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Frontier Services celebrates centenary of outback service

Rev Prof Andrew Dutney. Photo by Matt Gees

Dallas Brooks Centre, Melbourne

26 September 2012

IT is a particular pleasure to be part of these centenary celebrations.

I grew up knowing about the work of the Australian Inland Mission (AIM), and its successor Frontier Services, and always had a sense of its importance in national life and in the mission of the church.

It was simply part of the way I understood Australia, the church and myself.

I was born in the Charleville Base Hospital – as were my three brothers and my sister.

This was well after the Royal Flying Doctor Service had ceased to have any formal links with the AIM, but the shared story and the sense of outback identity made us all feel related to John Flynn.

On our family's bookshelves, like so many others', was a copy of Ion Idriess's book, Flynn of the Inland.

It reflects what we would now regard as a flawed view of Australia, and is almost entirely blind to the Indigenous people.

Yet you can see why it was a bestseller in the cities, and almost gained the status of holy writ in the country.

It's the way the book notices and values the European people of the outback. We should all care about these people the way that John Flynn does, it seemed to say. Seeing ourselves in that book gave us a sense of identity, purpose and confidence about our role in "nation building".

On the shelf alongside Idriess's book was Scott McPheat's scholarly biography, John Flynn: Apostle to the Inland. Its presence reflected the seriousness with which this Charleville family was supposed to take its identity – as Christian, Presbyterian, Inland Australians.

When our family finally moved to Brisbane we joined the Toowong Presbyterian Church. It had a large stained glass window designed by Oliver Crowley depicting the various forms of ministry which made up the "mantle of safety" of John Flynn's vision. When it was dedicated in 1965, Fred McKay, a former minister of that church and Flynn's successor as Superintendent of the AIM, described it like this:

It shows Life and Action – no dreamy saints, but men at work with sweat upon their brows – Padres, Nurses, children, old timers, drovers, horses, sheep cattle and a camel. It shows the vivid colours of the inland – yellow sands, light green of new grass shoots, the brilliance of Ayres Rock, the beauty of the Flynn Memorial Church and the lonely splendor of Flynn's grave at Mt Gillen. The Cross right in the centre of the picture gives the whole clue to the motive of the Mission 'To set Thy Cross within our Country's heart.'

Sitting under that tall window on hot Sunday mornings took me back to western Queensland and reinforced my consciousness of the church's continuing work there and throughout the outback – and my connection to it through this congregation.

Being part of the church meant caring about these people, remembering them, identifying with them. The window kept reminding me of that.

So it was a particular pleasure for me to be in the chair when the 13th Assembly of the Uniting Church resolved to "commit the Uniting Church in Australia anew to the people of remote Australia". And it is a joy to be here tonight.

We know the achievements of John Flynn and the AIM.

No sooner was a technology available than its potential to benefit the people of the inland was recognised and exploited.

There was no bureaucratic lag time, no complacency about the tried and true.

The enterprise was constantly driven forward by the vision of healthy communities developing in remote, isolated parts of the continent under a "mantle of safety".

When former US President Bill Clinton said this week that mobile phones are "one of the most effective advancements (sic) in history to lift people out of poverty"[1] and gave examples from rural Africa, I immediately thought of Flynn and Traeger, whose pedal wireless overcame the isolation and vulnerability of inland living – creating safety, community, and the prospect of a significantly improved quality of life.

Australia would not be the nation it is but for the work of John Flynn and the AIM.

But I still have the feeling we've been missing something as the centenary celebrations have rolled out through the course of this year: the way the work of the AIM depended on Flynn's sense of being called by God to do it.

The thing is, John Flynn was Presbyterian. And that locates him in a particular tradition of ministry and mission – a particular way of understanding the relationship between himself and his task. Put simply, he believed his task was given by God (and he would only take it up if he discerned that was so), that the resources he needed for the task were supplied by God, and whether or not he succeeded or failed was in God's hands.

It's a tradition of ministry and mission expressed by the great Baptist missionary, William Carey, who, during his final illness, said to a fellow worker, "You've been saying much about William Carey and his work.

After I am gone, please speak not of William Carey but rather of William Carey's wonderful Saviour."

It's the tradition expressed by Davis McCaughey – probably the individual who had the most influence on the formation and shape of the Uniting Church, the President of its first Assembly, and a major public figure in Victoria – who left instructions that there be no eulogy at his funeral.

He wanted the gospel to be preached – nothing less, and certainly nothing more.

Any more is at best embarrassing nonsense or, at worst, idolatry. It's the tradition which, I imagine, would make John Flynn very uncomfortable with all the overblown tributes to his (undeniably) visionary, innovative, pragmatic, compassionate, humble ministry.

He might have accepted the honour of having his face on the $20 bill – but only to provide a talking point from which to encourage people to contribute those notes in support of ministry in remote Australia.

John Flynn would be saying, Yes, the AIM and Frontier Services have been an outstanding success in service among the people of remote Australia and in witness to the love of God for every person, but that was God's doing. It was simply my great privilege to have been called to be there while God's mission unfolded.

That sense of being called to a specific place of ministry was crucial to a Presbyterian like John Flynn. There's a lovely moment in a letter he wrote to his father in 1909. He'd put his hand up to be a missionary in Korea. He explained, "I feel that I could not see our Church short handed abroad, and acted because everybody else was hesitating". As it happens I'm just back from the Centenary Celebrations of the Presbyterian Church of Korea, which remembers with deep gratitude the faithful work of missionaries from the Presbyterian Church of Victoria. There's no doubt that Flynn was right in recognising the church's call for missionaries to Korea as coming from God. But it wasn't directed at him – and he discerned that too. He wrote to his father, "I feel that my place is in Australia…".[2] Looking back a century on, that is an astonishing understatement!

Much earlier, in 1901, Flynn wrote to his father admitting that he had been considering entering the ministry. The letter gives us a clear impression of what that meant to him.

If Jesus of Nazareth be indeed the Son of Almighty God; if He was in reality 'God with us' showing us the Father; if it is a fact that we only sojourn on this earth for a while, and then appear before the Creator of the universe; if it be really true that the Power who made us desires us to live in constant communion with Him, well, why are these truths not more responded to than they are? If it is true that Jesus is God's Son, and that through Him 'whomsoever-will' may approach the Father Himself, what more honourable calling can a man follow than getting his fellows to realise this fact: and act upon it? Perhaps you wonder that I haven't spoken to you more freely before. Well, I have had considerable doubt about these matters, and do not yet feel the conviction I would like! Further, to my mind there should be no hurry in entering the Ministry of Christ …[3]

As the next few years unfolded, "the conviction" he needed was supplied. It is there behind that wonderfully understated disclosure: "I feel that my place is in Australia".

But see this too: in serving God, the Creator and Sovereign of all things, his particular place could be anywhere. For everywhere is the place of God's mission.

This theological point has been nicely summarised by Graham Hill:

The Spirit precedes the church's mission. [The Spirit] is active and present in the cultures and peoples of the world, preparing the soil for the missional efforts and gospel proclamation of the church. The Spirit is present in the mission of the church, animating the church's passion, and enlivening and filling its participation in the missio Dei. The Spirit prevails even when the church can no longer be present, when the church has to withdraw from a culture or people, or when the church is simply not present anymore … The Spirit persists in convicting hearts, transforming lives, confronting principalities and powers, and leading toward repentance and discipleship to Jesus Christ, before the church arrives, while the church is on mission, and even after the church has, if necessary, and for whatever reason, withdrawn.[4]

As John Flynn anticipated serving God, the Creator and Sovereign of all things, he knew his particular place of ministry could be anywhere. For everywhere is the place of God's mission. It could have been Korea. But he finally saw, "my place is in Australia".

And then, over the next couple of years, even more clarity was given to him. His place was not just in Australia but, specifically, among the isolated vulnerable people of inland Australia. God was calling him out of the cities, past the towns and settlements, "beyond the furthest fences" to enter into the mission already underway by the Holy Spirit in central and northern Australia.

One of Flynn's biographers wrote that when, in April 1912, he was given the task of conducting a survey of religious conditions in the Northern Territory, to report to the Assembly in September, "Part of him shrank from the responsibility. Two deeper compulsions drove him on: his concern for the people of the inland, and a growing conviction that this was a call from God".[5]

An anonymous 17th century English writer once said, "I had rather see coming toward me a whole regiment with drawn swords, than one lone Calvinist convinced he is doing the will of God".[6] When he made his report to the General Assembly in September 1912, John Flynn was just such a "lone Calvinist". And the rest, as they say, is history.

My friends, sisters and brothers, on this centenary of that Assembly, I ask you to honour John Flynn and the AIM by seriously considering the question, To what is God calling me within this mission of the "reconciliation and renewal … for the whole creation"?[7]

Photo : Rev Prof Andrew Dutney. Photo by Matt Gees