Launching the book: Out of the Ordinary. Sunday December 13, 2015 at Centre for Ministry, North Parramatta.
William Emilsen & Patricia Curthoys, the editors of Out of the Ordinary, have chosen the title for a special reason. It is a play on words. In one sense it says that Methodism arose out of the ordinary lives of working people; in another sense it points to the way something extraordinary happened through this event two and a half centuries ago. A spiritual revelation was given to working class people in the English speaking world that enlightened and energised their grasp of the Gospel. Here, in this book, it is the story of people in Australia throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries.
Out of the Ordinary, as it happens, presents the biographies of men and women almost generally forgotten. Yet, as William Emilsen in the Introduction writes,
The story of Australian Methodism cannot be fully told apart from the people who made it. Biography, in its very essence, is the transmitter of memory and identity. Biography makes the communion of saints real. History, generally, and biography in particular is fundamental to shaping personal and corporate identity. People remembered inspire, teach, challenge and give a sense of belonging to a much bigger story. (p 16)
Patricia Curthoys noted in her presentation of Frank Vickery how this Sydney lawyer and philanthropist ‘served for 40 years as the Superintendent of the Bondi Methodist Sunday School’. Methodists brought simplicity and social strength together in this way, and left positive legacies to both church and society. Another striking feature of Out of the Ordinary is a focus on women, often the hidden ones of history: Mary O’Reilly in Sydney between 1856 – 1933 rises under the hands of Margaret Reeson to be seen as a mother figure, not only of her own large family but of an Australian wide family. It came to include two figures who became President-General of the Methodist Church and President of the Uniting Church in Australia.
Comparable stories are told by Alison Longworth on Alice Mofflin in West Australia from 1878—1961 of the same dynamic principle that evolved from within Methodist fellowships into public roles benefitting society. She was awarded the MBE in 1958. Another quality that runs through the book is one that I recognized in Dean Drayton’s account of the South Australian Arthur Jackson: Preacher, Theologian, Charismatic (1918 – 2006), a relatively recent memoir. There is sensitivity here in presenting a near contemporary figure who experienced the pressures of change in religious beliefs in our time and their effect on the church. William Emilsen’s treatment of Lazarus Lamilami (1908—1977) achieved a rare intimacy in closeness and understanding of the first Aboriginal minister of the Methodist Church in Australasia. Invaluable accounts in Out of the Ordinary are to be found on people in the Mission fields. Theodore Webb, a pioneer missionary at Millingimbi in Arnhem Land, the Delbridges in Fiji and Harold and Ella Shepherdson in the Northern Territory are rewarding to read about. All had to learn the local culture, and identify with it in language and social customs to communicate the Gospel.
The editors give emphasis to certain gifts and features of Methodism: as Missionaries, as Preachers, as Administrators, as Educationalists, as Ecumenists, and as Social Reformers. There is something about the centring principle of Methodism here that is distinctive. It is a feeling for the keenest needs of society, for where distress is most acute, and how it is to be addressed. This now remains a hallmark of the Methodist contribution within the Uniting Church.
Finally, it is also matched by the strong educational awareness that is highlighted in Out of the Ordinary, not only in the subjects treated but in the way they are handled in a professional style by the dozen or more modern authors. Christine Weir on John Burton, Norman Young on Calvert Barber and Brian Howe on Colin Williams all present major figures of Australian cultural history. Such figures may have been leaders within the church but they were also characters of rich imagination, social insight and moral leadership for their times.
Out of the Ordinary is a challenge today to the Uniting Church to remember these people, and to find strength and direction from the profound and dynamic direction in which they took the Church in the first two centuries of Australian history.