Fear not! The progressive approach to religion won’t be leaving St Michaels church in Collins St with the retirement of Dr Francis Macnab.
His replacement, Rev Ric Holland, seems at least as non-conformist – if not more – than Dr Macnab!
Rev Holland comes to the executive ministry role via a celebrated career as CEO of a string of not-for-profit social services, the most recent being Melbourne City Mission.
The last time he was based at a church was after being ordained a Methodist minister in Britain in the 1970s and being sent to the tough streets of Glasgow.
It was this experience that formed his view that the church gains relevancy by responding the environment that it finds itself in.
“We’ve got to be constantly looking at the environment into which we are placed,” he said. “And, as the environment is changing, so the church needs to change in its response.”
In terms of what this means for St Michaels, Rev Holland immensely values its “independent” tradition and also its various social services. But people should not expect a business-as-usual approach.
“There are some really good things that we will hold on to. But let’s take a look at how what we are doing can be improved, can grow, can change and can develop,” he said.
“The church should be a risk taker, which is not often how the church sees itself. As an example, I believe the church has got to take a really strong stance on marriage equality.”
“We should be a pressure group, a lobby group. We should be demonstrating, in my view, that all people are equal and LGBTI people have got just as much right to commit to each other in a marriage as straight people.”
In terms of theology, Rev Holland shares Dr Macnab’s academic, non-literal approach.
“In terms of interpretation of the Bible, of course it’s not a fundamentalist interpretation,” he said. “We acknowledge that the Bible has been compiled over thousands of years with a whole range of different influences. People ask ‘is the Bible true?’ Well, if by that question they are saying ‘is it factually accurate?’ Well, no it isn’t.”
“So, what does that then mean for a group of people who are in the church on a Sunday when they read the Bible, or any other spiritual writings for that matter?”
“You can only reflect on them from the perspective of good, strong academic study and, at the same time, interpret what that means now. Because what it meant 3000 years ago in the old testament is completely different to what it means now.”
Rev Holland has a strong connection with the CBD and is relishing the opportunity to leverage the first-class facilities of St Michaels for wider community benefit.
One of his other roles, for example, is being a board member of the Committee for Melbourne.
He has worked in Glasgow, Manchester, Nottingham and Vancouver. “Big cities are in my DNA,” he said.
And, although he has not been practising from a church, Rev Holland has for the last four years been the president of the CBD-based Melbourne City Churches in Action.
“My new role puts me within the heart of the city within a church that is saying to me ‘we want to really to develop our role in the heart of the city’. And that’s why they gave me the job presumably,” he said.
“As well as being the executive minister for the church, I’ve also got a responsibility for developing what the church calls community engagement in the city.”
“How can this organisation respond to the needs that it sees around it? How can we as a church play an important role in the life of this city and, at the same time, maintain a degree of independence?”
His message to local residents is: “Here is a church on your doorstep that will not tell you what to believe and will not dictate to you but will listen to what you’ve got to say and which looks at things authentically and intelligently.”
“Let’s just look at the city and the issues within the city and see how we as a church can respond.”