Interview with Rev. Rob MacPherson – Minister, Unitarian Church of South Australia

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Rev. Rob MacPherson is a Minister of the Unitarian Church of South Australia. Here we talk about coming to Unitarian Universalism, community, and philosophy.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Let’s start with some background questions quite naturally, what was some religious, or non-religious, background?

Rev. Rob MacPherson: I was raised a working class Catholic in a parish in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, the oldest Diocese in the country.

Jacobsen: How was religion talked about in the home, approached in the community, and established as a factor in friendships in earlier life?

MacPherson: The parish, and the parish school we went to, and the Boy Scout troupe the church sponsored, amounted to a sub-culture within our wider locality. Most of our friends and associates were in some way affiliated with the parish. It was more like a cult hiding in plain sight. My parents were very devout–my sister played the organ, my father was a cantor, my mother taught Sunday school and was involved in women’s groups like Sodality, and my brothers and I were altar boys. The nuns were to be feared, the priests were gods, and a visit from the bishop was like the second coming. It was total indoctrination through social manipulation, psychological pressure, and the epistemic authority of the Church.

Jacobsen: What was the point of affirming Unitarian Universalist values for you?

MacPherson: A free and responsible individualized spiritual journey.

Jacobsen: If you think about the ways in which Unitarian Universalism lives out its principles and is like by most people, except various forms of fundamentalists, what brings people into community? Because a large number of people exist in these churches and communities than they may realize at this time.

MacPherson: They come because they are seeking a genuine, non-mediated experience of spirituality that makes sense to them. If they stay, it’s because they find they like to be around fellow religious misfits, and can sit with people with whom they fundamentally disagree about important things.

Jacobsen: When did you decide to become a reverend?

MacPherson: I had ‘the call’ in 2006. 

Jacobsen: What is the process for becoming a reverend?

MacPherson: There are a few pathways, but none of them in Australia. I applied for training with the UK Unitarians (I am also a UK citizen). After the paper application filtering stage, they invited 6 of the applicants to their school at Harris Manchester Oxford for a weekend’s in-person interviews and auditions. Of the 6, 5 were accepted for training. 4  became Ministers, and now only 2 of us are left in full-time ministry. I was sent to Unitarian College Manchester to train. I took a Postgrad Dip in Contextual Theology (accredited by Uni Manchester) after one year living there on a 10k bursary and my own savings. I was set to do a second year as an student pastor of a small congregation somewhere in the UK, but my Adelaide congregation was in crisis and called me back to take the pulpit prematurely in mid-2011. As a result I am what’s called ‘locally ordained’ as I never finished the apprenticeship in the UK. I have since applied to the UUA for full accreditation after nearly ten years on the job full time. That process should be completed by the end of this year and I will be accredited by the UUA.

Jacobsen: Now, you’re at Unitarian Church of South Australia. What does a typical service look like before coronavirus?

MacPherson: About 60-75 minutes of singing, music, storytelling, sharing check-ins, preaching and mediations/reflection, all supported by a projector AV system.

Jacobsen: What does a typical service look like during coronavirus restrictions?

MacPherson: They vary according to who’s taking the service–since March this year, I stepped down to part-time status to take up a full-time chaplaincy at the Pembroke school, so am only offering one service a month. Mine is an uploaded ppt slideshow with hotlinks for music singalongs and reflection music, plus a YouTube version of the same service. There’s a children’s story, a guided meditation, a reading, some invocations, and an address.

Jacobsen: With services moving online and with the podcast running, what have been some of the more popular themes and ideas?

MacPherson: Not sure I understand this question–themes and ideas of services or of the move to digital?

Jacobsen: You were preceded by Rev. Jo Lane from 2006-2011 and have been the Rev. for the Unitarian Church of South Australia since 2011. What has been learned while part of the community for such a long time?

MacPherson: Too much to say on this, but here are a few scraps–That everyone you meet has something to teach you, so they must be welcomed with a joyful and humble heart. That continual transformation is the purpose and path of ministry, and so keeping your own soul still and still moving is far more critical than trying to influence or shape that of others. That ministry of the word is a slow process of accretion. That the medium of the Spirit (the minister) is the message–it matters more what sort of person you are with them, than what you say. That church is at its best when it’s not a debate society, nor a book club, nor a ladies-of-a-certain-age gardening and knitting circle. Church is at its best when it provides a safe space for worshippers to travel deep into themselves, bear up others with whom they have little in common, be radically open to the world outside its walls. 

Jacobsen: You have a focus on social justice and community outreach. Some of the programs and areas of focus include Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce (ACRT), Australian Religious Response to Climate Change (ARRCC), The Welcoming Congregation Program, and with a focus on asylum seekers, marriage equality, and poverty alleviation. Can you expand on some of the manifestations of the programs and areas of focus in community, please?

MacPherson: Mainly advocacy. We go to demos as a visibly branded church group, thus sending he message that our theology is in accord with human rights. I have spoken at public gatherings, written journalism, done TV interviews to offer a liberal religious response to things that matter in contemporary life. As a church, we divested from non-ethical investments and are now a model small church for the ARRCC. We have invited guest speakers to our hosted public talks on a range of such topics. We have collected for related charities, petitioned, and offered our meeting house free for non profit social justice groups.

Jacobsen: Who are the Kaurna people? What is the importance of land acknowledgement for the Unitarian Church of South Australia?

MacPherson: They are the traditional indigenous owners of the land of the Adelaide Plains where the church has drawn its life and livelihood since 1854. They are part of the oldest continuous human culture on the planet, and their experience is of a strong spiritual bond with the land itself. This land was conquered, but has never been ceded, and it is of continuing spiritual importance to the many living Kaurna people today. The least we can do as recent settlers is to acknowledge this and pay our respect. It is a way of humbling ourselves, seeking reconciliation, and ultimately justice.

Jacobsen: What is Lectio Divina?

MacPherson: I means “divine reading”, and is an old Catholic mystical practice which I’ve adapted to the UU theology. Basically it uses (not a Bible but) a book of crowd-sourced readings, anything people associated with the church have turned to for inspiration, consolation or guidance. We read, reflect, and allow ourselves to free associate about it with the question–‘what is this trying to say to me here and now.’ We do not debate each others’ responses, but allow each their own experience of the words.

Jacobsen: How are the principles of sources of wisdom lived out in the life of a UU member?

MacPherson: That’s up to each individual. We are non-doctrinal and reject coercion.

Jacobsen: If people want to become involved, how can they do so?

MacPherson: Contact the church, follow us on our many digital platforms, attend Sunday worship. Get involved in some of our groups. A good place to start is to chat to me about what you’re seeking and what your expectations are.

Jacobsen: Any recommended books or speakers on the subject?

MacPherson: Leading contemporary voices in our movement include Rev Forrest Church and Rev Marylin Sewell. There are introductions and UU ‘pocket guides’ available a uua.org.

Jacobsen: Any final feelings or thoughts in conclusion based on the interview today?

MacPherson: Nope, thanks for the chance to talk about our movement!

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Rev. MacPherson.

MacPherson: You are very welcome.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-booksfree or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.

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