The courage to be one

The 10th Assembly of the World Council of Churches concludes tomorrow. It has been meeting in Busan, Korea since early last week. Its theme has been “God of life, lead us to justice and peace”.

I was privileged to participate in a side event that brought together other United and Uniting Churches around the theme of “the courage to be one”. One of the speakers was from the Uniting Church in Sweden, which was formed by a merger of the Baptist Union of Sweden, the United Methodist Church and the Mission Covenant Church of Sweden on 4 June 2011. She addressed the issues facing the church in a brand new union.

The other speaker was me, representing one of the “older” unions. What follows is the text that I spoke to on Friday afternoon last week. It was a tough call. What would you have chosen to focus on?


The Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) was inaugurated on the 22nd of June 1977, after a process of negotiation that began in 1957. Twenty years of effort may seem like a lot, but it was only the tip of the iceberg.

The journey towards church unity in Australia that produced the UCA began in the middle of the nineteenth century as the fractured and divided Protestant denominations began to heal their awful wounds becoming, by the early twentieth century united denominations like the Presbyterian Church of Australia or the Methodist Church of Australasia – united denominations, still divided from the other united denominations. From early in the twentieth century these denominations began to talk to each other, testing the possibilities for more inclusive unions. These negotiations involved the Anglican, Congregational, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches.

There followed nine sets of church union negotiations, seven involving different combinations of the denominations which would eventually form the UCA. These negotiations produced seven different schemes of union. Three united churches were formed – the United Church of North Australia (1956), the United Church in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands (1962) and, finally, the UCA (1977).

But the last one, the UCA, was different because it was formed on a quite remarkable Basis of Union. I’ve spent my whole career studying and writing about the Basis of Union and its unique fruitfulness for facilitating the renewal of the church in faith and mission. I could talk about it at length, but won’t now except to mention one thing. The ecclesiology of the Basis. It has several key aspects:

  • The church of God as a whole 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”:

“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.” (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. The church exists solely to be a sign, instrument and foretaste of the missio Dei.
  • 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.

The UCA continues to be a uniting church

The UCA continues to be a uniting church in the sense of providing a space within which divided denominations can be reconciled. The experience of Korean ministers and church members in the UCA provides an example.

The Uniting Church has partnerships with the Presbyterian Church of Korea (PCK), the Presbyterian Church in the Republic of Korea (PROK) and the Korean Methodist Church (KMC). During my visit to Korea last year the Moderator of the PCK spoke to me earnestly about the importance and difficulty of bringing together their divided denominations. He thought this might be one of the ways in which the UCA could help the PCK in the 21st century.

Through Rev Park’s eyes I saw for the first time the ecumenical significance of the inauguration of a UCA Korean Presbytery.

In December 2011 the 23 Korean congregations in the NSW Synod were brought within the oversight of the new Presbytery. It was the latest development in a long process of enabling Korean speaking congregations and ministers to participate more fully in the Uniting Church. And I’m told that they are genuinely enthusiastic about the Uniting Church and especially its Basis of Union. In fact, a portion of each Presbytery meeting is devoted to studying the Basis of Union, one paragraph at a time.

I had generally viewed this process as a practical example of the church’s commitment to being authentically multicultural. And that’s certainly the way it was reported. But seen through the eyes of the PCK Moderator, it was primarily an example of the Uniting Church’s ecumenical commitment and achievement. The Uniting Church wasn’t uniting with the PCK, the PROK and/or the KMC. But ministers and members of those three denominations (and some others as well) were finding that the Uniting Church and its Basis of Union could facilitate their union in Australia – even while it was still too difficult in Korea.

Another example is provided by the formation of a Sudanese National Conference within the UCA in 2012. It is one of a dozen “national conferences” within the UCA that create space for diaspora Christian communities to find access to the resources, encouragement and fellowship of a larger Christian community in Australia. When I attended the first gathering of the Sudanese National Conference I was very interested to discover that only a small minority identified with the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan – our partner church in that country. The majority were Anglican, Catholic or nondenominational in their background.

This is probably less an example of a kind of 21st century church union and more of a case of the extremes of violence and suffering making denominational allegiances secondary to finding healing and hope within the body of Christ. It is a kind of post-denominational phenomenon.

I say a “kind” of post-denominational phenomenon because there is another kind that is also evident in the life of the UCA – the kind created by the extremes of late-capitalism in the developed world. It is pronounced among the young who appear not to care very much about denominations but it is evident in older generations too. The UCA is not only comprised many former members of the denominations that united in 1977 – Congregational, Methodist and Presbyterian. People formed in many other denominations have found a place in the Uniting Church too. The last time I taught my course on “The Heritage, Theology and Polity of the UCA” the 20 members of the class identified 21 different denominations with which they had been affiliated and within which they had been nurtured in faith – and this was a class comprised of ordination candidates or ministers doing professional development, i.e. UCA leaders.

So, the UCA continues to be a uniting church in the sense of providing a space within which people who have no particular denominational identification can access the resources, encouragement and fellowship of a larger Christian community as they respond to God’s call on their life.

And, most importantly, the UCA continues to be a uniting church in the sense of accepting the call of God to embark and continue on the journey of reconciliation with Australia’s First Peoples.

One procession in a long journey with the First Peoples

It wasn’t on the schedule, but the 13th triennial Assembly of the UCA found itself on the steps of the South Australian Parliament. During the lunch break on the fourth day of the meeting all the members of the Assembly, many of the guests and visitors and some local UCA members (about 400 people) walked silently from the Assembly venue to the Parliament House of South Australia to hold a vigil in response to the passing of the federal “Stronger Futures” legislation. The decision arose spontaneously from the Assembly’s discussion of the report from the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress (UAICC), to which all the Aboriginal and Islander members of the Uniting Church belong and which has oversight of ministry by and with the First Peoples. The Assembly decided to walk to Parliament House to sing, pray and mourn the continuing disregard shown to the First Peoples of this land in a public act of worship and lament.

In the UAICC report the Assembly had heard first-hand stories of the impact of the Northern Territory “Intervention” on the lives, wellbeing and dignity of many people in Indigenous communities – including UCA members and leaders. It heard their despair at the passing of the “Stronger Futures” legislation which entrenches many of the discriminatory policies of the previous “Intervention”.

The Assembly and the UAICC did not want to deny the seriousness of the problems facing many Aboriginal communities or the importance of some of the new inputs to those communities provided for in the legislation. But it believed the lack of genuine consultation and the imposition of policies that were not developed in partnership with those who would be most affected compromised the legislative package as a whole, making it unlikely to achieve its stated goals. In the process it was experienced as disempowering and humiliating.

It wouldn’t have been unusual for an Assembly, hearing such a report, to express its concern in a resolution, say, to write to the relevant federal minister, or to encourage the UAICC and/or another of its agencies such as UnitingJustice or UnitingCare to continue advocacy on the issues. But on this occasion the Assembly chose to get up, walk to a public place, and to engage in an act of lament. This decision to make a specifically religious, liturgical response reflected an important change that has taken place in the relationship between the Assembly and the UAICC. I think we’d all assumed the change was essentially technical and symbolic, but it turned out to be more than that.

This was the first time an Assembly had met since the church had finally approved a new Preamble to the Constitution of the Uniting Church.

It was drafted in a long process of consultation between the UAICC and the Assembly, approved by the 12th Assembly in 2009 and the Synods and Presbyteries throughout Australia during 2010. The Preamble recognises that the presence of the church in Australia is a result of the colonization of the continent and dispossession of its First Peoples. It includes an honest acknowledgement of the ambivalent relationship of the church to the First Peoples, and confession of the harm done by the church. It also includes an important theological affirmation:

“The First Peoples had already encountered the Creator God before the arrival of the colonisers; the Spirit was already in the land revealing God to the people through law, custom and ceremony. The same love and grace that was finally and fully revealed in Jesus Christ sustained the First Peoples and gave them particular insights into God’s ways.”

This is thoroughly conventional Christian theology – the kind of thing that is commonly said by evangelical and liberal, conservative and progressive theologians. But it is the first time any Australian church has gone through the long process of taking this thing that theologians have been saying for a long time and embedding it in formal doctrine. For the UCA, most of the things theologians discuss don’t need to be regarded as official doctrine, or teaching. The essentials are already well accounted for in the Basis of Union. But this needed to be treated differently. It is connected to the material circumstances of the most disadvantaged group in the Australian community – and the most vulnerable people in the Christian community. Of these peoples who have been treated with contempt and disdain the UCA says, the triune God has been with them from the beginning – long before European contact. Who they are and what they know matters deeply – regardless of how inconvenient or uncomfortable that might be to the Second Peoples.

The Preamble’s recognition of the theological significance of Aboriginal culture and history is accompanied by another important theological affirmation.

At the invitation of the UAICC, in 1994 the Assembly had entered into a solemn Covenant with the Aboriginal and Islander members of the church to work together for justice and reconciliation between the First and Second Peoples in the church and in the nation. The Preamble says: “the Church celebrates this Covenantal relationship as a foretaste of that coming reconciliation and renewal which is the end in view for the whole creation.” This is a big theological claim in the UCA’s perspective.

The Basis of Union affirms that the mission of God is to bring “reconciliation and renewal”. It is “the end in view for the whole creation”. Moreover, the UCA believes that the church exists solely to be a sign, foretaste and instrument of that “reconciliation and renewal”. Reconciliation is what the UCA is all about. So we must be a church that transgresses and transcends whatever divides our world.

That means being passionate about sharing the Gospel confident that it still has the power to heal and transform broken lives and societies. It means being a multi-generational, multi-ethnic, cross-cultural network of congregations and agencies with genuine relationships with people on the edges of Australian society and with Christian communities in Asia, the Pacific and Africa. It means working harder at enabling the participation and leadership of women in the church. And it means being a church with a passion for and practical commitment to reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.

And when any of this feels it’s just too hard it means finding the strength and hope to persevere in the knowledge that this “reconciliation and renewal…for the whole creation” is actually God’s work. Its fulfilment is already pledged in the ascension of the risen crucified Christ and in the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Now the Preamble to the UCA’s Constitution identifies the Covenant between the Assembly and the UAICC as a specific instance of everything we stand for. Not just a few concerned people, not just a couple of our sectional interest groups, but the UCA as a whole has come to make this affirmation. The First Peoples are not “them”, they are “us”. Improbably, uncomfortably, but wonderfully we have recognized that we are one body in Christ after all. And “if one member suffers, all suffer together with it” (I Corinthians 12:26).

That’s what the Assembly was doing on the steps of the South Australian Parliament House – not meddling in politics but being itself, church, and finding the courage to be one.


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