Monday, June 22, 2015

Learning from UCA Origins: Survival strategy or God's will for unity and mission?

Recently I was preparing a short chapter on the tradition of Reformed Theology in Australia and New Zealand for a forthcoming book. In my background reading I came across a chapter on Presbyterianism in Australia in the book, Engaging with Calvin (2009). It included the following explanation of the roots of the Uniting Church.

By the 1960s it was clear that the Presbyterian Church, along with all the major Protestant denominations, was in decline. The number of Presbyterians in Australia had slipped from a high of 11.72% in 1921 to 9.29% of the population in 1961. This would drop to 6.64% in 1976. Decreasing numbers of migrants from Scotland intensified the problem, but the influence of liberal theology was also a factor.  ... The answer for many in the Presbyterian Church was for the denomination to unite with the  Congregationalist and Methodist. Thus the Uniting Church came into being in 1977. (1)

The 'Thus' of the last sentence is deeply problematic. In fact, it badly misrepresents the story of union. No doubt, people supported union for all sorts of reasons. It would be naïve to think that all who entered union did so for the neatly argued theological reasons proposed by the Joint Commission on Church Union. Undoubtedly some people supported union because they perceived it as a means of survival. (In fact, as in all elections, there were probably some people who voted for union by ticking the wrong box!) So, yes, there were multiple reasons for union. But whatever the reasons, it is important to note the 'official' arguments and their social context, and the relation between them. One of the authors of the Basis of Union, Norman Young, did this in an article published in Pacifica in 2012He compares the social location of the churches now with what it was when union was being planned.

Norman Young
 Given the decline of membership in all Australian mainline churches in recent decades, one of the motives for union could have been to join forces in the face of dwindling recourses. However, this was not the case in the 1950s, for then the churches were in a period of expansion (short-lived at it turned out to be), due in some measure to the response to a Billy Graham campaign and to 'planned-giving' programmes that led to expanding existing church buildings, and erecting new ones. Thus the move toward union did not arise from any perceived weakness in membership, but at least on the part of most, simply from the need to obey God's will that followers of Christ should be one, ...(2)

Of course, these arguments for union were developed during the late 1950s and into the 1960s. And the quest for unity was inseparable from a commitment to mission (as made so clear in the Basis). And, in turn, the commitment to mission was inseparable from a prior commitment to the gospel.

By the time union actually happened (1977), the social context had changed and it had changed in ways the impact of which reaches deeply into the present. John Evans captures the issue very well:
Unfortunately for the new church the perception soon arose that it was formed out of weakness and begrudging necessity rather than being a vital and enthusiastic expression of the unity of the church in Australia. It came at a time when church attendance showed a marked decline and the role and place of the church itself was being questioned. (3)
It is that dramatic 1970s shift in the place of Christianity in Australia that has, potentially, obscured from us the arguments for union and its link to mission. Union was not survival strategy.  Nor was it the cause of declining numbers and changing role.

A danger in our present context of marginality is that local unions or amalgamations will be overwhelmed by the impulse for survival. Survival is good if it sustains and nurtures the church's proclamation of the gospel. But on its own it not a sound theological basis for bringing congregations together. And if a church has got to the point of thinking about its survival apart from a concern for mission, it might, in fact, have reached the point of no return. As Steve Taylor recently commented on Facebook (and quoted here with permission): "The church in the West is increasingly interested in mission. If this is related to its decline, it results in tragic distortions." 

Survival. Decline. Amalgamations. Mission. Unity. Gospel. The narratives around these various terms are often entangled in very unhelpful ways. Can we disentangle them so that a new discourse emerges that relates gospel, unity, and mission in a coherent and fruitful way?

* * * * * *
(1) Colin Bale, "Calvinism in Australia 1788-2009: A Historical Assessment" in M. D. Thompson (ed), Engaging With Calvin: Aspects of the Reformer’s Legacy for Today (Nottingham: Apollos, 2009), 286.
(3) John Evans, "Globalization and the Uniting Church", Uniting Church Studies, 7:2 (2001), 20.


Glen O'Brien said...

Thanks Geoff. I give a lecture on church union in a unit I teach in the history of Christianity in Australia in which I make similar points about the UCA.

Geoff Thompson said...

Thanks Glen. Always glad for confirmation!

steve said...

Thanks Geoff. I think missiology should be present in all social contexts, declining or flourishing. Might the task of the missiologist thus be contextual, offering a different prophetic voice in different seasons. I think here of Newbigin - who in the 50's seeks unity, and when he returns to UK, turns to domestic missiology - the gospel in culture project. And now in 2015? Perhaps engaging the Preamble and the Gospel across cultures?

steve taylor