Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Uniting Church Theology and History - February 2023.

This unit was introduced two years ago as a fully accredited academic unit within the University of Divinity. To make it an academic unit was very intentional. It was to signal that the unit is more than an professional/insitutional induction into the UCA. At one level, it remains this. But in its present form it drills down deeper into both the theology and history of the UCA by applying to it the sort of rigour, analysis and testing of assumptions that would be normal in any academic study. Some of the rationale behind this intention is spelled out in a blog I posted two years ago and which can be read here

The unit continues to be co-hosted with United Theological College in Sydney and co-taught with Dr Damian Palmer. As per the arrangement last time, we'll be live streaming into each other's class rooms, sharing the teaching, and variously hosting our guest presenters from different parts of Australia). Our respective content overlaps by at least 80%, but there is a an additional day for the Pilgrim cohort to address some additional issues.

On that extra day for the Pilgrim students, I will be taking the chance to interrogate a few claims that I think have  become very much part of UCA culture and rhetoric. Some, I fear, have become unexamined shibboleths. Here are a few:

"We don't read the bible literally, we read it metaphorically."

I will admit this has been bugbear of mine for quite a while, and I've written about it elsewhere. Sure, it's a handy polemical tool to distinguish a UCA  approach (and not only a UCA approach) to the Bible from that of those who identify as fundamentalists. But that's about all it does. To say we read the bible metaphorically is actually strikingly uninformative. The bible contains so many genres that its different parts invite being read in a whole mutlitude of ways. And by trading on this binary of literal and metaphorical, Christianity's long and complex tradition of honouring ways of reading beyond the literal, but which can't be neatly summarised as metaphorical, is obscured. And also obscured by this binary are wider issues relevant to the reading the Bible e.g.,  where we read it, why we read it, and what we might expect of it. Paragraph 5 of the Basis doesn't trade on this binary at all. Its own theologically important - and theologically open - categories are 'witness' and 'testimony.' These actually point to many other enriching dimensions of the church's varied practices of reading the Bible that go well beyond the choice of hermeneutical method. These other dimensions will be explored in the unit. 

"The UCA is the first uniquely Australian church"

Are we? And if so, what is at issue in making the claim? Certainly, the three antecedent churches were already self-governing churches that had broken free of their 'sending' churches in England and Scotland. They were themselves already results of earlier smaller-scale, intra-tradition unions. Neverthelesss, it is reasonable to say that this new church intentionally sought to develop its own traditions in and for this geographical and cultural context (i.e., Asia and the Pacific). It would not simply replicate those it had received from its parent churches located at the heart of European Christendom.This was no small thing, and the language used in the Basis about the value of the those earlier traditions, whilst not denying them, clearly relegates them to being of secondary importance. Be that as it may, the shadow that haunts this claim about being the first Australian church is the invisbility of First Nations people in the Basis of Union. In other words, in what "Australia" did this new church come to be? This must, I think, be received as a disconcerting reminder that the formation of the UCA, alongside all the other things it was, was a union of three settler-colonial churches. Perhaps it could even be argued that it was the last settler-colonial church formed in Australia. But the existence of this shadow has pushed the UCA to address it.The unit will explore how The Covenenant with UAICC, the Revised Preamble, as well as the statement, "We are a multicultural church" are steps towards a yet to be discovered identity as a church in Australia.*

(*There will be discrete sessions in the shared parts of the unit from the UAICC (Nathan Tyson) and on the cultural diversity of the church (Dr Sef Carroll). I will build on these to open up the issues named above. In doing so, in my own sessions I will also be drawing on, and am indebted to two recent academic papers by other UCA authors: Joy Han's "The Call to Transcend Racial Boundaries: A Critical Analysis of the Langauge in Paragraph 2" presented at the The Basis @ 50 conference hosted by Pilgrim Theological College in November 2021 (and to be published this year) and Dr Michelle Cook's "The Ecclesiology of a Covenanting and Multicultural Church" in Uniting Church Studies 24, no 2 (December 2022):21-32.)

"The UCA takes contemporary scholarship seriously"

Far be it from me to question the UCA's commitment to scholarship, but this claim is often heard (at least to my ears) as one that is intended to set us apart from other churches and not without hints of claims to the intellectual high ground. True, it might be one of the few churches (if not the only one?) which makes such an explicit commitment to the value of scholarship and the vocation of scholars in its founding document, the Basis of Union, paragraph 11. That, too, is no small thing. But we are far from the only church that makes significant investment in scholarship. And there are manifold problems with isolating the commitment to scholarship from the other vocations mentioned in paragraph 11. These problems are exacerbated by the very unhelpful post-union decision to give this paragraph the heading "Scholarly Interpreters" at the expense of any reference to the other vocations named in this paragraph: evangelist, prophet and martyr. In my view there is an additional problem with the isolation of scholarship - it cultivates the view that scholarship is decisive in theological discernment. Scholars equally committed to scholarship and equally gifted with scholarly skills can come to strikingly different conclusions on the same issue. (In my view, scholarship does it greatest work in developing disciplines of intellectual contemplation and producing wisdom rather than in shoring up theological 'positions.') In the end, the most suggestive feature for the UCA's theological discernment is found elsewhere in this paragraph: it is the summons to "stand in relation to contemporary societies in ways which will help it to understand its own nature and mission." This opens up important questions about the church's posture towards its neighbours and how that posture itself can be theologically generative. We'll explore these issues in the unit.

And one more thing....

This is not something I'd describe as a shibboleth. It's more an unresolved, but also unexamined, tension about our identity as a uniting church. You will often see or hear the UCA defined as a church standing in the Reformed and Evangelical traditions. This is true, but it is also a reminder that the adjective 'uniting' has not yet come to define or intepret itself; it has to be qualified by employing adjectives drawn from two of the different traditions of the post-Reformation Western church. This is a reflection of the fact that the ecclesiology, and theology more generally, of uniting and united churches is still too undeveloped for uniting to be an immediately informative descriptor. Perhaps it never will be. Whilst there was a mountain of theology developed in the mid-20th century to justify acts of union between churches, the theology that has emerged because of or as a result of being a uniting or united church is not only still emerging, it is also seldom studied. Indeed, this is a major gap in contemporary ecclesiology. Absent such reflection on being specifically a uniting church, the persistent use of "Reformed" and "Evangelical" to describe the UCA runs the very real risk that the "ecclesiastical carpentry" resisted by the writers of the Basis will actually triumph. Exploring how being unitng genereates its own theological and ecclesiological emphases will also be something I take up in this unit. 

Alot of these questions and issues are of abiding interest to me, and it is my intention to develop a book around them in due course (probably post-retirement). In the meantime, as well as looking forward to the insights that this unit's students will offer, I'd welcome any thoughts, observations and comments etc from anyone reading this. 

Friday, October 14, 2022

Faith has not been cancelled: a response to Barney Zwartz

Earlier this week I submitted the following piece to The Age as a response to Barney Zwartz's op-ed in last Sunday's edition, "It seems that faith is not only unacceptable, but now must be cancelled."  It didn’t make it into The Age - fair enough. But I thought I'd give it an airing here. It is the same genre and roughly the same length as the Zwartz piece. Nuance is often a casualty in op-ed pieces, as no doubt it has been in what I've written here. But even with the brevity and genre of an op-ed, I do think that Zwartz's argument is so lacking in nuance that it warrants some push back.


Barney Zwartz rightly claims that the “Andrew Thorburn fiasco raises complicated questions that are hard to reconcile.”

Yet Zwartz’s own claim about faith being “cancelled in the public arena” makes the task more difficult. It is inaccurate and an overstatement.

If we are to navigate the issues we will need more diverse understandings than those offered by Zwartz, not only of faith but also of the public arena.

All manner of Christians exercise significant public leadership in Australia’s public arena. The current Governor-General is a Christian. Five of our six most recent prime ministers are Christians. Several of our current state premiers are, and one of them is a self-described “social conservative.” 

Clearly, something more complex is going on in Australia’s relationship with Christianity than the reactions to the Thorburn case tell us.

For Zwartz, the issue is sex.

It seems to me that the critics’ fundamental disagreement with Christianity is over its view of sexual behaviour in general, rather than gay sex in particular.

This dividing line was sharply drawn in the Thorburn case, although his church’s specific teaching on homosexuality generated much of the controversy.

Zwartz doesn’t tell his readers that globally, Christians are themselves engaged in a difficult and long-term debate, with its own internal fault lines, about just how integral these traditional teachings on sexuality are to the way of Christ. 

Christians who do see the traditional teaching as a non-negotiable fault line will find themselves at odds with a culture which has adopted different sexual norms.

Flash points such as those we observed last week will not go away. Certainly, as they arrive, we could hope for less cavalier accusations of bigotry, less talk of persecution, and more religiously-literate social commentary.

That such flash points will occur does not mean that faith has been cancelled.

Nor does it mean that Christians who have less traditional views on sexuality have automatic access to places of public leadership. A Christian who, in following the way of Jesus, opposes neoliberal economics, and who chairs a church that profiles that opposition, would probably not be welcomed to leadership in either of our major political parties.

If Christianity is diverse, so too is Australia’s public arena.

Defining the “public” of a multi-cultural, multi-faith nation such as Australia is a difficult task. We live our national existence in a series of overlapping publics which continually negotiate their relationships with each other. The current discussion about the Voice to Parliament is a case in point.

To the extent that there is a public arena, it emerges as those relationships are negotiated.

Of course negotiations often break down. For some Christians (as well as people of other faiths) and for some secularists, that is where we are. Culture war is the only option.

With its lack of nuance, the claim “faith has been cancelled” is a salvo in the culture wars.  As were many of the categorizations heavy-handedly applied to all Christians last week.

Yes, faith in the contemporary public arena is complicated and challenging, and the Thorburn case  does raise “complicated questions” to which the diverse Christian community will have diverse responses. But it does not prove that faith has been cancelled.

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Church: God's Polycentric Experimental Community

This is a new ecclesiology unit at Pilgrim Theological College. I'll be co-teaching it with John  Flett in first semester. It adopts a new approach to the scholarly discussion and exploration of the church. 

This is the formal description of the unit's content:

This unit explores the roots of the Christian community in the messianic ministry of the crucified and risen Jesus Christ and the sending of the Spirit. It highlights the diverse embodiments of the church found in the New Testament and presents them as evidence of the ferment and de facto experimentation which characterised the formation and self-understandings of early Christianity. The ecclesiologies built around the classic marks of the church will be surveyed, but this survey will demonstrate that such ecclesiologies often obscure the experimentation which properly belongs to reflections on the Christian community. The Reformation's disruption of the Western church, the modern missionary and ecumenical movements, the emergence of the 'global church,' and ecclesiastical scandals and corruption all provide the background to the contemporary recognition of ecclesiological ferment and recent discussions about the polycentricity of Christianity. This ferment will be framed Christologically and pneumatologically in ways that provide theological foundations for experimental reflection on the church's mission, structures, and sacramental practices. The unit will include some focus on the relevance of these issues to the vocation of the Uniting Church in Australia.

Why the framing ideas of experiment and polycentricity?

The notion of the church as an experiment is a theme that runs through Mike Higton's recent book, The Life of Christian Doctrine (T&T Clark, 2020). He writes this at one point:

With all its division, and in all its diversity the Christian church is being beckoned by the Spirit into the discovery of God’s abundant gift in Jesus Christ. Its life is a collection of experiments in which the abundant love of God is explored and embodied (p.203).

To think of the church's diverse life as a "collection of experiments" in the exploration and embodiment of the love of God incarnate in Jesus Christ provides a new language and conceptuality to study the church. 

The notion of a polycentric church is taken from the discipline of 'World Christianity' (arguably a better term than 'global church') where it is used to resist received ideas of Christianity being controlled from established  institutional, geographical and cultural centres. As John Flett suggests in his book Apostolicity (IVP, 2016), this shift is a long-delayed recognition of what happened at the Jerusalem Council:

Theorists of world Christianity...affirm that God works in and through history and that the Holy Spirit structures the church [anew]. These theological axioms guided the decision of the Jerusalem Council and stimulated the non-territorial pluriformity and polycentricity basic to the Christian faith (p.285). 

This does not mean that the church has no norms. It means, instead, that the church's norm lies outside of itself. As Flett also says: 

Apostolicity means that the church does not possess its own identity. The church finds this identity in the history of Jesus Christ. This is the possibility of historical continuity, for it is the continuity of the resurrected Jesus Christ and his abundance through which every history is redeemed. Because it is the history of Jesus Christ, it takes the form of participation in his being sent to and for the world and thus the integration of multiple histories into his and only so by the testimony of the Spirit (p.328).

Within this framework, therefore, students who study this unit won't merely be introduced to official ecclesiologies or be presented with a "how to" ecclesiology. Rather, they will be invited to develop an imagination to foster their own contribution to, and leadership in, experimenting with the church. The first step in developing this imagination is to see that it is not possible to think about the church without first thinking about the "history of Jesus Christ"  and the "testimony of the Spirit." There can be no ecclesiology without Christology and pneumatology. Learning to think about the church in this theological triangle will be the challenge and opportunity of this unit.


Lectures will be on Thursday mornings at Pilgrim. It is mutli-coded, being available for credit in Christian Thought (CT), Missiology (DM), and Mission and Ministry (DA). You can enrol in either the face-to-face or online synchonous cohorts. The unit can also be audited.

Check out the official unit descriptions, course content, reading lists and assessments at these links:

  • Undergraduate Face-to-Face:  CT; DA; DM;
  • Undergradute online synchronous: CT; DA; DM;
  • Post-graduate Face-to-Face: CT; DA; DM;
  • Post-graduate online synchronous: CT; DA; DM;

For enrolment information contact Pilgrim's registrar at study@pilgrim.edu.au 

(I've written here about the other unit I'm teaching this semester: Christianty's Big Ideas.)

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Christianity's Big Ideas: Tuesday nights at Pilgrim

I'll be teaching this unit at Pilgrim Theological College on Tuesday evenings (6.00pm-9.00pm) during  Semester 1, commencing on February 22nd. 

The unit is the entry-level introduction to what might otherwise be known as systematic theology or  Christian doctrine. Those terms do point to particular ways of thinking and studying, but whichever is preferred, they deal with the ideas that have classically characterised Christian thought: God, revelation, creation, humanity, Christology, redemption, church, hope etc.

In addressing these topics as Christianity's 'big ideas,' I take the opportunity to explore how, precisley as ideas, they have emerged and developed in the midst of intellectual debate, political struggles, apologetic defense and contextual revision. Sometimes they have defended the Christian and wider status quo, other times they have been tools for deconstructing the status quo and constructing new visions of life. Sometimes these ideas have inspired individuals and communities to love and service, other times they have legitimated arrogance and division. 

Something I'll be highlighting in this year's iteration of the unit will be the theme of 'conversation.' What conversations produced the ideas that Christianity has inherited and what conversations should these ideas be part of today? These conversations can be internal to the church (across time and place), at the interface between the church and the wider communinty or they can be conversations in the wider community to which the church listens in. 

Therefore, as well taking time to introduce a broad range of classical theological topics and styles of theology, the following are some of the topics and conversations which will be addressed at various points along the way:

  • Theology and Revelation: What can be learnt in conversations between received theological knowledge and ancient wisdoms?
  • Scritpure: How does the Christian doctrine of scripture relate to popular discussions about 'sacred' texts?
  • Jesus Christ: Who is the Jesus invoked in attempts to defend the so-called Judeo-Christian tradition?
  • Church: How might the church contribute to discussions about the post-secular west?
  • Human being: What can a Christian anthropology contribute to the critique of neoliberalism?
  • Hope: What can Christian discussions about hope learn from climate change activism?

The unit is both face-to-face and online synchronous. You can read the official unit description and check out the details of the learning outcomes, assessments and readings at these links: undergraduate face-to-faceundergraduate online synchronouspostgraduate face-to-facepostgraduate online synchronous.

For enrolment enquiries, contact Pilgrim's Registrar at: study@pilgrim.edu.au

For any specific enquiries abvout the unit content, contact me at geoff.thompson@pilgrim.edu.au

Monday, July 5, 2021

Doctrine, Truth and Pluralism: upcoming unit at Pilgrim Theological College


This unit is being run on six Fridays across July, August, September and October. See below for details about:

The issues in the church that background the contemporary study of doctrine

Dates and topics

Reading list

For enrolment information contact the registrar of Pilgrim Theological College at study@pilgrim.edu.au .


As in churches across the world, debates in the Uniting Church about marriage and VAD are the latest in a long-line of topics which have raised many questions and generated deep anxieties about doctrine. And they won’t be the last! At one extreme it is said that doctrinal constancy is an essential marker of maintaining Christian identity: doctrine can’t be changed. At another extreme it is argued that changing doctrine is simply a response to the movement of the Spirit: changing doctrine is not a problem. Both those positions obscure the complexities and fruitfulness of Christian doctrine. The focus on specific issues and decisions also obscures the ongoing general work that doctrine performs in liturgy, mission, activism, preaching, prayer and discipleship.

Against these background factors, this unit explores in detail critical questions about doctrine which inevitably come to the surface when churches make key decisions and/or when they make truth claims:

  • What is doctrine and what does it do?  
  • Does doctrine suppress the Bible’s theological diversity?
  • Why, how and should doctrine change?
  • Are doctrine and belief the same?
  • Does doctrine adjudicate between different beliefs or does it help us navigate between them?
  • Can doctrine be transferred from one context to another?
  • How can damaging doctrines be recognized and corrected or abandoned?
  • How does doctrine enrich the human experience of God?

Our rhetoric about ‘unity-in-diversity’ can do only so much theological work, but it can be strengthened by a well-developed and creative discourse about doctrine. This unit introduces the key contemporary, wide-ranging and lively global discussions about Christian doctrine. 

Dates and Topics:

July 30

AM:    When churches decide: anxieites about doctrine in an age of spirituality, pluralism, post-truth and same-sex marriage

PM:     Origins, history and genres of doctrine

August 6

AM:    Contemporary debates: are doctrines propositions, expressions, rules, prompts, catalysts of experiements?

PM:    Doctrine, Bible and Context: not a question of which comes first, but of how they spiral around the living Christ

August 13

AM:    Doctrine as wisdom: on not confusing the work of doctrine wih the discipline of systematic theology

PM:     Doctrine beyond the intellect: doctrine, the emotions and prayer

September 10

AM:    Case Study 1: Creation

PM:    Laudato si': putting doctrine to work at a time of crisis

September 17

AM:    Case Study 2: Anthropology

PM:    Willie James Jennings' The Christian Imagination: race and learning alertness to doctrinal distortions

October 10

AM:    Doctrine in the global church: source of continuity, innovation, disagreement and difference all at once.

PM:    Doctrine in denominations and in the local church: doctrine in worship, formation and activism.

Summary Reading List

Cocksworth, Ashley. Prayer: A Guide for the Perplexed. London: T&T Clark, 2018.

Chan, Simon. Pentecostal Theology: An Essay on the Development of Doctrine. Blandford Forum, Deo, 2011.

Charry, Ellen T. By the Renewing of Your Minds: The Pastoral Function of Christian Doctrine. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Helmer, Christine M. The End of Doctrine. Louisville: WJKP, 2014.

Green, Gene L., Stephen T. Pardue and K.K. Yeo. Majority World Theology: Christian Doctrine in Global Context. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020.

Higton, Mike. The Life of Christian Doctrine. London: T&T Clark, 2020.

Kim, Grace Ji-Sun and Jenny Daggers, eds. Reimagining with Christian Doctrines: Responding to Global Gender Injustices. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2014.

Rodgiruez, Ruben Rosario. Dogmatics After Babel: Beyond the Theologies of Word and Culture. Louisville: WJKP, 2018.

Thomasson-Rosingh, Anne Claar. Searching for the Holy Spirit: Feminist Theology and Traditional Doctrine. New York and London: Routledge, 2014.

Tonstad, Linn Marie. God and Difference: The Trinity, Sexuality, and the Transformation of Finitude. New York and London: Routledge, 2016.

Vanhoozer, Kevin. The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology. Louisville: WJKP, 2005.

Volpe, Medi-Ann. Re-thinking Christian Identity: Doctrine and Discipleship. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013.

Zahl, Simeon. The Holy Spirit and Christian Experience. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020.

Friday, January 22, 2021

Uniting Church Theology and History - Intensive at Pilgrim Theological College, Feb 15th -18th and 20th

This year Pilgrim Theological College and United  Theological College will be co-operating in the presentation of their respective units, "Uniting Church Theology and History" and "Uniting Church Studies"  in mid-February (see dates below).  Dr Damian Palmer and I will be leading the teaching, assisted by a variety of other presenters from various parts of the UCA. We'll be live-streaming into each others' classrooms and facilitating interaction between our respective cohorts of students.

We are very intentional about taking these units beyond being simply opportunities for denominational induction and/or enculturation. Instead, we are wanting to see them as a chance to explore the Uniting Church - its theology and history, its emerging identity, and its changing role and diverse places in Australian society and religion - as a topic of tertiary-level academic enquiry. 

Relative to other 'mainline churches' (itself a designation which invites scrutiny), the UCA has a relatively short history. In many respects, and properly so, it is still a work in progress. Nevertheless, it has also now been around long enough to have generated significant amounts of critical reflection, commentary and debate. There is much to study and evaluate. 

For logistical reasons we can only do four of the five days together. The fifth day will be in our separate cohorts exploring slightly distinct themes. On those first four days we'll cover the UCA's historical and theological roots, the content and status of its Basis of Union, and the various church-shaping debates and decisions about: 

  • women's ordination;
  • being a multicultural/intercultural church
  • its colonial entanglements, the covenant with the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress and the adoption of the 'Revised Preamble'; 
  • sexual diversity and same-sex marriage; 
  • innovation and tradition in liturgy; and
  • its profile in matters of social justice.  
The following sketches the particular issues/questions/approaches we'll be exploring on the final day in the Parkville cohort.

1. The various histories of the Uniting Church

The UCA's history can be told in a wide variety of ways: telling the stories of its theological disputes, charting and interpreting its numerical decline; appropriating the multitude of local congregational histories; assembling the various academic publications of the UCA Historical Society or those which have marked the various anniversaries of the UCA. After canvassing some of these, this session will focus on William Emilsen's 2019 biography of Charles Harris, a key early First Peoples' leader in the UCA. His story (as told by Emilsen) is powerful personal story, but indirectly it also tells a story of the hopes, achievements and failures of the UCA. 

2. What is 'Uniting Church theology,' how is it produced and by whom, where is it found and what is it for?

In a formal sense, Uniting Church theology is that which is affirmed by the Assembly, the Council with "determining responsibility" in matters of doctrine (glossing over, for now, the distinction between theology and doctrine). Less formally, it is also what is preached by its preachers, articulated in its justice statements, and embodied in its mission etc. This session will explore the tensions and possibilities between these formal and informal theologies, noting how neither can be easily mapped by the frequently invoked but blunt and largely uniformative categories of 'liberal' and 'conservative.' There will be a special focus on what theology is actually for, noting the ways the different groups in the UCA (activists, pastors, deacons, preachers, community services, academics, administrators, and leaders - all of which categories being further differentiated by age, gender, culture) have different expectations of theology. Does the force of these diverse expectations shape the UCA's theological work? How does the UCA's theological work measure itself by the confession of Christ's lordship? 

3. Locating UCA theology in contemporary global theology

The UCA's founding theology - and its confessional, missional and Christologically-based features - was shaped by and in the mid-twentieth century European-centred ecumenical atmosphere. Emerging from that environment it was already alert to the post-Christendom context the West's churches were then entering (and there are definite post-Christendom impulses already evident in the Basis of Union). But the ecumenical diversity of the mid-twentieth century has given way to a more radical diversity of 'global Christianity' with its accompanying theological diversity generated by attention to race, colonialism, gender, religious pluralism, climate change and poverty. What sorts of conversations are possible between the UCA's founding theology and these contemporary theological movements? And what does the rise of new global Christian traditions mean for the Uniting Church's received ecumenical impulses?

4. The UCA's pilgrimage in contemporary Australian Christianity and society

If the global Christian landscape has changed in the last 50 years, so too has the Christian landscape in  Australia. This landscape is characterised by: 
  • a significant decline in Christian allegiance (slightly slowed, but not arrested by the 'growing' churches); 
  • the swap in social and political influence between the churches once considered marginal and those once considered central;
  • the growing cultural and linguistic diversity of Australian Christianity;
  • the churches' collective complicity in child sexual abuse;
  • the disproportionate presence of the churches in community services 
  • the growing public profile of other religions; and
  • politically-charged debates about the relationship between 'Australian' identity and the so-called "Judeo-Christian tradition."
For the UCA, as one of the forms of Christianity that has moved from near the centre to towards the periphery, this context is potentially an opportunity to vigorously explore and develop two images from the Basis: the "strange way" of Jesus Christ and the character of the church as "pilgrim people." Both images are related to the summons from the Basis for the church to be nothing less and nothing more than an "instrument through which Christ may work and bear witness to himself."  They also raise internal questions about what forms of Christian community actually justify the definition of "congregation," the scale and responsibilities of the UCA's inter-related councils, and the dependence on inherited property and occupied land (the latter in terms of both Christian stewardship and the UCA's commitment to First Peoples' sovereignty).


Dates for Uniting Church Theology and History / Pilgrim / Parkville: 15th - 18th and 20th February

Pilgrim website:pilgrim.edu.au 

Enrolment info: registrar@pilgrim.edu.au

Dates for Uniting Church Studies / UTC / Parramatta: 15th - 19th February

UTC Website: utc.edu.au 

Enrolment info: studenta@nswact.uca.org.au

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Christian Worship in a Context of Pandemic: Some Resources

Along with many others, I'm pondering the challenges posed to the practice and meaning of gathered worship during this COVID19-imposed suspension of the normal practices of Christian worship. My thinking is especially focused on the question of the legitimacy - or not - of a virtual celebration of the Eucharist. It's a live debate in my own ecclesial community, the Uniting Church in Australia.

I'm still working through the issues, and I've found the following resources to be very helpful. Some of them have been sent my way by some of my immediate colleagues. I'm grateful to them for doing so.

I offer no commentary here (yet) or any endorsement. The links that follow (in no particular order) are simply presented as resources that others also might find helpful. And I'll add to the list as I come across other material.


"Liturgy in a time of plague" by Andrew McGowan, Dean of Berekely School of Divinity, Yale.

"Christ Really is Present Virtually: A Proposal for Virtual Communion" by Deanna A. Thompson, Director of Center for Lutheran Center for Faith Values and Community, St. Olaf College, Minnesota.

"Digital Worship and Sacramental Life in a Time of Pandemic" by Dirk Lange, World Lutheran Fedation.

"Advisory Opinion: Communion in an Emergency/Pandemic." Presbyterian Church (USA)

"On deferring Easter and diving more deeply into Lenten Quarantine" by Garry Deverall, Vicar of St. Agnes' Anglican Parish in Melbourne and Vice-Chancellor's Fellow in Indigenous Theologies at the University of Divinity.

"The Making of the Body of Christ:Worship as a Technological Apocalypse," by Garry Deverall, Vicar of St. Agnes' Anglican Parish in Melbourne and Vice-Chancellor's Fellow in Indigenous Theologies at the University of Divinity. This piece was first published in 2003.

"The Church and the Internet." Pontifical Council for Social Communications.

"Sacraments in Digital Space." An MA dissertation by Fr. Simon Rundell, Church of England Vicar in the Diocese of Exeter.

"The Covid 10 Conundrum." An episode of the ABC's God Forbid. (Much broader conversation than worship, but some important and related theological/philosophical topics are discussed.)

"Connecting with a Theology of Technology," by Wes Avram, Clement-Muehl Assistant Professor of Communication at Yale Divinity School and the Institute for Sacred Music (2000-2006).

"Worship in Exile as an 'essential service,'" by Mark Brett from Whitley Theological College and Rachelle Gilmour from Trinity College Theological School, both in Melbourne.

Guidelines for celebration of Holy Communion in online worship and other material from the Uniting Church in Australia 

"Holy Communion and COVID-19: The Body of Christ in a time of social distancing," by Jason Goroncy from Whitley Theological College.

"Can we celebrate an online Eucharist? A Baptist Response 1: A positive response" and "Can we celebrate an online Eucharist? A Baptist Response 2: Some possible objections," by Stephen Holmes from the School of Divinity, St. Andrew's University.

"On our theology of worship," by Bishop Michael Curry, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church.


Monday, September 2, 2019

Upcoming Intensive: Eschatology (Oct 18-19; 21-22)

Every two years I teach a unit, Readings in Doctrine. And each time a different area of doctrine is the focus. This year it is eschatology.

The intensive will be run at Pilgrim Theological College in Parkville, 9.30-4.30, Oct 18-19, 21-22. Supplementary material provided on-line before and after. Classes will be live-streamed for students unable to come to Melbourne. It is available for credit and auditing.

The first quarter of the unit is an overview of what scholars are saying about doctrine in general: what it is, what functions it performs in the church; its relationship to the bible; its truthfulness. Although 'doctrine' is one of the heavier words in the Christian lexicon, contemporary discussions about it are intellectually lively and theologically generative. We'll explore some of the metaphors presently being used to describe doctrine: rules, prompt, catalyst. We'll also explore how doctrine shapes the Christian 'social imaginary,' paying attention also to what one scholar has called doctrine's "affective salience," i.e., how it engages human emotions and dispositions.

The remaining lectures will focus on eschatology as a case study. This is another area of lively and generative discussion. Although often commandeered by fanatics and doomsday cults, few doctrines enjoyed more focused scholarly attention in the twentieth century. Following renewed engagement with the eschatology of the New Testament, doctrinal theologians began exploring it as something about more than 'last things'. Attention was given to the way weaves it way through the whole fabric of the Christian imagination and shapes the status we give to the present and what it is we hope for. More recent discussions have brought the Christian hope into conversation with cosmology and, of course, with the questions which climate changes puts to the future of life. There are also perennial questions about the post-death existence and universal salvation. Yes, the topic of eschatology really is that broad and that complex.

To sample some of the topics that we'll take up in this unit, here are some discussion starters:
There may indeed be progress in history from time to time, but it is not to be confused with redemption. It is not as though history as a whole is edging steadily closer to the Almighty, clambering from height to height until it glides closer to the glorious finale. For the New Testament, the eschaton or future kingdom of God is not to be mistaken for the consummation of history as a whole, and thus as the triumphal conclusion of a steadily upward trek ... The Messiah does not sound the top note of the tune of history but breaks it abruptly off.  (Terry Eagleton, Hope Without Optimism, 2015).
We'll explore whether Eagleton is correct in his presentation of New Testament eschatology. Does it actually reflect this radical discontinuity? How that question is answered has enormous significance for what Christian hope is taken to be.
[P]atriarchal theology has imaged the female body as being closer to nature and, in its dualistic logic, further from the divine than the male body. Given such constructions, some feminist theologians claim that essentialised definitions of gender have been utilised by patriarchal theology to present a model of eschatology that excludes, devalues, and demonises female bodies.  (Emily Pennington, Feminist Eschatology: Embodied Futures, 2017)
Given the significance of the resurrection of the body in Christian eschatology, critical study of this doctrine requires attention to gender - how it is been deployed and/or ignored in the development of the doctrine and its significance for any constructive contemporary account of it. How does gender shape the development of this doctrine?
The death of biodiversity, the passing points of no return, the irreversible alteration of the earth's capacity for sustaining human communities - these are the scenarios whose finality theology must not dilute, as many Christian millenialists do, via anticipation of a 'new heaven and a new earth.' (Stefan Skrimshire in Northcott and Scott (eds), Systematic Theology and Climate Change, 2014)
How does Christian hope become a motivation for engaging the challenges of climate change rather than an excuse to evade those challenges?

These and other questions will shape our reading of the primary texts: Jürgen Moltmann's The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology, Origen's On First Principles, and Dale Allison's Resurrecting Jesus.

Contact the college for enrolment information.

Monday, July 1, 2019

Why Christians disagree over the Israel Folau saga

I had this article published in The Conversation last week. I haven't linked it to here before now because I was touring and hiking in Central Australia with my wife and had only limited access to the internet.

I explore why it is that Folau has galvanised so much support from Christians. I'm not convinced that is simply about the freedom of speech or freedom of religion. I suggest, instead, that it is because he was making a stand (in the eyes of his supporters) on the issue of gender and sexuality that he has generated the support he has. For his supporters, the issue of sex and gender is the new line in the sand between Christianity and modern Western societies. But not all Christians see it this way.

An excerpt:

There are many other Christians who find it hard to understand how traditional teachings on sexuality and gender have been elevated to such a prominent place within some strands of Christianity.
That’s not to say that these Christians automatically disregard the theological arguments for traditional stances on these issues. For instance, Christian proponents of same-sex marriage can accept there are carefully worked-out arguments against it, even if they are unpersuaded by them.
The puzzle, to many, is how these issues have become so definitive to Christian thinking. For these Christians, there’s also a deep disquiet that sexuality and gender are being held up as a test case for religious freedom in Australia.

The full article can be read here

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Trinitarian Disruption

Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas mus be distinct before reason can act upon them; and no man ever had a distinct idea of the trinity. It is the mere Abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus. [1] The metaphysical insanities of Athanasius, of Loyola, and of Calvin, are, to my understanding mere relapses into polytheism, different from paganism only be being more unintelligible. The religion of Jesus is founded in the Unity of God, and this principle chiefly gave it triumph over the rabble of heathen gods then acknowledged. [2]

So wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1816. Whether ridicule, objection or parody, the doctrine of the trinity has been, and is, subject to all of them. The reasons for these responses are well known: the messy politics in which the doctrine's development was embedded; the dependence on highly-technical philosophical terms and the subtle distinctions between them; and the propensity of the various participants in the decisive early debates to indulge in ungracious ad hominem attacks on each other. 

Do these problems disqualify the doctrine of the Trinity? For many they do. In a considered blog published earlier this week, my Uniting Church colleague and New Testament scholar, John Squires, has helpfully straddled the positive and negative answers to that question. The value of John's blog is the way he approaches the critical questions from the respective angles of history, scripture, liturgy, doctrine, polemics, prayer, mission and meaning. It's worth a read.

On balance I would see more enduring value in trinitarian doctrine (even in the terms in which it was developed) than John tends to do and I'd push for a more nuanced understanding of what it means for the doctrine to be 'biblical'.  But I think his final challenge is to be heeded. After declaring that "the concept of the Trinity [is] a fine example of good, honest contextual theology" he calls us to follow that example:
The missionary task that we face is to follow the example provided by the contextualised development of doctrine by the church fathers. This Trinity Sunday, instead of sermons that grind through abstruse and remote arguments for the Trinity, I would hope we can being to find ways, in the contemporary context, where we can talk about God and bear witness to our faith, using concepts that are understandable and ideas that are enlivening.
Let me say at the outset, I don't think I've ever heard a Trinity Sunday sermon grinding through the doctrine's remote arguments. Perhaps I've been lucky.  In reality, I don't have any great sense that this is a particular risk in the Uniting Church!

And to John's challenge I would add the need to allow the peculiarity of allowing a crucified Jewish rabbi to shape the way we use the word God. The reason why Christians developed their own distinctive way of speaking about God was because of the extreme provocation of allowing the reality of Jesus' life, death and resurrection to shape the way they filled out the word 'God'. If that not been the case, whatever other factors came into play, including the inclusion of the Spirit in this task of defining 'God', there never would have been a doctrine of the Trinity. There never would have been a distinctive Christian way of speaking about God.

Rowan Williams once put it like this: "Christian faith had its beginnings in an experience of profound contradictoriness, an experience which so questioned the religious categories of its time that the reorganisation of religious language was a centuries-long task."[3]  Sure, that it is too drastic a summary of everything that happened on the way to getting to trinitarian doctrine. But it's a reminder that the categories of Christianity's language for God aren't random. The challenge of Trinity Sunday can, therefore, include re-familiarising ourselves with this 'profound contradictoriness' of the early Christian proclamation: the claim not just that a human was one with God, but that a state-executed criminal determined the shape of Christian God-talk.

Yes, the move from that identification to the threefoldness and the particular conceptuality of the doctrine of the Trinity involved many further steps, but none of them would ever have been taken without that first move. Of course, the problem is is that in its development and influence, the doctrine of the Trinity has played its own part in insulating our God-talk from that original disruption. On this, it is worth remembering that the Nicene Creed's homoousios  (of one being with / consubstantial with) was a way of insisting that 'God' was defined by Jesus as much as it was that Jesus was defined by 'God' - with the same logic at work in the reference to the Spirit being worshipped alongside the Father and Son. It did so in the face of intra-Christian concerns that this definition disrupted some of prevailing meanings of 'God'. That was exactly the point.

Christian faith has filled the word 'God' with specific meaning. Articulating that meaning, finding the right language for it, and linking it to contemporary life and thought can be the challenge to take up on Trinity Sunday. It is also the challenge to check that our God-talk remains open to being both disrupted and reconstituted by the original Christian proclamation and its theological novelty and peculiarity.

[1] Thomas Jefferson, "Letter to Francis Adrian Van Der Kemp, July 30th 1816" http://www.positiveatheism.org/hist/quotes/jefferson.htm (accessed October 10th 2008).
[2] Thomas Jefferson, "Letter to Rev Jarred Sparks, Nov 4th 1820" http://www.positiveatheism.org/hist/quotes/jefferson.htm (accessed Oct 10th 2008).
[3] Rowan Williams, The Wound of Knowledge: Christian Spirituality from the New Testament to St. John of the Cross (London: Dartmon, Longman and Todd, 1990), 1.