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United Church gets new shepherd
published: Tuesday | April 22, 2003

By Mark Dawes, Staff Reporter


The Rev. Dr. Roderick R. Hewitt, the new Moderator of the United Church in Jamaica and the Cayman Islands has set himself the task of encouraging congregations and pastors to strive for excellence. - Carlington Wilmot /Freelance Photographer

THE REV. Dr. Roderick R. Hewitt, newly-elected Moderator of the United Church in Jamaica and the Cayman Islands, has set his sights on steering his denomination to higher levels of performance among clergy and congregations.

Speaking with The Gleaner last week, the Rev. Dr. Hewitt, Minister of the Hope United Church, St. Andrew, said he has a passion to encourage his pastors amid many disillusioning and discouragments that come with shepherding a spiritual community. "I think a lot of my colleagues need to be encouraged. Sometimes they might wonder 'What's the use,' especially when people don't appreciate what they are doing."

In a such a situation, Ministers become more vulnerable to settle for mediocre standards of performance ­ but excellence is the only acceptable option, he stressed.

"For the positive transformation of the society, you need small groups of people who are committed to that vision. I really believe in the power of the local congregations to effect change in the community around them," Rev. Hewitt said.

Having been elected Moderator, Rev. Hewitt will serve a term of four years. Thereafter, he may be elected to a second, but he cannot serve a third consecutive term, as this is not allowed under United Church rules.

ANTI-FUNDAMENTALISM

A man with a strong and authoritative voice, the Rev. Dr. Hewitt, said: "I am a most unlikely person for moderator because I am not a lover of titles. I am not a lover of clothing, I like to dress lightly. I don't like titles, I was not born with a title. At the same time, I accept that there are some things linked with tradition that must be followed through on."

"I don't necessarily fit the status quo in terms of people wanting you to be certain things because I have to be true. I believe that it is okay to doubt. I believe it is okay when Christians don't understand everything about their faith and they accept that they don't understand everything. I don't believe we are in the business of finding answers for everything."

He served the world body of the United Church between 1984 and 1997 as secretary in missions at the Council for World Missions in London. His job took him to several countries which has played no small part in his approach to ministry on the local scene. He is strong on religious tolerance and is stridently anti-fundamentalist in much of his writings which have been published in this newspaper.

"Fundamentalism is in all religions. It is a form of intolerance of the other. It is a form of imperialism where the only truth is 'our truth' and the others are damned. With fundamentalism, we preach and educate hate and spread intolerance to our children," he said.

THE THEOLOGY OF LISTENING

He explained how while in England, he became involved in inter-faith sharing and how this forged an openness and a healthy respect for other religions. "I have learnt the theology of listening. The people who are most intolerant are people who have not learnt how to listen. When you listen, you become more willing to hear even when you don't understand and we learn to accept that we are seeing through a glass darkly and one day things will be revealed."

As Moderator, the Rev. Dr. Hewitt oversees about 200 churches spread between Jamaica and the Cayman Islands and which are served by about 100 pastors. Dr. Hewitt did his doctoral thesis on the interface between the Christian gospel and culture. He is strong on the church using the best elements of culture to communicate the gospel. He is not much of a fan of American Christianity as often depicted on popular cable channels.

"We don't think we are going to be a populist church. We don't think we are going to be a mass appeal church. We don't believe that is the only way to be the church. You have to be the salt and for growth for the long haul. When you talk about church growth in Jamaica, it is really a movement from denomination to denomination - transfers. We (Jamaican churches) have not really made strategic inroads into the culture. The Jamaican church was at about 45 per cent strength of the population at the end of the 20th century. This is about the same as it was at the beginning of the 20th century. What has increased is the number of denominations that have been formed since 1980," he said.

To better communicate the gospel and to do so in a culturally relevant way, the United Church is placing a lot of emphasis on training, especially as offered through its Institute for Theological and Leadership Development (ITLD). The institute, with head offices in Kingston, has outposts in Mandeville, Montego Bay, Ocho Rios and the Cayman Islands. According to Dr. Hewitt, "We are challenging young people to make the Christian ministry a priority and not to see it as something that is left behind." And several of its young people have been responding doing various courses on a full-time and part-time basis, Dr. Hewitt pointed out.

A strongly missions-minded church, the United Church, Dr. Hewitt said, urges its Ministers to consider serving not just locally but overseas ­ particularly in the Third World. Indeed, a little known fact is that Jamaican missionaries from what is now called the United Church were instrumental in establishing the presybertian church in parts of Nigeria. Not much sending out of missionaries has been taking place from the United Church, nevertheless it remains missions-minded evidenced by its partnerships with other denominations. The church, he said, regards itself as both an entity that sends missionaries and which welcomes foreign missionaries here.

THE SYNOD

The synod, he says, has allowed up to 10 per cent of posts within the denomination to be occupied by foreign missionaries.

This year's synod was historic in that it was convened at the Jamaica Grande Hotel in Ocho Rios and thus had a residential air to it which allowed for more fulsome discussion of issues. Nevertheless, a lot of matters continue to remain unresolved, notably the denomination's position on Lodges.

For several years, the church has been wrestling to come to a comprehensive position on Lodges. The particular body charged with that study, Dr. Hewitt said, would continue its work and has had its scope of work widened to be more comprehensive in its report. The synod, held earlier this month, was told of housing projects, particularly in western Jamaica, that were on hold, pending the sourcing of funds. The housing solutions, Dr. Hewitt said, were not only for United Church people but also for the general public.

The synod also produced a position on gambling and a call for heightened pastoral care towards homosexuals ­ noting that this was a marginalised community for which special pastoral skills were needed, he said.

Prior to the synod, the church was grappling with the matter of accreditation of marriage counsellors, Dr. Hewitt said. "I think it is only a matter of time," Dr. Hewitt said, "before people start to raise questions about the standard of ministry that the churches are offering. We believe that with such an issue (marriage) to do with people at a most critical point in shaping their life's journey, that it should be clear that the person doing the counselling has a certain minimum level of standardisation. You must know that when you are putting yourself under the counsel of someone, that there are certain core expectations to do with set standards."

Such standardisation, Rev. Hewitt said should extend to the whole church and must be complemented with a culture of transparency in which the church will be willing to open up the books to the public and where pastors will disclose their emoluments. For it is not good to demand accountability from the state and politicians when the church does not practise what it preaches, Rev. Hewitt said.

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