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?

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(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.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Cornell West and 'institutional' Christianity

American superstar academic (as he was billed by the Sydney Morning Herald), Cornell West recently appeared on the ABC's Q&A.  Responding to a question about Gay Marriage and the Catholic church, West staked out his own credentials. His reply was prefaced as follows.

"I am a revolutionary Christian, which means I have a deep suspicion of institutional Christianity."

This comment drew one of the largest cheers of the evening. The cheering was both surprising and unsurprising. Surprising - because it was a reminder that Christianity still has enough cultural purchase for the distinction even to register in what could be assumed to be a relatively randomly constructed audience. Unsurprising - because once such a distinction is made, no one is going to stand up and cheer for institutional Christianity. The very phrase, 'institutional Christianity', presents to many, both within and beyond the church, as some kind of oxymoronic mutual contradiction, the error of which will be self-evident to anyone whose eyes are only half open to the manifest failings of Christian institutions. So the argument goes.

What exactly, however, is wrong with Christianity being 'institutional', or least with having institutional aspects? Are the manifest recent failings of the churches due to their institutional character? Are there substantial theological reasons for treating 'institutional Christianity' as an oxymoron. Is there something about the Christian gospel which is inherently anti-institutional?

It is possible to lament the recent failures of the churches, to share in their necessary repentance and be committed to their institutional reform without rejecting the role of institutions as somehow non-Christian.

Indeed, what is it that actually drives this wedge between 'institution' and 'Christianity'? What is it that leads many to argue that Christianity is a 'movement' and not an 'institution'? Certainly, Jesus never laid out a constitution or a set of regulations for running an organisation. Yet the very impulse of his preaching, and of the later preaching about him, was to call together a new people, a new community. And a 'community' is different from a 'movement' - at least the two words suggest different kinds of allusions and resonances. 'Movement' seems to suggest freedom, spontaneity and heroism. 'Community' suggests accountability, mutuality and a degree of order. So defined, I think 'community' is much closer than 'movement' to the forms of life to which the gospel calls us.

More generally, beyond the church, 'community' has been pitted against 'institution' - and with some serious costs. Indeed, there is a certain romance about 'community' and its alleged capacity to save us from the ills of institutions. The American sociologist, Richard Sennett, puts his finger on this romance quite brilliantly in his The Culture of the New Capitalism.

The insurgents of [the 1960s] believed that by dismantling institutions they could produce communities: face to face relations of trust and solidarity, relations constantly negotiated and renewed, a communal realm in which people became sensitive to one another's' needs. This has certainly not happened. The fragmenting of big institutions has left many people's lives in a fragmented state: the places they work more resembling train stations rather than villages.... Taking institutions apart has not produced more community. (1)

Sennett goes on: "Only a certain kind of human being can prosper in unstable, fragmentary social conditions." (2)

I think this is salutary for our thinking about the extent to which Christianity is, isn't, should be or shouldn't be 'institutional'. There is certainly an argument for developing more nuanced rhetoric than Cornell West employed on Q&A - much as I loved just about everything else he said. Christians, of all people, need to remember (as if they needed reminding) that 'movements' and 'communities' can sin as much as individuals and institutions. The challenge for the church is not to find a way of being a movement at the expense of being a community or institution. Rather, our challenge is to find ways of being flexibly institutional without becoming institutionalised.

(1) Richard Sennett, The Culture of the New Capitalism  (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), p.2.
(2) Sennett, The Culture of the New Capitalism, p.3.

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Some of these ideas were worked out at greater length in relation to the Uniting Church in some reflections I offered at the 2014 meeting of the Synod of Victoria and Tasmania which can be read here.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

An Outsider's First Impressions of the UCA

Earlier this year, missiologist John Flett joined my colleagues and me on the Faculty of Pilgrim Theological College. It was his turn this month to contribute the regular Faculty column to Crosslight, the magazine of the Victorian/Tasmanian Synod of the Uniting Church in Australia. John offers his first impressions of the UCA. They are challenging and energising. Take the following as a couple of tasters and then read the whole article in Crosslight.

"...the UCA appears to be in the middle of a sustained panic-attack. Nor does this appear benign; it seems to direct much of our thinking and acting." 
"Argument is a skill that can be learnt. It belongs to theology as a sustained historical investigation, a living economy, a wrestling, all governed by the common table. This is all basic to theological creativity. Anxiety is killing off the very discourse that is part of the church’s historical continuity."  
"The gospel is explosive, a public doxology. It is resurrection, not death and dying. Joy. Hope. Love. Peace. Patience." 

Read the whole article here, and check out John's important book, The Witness of God (Eerdmans, 2010).

Friday, June 5, 2015

Colin Williams, Secularism, the Church and UCA Origins

 Recalling Colin Williams
An Evening Seminar
7pm, Wednesday 24th June
(6pm for optional dinner)
Centre for Theology and Ministry,
29 College Crescent, Parkville  3052
Speakers: Brian Howe, Ian Weeks and Damian Palmer
Colin Williams was a significant Australian theologian in the Methodist tradition who spent most of his career in the United States. Before leaving for the US, he was Professor of Systematic Theology at Queen's College in Melbourne and was a member of the Joint Commission on Church Union. I understand he played a leading role in the writing of the Commission's second report, The Church: Its Nature, Function and Ordering. His most notable scholarly work was John Wesley's Theology Today: A Study of the Wesleyan Tradition in the Light of Current Theological Dialogue (1960). Half a century on, it remains available for purchase and it still gets quoted in critical studies of Wesley's thought. After leaving Australia he became a major figure in America's ecumenical and theological circles from the mid-1960s through to the 1980s, including a decade-long stint as Dean of Yale Divinity School. The United Methodist Church maintains a significant archive of his papers.
 * * * * *
Last year I had reason to read Williams' 1965 book, Faith in a Secular Age. The book, as the title implies, explores the roots and contours of the rise of the secular, and canvasses alternative reactions of the churches to it. He offers this description of the secular which at the time was pressing itself upon the consciousness of the American church.
We are witnessing…the rise of secular man (sic). It is not suggested that this secular attitude is the product of a sudden change in man’s way of thinking. On the contrary, the change has been brewing for centuries and behind it there lies factors such as the rise of the scientific attitude, the successful bid for the autonomy of increasing areas of human thought from ecclesiastical tutelage, the subsequent flight of institutions from the church’s direct control…., and the spread of an attitude of this-worldly confidence. … With this increasing dependence upon the new things that man can create ‘from below’, there has come also a continuing diminution of the wisdom that comes down into our life through religion and revealed truth. (.p.20)
Obviously, this is a very much a description of the secular rooted in the discourses and assumptions of the 1960s. Reading Williams, you don't have to scratch too far to realise that he was writing in an environment informed by demythologising, the death of God, and various 'secular' theologies.
Like others at the time, Williams offers a positive assessment of this rise of the secular. It is not so much to be resisted by the church but as a new condition in which faith can be reformed and fine-tuned for the sake of the church's mission.  
The rise of the secular attitude to life must be interpreted positively as the fruit of the gospel and…religion must be interpreted not as the cause we are called to defend, but as the mythical, metaphysical, ontocratic clothing of our childhood that we must now learn to put off if we are to be for true faith in the living God as he is working in the events of our time.
There is an impulse to cross the interface between the church and the world, to move out from the church and its insularity and into the world and its only apparent secularity. ‘Only apparent’ because God has not given up on the secular world, even if the secular world has given up on God. The theological rationale for this is not simply frustration with the insularity of the church and the confines of ‘religion’.

The reason why this openness to the world has precisely that the church is learning again to turn its eyes to Christ. ... And it is in him that this openness to the world is seen (p.108).

I guess that among the issues which might come up at the seminar would be these: Has the church actually learn that lesson (of turning its eyes to Christ) or is it still learning it? Can the confidence in the 'secular' be transferred to the present context, half a century later? Can this christologically-driven 'openness to the world' be extended to multiple definitions of 'secular' and a church/world interface which seems irreducibly complex? How do William's insights help us address the contemporary situation.
Come along and engage with Ian Weeks and Brian Howe, both of whom knew Williams, as well as Damian Palmer who has been pursuing research on Williams as part of a wider project on twentieth-century ecumenism.