Christ is the head of the church. The Uniting Church in Australia, like every other church, has policies and governance arrangements that reflect that conviction and keep it open to Christ’s leadership in an ongoing way. This is what is meant by church polity.
Christ is the head of the church. That means that the Uniting Church is not a democracy. It is a Christocracy. This needs to be said very plainly because we live in a democratic society and are used to the political processes of a liberal democracy. For example, in matters of government we consider it normal
- to have political parties competing vigorously for voters’ endorsement of their policies
- to be represented in parliament by an elected member
- to have the right to vote for a representative and, in referenda (or, more recently, in a non-compulsory opinion poll), to vote for our preferred option
- to submit to the will of the majority, however small or large
These assumptions don’t translate easily into the life of the church. The spirit of democracy can confuse Uniting Church members because the Uniting Church is not a democracy but a Christocracy.
Uniting Church governance is described in the opening sentences of paragraph 15 of the Basis of Union:
“The Uniting Church recognises that responsibility for government in the Church belongs to the people of God by virtue of the gifts and tasks which God has laid upon them. The Uniting Church therefore so organises her life that locally, regionally and nationally government will be entrusted to representatives, men and women, bearing the gifts and graces with which God has endowed them for the building up of his Church. The Uniting Church is governed by a series of inter-related councils, each of which has its tasks and responsibilities in relation both to the Church and the world.
“The Uniting Church acknowledges that Christ alone is supreme in his Church, and that he may speak to her through any of her councils. It is the task of every council to wait upon God’s Word, and to obey his will in the matters allocated to its oversight. Each 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 in mutual submission in the service of the Gospel.”
There are several points to be made here.
1. It’s God’s church, not ours.
The quotation speaks of “the gifts and graces with which God has endowed them for the building up of his Church”, and it affirms that “Christ alone is supreme in his Church”. The personal pronoun is important (not for its gender but because it is personal): The church is not its own and it does not belong to its members. It’s God’s church.
2. Decisions are made by councils, not individuals
In the reformed tradition of church organization it has always been recognised that decision-making in the church should be corporate and not individual. Further, those who participate directly in such corporate decision-making do so because the church has discerned in them the gifts for that task. It is a ministry – a ministry that God always gives to some but not to everyone. The church’s decision-making bodies include ordained ministers because the church has already recognized that they have the necessary gifts. Beyond the clergy, churches like ours have always looked among the laity for the same gifts and graces “fitting them for rule and oversight” (Basis of Union, paragraph 14(b)). The councils rely on their lay members, whose contributions carry the same weight as that of ministers in a council’s deliberations.
3. Oversight is exercised by councils
The different councils have different areas of oversight. Oversight (episcope, in Greek, the language of the New Testament) is very important in the organization of the Christian movement. In Christian history episcope, or oversight, came to carry a sense of supervision from a position of superiority. But the term is better understood as conveying a sense of focussed, directed, sustained attention coupled with responsibility for care; the kind of attention that a shepherd gives to the flock (1 Peter 5:1-4). It doesn’t imply status so much as focus. This oversight has both personal and corporate dimensions, but in the government of the church episcope is always corporate.
Councils exercise oversight by focussing on the matters concerning the well-being of the church that are allocated to them. And in practice, this focussed attention is given by seeking God’s will in those matters in a deeply prayerful, fully informed, irreducibly corporate way. So, for example, the Uniting Church’s councils routinely make use of table groups, interrupt their processes for prayer, and observe the practices of consensus decision-making rather than the more common parliamentary procedures.
4. Different councils have different responsibilities
Each council will have some matters concerning the well-being of the church allocated to their oversight but not others. That is, the oversight of the church as a whole is shared between the “series of inter-related councils”. Each council therefore has a responsibility “to recognise the limits of its own authority and give heed to the other councils” for the sake of the well-being of the church.
There are five councils mentioned in the Basis of Union, each with its own area of responsibility or oversight: the Congregation, the Elders’ or Leaders’ Meeting (which is now called the Church Council), the Presbytery, the Synod and the Assembly.
The Congregation “is the embodiment in one place of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church” (Basis of Union, paragraph 15 (a)). This is not said of any other council because it is not true of any other council. As Davis McCaughey (the President of the first Assembly of the Uniting Church) explained:
“Of the other councils it might be said that they exist to serve the ends of the Church which may be seen through two focal points: the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church as God’s people existing from Pentecost to the Last Day, and the embodiment of that Church in the local congregation where God in Christ draws men and women to himself by Word and Sacrament in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.”
And when he explained the organization of the Uniting Church in the years following union, Davis McCaughey insisted that:
“The councils of the church exist primarily to serve that basic unit, the congregation: to make sure that Word and Sacrament are available for Christ’s people, so that they can worship, witness and serve. Presbytery, Synod and Assembly are constituted for that purpose. Of course they may have other things to do as well, but they ought to remember that the further they get away from the task of simply serving Christ’s people gathered around Word and Sacrament the further they move from their own sphere of competence.“
The congregation’s particular area of responsibility is to “meet regularly to hear God’s Word, to celebrate the sacraments, to build one another up in love, to share in the wider responsibilities of the Church, and to serve the world” (Basis of Union, paragraph 15(a)).
That is, it is the congregation’s responsibility to be the church – in its own place and circumstances.
The Elders’ or Leaders’ meeting
The Elders’ or Leaders’ Meeting (the Church Council, as it is now called) has responsibility for “building up the congregation in faith and love, sustaining its members in hope, and leading them into a fuller participation in Christ’s mission in the world” (Basis of Union, paragraph 15(b)). It doesn’t matter very much what the Uniting Church calls this council. At the moment it calls it “the church council”. It is a way for the local church to recognize among its own members people with the gifts and graces for oversight of its own life and mission.
The Presbytery has a different focus of oversight, even though it is still primarily directed towards the congregations in its bounds. It is like a collective bishop (episcopos, in Greek). Davis McCaughey has explained that:
“The Presbytery must know the congregations and love them, must see that they are fed by the Word and nourished by the Sacraments, built up through pastoral care. Hence the importance of the role played by the Presbytery in seeing that congregations are enabled to call ministers… In all of this the Presbytery’s concern must be the maintenance of the Church in the unity of the faith and mission to which the Uniting Church is committed. It does this by…maintaining contact between congregations in its area and the life of the Church as that is mediated through the activities of Synod and Assembly. Like the bishop the Presbytery is the symbol of the unity of the Church.”
Fed by the Word and nourished by the Sacraments, built up through pastoral care, connected to the life of the wider church: ensuring that these functions are performed well is what it means for the Presbytery to “know the congregations and love them”.
The Synod was provided for in the Basis of Union not because the Uniting Church’s theology actually required it, but because Australia is a federation of states. For the church to effectively engage in mission in Australia it needed a way of organising itself in relation to the states. So the Synod has responsibility especially for providing administrative support and providing for the coordination of resources and of pastoral and missional concerns and priorities for the Presbyteries in its bounds. It also provides a point of communication and fellowship between these Presbyteries, the other Synods and the Assembly. It may not be required theologically, but the Synod is vital missionally.
The Assembly has “determining responsibility” in some areas and makes “guiding decisions” in others (Basis of Union, paragraph 15(e)). It has determining responsibility for
- the promotion of mission
- standards of theological education
- reception of ministers from other communions
- taking further measures towards the wider union of the Church
It makes “guiding decisions” on the responsibilities of the other councils. So for example, it offers “guidelines” to Presbyteries on the authorisation of lay persons to preside at sacramental celebrations, but the Presbytery actually makes case-by-case decisions. Davis McCaughey explained the relationship between the Assembly and the other councils like this:
“The Assembly can only guide. If Presbyteries and Congregations follow, recognising the authority which comes from belonging to one another in the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, then the Church will be at peace. But, of course, Assemblies like all other councils can err; and on important matters it is therefore necessary that the Assembly should be prevented from acting without correction or concurrence from the wider body of the faithful. Therefore, the Basis of Union lays upon the Assembly the obligation to seek concurrence of others on matters of vital importance. Again it is important to notice that the Uniting Church is neither centralist nor hierarchical: each council has its own function to perform, and that in relation to other councils ‘so that the whole body of believers may be united by mutual submission in the service of the gospel’.”
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.
The church is not a democracy. It is a Christocracy.
The series of inter-related councils by which the church is governed, and the process of identifying members with the gifts and graces for the ministry of being representatives on these councils is the mechanism by which the Uniting Church seeks to be ruled by Christ, “on the way to the promised end” (Basis of Union, paragraph 18).
 J Davis McCaughey, Commentary on the Basis of Union (Melbourne: Uniting Church Press, 1980).
 J.Davis MCaughey, ‘Retiring President’s Address’, Minutes and Reports of the Second Assembly of the Uniting Church in Australia, 1979 (Sydney: The National Office of the Uniting Church in Australia, 1979) pp.46-49, at p.46
 Ibid p.93. Davis McCaughey’s reference to “the authority which comes from belonging to one another” is worth further reflection; especially in the light of recent disputes within the UCA on same gender marriage.