Theological Diversity in the Uniting Church

Crosslight asked me to write this column for their July issue. There are important, confronting issues in the affirmation of diversity. I thought I’d share it here for those who miss the Crosslight issue: 2015-05-26 09.03.21

Theological diversity is a sign of health in the Uniting Church. That’s because the UCA was never intended to be anything more or less than “Christian”. There is room in the Uniting Church for an amazing diversity of theology because there is room in the Christian movement – the church of God – for an amazing diversity of people, languages, cultures and, indeed, theologies. And it has been like that from the very beginning.

The Uniting Church didn’t set out to be a new, distinctive denomination. It was supposed to be a new way of being “church” after the end of the three denominations that formed it and, in fact, an interim way of being church on the way to the end of denominationalism as a whole.

Having embarked on this journey “in fellowship with the whole Catholic Church”, the Uniting Church “lives and works within the faith and unity of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church” (Basis of Union paragraphs 1 and 2). So Davis McCaughey once warned that “the Uniting Church must be particularly careful not to develop a terminology which suggests distinctive doctrines. We have no identity to separate us from the Church of God.” On another occasion he said, “the only identity we need to focus on is that of ‘the church catholic, reformed and evangelical’” – a description that is so inclusive as to be subversive of any impulse to denominationalise Christian fellowship.

Denominationalism says: We are this, not that. We are these, not those. We are us, not them. By contrast, “The Uniting Church affirms that she belongs to the people of God on the way to the promised end.” (Basis of Union paragraph 18) Our diversity – including our theological diversity – is a sign of health. It is a foretaste, sign and instrument of that “promised end” to which the whole people of God is drawn.

Are there no limits? Of course there are. And the Basis of Union sets out those limits – especially in its first eleven paragraphs. But the limits are specifically drawn in such a way as to include the whole Christian movement. They presume that extravagant diversity which is the gift of the Holy Spirit.

The Assembly Working Group on Doctrine has described theological reflection as “the Church’s ongoing conversation about how to speak and live the gospel”. Keeping that conversation open and inclusive is a constant challenge for the Uniting Church. For it doesn’t only include voices from the obvious polarities such as Orthodox v Progressive, or Liberal v Evangelical. It doesn’t only include the difficult dialects of the various “adjectival theologies” such as ecological, feminist, missional, black, or post-colonial theologies. The UCA’s conversation about how to speak and live the gospel also needs to consciously include the lived experience and insights from the full breadth of our culturally and linguistically diverse fellowship – refugees from Africa or the Middle East, diaspora communities from the Pacific and Asia, converts from Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism or atheism, and, most fundamentally, the First Peoples from every part of Australia with their particular insights into the Gospel formed through their privileged relationship to this place and their distinctive experiences of dispossession, exclusion and disadvantage.

In this UCA conversation about how to speak and live the gospel, increasing diversity is a sign of rude health… as long as we can maintain mutual respect. So in 2000 the 9th Assembly endorsed a document entitled “Called to Community of Difference: A Uniting Church Charter” which was intended to guide this theological conversation. It has eight principles of behaviour. Each one has a brief explanation that you can read for yourself, but I’ll just share the headings here:

  1. Respect the personhood of others and their full membership in Christ.
  2. Practice strenuous tolerance in the Spirit of Christ.
  3. Listen to the person first and foremost then seek to understand his or her doctrinal position.
  4. Carefully respect the views and sensitivities of those with whom we are in disagreement.
  5. Avoid all inflammatory or demeaning words and never resort to vilification or harassment.
  6. Avoid comparisons, especially those that contrast your own ‘best case’ with other’s ‘worst case’.
  7. Be open to mutual conversion to the ‘more excellent’ way of Christ.
  8. Let uniting be the expression of our process, direction, and Godly hope as a ‘pilgrim people’.

To grasp what this might mean, I invite you to think of those who represent the theological perspective that you find the most offensive, foolish, flawed or dangerous. No really, bring them to mind. Then read through the eight principles again, imagining what each one means for your relationship to that theological “other”.

“Called to a Community of Difference” makes me reflect on a very familiar, ancient charter of behaviour addressed to a similarly multicultural, multilingual, theologically diverse church:

“I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:1-4)

8 comments

  1. Hi Andrew. Thanks for your reflection. I don’t often read your blog except when it pops up on my Facebook feed and I always find your words insightful.
    However, I really must express that after reading this post I find myself lamenting that the reality of the church I love and have been ordained as a minister in is not as you describe. I agree with your thoughts. Diversity in unity is beautiful. A loving post denominational church who embrace each other as brothers and sisters IS the church. But this is not our current reality.
    I have for many years tried to see things positively, to be optimistic, to believe that our theological diversity is more of a blessing that a challenge. Yet what I consistently see and hear is the very sentiment that you say Denominationalism is. “We are this, not that. We are these, not those. We are us, not them.” ‘That’, ‘those’ and ‘them’ in many cases are the churches that are so much responsible for my becoming, and still being a follower of Jesus – churches who are not mainline. I am embarrassed when colleagues speak of faithful brothers and sisters in Christ as the enemy. Often the language is subtle. But that doesn’t mean it hurts the body.
    This is not only a result of diverse theology. But it is a major factor. It is one thing to have differing views on certain aspects of our faith. It is another thing to look upon those whose views differ and believe we must not work together with or learn from them.
    And whilst I am not writing this to address theological extremes, we cannot deny that there are huge diversions from the boundaries set by the basis of union that you mention. They remain unaddressed and and seriously affecting our unity and diversity, not helping it.
    I don’t often share this, especially in open forums, but I do so now in the hope that you, our outgoing president will be willing to leave with our wonderful church a serious challenge. There is much to love and celebrate in our church. But we have some issues. Some big, scary issue. And it’s not just a little misunderstanding here and there. There are some serious flaws in our thinking, and they are permeating the church. Diversity is not diversity when it divides and separates.
    I’d love to chat with you further if you have the time.
    Yours in Christ,
    Rev. Luke Williams
    The Billabong Uniting Church, Canning Vale WA

    • Thank you Luke. You have expressed wonderfully what I feel. In fact, I would go a little further and suggest that in too many ways the UCA has become a dangerous place to express an alternative (read “conservative”) view. To be honest, I even hesitated a number of times before posting this.
      As a result many of us have done as you have and chosen not to express this in “open forums” or have simply given up and focussed our energy on seeking to grow healthy and holy communities of disciples of Jesus Christ (often alongside the very brothers and sisters from the “them” you refer to).
      The UCA is the only church I have known but I have, in recent times, found myself feeling that I don’t really belong – and increasingly like there is no place for people like me.
      If we are to truly be a movement and not a denomination this 38 year old union will need to do some serious, significant and painful reflection and take reasonably prompt action to move away from the denominationalism that has, I believe, begun to immobilise and constrict our witness. The question for me is, are we able to do that in our current structures and polity and do we really want to?
      Rev. Mark Greenlees
      from somewhere in the Illawarra (NSW)

  2. Great article, Andrew, particularly your statement that the UCA is “an interim way of being church on the way to the end of denominationalism as a whole.” Unfortunately, however, I find far too many enthusiastically one-eyed denominationalists within the UCA. As someone who has recently (i.e., yesterday) completed another term as an ecumenical staffer, I’m saddened to say that it’s as difficult to get UCA people “into” ecumenism these days as it is to get Anglicans and RCs “into” ecumenism.

  3. Hi All,
    I resonate with what you have written Andrew – and also with the respondants…
    I have just spent the day at our Partner Mission in Chiang Mai where the Church of Christ Thailand has a fantastic Ministry to people impacted by Aids/HiV… both people with the disease and their families and orphans whose parents have died from aids… for every challenge in relation to diversity, there is also hope, faith and love… Perhaps, our diversity lies not in what we ascribe to in our reasoning but is vested in whom we can act toward in love… loving unconditionally does not mean parking belief at the door – only certain behaviours.
    I do not believe we are called to ‘belong’ to a denominational club… I believe we are called to follow Jesus Christ, as a pilgrim people, guided by scripture, reason, experience, and the tradition expressed in the Basis of Union. The saint who gave me my first copy of the BoU was Rev Dr Geoff Barnes, who was one of the contributors… he invited me to read it as the call to a movement, not a denomination. So, today, I shared about the red bird logo with our friends in Thailand and talked about what we can learn from them.
    Loving the diversity of faith… and the way it forces me to come daily to God to ask the Way.

    Thanks for the post!
    Amelia

  4. I have come. with my wife, from a confessional church- the Lutheran Church, into the Uniting Church. I find it very denominational and unwilling to listen to opinions from anyone with experience outside the UCA. But I am concerned that the many theologies of the UCA lead to nothing of real value. For instance, the consensus of New Testament scholars is that the Doctrine of Justification by Grace Through Faith pervades the New Testament. Lutherans and Roman Catholics have signed a Joint Agreement on that Doctrine and agreed it is the doctrine upon which the Church stands or falls. The World Methodist Alliance added its signature to he Joint Agreement so it is a Methodist-Lutheran-Roman Catholic and, because the UCA is a member of the World Methodist Alliance, UCA as well. Or is that a fiction? If the UCA is not of one mind on that doctrine, neither is it of one mind in the Gospel. If it cannot accept what is the Gospel then the sacraments are meaningless. We might as well teach salvation by works using Buddhist meditation. Because, if that is the case we are neither Reformed, evangelical or catholic. Thus neither are you Uniting. If the UCA is soft on theology then its attitude towards baptism is that it is not essential for a new member to be baptised or confirmed, so there is no need for the minister to conduct a new members class. So effectively we rarely see a baptism and rarely see a confirmation or any service of admission to the Church. We rarely hear the Apostles or Nicene Creed confessed in services. These are creeds that are truly ecumenical and one would expect a Uniting Church to use ecumenical creeds. But there are those in the Uniting Church who do not accept all the doctrines these creeds summarise: Some do not accept the doctrine of the Resurrection so the whole eschatalogical promises of the Word of God are rejected as worthless. If there is no theological standard, as has been the tradition of most Reformed Churches and there is no prayer book that contains the liturgy of the Church there is no real discipline in the Church. Is it little wonder that the Strategy of the Church is floundering because we, together have no idea if we are pilgrims following God´s plan or some plan a sociologist dreamt up based on secular considerations apart from Scripture and the faith once delivered unto the saints. Sounds good on paper Andrew, but to me it spells disaster writ large. I was around when the UCA was being debated in the congregations of the Presbyterian, Methodist and Congregational Churches and these ideas were not originally present.
    Tom Davis, Orbost.

    • Hi Tom. Thanks for your reflections. Let me just say first that I regard the doctrine of justification by grace through faith as core to UCA theology. Unusually, it even gets an explicit nod in the Basis of Union – twice. In addition our commitment to the Apostles and Nicene Creeds secures the universal doctrines for today and the future and provides us with a lens to approach Scripture. I posted an old article of mine about this recently

      But I share your dismay at the poor use of the creeds in worship and catechesis in the UCA. And I am concerned at the neglect or even rejection of some key doctrines by some leaders. That being said, like St Paul I am just as concerned, if not more concerned when some of us ridicule or reject others of us whom we know are also Christians even if they are not the kind of Christians we understand or approve of or respect. It’s not that anything goes, but that anyone who is in Christ is my sister or brother. I agree that we have a problem with discipline in the church, and that’s what I was trying to get at in the blog – the biblical disciplines of being the body of Christ.

      Anyway, I’d love to have a conversation with you about this some time. I’m grateful for your comment and for the others too. It feels like something we do need to talk about in the church. Grace and peace to you.

  5. Theological diversity or development of thoughts on homosexuality never occurred either in the unfolding of God’s redemptive plan in Scripture or the universal (Catholic church) biblical interpretations of it.

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