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.