We’re in the middle of the Licensing Season, that time of year when this year’s crop of exit students has finished their formal studies and are about to embark on their exit appointments. Licensing marks this transition and confers on the licentiate the right to accept a call or appointment on the way to ordination. It’s a wonderful time in the church’s year, when a fresh platoon of front-line soldiers goes forth with stars in their eyes and hope in their hearts to win the world for Christ.

            For the next few decades, if the Lord spares them or tarries, their ongoing challenge will be to keep those stars in their eyes and that hope in their hearts to the very end. Thankfully, there is a way by which we can do this: ‘Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily besets us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God’ (Hebrews 12.1,2).

            On 28 January 2022 the Presbytery of Melbourne East licensed Marcus Campbell to preach the Gospel. As we gave this fine young man the right hand of fellowship I quoted the words of Paul to him: ‘Let no-one despise your youth, but set the believers an example …’ May God bless all our new licentiates all over Australia as they ‘shine like stars in a warped and crooked generation’ (Philippians 2.15).

            It all took me back 51 years, first to my trials for licence at the hands of the Presbytery of Ku-Ring-Gai on Sydney’s Upper North Shore and then to the licensing in December 1970. In my trials, the sermon went well enough as did the interview which followed. There was just one little hiccup. Someone asked me what I thought of the Westminster Confession of Faith. ‘Er … um … well … I’ve read it,’ I said at last. A ripple of laughter went around the room as my interrogator explained: ‘Well that’s more than any of us have done.’ ‘Next question,’ said the Moderator.

            Such was the state of the Presbyterian Church of Australia in those days that they could treat our magnificent ‘subordinate standard’ with such ignorant contempt –– and I can’t claim to have been much better myself. One rainy afternoon a few months after this episode, I was sitting in my study wondering what to do when I glanced at the bookshelves and saw a copy of the Westminster Confession sitting there. I decided to read it and put a tick next to every paragraph I could agree with and a cross next to every paragraph I disagreed with. What was my surprise when at the end of this little exercise the ticks greatly outnumbered the crosses! My love for this wonderful summary of Biblical Christian faith has only grown over the years, and whenever someone speaks ill of it I ask: ‘Well, have you actually read It?’ The answer is usually a hesitant ‘Not really.’ So I suggest they read it reflectively, ticking and crossing as they go, offering to read and discuss it with them if they’d like. You might like to adopt a similar approach with the uninitiated.

            But I digress. My licensing service itself was rather ordinary. The highlight was the closing hymn: ‘Who is on the Lord’s side, who will serve the King, who will be his helpers other lives to bring. By thy call of mercy, by thy grace divine, we are on the Lord’s side, Saviour we are thine!

            Little did we know what battles lay ahead and to what extent we would need to be on the Lord’s side in the following years, but we soon discovered that ‘fierce may be the conflict, strong may be the foe, but the King’s own army none can overthrow.’

            First up was the battle for the continued existence of the Presbyterian Church of Australia against the strong opposition of those pushing for the wrong-headed ecumenism which eventually resulted in their leaving the PCA to form the Uniting Church. In the end it was established at law that the PCA of today is the PCA which was formed on the 24thday of July 1901.

            Then there was the battle within, to rebuild the church in those areas where congregations had voted to unite and taken the property with them, and to get the superstructure moving again despite the asset-stripping we had endured, filling vacancies left by the departure of the unionists from those committees and setting the committees to work again.

            Top priority was to restore Theological Education. Part of the unionists’ propaganda against continuing had been that the PCA would be like a shag on a rock, with no friends, sympathisers or helpers. However, the then Archbishop of Sydney, Sir Marcus Loane and the then Principal of Moore College, Dr Broughton Knox had other ideas and were the first to come to our aid, offering training at Moore College for our students for the ministry. Being Convener of the Christian Education Committees of the NSW General Assembly and the General Assembly of Australia, I received much help and encouragement from their Board of Education. Later, as Editor of ‘Australian Presbyterian Life’, I was greatly helped and encouraged by the Editor of ‘Southern Cross’. As we became more and more able to stand on our own two feet, we established our three Theological Colleges in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane –– and shining lights they are today in the realm of theological education, training not only our own students, but independent students, students from some other denominations and overseas. Some shag! Some rock! (with apologies to Winston Churchill.)

            At the parish level too we found that we had friends. Numerous congregations of other denominations allowed us to use their buildings at times other than when they needed them. Anglicans, Lutherans, Baptists and Seventh Day Adventists were to the fore in this until by and by we have been able to rebuild or buy back some former properties from the Uniting Church.

            Then there was the ideological struggle within. Some wanted to retain the external trappings of the auld kirk; others wanted to see reform at the heart, concentrating on restoring our theological heritage, which necessitated rescinding some previous GAA decisions and wresting the running of the church from the liberals and Freemasons.    Personally, I would have preferred to retain the external trappings as well as restoring our theological heritage but the rising generation seems to prefer restoring the theology and discarding the trappings. After a lot of prayerful consideration of this dilemma I decided to go with the rising generation as it became obvious that those things from days of yore which I wanted to hang on to weren’t going to take us into the future, so I want to support them as they move us forward.

            Our younger ministers are going to face battles which scarcely bothered us in our day. They need our support and encouragement to face up to them as they endeavour to ‘overcome … by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and love not their lives unto the death’ (Revelation 12.11).

            Let’s all get right behind them in prayer, encouragement, advice (whether they see fit to take it or not) and support –– and turn the volume on criticism right down. After all, we were young once.                                                                                          

 – Bob Thomas