We are a pilgrim people?

This was the text of my two presentations at the Joint Conference of the CCC & TSPM (China Christian Council & the Three Self Movement) and the Uniting Church in Australia. The conference theme was, “One flock and One Shepherd”. It was held at Nanjing Union Theological Seminary, 18-19 September 2013.

Journeys Towards Unity in Australia

The Uniting Church in Australia was inaugurated on the 22nd of June 1977. The negotiations that led to this scheme of union were initiated twenty years earlier in 1957, with the formation of the Joint Commission on Church Union by the Congregational, Methodist and Presbyterian churches. This Joint Commission was established to lead a consultative process that would identify a basis on which the three denominations could unite. It issued two reports – The Faith of the Church (1959) and The Church: Its Nature, Function and Ordering (1963) – and two proposals (1963 and 1970) on the way to publishing the Basis of Union (1971) that would be voted on by the three denominations and become the foundation document of the UCA.

It was quite a journey. But it came at the end of an even longer journey towards church union in Australia – beginning in the last half of the 19th century.

Presbyterianism came to Australia in three divided denominations, the Church of Scotland, the Free Church of Scotland and the United Presbyterian Church. In Victoria the Free Church managed to split into two and the United Presbyterian split into three synods. So by the 1850s there were six Presbyterian denominations in Victoria and a similarly splintered church in the other Australian colonies.

The first reunion of Presbyterian churches anywhere is the world took place in Victoria in 1859. Presbyterians in the other colonies pursued the same goal, with the final reunion taking place in Western Australia in 1901. But these Presbyterian churches were still divided by the borders of the colonies. In 1884 the separate churches joined in a federal union which, in 1894 approved a scheme for organic union. But it had to wait until 1901 for the Presbyterian Church of Australia to become a reality.

Originally there were five separate Methodist denominations in Australia too – the Wesleyan Methodist Church, the Primitive Methodist Church, the United Methodist Free Church, the Bible Christian Church, and a very small contingent of the Methodist New Connexion. Between 1888 and 1901 these separated Methodist churches were gradually reunited, and in May 1904 the First General Conference of the Methodist Church of Australia was held in Melbourne.

In 1901 the first Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Australia affirmed its “sympathy with the great ideal of a United Evangelical Church of Australia” and appointed a committee “to consider the principles on which the Presbyterian Church of Australia is prepared to consider the question of a larger union.” An overture was made to other denominations and by the next Assembly, in 1903, conversations had been taking place with the Anglican, Baptist, Congregational, and Methodist churches.

From then until the Joint Commission on Church Union was formed in 1957 there were seven sets of church union negotiations involving different combinations of the denominations which would eventually form the UCA. These negotiations produced five different schemes of union. Two united churches were formed – the United Church of North Australia (1956), and the United Church in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands (1962).

It had been quite a journey indeed by the time of the inauguration of the UCA in 1977.

It is hardly surprising then that there is a “journey” theme in the UCA’s Basis of Union. But it is not, as might be expected, a theme celebrating this church union as the journey’s end, the task completed, the story concluded. On the contrary, the theme emphasises being on a journey as the normal condition of the church of God.

The church is a pilgrim people

Throughout the UCA’s Basis of Union the church’s existence is imagined as a journey, a movement, a process of ongoing exploration and change – on the way to a known goal: “that coming reconciliation and renewal which is the end in view for the whole creation” (Basis of Union paragraph 3).

It is evident from paragraph 1. There the churches that entered the union affirmed their sense of being a people on a journey, not yet at their destination. These churches:
“…look for a continuing renewal …declare their readiness to go forward together …remain open to constant reform …seek a wider unity…”

And in the last sentences of the Basis of Union, paragraph 18, the theme is still there:

“The Uniting Church affirms that it belongs to the people of God on the way to the promised end. The Uniting Church prays that, through the gift of the Holy Spirit, God will constantly correct that which is erroneous in its life, will bring it into deeper unity with other Churches, and will use its worship, witness and service to God’s eternal glory through Jesus Christ the Lord. Amen.”

But the key crystallization of this theme is in paragraph 3:

“The Church lives between the time of Christ’s death and resurrection and the final consummation of all things which Christ will bring; the Church is a pilgrim people, always on the way towards a promised goal; here the Church does not have a continuing city but seeks one to come. On the way Christ feeds the Church with Word and Sacraments, and it has the gift of the Spirit in order that it may not lose the way.”

Davis McCaughey, one of the key contributors to the drafting of the document, was very clear about the centrality of this theme: “There is nothing more important said about the Church anywhere in the Basis of Union than in these sentences” [ McCaughey, J Davis Commentary on the Basis of Union (Melbourne: Uniting Church Press, 1980) p.21].

This being so, there is nowhere better to begin to understand the UCA’s vision and vocation than in this metaphor “the Church is a pilgrim people”.

The church is not what it ought to be

Although it is familiar language these days, the description of the church as “pilgrim people” is quite strange. It appeared first in the early 1950s, in very specific circumstances. There is, of course, an ancient tradition of Christian pilgrimage. But the 16th century Protestant movement condemned pilgrimages as superstition and “works righteousness” and did their best to eradicate them. The word was preserved in later Protestant piety (e.g. the “pilgrim fathers”, or John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress) but only in a very individualized sense. It wasn’t used of the church as a whole.

The nearest language was that of “the church militant” (as contrasted to “the church triumphant”) although the images of the church as an army and the church as a pilgrim clash. There was a biblical precedent – if only in the King James Version, where the forebears of believers are called “pilgrims on the earth” (Hebrews 11:13) and Canaan is promised as “the land of their pilgrimage” (Exodus 6:4). But that’s it. The image of the church as a pilgrim was essentially unprecedented when it appeared in the early 1950s.

It was popularized by Marcus Ward, in 1953, in the title of his book The Pilgrim Church: An Account of the First Five Years of the Church of South India – read throughout the world, becoming a classic work in mission and ecumenism [The CSI was formed in 1947 in a controversial union that brought Anglican, Congregational, Methodist and Presbyterian churches together in a scheme that made some vital elements an outcome rather than the precondition to union.]. But it’s striking that Ward never actually used the term “pilgrim” anywhere in the text of his book. It’s only in the title. It just wasn’t part of the theological vocabulary then. It still had a whiff of “popery” about it. So he wasn’t confident about using it. Even in the introduction he explains the odd title of his book without ever using the word “pilgrim”!

He explained that in 1950 the Theological Commission of the CSI considered an invitation to contribute to an international symposium on the Nature of the Church:

“…the Church of South India represented a venture of Christian reunion of a kind that had not previously been attempted…. It seemed too soon for the new Church to attempt to contribute anything permanent or significant to ecumenical discussions. One member used the phrase ‘a Church on the wing’ to express our sense of being a Church in via, in movement but not yet having arrived. The idea was written into the chapter produced by the Commission…” [Ward, Marcus The Pilgrim Church: An Account of the First Five Years in the Life of the Church of South India (London: The Epworth Press, 1953) pp.10-11]

And from the time of that international meeting, and the report of the experience of the CSI in the first few years of its life, the idea of the church as a whole being on a pilgrimage began to catch the imagination of the ecumenical mission movement.

If Marcus Ward was shy about using the term he accidentally popularized, his CSI colleague, Lesslie Newbigin had no qualms at all.

Newbigin was a new CSI bishop, a prominent younger leader in the World Council of Churches that had been formed in 1948, and a persuasive proponent of the integration of the World Council of Churches and the International Missionary Council (that would take place in 1961). He cast the ecumenical vision of the church in the mission of God when it was new, sharp, energising and irresistible to that generation – the generation that included those who would in due course form the Uniting Church in Australia. In 1952 Newbigin delivered a series of lectures that were published the following year as The Household of God.

Newbigin said that “perhaps the most important thing” about the Constitution of the CSI “is the explicit confession that the Church is not what it ought to be”. He said,

“The Church is the pilgrim people of God. It is on the move – hastening to the ends of the earth to beseech all men [sic] to be reconciled to God, and hastening to the end of time to meet its Lord who will gather all into one. Therefore the nature of the Church is never to be finally defined in static terms, but only in terms of that to which it is going. It cannot be understood rightly except in a perspective which is at once missionary and eschatological. …When the church ceases to be one, or ceases to be missionary, it contradicts its own nature. Yet the Church is not defined by what it is, but by that End to which it moves, the power of which now works in the Church, the power of the Holy Spirit which is the earnest of the inheritance still to be revealed.” [Newbigin, Lesslie The Household of God: Lectures on the Nature of the Church (London: SCM Press Ltd, 1953) pp.25-26, my emphasis]

By 1954, at the Second Assembly of the WCC at Evanston, the report included a long section under the heading “The Pilgrim People of God”. The theme was important also at the Third Assembly at New Delhi in 1961 and again at the Fourth Assembly, at Uppsala in 1968. It also found its way into the revolutionary statements of Vatican II, in Lumen gentium (Art 8) and the Decree on Ecumenism (Art 3).

The final drafts of the Basis of Union were completed during 1968, just at the time when the image of the church as a pilgrim people had secured its place in the vocabulary of faith.

There are several important features of the way that image is used in the Basis of Union and in the UCA.
• It is the church of God as a whole which is described as “a pilgrim people” – called in Abraham, empowered at Pentecost, living in anticipation of “the final consummation of all things that Christ will bring” (Basis of Union paragraph 3).
• The UCA “belongs” to that pilgrim people along with every other Christian fellowship – Catholic, Indigenous, Protestant, Orthodox, Pentecostal.
• The end, or goal of that pilgrimage is “that reconciliation and renewal which is the end in view for the whole creation” (Basis of Union paragraph 3) – an end of which the church, as a fellowship of the Holy Spirit, is a foretaste, sign and instrument.
• In the light of that end denominational forms, customs, habits are transient. They are gifts to sustain the pilgrimage in its different stages. A continual process of discernment is required of each Christian fellowship to recognise the gifts of the Spirit provided for today and to release ourselves from the futile effort to recover gifts that were mean for a past day.

When the church ceases to be one or missionary it contradicts its own nature

In those lectures in 1952 Newbigin defined the Church as:

“…a visible company in every place of all who confess Jesus as Lord, abiding together in the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers… Its form is the visible fellowship, not of those whom we choose out to be our friends, but of those whom God has actually given to us as our neighbours. It is therefore simply humanity in every place re-created in Christ.” [Newbigin op cit, p.21]

This understanding of the church was echoed a decade later in the 2nd Report of the Joint Commission on Church Union:

“The Church in one region, in fellowship with other regional churches, has been regarded from the beginning as embodying the fullness of the Church’s life (1 Cor. 1:2). A congregation gathered by God in one place and living by his Word and sacraments in godly discipline, was and ever has been the characteristic expression of the life of the Church… Here is the relationship of believers in which men, women and children alike are called to recognise each other as loved creatures, and to allow God in Christ to break down every barrier that divides, so that they may participate in, and show to the world, the unity of their life in the family of God.” [Joint Commission on Church Union, The Church: Its Nature, Function and Ordering (Melbourne: Uniting Church Press, 1984 [1963]) p.43]

But there also appears to be a subtle narrowing of vision in the Joint Commission’s version of this ecumenical consensus. Whereas Newbigin spoke of “a visible company in every place of all…” the Joint Commission refers instead to “a congregation”.

Literally speaking, “a visible company in [one] place of all who confess Jesus as Lord” would be “a congregation”. But in the towns and suburbs of Australia in the 1960s a congregation shared its place with a multitude of other Christian congregations – from which it was divided. In practice, the “relationship of believers” did not extend to believers in the other congregations in that place. Nonetheless, within each of those separate congregations “men, women and children alike are called to recognise each other as loved creatures, and to allow God in Christ to break down every barrier that divides”. Furthermore, the purpose of church union was to call the members of Congregational, Methodist and Presbyterian congregations “in every place” to respond to that call in relation to one another. And there was a hope and expectation by those who led the church union movement that, through the work of the Holy Spirit, ways would be found eventually to transgress the rest of the denominational boundaries “in every place” making the unity of the church truly “visible”.

By the time the Uniting Church was finally formed, in 1977, no one still believed that formal church union would be one of the ways (let alone the primary way) that this vision of “a visible company in every place of those who confess Jesus as Lord” would be realised. And there was no consensus on what other ways were coming to hand to express Christian unity beyond our own organisation.

But there were several to pursue:
• continued commitment to ecumenical organisations local, regional, national and international;
• partnerships with churches of similar traditions in other countries, especially in Asia and the Pacific;
• coalitions with agencies of other denominations around particular concerns such as peacemaking, gambling or the fair treatment of asylum seekers;
• negotiations with partner churches overseas, such as Presbyterian and Methodist denominations in Korea, Tonga or Fiji, to provide support and oversight for their congregations in Australia;
• extending the hospitality and support of the UCA to groups of Christians of diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds in a dozen “national conferences”, many of which include members of denominations that are divided in their country of origin;
• encouragement of non-denominational resourcing and renewal movements such as Willow Creek’s Global Leadership Summit, Tazé worship, Mission-Shaped Ministry, Messy Church;
• and participation and leadership in many different inter-denominational local initiatives in witness and service.

The church in the essential biblical form envisioned by the ecumenical mission movement of the 1950s and 1960s was utterly at odds with denominationalism. And it still is.

Rather than “a visible company in every place of all who confess Jesus as Lord” we’re used to single postcodes crammed with different denominations distinguished from each other by heritage, style, language, ethnicity, socio-economic status etc. Far from “the visible fellowship…of those whom God has actually given us” we form like-minded, like-mannered gatherings that suit us even better than the lottery of our immediate families. Instead of “humanity in every place re-created in Christ” we perpetuate all the divisions of the surrounding society and even add a few of our own from previous centuries.

In 1947 the CSI was formed as a refusal to perpetuate the sad sham of denominationalism in India – where Christianity was a minority faith bearing witness in one of the largest nations on earth. In 1977 the UCA was formed in an act of commitment to the goal of God’s mission: “that coming reconciliation and renewal which is the end in view for the whole creation”. Neither union expected to be the last word on the true form of the church. Both saw union as re-embarking on the journey as part of the pilgrim people of God.

“The Uniting Church affirms that it belongs to the people of God on the way to the promised end.” We belong to that pilgrim people, we don’t constitute it. Belonging to that people relativises the claims of our particular organization to “that coming reconciliation and renewal which is the end in view for the whole creation”. It means that our commitment to being “a fellowship of reconciliation” is not primarily that the UCA become more diverse and inclusive, but that the church be more visibly one. By the power of the Gospel the church of God is already gloriously multicultural, multi-generational, multi-lingual, multi-ethnic – especially in Australia – but we are divided. Our divisions conceal the sign and foretaste of “that coming reconciliation and renewal” that God has already given in the church. The challenge isn’t so much for the UCA to be multicultural etc., but for the church to be more visibly one. Then it will become clear that the life we have in Christ already “transcends cultural and economic, national and racial boundaries” (Basis of Union paragraph 2).

Church unions still happen sometimes, but we can’t put all our eggs in that basket. There are many other ways “to bear witness to that unity which is both Christ’s gift and his will for the Church” Basis of Union paragraph 1). For now, among the pilgrim people of God, it is a virtue to be careless about our denominational boundaries, a sign of maturity to be reckless in extending hospitality and cooperation to other denominations in a demonstration of “humanity in every place re-created in Christ”.



  1. I wonder if in the journey to the formation of the Uniting Church if there was reference to the documents of Vatican 2 where the image of the Church as a Pilgrim People towards the fulfillment of all things and the earthly Church as a sign and sacrament played any part in the Basis of Union. To me the parallels are strong and the Basis of Union seems to have a strong Catholic flavour.

    • I wondered that too, Nicholas. There are no documentary links that I’ve ever found. I asked Norman Young about it. He said that there wasn’t any influence from Vatican 2. The Joint Commission on Church Union was aware of the council but the division between Protestants and Catholics then (1957 to about 1968, when the Basis was largely complete) didn’t make for meaningful communication. The influences were all via the WCC and the strong personal relationships between members of the Joint Commission and the CSI. Having said that, there was a clear orientation towards a catholic sense of the faith. Again that was emerging in the Faith and Order Commission of the WCC.

      • Thanks Andrew, I wanted a little time to think further about your feedback and I wonder more not just about the new sense of Church that emerged from the ecumenical movement, from the ground breaking gathering in 1910 in Edinburgh onwards, but also from the liturgical movement that spread across the western churches and the kinds of sacramental theology that emerged that can be seen in the Lima liturgies of the WCC. I think a sense of journey and a realized eschatology does bear fruit in the concept of the ‘pilgrim Church’. I’m interested too in the concept of sojourner and the Pauline concept of ‘here we have no abiding city’ and how little the sojourner concept emerges in, for example ‘Pilgrims in a Changing Language’ that the SA Synod commends. Even the robes chosen for Ministers and Uniting in Worship seem to reflect a broadly catholic and sacramental understanding of the identity of the Uniting Church.

        I won’t add more but as an Anglican come to work in the UCA and drawn by the Catholic vision, sense of national mission and ‘high’ eccesiology of the Church I wonder why we don’t from my experience seem to engage very deeply with the whole Basis of Union as an open ended Uniting Church rather than the united church we seem to have ended up with?

        I find myself enthused by the Basis of Union as a document that combines the stability of an ecumenical consensus of faith with a organization ready to respond to the call of God in the here and now.

        thank you for your blog and for your leadership in our Church.

      • Beautifully expressed, Nicholas. I say Amen to “an ecumenical consensus of faith with an organization ready to respond to the call of God in the here and now”.

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