How I came to my life’s work

Today my three latest books were launched at the meeting of the Presbytery and Synod of South Australia: People, Places and PlanesManifesto for Renewal and  The Basis of Union: A Commentary by J Davis McCaughey.


In different ways, each of these publications reflects my thirty-four year preoccupation with researching, writing and teaching about the Basis of Union of the Uniting Church in Australia. As well as any number of articles and columns on the subject, I have other books that have emerged from this preoccupation too: Where Did the Joy Come From?Introducing the Uniting Church in Australia, and A Genuinely Educated Ministry.

I’ve done a lot of other stuff over the years, but this interrogation of the Basis of Union has become what you’d call my “life’s work”. In the introduction to the new edition of Manifesto for Renewal I finally wrote down (a version of) the improbable story of how I came to this work; how I went from being thrown out of the UCA and going into a very satisfactory exile in another country and another denomination, to being a passionate supporter, advocate, leader and even President of the Uniting Church in Australia:

On completing the prescribed course of training for the ministry of the Word I was directed into “secular employment”. That was the church’s way of saying, “You’re dropped”. It wasn’t that I had performed poorly as a candidate for ministry. On the contrary. But I had ended up in deep conflict with the Synod Settlements Committee as it tried to work out what to do with me during an awkward nine month hiatus before I took up a place at St Andrew’s University in Scotland to do a Postgraduate Diploma in Ecumenical Studies. The details don’t really matter here, but the affect it had on me does.

It was 1980. Little more than three years since the inauguration of the Uniting Church in Australia. I was twenty two and devastated. How could I have been so wrong about my sense of call to the ministry? How could the church be so wrongheaded in its management of my vocation? What is “ministry” anyway beyond this stupid, pointless, soul-destroying system? I was very hurt and very angry.

In the course of that final year at theological college my anger and frustration at the settlements process turned me into a difficult person to deal with and I became progressively more alienated from the church’s systems and practices. By the time the letter arrived, officially advising me to “get a job”, I was already working as a clerk in a legal firm. I was happy. Regular hours. Regular income. Regular people my own age. And the prospect of a career in the sensible field of Law – after I returned from Scotland having completed the Diploma. That adventure had already been planned and saved for and Heather and I were going ahead with it. Three terms of study followed by a few months backpacking around Europe. We were young after all. Plenty of time to get started on the new career when we came back.

But that’s not how things unfolded. It turned out that, away from the distractions and commitments of our life in Brisbane and with no other duty to fulfill than to attend my classes, write my essays and sit my exams, I was quite good at academic theology. My examiners recommended that I be encouraged to go on to doctoral research and I was invited to continue at St Andrews working on a PhD. That appealed to us. We were very happy in Scotland and were beginning to wonder if there might be a way that we could make our life there – far away from the painful associations that Australia held for us.

Having worked out how to finance an extended stay in Scotland with support from our families and part-time and casual work for each of us, the only question remaining was what I would research. That was easy. I was still angry and hurt about what had happened to me as a candidate for the ministry in the UCA. I wanted to expose the stupidity and duplicity of this new church and the way it approached ministry. And I wanted to do a root and branch job of it, starting with the negotiations for church union and uncovering the compromises and mistakes behind the system that had derailed my life and undermined my faith. Staying motivated is half the race in completing a PhD, and my supervisor thought that the thirst for revenge would be a reliable ally in getting me to the finish line. So it was agreed. I would research “The development of the understanding of ministry in the Australia church union negotiations 1957-1971” – and then watch them squirm.

But once again, that’s not how things unfolded. Within a few months my attitude had been completely transformed. As I investigated the long history of the church union movement in Australia, and especially what made the work of the Joint Commission on Church Union so distinctive, I became increasingly convinced that I was dealing with an authentically Spirit-led process – one that challenged the tired denominationalism and unimaginative institutionalism that I despised. And when I eventually got to a close study of the final version of the Basis of Union I was simply captivated. The vision crystallized within its eighteen short paragraphs was what I had been looking for – a vision that could guide me as a disciple and servant of Jesus and renew the community that gathered around him. All I wanted to do was to share what I’d discovered with my peers – my own generation; the first generation of the Uniting Church in Australia. I didn’t know it then, but I had found my life’s work.

If you’re interested, you could follow up one of my publications to see my version of that vision.

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