Thursday, February 27, 2014

The strangeness of the Uniting Church

How might the Uniting Church in Australia be categorised? Within the Australian Christian community, it would conventionally be deemed a 'liberal denomination'. For some, this designation will carry with it an automatic and unambiguous criticism. To be 'liberal' is a bad thing; it's to be captivated by the spirit of the age - at least that's what such critics might say. For others, that same designation might include a possibly wistful, 'I wish my (conservative) church could be a bit more like the UCA'. To be liberal is a good thing; it gives the church some critical leverage against its inherited theologies and practices - at least that's what such friends might say.

Beyond the Christian community - to the extent that anyone out there actually has a view about it - the UCA might be regarded as a champion of social justice and inclusion, a church you can support when you don't actually want to belong to one. Yet even these friends might finally conclude that as an institution it is hindered by its 1970s birth and the cultural and intellectual baggage it carries from that and earlier eras.

As for the UCA's own self-understanding, well, where to start! An Australian church. A multi-cultural church. A scholarly church. A post-denominationalist church (even though deep down we do still hang on to being the third largest denomination!). An ecumenical church. A church in covenant with Australia's First Peoples. A church committed to community service. A democratic, inter-conciliar church. A non-fundamentalist church. A church in the Reformed and Evangelical traditions. A pilgrim people.

None of these categories, however, was where the UCA started. The theological move made by the framers of the church was to direct the new church to the church's only foundation: Jesus Christ. 

It is easy - and not uncommon - to gloss over this as self-evident. 'Of course, the church is built upon Jesus  Christ', we might say. 'What we're really interested in is what the church says about, say, justification by faith, or ministerial order, or the inspiration of Scripture, or theories of atonement, or predestination, or baptism, or any other number of church-dividing issues. Tell us what the Uniting Church believes about these things, then we'll know what kind of a church it is; then we'll be able to categorise it.' The authors of the Basis of Union refused to go down this path. The insistence on Jesus Christ as the starting point was a step out of the divisions and the theological fault lines of Christendom.

Moreover, there was nothing vague or platitudinous about this appeal to Jesus. In pointing to Jesus Christ, the church's framers did so in a quite particular way. In identifying the foundation of the church, they did not point to the creedal affirmations of Jesus' divinity and humanity. They did not point to the Jesus of pietism. Nor did they point to the historical Jesus of the modern academy. Their statement of Jesus Christ's identity, achievement and significance is articulated in an eloquent summary of certain key New Testament claims about him. It's found in the third paragraph of the Basis. Here it is:

3. BUILT UPON THE ONE LORD JESUS CHRIST The Uniting Church acknowledges that the faith and unity of the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church are built upon the one Lord Jesus Christ. The Church preaches Christ the risen crucified One and confesses him as Lord to the glory of God the Father. In Jesus Christ “God was reconciling the world to himself ” (2 Corinthians 5:19 RSV). In love for the world, God gave the Son to take away the world’s sin.

Jesus of Nazareth announced the sovereign grace of God whereby the poor in spirit could receive God’s love. Jesus himself, in his life and death, made the response of humility, obedience and trust which God had long sought in vain. In raising him to live and reign, God confirmed and completed the witness which Jesus bore to God on earth, reasserted claim over the whole of creation, pardoned sinners, and made in Jesus a representative beginning of a new order of righteousness and love. To God in Christ all people are called to respond in faith. To this end God has sent forth the Spirit that people may trust God as their Father, and acknowledge Jesus as Lord. The whole work of salvation is effected by the sovereign grace of God alone.

The Church as the fellowship of the Holy Spirit confesses Jesus as Lord over its own life; it also confesses that Jesus is Head over all things, the beginning of a new creation, of a new humanity. God in Christ has given to all people in the Church the Holy Spirit as a pledge and foretaste of that coming reconciliation and renewal which is the end in view for the whole creation. The Church’s call is to serve that end: to be a fellowship of reconciliation, a body within which the diverse gifts of its members are used for the building up of the whole, an instrument through which Christ may work and bear witness to himself. The Church lives between the time of Christ’s death and resurrection and the final consummation of all things which Christ will bring; the Church is a pilgrim people, always on the way towards a promised goal; here the Church does not have a continuing city but seeks one to come. On the way Christ feeds the Church with Word and Sacraments, and it has the gift of the Spirit in order that it may not lose the way.

One UCA biblical scholar has described this paragraph as a faithful 'epitome' or summary of the New Testament witness. Packed into this core paragraph are allusions to Israel's messianic hope, to Jesus' life of witness to God in word and deed, to the centrality of his death and resurrection to Christianity's reconfiguration of Israel's hope, to the sending of the Spirit and the emergence of a novel, boundary-breaking community, to the anticipation of God's reconciliation and renewal of all creation. This is the story the church told and embodied before it surrounded itself (for ill and good) with the doctrines, debates and structures of Christendom.  This paragraph points us to the convictions and commitments which meant there ever was such a thing as Christianity. In fact, the much-quoted remark of former UCA President, D'Arcy Wood, that this paragraph is the 'basis of the Basis' continues with the (usually unquoted) explanation: "for it states how and why the church exists at all". Precisely.

We are directed here to the memories of Jesus, the convictions about him, and the vision of God and God's purposes for the world which energised early Christian preaching and provoked the novel forms of social existence which the first Christian communities became. This was all they had: a strange story of a risen crucified man through whom the God of Israel was renewing the whole world. 

This is a remarkable gift to the contemporary UCA. It is also, I think, the underlying reason the UCA has the critics and friends it does: it unsettles the conventional and formulaic ways of speaking about Jesus. It's a confession of Christian faith that can be made without having first to take our stand on the divisions of Christendom. Of course there is wisdom to be gleaned from the traditions and theologies of Christendom (and I'm in the job I am because I believe that), and the Basis itself is not silent on some of them. But they are all subject to the authority of what is confessed here; they are never where we start. 

It is a confession of faith in Jesus Christ which, in many ways, is strange to the churches of Christendom and the tendency to seek a more secure starting point for ecclesial self-understanding. The banal categories of 'liberal' and 'conservative' can't touch it. It is a confession of faith in Jesus Christ, drawn from the pre-Christendom church which could well yet prove to be a spark for a post-Christendom Christian imagination. Ironically, it is precisely in this 'biblical' account of Jesus and God's work in him that the theological strangeness of the UCA lies. At one level, it's all we've got: a strange story of a risen crucified Jew through whom we dare to believe God was and is renewing the world. Perhaps an ongoing discussion for the UCA is whether we're convinced it's enough.

* * * * * 

  • The ideas in this post are explored more fully in a study booklet, Jesus Christ According to the Basis of Union, which I've prepared for the Doctrine Working Group as a resource for the UCA's upcoming Season of Teaching and Learning. It's one of a set of three studies; the others are Christianity in the 21st Century (written by Avril Hannah-Jones) and Living the Christian Life (written by Rod Horsfield). All can be ordered at Mediacom.
  • For the discussion of paragraph 3 as an 'epitome' of the New Testament claims about Jesus, see Vicky Balabanski, "The Biblical Fabric of Paragraph 3 of the Basis of Union: How Well Does it Stand Up to Scrutiny", Uniting Church Studies 17.2 (2001), p. 66. 
  • The reference to the 'basis of the Basis' comes from D'Arcy Wood, Building on a Solid Basis: A Guide to the Basis of Union (Melbourne: Uniting Chruch Press, 1986), p. 15. 


geoff thompson said...

Hi Geoff, this may seem a bit strange but I am a Christian in Adelaide with same name and spelling as you. I read this with interest as I am a latecomer to involvement with the Uniting Church.My earliest Christian exposure was in an Anglican Sunday School, then briefly with Baptists while living and working in Darwin as a newly wed.Then attended Churches of Christ with my already Christian wife for 3 years before succumbing to God's call on my life. My allegiance is still with Churches of Christ and their earlier versions of doctrine.There is a shift away from what I believe in many of our churches. Over the last few years I have been invited to be a lay preacher in 2 country South Australian Uniting Church Congragations.Before this I confess I had a prejudice against the UC. I love sharing with the 2 congregations in Renmark South Australia.They enjoy, I think what I bring to the table.If we all concentrated on Jesus first and foremost as intimated in the article above as a foundational tenet of the Uniting Church, then I am sure our churches and denominations and Christians would be a lot happier.I have occasionally read some of your work as one out of curiosity googles up people by the same name as ourselves.Blessings. Geoff Thompson ,Adelaide

Geoff Thompson said...

Hello Geoff and thanks for your post. It's always nice to meet a namesake with the correct spelling of both names. I'm glad you've found the blog. I hope you continue to be enriched by your ministry with the UCA at Renmark. Peace, Geoff