Matters Vital to the Life of the Church

The decision of the 15th Assembly on marriage has been raising all sorts of questions. The President has given the church an explanation of the decision  and the Assembly has also provided  an FAQ resource.  Questions about UCA theology and polity are also being raised. One of these concerns an obscure technical term, “vital to the life of the Church”. I’ll try to offer some explanation of that term and how it works within the UCA’s processes.

The phrase “vital to the life of the Church” originates in the Basis of Union (paragraph 15e) – that is, it’s not a traditional phrase in the church or theology. So it needed to be given content in the preparation for church union in 1977.

What the Basis says is, “It is obligatory for [the Assembly] to seek the concurrence of other councils, and on occasion of the congregations of the Church, on matters of vital importance to the life of the Church.”

Of course, it would have been anticipated that the Assembly would be constantly making decisions of very great importance in all of its areas of “determining authority” – decisions which are arguably “vital” to the life of the Church. But it would be impractical for all of that to be referred, after decisions had been made, back to the other councils for “concurrence” (which was also not defined). The Presbyterian Church had a “Barrier Act” which, as the name suggests, was designed to ensure that Presbyteries could maintain limits on the Assembly. There was no appetite for that to continue among Presbyterians coming into church union and Methodists and Congregationalists had never admired the process. So whatever was intended in the Basis of Union about seeking “concurrence” on “vital” matters, it wasn’t a version of the Barrier Act.

In preparation for the inauguration of the UCA, a Constitution Commission had the task of designing the constitutional structure for the Uniting Church in a way that was consistent with the Basis of Union – operationalising the vision of the Basis of Union, if you like. Among its many challenges was to give some content to the part about “matters of vital importance to the life of the Church”, and it did so in s.39:

On matters which, by a two thirds majority vote, the Assembly deems to
be vital to the life of the Church, the Assembly shall seek the concurrence
of Synods and/or Presbyteries and/or Congregations as the Assembly may

That is, in practice a matter is “vital to the life of the Church” if the Assembly determines that it is by a 2/3 vote. And if it so determines, it will also determine what will amount to “concurrence” and from which other councils it will seek “concurrence”.

A proposal to that effect was before the Assembly in Melbourne after the decision on marriage and it was debated. Arguments in favour of declaring the decision “a matter vital to the life of the Church” included:
1. that this decision on marriage was a fundamental departure from the Christian tradition and/or
2. that it would threaten ecumenical relationships and/or
3. that it would cause deep division within the UCA and/or
4. that people would leave the UCA because of it.

Arguments against the proposal included
1. that the doctrine/s of marriage is not and has never been central to Christian doctrine and/or
2. the Doctrine Working Group had demonstrated in their report how support for same-gender marriage could have a sound biblical and theological basis and/or
3. that our ecumenical partnerships were more robust than was being claimed and included an understanding that the UCA took a different line on some important matters (e.g. women in leadership, accepting divorce) without ceasing to be genuinely Christian and/or
4. not only was there already a clear difference of opinion within the UCA on this and related matters but the decision actually strengthened the traditional view and practice while it allowed for an innovation in line with previous Assembly decisions concerning homosexual people in leadership and the full participation of LGBTIQ members in our fellowship. It was further argued,
5. that this Assembly was bringing to a conclusion a 6 year process of discussion and study on marriage which had tried to involve the wider UCA (admittedly without getting the kind of engagement it would have liked). Using the “vital to the life of the Church” trigger would simply commit the church to a period of intense, divisive, probably hurtful debate on something which, in all honesty, isn’t actually “vital”.

The proposal that the Assembly deem its decision on marriage as “vital to the life of the Church” was not supported.

S.39 of the Constitution then adds a further avenue for something to be deemed “vital to the life of the Church”:

(i) If within six months of a decision of the Assembly, or its Standing
Committee, at least half the Presbyteries within the bounds of each
of at least half the Synods, or at least half the Synods, notify the
President that they have determined that in their opinion
• a decision includes a matter vital to the life of the
Church; and
• there was inadequate consultation prior to the decision
the President shall notify the Church that the decision
is suspended until the Assembly has undertaken further

Some Presbyteries and Synods will probably have proposals to that effect before them. So what would happen a sufficient number of Presbyteries or Synods passed those proposals? Well, this:

The Assembly would determine what “further consultation” would take place – and I have no insight into what that might be. It could be anything from a gathering or gatherings of interested parties to a process like the one used for Constitutional changes (which requires the approval of “a majority of the Synods and two-thirds of the Presbyteries” s.72). I would be very surprised if it involved anything remotely like a plebiscite. The Constitution goes on:

(ii) Following this consultation, the Assembly shall determine whether
to affirm, vary or revoke the original decision and report its decision
and reasons to the Church;
(iii) No action taken in reliance on a the original decision of the
Assembly prior to the President’s notification to the Church under
clause 39(b)(i) shall be invalid by virtue of that notification;
(iv) This sub-clause can only be used a second or subsequent time on
the same matter if the Assembly determines to vary the original

That is, in the end it still remains the Assembly’s decision. Moreover, if the Assembly decided not to vary its original decision on marriage, that would be the end of the matter.

My gut feeling is that the energy being expended on having the decision on marriage declared “vital to the life of the Church” would be better spent on finding ways to live together in our disagreement on this issue – faithfully and with integrity. As I’ve said elsewhere, this is the Uniting Church’s particular vocation in a divided society and a divided world. The so-called “culture wars”, in which this is just one battle field, are carried into the life of the church by its members, but it is our calling to show what it means to love our “enemies” within the Body of Christ.



  1. How sad to hear that this debate has become a grounds for significant division within our church. Thanks Andrew for this response I for one would concur with your final comment that expending more energy on seeking a way in which we might demonstrate our unity in diversity would be a greater imperative.

  2. Why is it that so often when the Assembly makes a positive move with regard to our first peoples, that gets overshadowed by arguments about sex?

  3. If ultimately, the Assembly holds “the power”, and if they are likely, no matter what, to opt for ‘no concurrence” with congregations as the Basis suggests it should seek “on occasion”, then it will be a stubborn deed done against the general intent and ethos of the UCA.

    Interrelated councils are for inter-relating, and for governing the church. They are to give heed to other councils with a view to Christ speaking through any of them, and thus to maintaining the unity under Jesus Christ.

    Not giving heed to the Congregations, and the councils of local churches, the primary expression of the church, is against the ethos of the UCA. The matter will not come to an end with the Assembly merely repeating its decision as final. It may, sadly, open the way for painful schism.

    Many others are seeing the matter with clarity:

  4. Thank you Andrew for this contribution in opening up these clauses of the constitution. I would make one additional point regarding the nature of clause 39(b). In commissioning the work which gave rise to clause 39 it specifically asked for a mechanism “so that it reflects the need for consultation rather than being a pseudo-Barrier Act style of wording”. Clause 39(a) was retained as the expression of the paragraph 15 in the Basis of Union whereas clause 39(b) was intended to provide a more contemporary mechanism which was more consistent with the practice of the church in two respects. The first was the practice which had emerged of consulting on major issues prior to them coming to the Assembly – the ‘set up a task group’ approach – which is now almost become the norm. The second was the move to utilising a consensus model of decision making. Crucially unlike clause 39(a) which only requires the determination that the matter is ‘vital to the life of the church’ in this case the determination is that the matter is ‘vital’ and that there has been ‘inadequate consultation’. This explains the remedy that is then provided, namely further consultation. Finally the threshold is set in such a way that it is triggered by a minority of councils which recognised the principle that it may be possible for the voice of the minority to have the insight which would assist the whole. The mechanism in clause 39(b) was never intended to be a barrier act style mechanism nor even a replacement to ‘concurrence’ but a contemporary mechanism in which councils may both wait, “upon God’s Word, and to obey God’s will in the matters allocated to its oversight.” and allow, “[e]ach council will recognise the limits of its own authority and give heed to other councils of the Church, so that the whole body of believers may be united by mutual submission in the service of the Gospel.”

  5. Andrew, a pertinent essay to this discussion could well be “A Theology of the Enemy” by Barbara G. Green. In some ways it’s a bit dated but its relevance is incredible. It appeared in The Peacemaking Struggle: Militarism & Resistance, edited by Ronald H. Stone and Dana Wilbanks, published by University Press of America, copyright 1985. Hope you find it useful.

  6. Yes, Andrew, as you have correctly pointed out, the Assembly has all the power. And the Assembly, because of its small size and unrepresentative constituency, has been making decisions for years that reflect its liberal theology. There are hundreds of congregations that would have left the Uniting Church years ago if they could take their property with them. However, their property, which they have built, paid for and maintained, is legally owned by the Synod which has all the power over it. So all of these congregations are unwilling prisoners of a denomination whose practiced theology is alien to them. Some, whose property is of minimal significance to them, may be willing to pay the price of freedom and leave their property behind. But for others (e.g. the large evangelical congregation), the congregation cannot exist without the property that contains them.
    With Andrew’s idea of natural justice he and other Assembly leaders must feel very pleased that they have all the bases covered.

  7. the arrogance and assumption that assembly can be without question on such things is mind boggling. this departure is creating not just a schism in the church but is itself a different religion all together. Where the lordship of christ is missing, where authority of the scripture is constantly in doubt, where the Holy Spirit is no longer believed to be powerful enough to transform a life… this is no longer christianity. we can take comfort in our rules and regulations and by laws and polity. but that is not the way of Christ. he has made his will plain to us. we ignore it at our peril and leading others astray will reap its own consequences.

  8. I feel compelled to offer the following four observations to this blog:

    1. I am disappointed, but not surprised, that the same person who presented Proposal 8 to the Assembly, which called for the removal of “man and woman” completely from our Marriage doctrine, would now be discouraging those who may choose to accept the invitation of Clause 39 (b)(i) of our Constitution to offer THEIR OPINION as to whether this issue is vital to the life of the Church.

    2. Many Presbyteries will now be meeting to determine if, IN THEIR OPINION, this issue constitutes a matter vital to the life of the Church and whether, IN THEIR OPINION, the level of consultation and engagement with the whole Church was sufficient for a decision of this importance. Nobody has the right to tell the members of the Church what their opinion should be or why their opinion is invalid before it is even expressed. With all due respect to our former President, if our people believe this issue is vital to the life of the Church, then Clause 39 (b)(i) invites them to offer that opinion without interference or judgement.

    3. I am absolutely stunned to learn that one of our Church’s most respected leaders actually believes that defending 2,000 years of Christian belief and tens of thousands of years of cultural understanding of marriage is now nothing but a “culture war carried into the life of the Church by its members.”

    4. Surely the best way to determine if something is vital to the life of the Church is to ASK THE CHURCH. Why else was Clause 39 (b)(i) even written? So can we PLEASE allow the members of the Church to speak, if they so choose?

    • Thank you Rev. Robert Griffith for saying so clearly what so many people are now thinking.

      Apart from this mechanism, being allowed to function, the notion of being governed by inter-related councils just gives way to a form of church, where the Assembly, (advised by the change-proposing President), functions more like a pre-Reformation Pope.

      There is a Rumble in the distance. It is the gathering discontent of thousands of UCA members, who can read for themselves then words of the Basis of Union, and of the bible.

  9. Thank you Rev. Robert Griffith for detail of workings of Assembly. As a Lay-minister in Placement, ordained in another denomination I am not up to speed with the detail of UCA Polity. Some things however, are obvious. That the members have not been canvassed as to whether or not they endorse this change to marriage definition is a travesty of natural justice – and smacks of unbiblical pre-reformation practice. If there is a common will for the future of a truly Uniting Church I can only endorse the opinion that the members be asked as they will be an integral part of that future. Yes, real estate will play its part, but combined with the age demographic in rural areas that alone will not be sufficient. A work of the Holy Spirit alone will bring this about, and holiness and obedience to God’s Word are foundational to this.

  10. your right about the energy its taking up. Honestly I kinda wish they had just made a decision either way not lets have both, which wont work. I can not see how we can unify if we completely disagree theologically with each other… theres no going back now tho and I think the UC knows that. The next few months will be interesting and I really pray we can close this chapter and focus on telling people about the love of Jesus and the way HE transforms lives. Also have you written the theological post about why its ok in scripture yet?? Still love to read it. Thanks

  11. […] The Assembly’s usual way of seeking this “concurrence” has been to engage in extensive consultation with Synods, Presbyteries and sometimes Congregations on matters of special significance.  This consultation takes place prior to an Assembly’s deliberation on an issue or, just as often, between several Assemblies as a particularly challenging or complex issue stays on the church’s agenda.  But, in the end, only an Assembly has the authority to make the “determining” and “guiding” decisions in its distinct area of responsibility.  If one Assembly makes a decision that turns out to be unworkable or just wrong, the next Assembly can revisit the matter with a fresh membership and the feedback of the other councils which have selected them for this service. I’ve attempted to explain the way the Constitution’s provisions on “matters vital to the life of the church” here. […]

  12. Lets not forget in this argument that we are dealing with real people. Faithful gay and lesbian members of the Uniting Church who have loved it with their whole being, often since its inception. For many this move to stop the decision of Assembly is tearing their hearts and souls apart. Today I will marry two men who have been in a faithful, committed relationship for 31 years but there are some in the church who would say that relationship of love, hope and faith is not valid. So remember folk that as we argue about the decision of Assembly we also destroy the hopes and dreams of many!

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