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.