was welcome to, and if they called me, I would then give it the most serious consideration as a call from God. (Actually, “temptation” from God might be more blasphemy intended.)

So I went up to MLH to work among the old folk, and mentioned the possibility of going to Hope Valley to the head of nursing up there, who said that although they would be sad to lose me, she could see that this would be a great opportunity to really do something to develop Aged Care Chaplaincy in the LCA. Then I went home, and forgot about it as I worked through the afternoon. A phone call came at about 5:15pm from the new president of South Australia saying that I now had the call. Apparently I was the most highly desired among all the candidates (“by a long way”), and they were especially impressed that I rode a motorcycle--“someone with a bit of life in him”, they said!

I went in and told Cathy what had happened. We talked for about quarter of an hour, outlining a few issues. She reckons this is God testing my resolve to enter the Catholic church. She is convinced that if I took the call, it would simply be a panacea to the pain, a bandaid measure that would eventually prove insufficient to answer my questions. (I said that it would probably be a postponement rather than a rejection of the Catholic option.) On top of that, she has no desire whatsoever to leave Melbourne--her church, her work, her family and her extensive network of friends built up over a lifetime. She would rather go through all the rigmarole of annulments and my entry into the Catholic church than shift. That is quite clear. But she said we would have to write up all the pluses and minuses and take a good look at the options. In the meantime, I would have to talk to a lot of people and do a lot of praying.

So then I rang my local District President to inform him (I will be seeing him next Wednesday on a prearranged visit in any case), the three chairmen of my three parishes, Fr Anthony Fisher (I spoke to his answering machine to get an appointment real soon), my spiritual director (with whom I will now meet on Friday afternoon), Peter Holmes and P. (with whom I am meeting this morning). I have told them all that I will give my decision on the 28th of January--the limit of my four weeks, and after my holidays.

This morning I rang my parents. Dad, I think, is very pleased with the call and definitely wants me to take it. He is annoyed at “partners who stop pastors from taking calls”, but Mum said that we have to take all that into account. Dad did a lot of talking (even interrupting me--so he must have been fairly excited by the idea that I could take a call to Adelaide), and Mum hardly any (which seems to suggest that she didn’t know what to think). I will have to ring JH and a few others to let them know, and see where to go from here.

This will be a real test. The truth of the matter is, that if I had not decided to become a Roman Catholic, I would jump at the chance. I would say to Cathy: “I know your objections, and I know how difficult it would be for you, but I cannot sustain my ministry here--the work is too much for me, and it is not good for us or our relationship. At the same time I will have to take a call sometime, and there is little likelihood that I will get another call in Melbourne, nor would I have any reason for wanting to adopt another poor struggling suburban parish when that is exactly what I have at the moment. The likelihood is that when a call does come, it will be to somewhere “west of Woopwoop”, and not in a capital city with lots of thriving Lutheran Churches built on exactly the St Paul’s model where you could worship and find work. So we are going. End of story.” I am sure it wouldn’t be that simple.

But the reality is that I believe God is calling me away from the Lutheran Church altogether and into the Catholic Church, even though if there was going to be anything one thing that could tempt me away from that resolve, it would be this call to Hope Valley. So the decision would be very straight-forward--IF I could be fully assured that I will eventually be received into the Catholic Church. Herein lies my greatest fear--what will happen if, in the final analysis, I cannot enter the Catholic Church, that is, if either my first marriage or Cathy’s is declared to be valid and binding in the eyes of the Church? What then? Then I am back to the situation that I am in at the moment, and the one option that would make being a Lutheran pastor bearable for me would have been passed up all together.

I am facing a decision--a cross-roads--now that is greater than the decision I faced four years ago in December 1996 when I had to toss up between life in the desert in Hermannsburg and remarriage. And to tell the truth, I think that the decision I will make on this call will have an even greater impact on my life than that decision has had.

O God, help me. Kyrie, eleison. Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and in the hour of our death. Amen.