Friday, September 5, 2014

Basis of Union Conference, 2014: Part 1

Last weekend, the Assembly Doctrine Working Group, Uniting Mission and Education, and the United Theological College jointly hosted a conference on the Uniting Church's Basis of UnionThe theme was Basis of Union: Catalyst for Renewal. This followed an earlier conference on the Basis in Melbourne in 2010. This second conference drew around 80 participants over the weekend. The keynote address was given by the leading scholar of the Basis, Andrew Dutney, who is also the current President of the UCA. You can read his address here.

The range of topics and the various approaches taken can be checked out in the conference brochure.  Some highlights for me included hearing the new Preamble of the UCA's Constitution read by an indigenous person, the appropriation of the Basis by a panel of UCA Young Adults, the input of theologians from the Nanjing Theological Seminary, and Bec Lindsay's engagement between the Basis, Deuteronomy and the churches of South-East Sydney.

Over the next week I'll post some brief reflections on three specific issues raised at the conference and which I've been pondering since. These three issues are: the relationship of the first 13 paragraphs of the Basis to the last 5 paragraphs; the place of the triune understanding of God in the Basis; and the question, 'Whose document is it?'

In my own paper I focused on Paragraph 4, specifically its reminder that we are "called to be disciples of a crucified Lord, and to enter into the fellowship of Christ's suffering". I argued that the appropriation of the discourse of discipleship, so understood, could help us resist moralism, triumphalism and nostalgia. On that basis I suggested that this fourth paragraph could feed into the post-Christendom and post-denominationalist calling of the UCA. (My presentation included a project I've been working on with the Young Adults from the local congregation of which I'm a member. They offered themselves as first time readers of the Basis. Their filmed responses were interesting, diverse and challenging, and injected a form of engagement with the Basis which was well-worth hearing.)

I also emphasised the reference in Paragraph 4 to the claim that "in his own strange way, Christ constitutes, rules and renews [his disciples] as his Church". The priority of Christology over Ecclesiology evident in this paragraph continues the same Christological priority articulated in Paragraph 3, the paragraph described by D'Arcy Wood as 'the basis of the Basis'.

The question was raised in the discussion after my paper as to whether the Christological priority of these paragraphs really do condition the theology of ministry and government in Paragraphs 14 and 15. Are those later paragraphs as open to renewal as the core, intentionally controlling paragraphs would mandate them to be? This question was reinforced in the final plenary session when it was asked, 'What if the Basis had simply stopped at Paragraph 13?' Behind these questions lies a concern - widely articulated - that the paragraphs on ministry and government have made the UCA less flexible, more structure-bound, and less mission-oriented than it was meant to be.

We can only speculate about the possible consequences of the Basis finishing at Paragraph 13. We can, however, engage in a much more concrete discussion about the earlier question: Are Paragraphs 14 and 15 really controlled by the normative Paragraph 3? Or, despite the framers' claims to the contrary, are these later paragraphs the place where a bit of 'ecclesiastical carpentry' does actually come to the surface?

For what it's worth, what follows is simply some unpacking of the presenting question with a few observations and/or questions of my own, and in no particular order.
  • Paragraph 14 is not without its note of renewal and openness to reform. This is most explicit in the reference to the renewal of the diaconate. It is also present, if a little less transparently, in the acknowledgement of the 'reconsideration of traditional forms of ministry'. 
  • The note of renewal and openness to reform is harder to find in Paragraph 15. Nevertheless, the duty of the councils so mandated is to ensure that the "whole body of believers may be united by mutual submission in the service of the Gospel". Any given council of the church can be called to account by this criterion on the authority of this paragraph itself.
  • If these paragraphs have stifled the church's capacity for flexibility (on which see below) is that less because of their content per se and more because of the way they have been received and appropriated? Is it here that the Uniting Church hears the strongest echoes and/or remnants of the language and structures of the predecessor churches that they have become the locus of attempts to resolve matters unresolved at union? And if this is so, might it be that the tensions around this will pass the more distant we are from union?
  • How inflexible is the Uniting Church anyway? Attention was drawn in the final plenary session to just how diverse the UCA is and how many different trajectories and diverse forms of ministry it has pursued since union. Is this because of or despite the Basis of Union?
  • To what extent are the various demands for extra flexibility a summons to gospel-faithfulness and to what extent are they driven by an anti-institutionalism? I'm not suggesting that the latter can't be a tool for the former. But anti-institutionalism is not a self-evident virtue, even if it is deeply embedded in Australian culture and society. Interestingly, the reference to the post-denominational calling of the UCA in my own paper was heard by various people - approvingly by some and not so by others - as a critique of our institutions. This was certainly not my intent. And the call to renewal in the Basis should not be set against the church's institutional dimensions. The call to renewal of church order and law in the Basis is call to the constant reform of government and law, not their elimination.
  • Perhaps the trickiest issue to address here is that of the impact on our readings of these paragraphs, especially Paragraph 14 and its reference to ordination, of our ecumenical commitment and impulse. This issue was also raised in the conference plenary. Paragraph 14 can produce quite different resonances when read through the filter of Paragraphs 1 and 2 than when it is read through the filter of Paragraph 3. This is a big question, and one that requires more than a dot point in response. I hope to publish some posts on this question from various interested parties in due course.
So, the question of the Christological core of the Basis is not a stand-alone question. It unpacks into a range of more specific questions, none of which, in my view, can be answered terribly easily.

The next post will be about the way the question of the  Trinity surfaced at the conference, not least through prompts from our Chinese visitors.

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