Radical preacher goes the distance

By Shane Scanlan

Controversial CBD minister Francis Macnab retired last month, after 56 years at the helm of St Michaels Church in Collins St.

Dr Macnab has been a polarising figure during his time at St Michaels.  His progressive approach to religion has attracted and inspired thousands.  But some of his provocative views have equally generated criticism and even outrage.

The 85-year-old remembers his first Easter Sunday service attracted 105 worshipper.  Last Easter more than 1000 attended – with many making the journey from the country.

Dr Macnab acknowledges that his particular brand of “secular” religion is unique, so many of his devotees were prepared to travel long distances.

Some years ago he “rewrote” the 10 Commandments.

“I said the 10 commandments needed to be looked at again.  We put a big sign up in the street saying that the 10 commandments were a very negative way of approaching things. I wrote 10 more positive statements,” he told CBD News.

So how was that received?  “Not well.  But we stuck with it,” he said.  “The church across the road put up an opposing view.  The Uniting Church hierarchy told me to stop doing that, but we have continued.”

As well as being a church minister, Dr Macnab is also a psychologist and psychotherapist. He established the Cairnmillar Institute which is currently co-located at St Michaels. Cairnmillar is a degree-awarding education centre as well as a clinic for people in need.

As executive director, Dr Macnab was instrumental in establishing a number of programs offering psychological as well as spiritual wellbeing.  One of his favourites has been the “Big Tent”, which is aimed at kindergarten-aged children with issues.

“We took the view that if we could help these little kids in kindergarten cope with difficulties, then we would prevent a whole lot of problems later on,” he said.

At the other end of the scale, the institute also teaches people how to age successfully.

Another of his successes has been Mingary – “the quiet place” – which is a physical oasis of peace on Russell St and is also connected to a low-cost counselling service.

“People come there every day and just sit.  It’s a quiet place,” he said. “In a city where there are many stresses and troubles, there’s a place where people can sit, totally without religious connotation.”

He said progressive religion aimed to “reshaping religion for the modern age”.

“It is helping people see that religion, properly interpreted can contribute to a good life.  A constructive life.  A positive way to cope with the stresses of life,” he said.

“I belong to an international body which is called the International Scholars of the Jesus Seminar which is trying to establish what were the authentic sayings of Jesus.”

“What did Jesus say?” Dr Macnab asked.  “Because some of the things we think he said he couldn’t have said.”

To make the scriptures more relevant, Dr Macnab has also rewritten 75 of the psalms.

“They’re marvelous writings, but they need to be put into language that you and I can understand,” he said.

With 25 books already under his belt, there’s more to come in retirement.

“In particular, I’m going to write about what we have been doing here.  How we established Mingary as a presence in the City of Melbourne,” he said.

“The church needs to be part of the soul of the city.  People want to feel there is something important that is contributing to their life and their human spirit in terms of the way they cope and how they live.”

He is already missing the role.

“One day you’re a rooster and the next you’re a feather duster.  And the feather duster has lost its feathers,” he laughed. “But I’ll walk away with dignity.”

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