Tony Payne: Phillip, you’ve been in ministry for quite a long time…
Phillip Jensen: Well, ever since I became a Christian; that’s when you start ministering, and that was back in ’59.
TP: You’ve often said that you learn from your mistakes in life, and in ministry.
PJ: Which is why I know so much. I’ve made so many.
TP: Well that should make for a decent length interview, because I’m going to ask you about your mistakes. I want you to look back and think about your blunders. Let’s start, Frank Sinatra style, with regrets (“I’ve had a few, but then again too few to mention”). Looking back on your ministry, do you have any major regrets?
PJ: No, none. I don’t think regret is really a Christian characteristic; it’s an atheistic characteristic; it’s a Sinatra characteristic, because he lived for himself. But if you live for God, and God is the sovereign God who cares for us, loves us, forgives us, pardons us, then we move on, forgetting what is in the past. I press on to the goal of the future, so I don’t live in regret, and I don’t think we should.
TP: Perhaps it’s going to be a short interview after all…
PJ: Ah, no, because you started out talking about mistakes, and that will make a very substantial interview, because I’ve made lots of mistakes. But I don’t regret mistakes. I say sorry, I ask for forgiveness, I fix what can be fixed, and I move on. I try to learn from mistakes, but I don’t live in regret about them.
TP: Okay, let’s start with theology. Theologically speaking, and in your understanding of the Bible, how have you changed your mind over the years? As you look back, what things do you think you’ve got wrong?
PJ: Lots of things. For many years I was an Arminian. It took some kind, loving friends to bash me over the head for some months to get me out of that kind of thinking. I was and I still am a teetotaller, but I used to believe that alcohol itself was evil, whereas clearly that’s not what the Bible is teaching. So there were those kinds of mistakes—some of them really fundamental, like Arminianism; some of them more marginal.
I was a pacifist for some years, and again that’s a hopeless position, because you can’t really be a Christian pacifist and worship the ‘God of armies’ (which is what ‘Lord of hosts’ means). And you can’t make sense of punishment or of the cross if you’re a pacifist, but for years I was a pacifist and it took me a while to work that out.
Most of those errors were in my early years as a Christian. And I had the benefit of good fellowship, good church teaching, and the great benefit of Moore College to help me sort out the big issues, the big fundamental issues. Since College, I’ve changed my mind on lots and lots of little issues. I’ve also changed my mind about lots of Bible passages—so I learnt the framework of expositional preaching and exegesis of the Scriptures, but I thought I knew what was in the passages before I actually did the exegesis. But then I discovered in a great many cases that the passages didn’t say what I thought they were going to say; they said something different. And so I needed to change my mind. And I’m still doing that and I’m still learning. I’m preaching a new series on 1 John at the moment, in which I’ve come to quite a different understanding of 1 John which, blessedly, my son has taught me. But that’s a discovery I’ve only come to in the last little while.
I should say that nothing of huge significance has changed since coming out of college. I still believe in God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit!
TP: It’s really interesting that your experience was after receiving that training, that theological framework, it actually equipped you to keep growing and changing your mind. The perception might be that you go to somewhere like Moore College and you learn a body of knowledge that is fixed forever more. But in fact what you learn is a framework and a set of tools to keep learning and growing.
PJ: Yes, that’s exactly right. That’s the exact reverse of expectation. My youth fellowship group took me through Louis Berkoff’s Systematic Theology. And so I went to Moore College thinking I knew it all. But instead they dismantled much of what I’d learned—especially the sense that here’s the question, here’s the Bible verse, here’s the answer. They said, “Well, what does this proof text verse say in its context, and what does the book say?” And it just didn’t actually prove the point that Louis said it proved. What Moore College did was radicalize my mind to think biblically and creatively, rather than giving me all the answers so I didn’t have to think any more. I had that before I went to College. College freed me from it.
TP: As you left College, and went out to apply your newfound understanding in ministry, you found yourself dealing with people, because ministry is people. Thinking back on your relationships with people and on the pastoral issues you’ve dealt with, what mistakes stick out in your mind? Things you wished you’d done differently, things you’ve learnt from?
PJ: Well, people are an inexact science! You can wish that every relationship is going to work perfectly—but they don’t and they’re never going to. And so there are certain people that I’ve hurt and people who have hurt me. And they would wish, hopefully, that they hadn’t hurt me, and I certainly wish that I hadn’t hurt them! And so there are just mistakes that we all make in relationships.
But in general, with people, I think I was too naïve and trusting of people, especially early in my ministry. I took people too much as I found them.
I didn’t really believe enough in the doctrine of sin. And so I took people on face value, which in one sense you have to if you’re going to trust people, and if you’re going to have a relationship with people. But over the years you learn that the enthusiast, especially the newcomer enthusiast, is often the shallow soil that will burn out very quickly when the opposition comes. And you need to be wary.
TP: You made mistakes in trusting people too quickly, in other words?
PJ: That’s right. And it’s really a delegation problem. In Christian ministry you’ve got to delegate to people. I didn’t spend enough time on that, because I didn’t know to train people properly before I delegated to them. So I met them, I liked them, they seemed good people, and I got them to do things. Then down the track I discovered that they didn’t actually believe the same things I believed; or didn’t live with the same lifestyle that I expected of a Christian. I remember setting up a couple of church plants in my early church planting days. And I talked to a couple of enthusiastic people who were all fired up to establish this church. But three months down the track, after we had put in a lot of effort, and gathered people in, it became quite apparent that this couple I had trusted actually had huge marriage problems. They separated, and the whole church disappeared. And in hindsight, I simply didn’t spend enough time with them. I didn’t get to know them, and didn’t understand how they functioned as people. I just took them at face value.
I also did it institutionally. The first missionaries I sent out, I sent with a missionary society that didn’t actually screen people properly, didn’t train and equip people properly. I had thought, “Well this is a missionary society. They know about the third world. I know nothing about the third world. Here’s a missionary who wants to go. They want to take them. Perfect.” But it was dreadful, and disillusioned a lot of Christians in support of the mission field. There was hardly any good to come out of it, other than the dear missionary who was a very fine Christian person and survived through it all. But that was the kind of mistake that I made, just trusting people—although the mistake is not really trust. It’s lack of discernment. You have to trust people, but you need to do so discerningly.
TP: Speaking of discernment, one of the things I’ve always appreciated about your ministry was your willingness to disagree when that was necessary; to have a fight when there was a fight to be had. As you look back on your conflicts, what have you learnt?
PJ: I can think of several lessons. The first is that as a young man I enjoyed a fight too much. I grew up in a family of brothers. We fought a lot, and I grew up through debating and arguing, and I liked a good argument. A very kind senior academic came and talked to me years ago, and pointed out that when the Bible urges us to “flee the passions of youth”, it’s not talking about sex. It’s talking about argumentativeness, if you look at the context (in 2 Tim 2). The Lord’s servant must not be argumentative, but teach patiently and pray that God may change your heart. So as a young man, my own personality and argumentativeness was too strong. So that was a lesson to learn.
All the same, God uses even our mistakes and flaws for good. Down the track, I think I was able to cope with the conflicts that I went into or had thrust upon me much better, because of what I had learnt in the scrums of yesteryear.
The next problem was this lack of discernment in trust. I grew up in a very loving family, a very caring family, with a certain degree of naïve trust in the institutions of our society and our world. So I trusted the Anglican Church, I trusted the Sydney Morning Herald, I trusted the university and educational system. That was an incredibly misplaced trust. Those institutions were nothing like I imagined them to be. So I thought the university was a place of learning, open enquiry, genuine intellectual robust discussion, truth-seeking… and there are people like that in the university world. I’ve met them. But that’s not really what the university is about. I only discovered that when I tried to teach the Bible at the University of NSW. As long as I was marginalized, as long as I kept my head down and was out of the way, as long as I didn’t speak or draw a crowd, I was tolerated.
TP: But when you did?
PJ: But when I did I was pilloried and attacked and persecuted consistently.
TP: By the university authorities?
PJ: Sometimes it was the authority structure itself; sometimes it was just individuals within the system. The university is a complex community. Sometimes it was the student union, or sometimes the university newspaper. Sometimes it was the enrolment office. It was generally anti-Christian people in the system. But they never attacked you for preaching Christ as such. They attacked you for handing out a leaflet in the wrong place.
Each year there was another way in which people within the system at the university fought against me gathering Christians on the campus to hear the word of God. Every year there was conflict—over giving out water to students, over room bookings, over activities in Orientation Week, or over whatever it was this year. That was difficult. But it made me realise that the university was not a place of free and open debate and enquiry about the truth, but a political game that was played according to certain rules—and the rules were made and changed by those in power for their own purposes.
That was a very different world to the university I grew up imagining. But it was good for me, because I learnt. And so I lost my respect of universities.
TP: Throughout the 80s and 90s, there was significant conflict within Christian circles over the charismatic movement. In fact, as a young charismatic arriving at your church many years ago, I found your strong stance on those issues a difficult thing to wrestle through. Do you think you made any mistakes in the way you responded to charismatic issues?
PJ: This may sound strange, but I think we should have fought harder quicker. By the time we understood what was going on, we had already lost a lot of ground and a lot of people.
But I also made mistakes by taking too long to realise that there were two basic kinds of charismatics. There were the ex-evangelicals who became charismatics, and who were moving away from evangelicalism. And then there were non-Christians who were converted in a charismatic or Pentecostal church, and were moving towards evangelicalism. The problem when you met a charismatic was that you had to work out which direction they were travelling, in order to know what to say.
Rarely did the ex-evangelicals ever come back to the Bible. They tended to keep going into more and more charismatic extremes and often out of Christianity. But for the non-Christian who became a charismatic… usually that was their first ever taste of the gospel of Jesus, and when they had it explained more clearly to them they continued on a trajectory away from charismatic theology. So there were several years in which I was preaching as if the congregation were ex-evangelicals, when they really were ex-non-Christians. I was being too harsh in what I was saying because I was misreading the people who I was speaking to.
TP: Let’s think about church life more generally. Looking back on the various things you’ve done over the years (and you’ve always been someone who’s tried things, who’s experimented) what have you learnt? What blunders did you make in the tactics of church life and church planting?
PJ: Oh, sometimes travelling too slowly. By 1982, we had filled St Matthias church on a Sunday night, and then we couldn’t work out what to do. For two or three years we ran with a full church, until we worked out that we could take the students out and start a new church on Friday night in a lecture theatre. Now it’s hard to imagine how radical an idea it was to move out of a church building and into a lecture theatre, or to move away from Sunday night onto a Friday night. But as soon as we did it, we started building a new church. Within three or four years we had two congregations the same size. But the thing is, we lost three years, just because we were too slow to work out what do to and how to do it.
Another mistake is to use the wrong venue. Venues do matter in churches. In the early 90s, we combined three congregations and went into Unisearch House, which I don’t think is there anymore. It used to be a bowling alley, and had a very low ceiling. We had about five or six hundred people, and it was oppressive. It’s profound the effect architecture has on you. Nobody liked being there. And I didn’t like being there. I liked being there with the people, but it just wasn’t a pleasant building to be in. Your spirits dropped when you entered it, I don’t know why.
TP: They probably had one of those big machines in the basement that sucks the life out people.
PJ: Yes perhaps that was it! Sometimes God also turns your mistakes into unlikely successes. One of the congregations we folded into that larger meeting in Unisearch House had originally been a Wednesday night congregation. That was one of our brilliant mistakes. We had set it up to reach city workers, and the whole pattern, the way we did it, the serving of a meal beforehand—it was all to reach city workers. And we got about, I don’t know, 40 or 50 city workers to come and plant it together. Within two years, hardly any of them were in the church and, although the church had grown to 100, none of them were city workers. They were shift workers, and all kinds of people, many of whom were marginalized in society. And so we completely failed to reach the people the church had been planted for; so that’s a mistake. But over the years we found that there were more people converted in that congregation than in almost any other we ran. It never grew beyond 100, because the kinds of people it attracted were the kinds of people who needed a small church, who could not cope with a large church. So as soon as the church grew beyond a hundred they left. And other people would come in. So it looked like a failure, and struggled to be self-sufficient. But in terms of seeing people converted it was a huge success—just not the success we had aimed at. So it was a brilliant mistake.
TP: Let’s talk politics. You’ve been actively involved in Anglican politics over many years. I don’t mean that negatively, as if politics is a bad thing. Politics is just the way humans organize themselves in a group. But looking back at all the ins and outs of that involvement, are there things you wished you’d done differently?
PJ: Once again, I would say naivety was a major failing, especially early on. I trusted the Anglican Church too much. I was raised on the 39 Articles and the Prayer Book of 1662, and on the idea that as a denomination we were constituted by law, and that we had all the safeguards of constitutional authority. But of course, that was a nonsense, because I discovered that the Anglican constitution was only ever used to hold back evangelicals from the work of the gospel. It didn’t hold back other people—you could believe the most outlandish heresy and wind up as an Anglican bishop leading a diocese. You could practice certain immoralities and still wind up in positions of power. But if you wanted to change a jot or tittle that might advance the cause of the gospel, you would find all kinds of people against you.
I went to General Synod—which is the governing body for Anglicans around Australia—and that was a mistake. We discussed a new prayer book that they were putting forward and I thought that those proposing it believed what they were saying (when they said that they stood by the 39 Articles and the 1662 Prayer Book). But they clearly didn’t believe what they were saying, because when I pointed out major inconsistencies between the new prayer book and the 1662, I was shouted down and overruled. At one General Synod meeting, people stamped their feet and scraped their feet on the ground as I spoke—the kind of rudeness that you wouldn’t even expect from a non-Christian, but this was the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Australia.
The Anglican Communion around the world is full of lovely Christian people. But it’s also full of people who are Christianized by culture, but have moved so far away from their understanding of Christianity that they will approve that which is sin and deny that which is truth. Which is the total antithesis of Christianity.
TP: Thinking of Sydney Anglicanism and its politics, one of the most significant periods was the 1990s—I’m thinking of the founding of the Reformed Evangelical Protestant Association (REPA), your involvement in that, and the archepiscopal election that took place… Looking back on all those events, what mistakes do you think you might have made?
PJ: I made the mistake of not spending enough time with people, explaining myself to them, listening to them carefully, and re-explaining myself in their terms so that we shared a common mind. It’s a mistake I keep making. You mentioned REPA. I didn’t understand how much people saw it as a political movement, because for me it was spiritual. Our diocese was suffering from a profound spiritual malaise—of complacency and self-satisfaction—and we were not confronting the evangelistic needs of our society by changing in a way that could reach our community. I formed REPA to address that issue, and to drive change. But in the process, my friends nominated me for the role of archbishop in 1993, and I allowed them to do that. But I didn’t understand the degree to which people then thought that the whole REPA thing was a political move to get me elected. When I stood for archbishop, it proved their point, and so they then didn’t have to listen to the spiritual challenge that I was trying to bring because, after all, it was just an attempt to get me elected. I never thought that the spiritual change necessary in our diocese could be done by an archbishop. If my friends thought that this was the best way of using my gifts and time, I was willing to allow that to happen.
TP: But looking back you wish you hadn’t?
PJ: Yes, in some ways I wish I hadn’t. It was a very hard decision at the time. Was it a mistake? Yes, because it derailed people from hearing what I was saying. That was the mistake. The important thing is not the message sent but the message received. And if you don’t spend enough time explaining your message, correcting misperceptions, and explaining again, then you might send the right message but it’s not heard properly. And I think the REPA message was not heard properly because of the political processes that were involved.
TP: Well, knowing what you do now, thinking back over decades in ministry: if you were talking to a young man or woman in ministry just getting started, what would you say to them?
PJ: You’ve got to take up your cross and follow Jesus. So this is no career move for the faint-hearted. This is no career move for someone who wants an easy life or a nice life. You’re not going to be accepted, and you’re not going to be liked: you are following the crucified one.
So grasp that reality before you start. That’s not an invitation for nasty people to join the ministry. If you enjoy conflict you have a spiritual problem. But if you withdraw from conflict, or think you’re going to win people over by niceness, you have a major problem because you’re not actually dealing with Christianity. People like using the suffering servant of the cross as an image of loving service. It is that. But it is also an image of painful martyrdom and alienation and rejection. That’s what Christian ministry is always going to be about.
Secondly then, it’s really important to be at one with your spouse about it. Family life is really important, and without a good wife beside me I could not have survived the years that God has given me in the work that I’ve been doing. Helen’s strength has been massive in enabling me to do what I do.
The third thing is: expect to make mistakes. It’s okay to make mistakes. In fact, it’s good to make mistakes. A person who hasn’t made mistakes hasn’t tried hard enough. You can’t be in a people ministry without making mistakes. You can’t be in something as complicated as Christian ministry without making mistakes. But you’ve got to learn how to deal with mistakes. You’ve got to be able to say, “Yeah, I got that dead wrong. I need to say sorry, and to fix up the things I can fix up, and to leave the rest to God. I have to pick myself up, dust myself off, and start all over again.” Mind you, some mistakes have consequences that you bear for the rest of your life. You can’t avoid that.
And finally, I would say: make sure you go to Moore College and be trained properly—trained so that you can keep learning, and growing in knowledge and understanding, and not be locked into a closed framework of mind.
TP: Thanks for talking to us today.