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The Uniting Church in Australia began with vision and enthusiasm. Warm encouragement came from leaders in church and community, as three reforming traditions established a distinctly Australian denomination. It was not a merger of existing churches but an experiment in ecumenical innovation, but aided by compatible ways and familiar building blocks. The title chosen for the new church expressed both the hope that further unions would follow, and the belief in unity as a prerequisite of the church’s witness to the gospel.
Editor’s note: Crikey is not in the business of needlessly attacking our churches, but we have been supplied with an interesting article from a former Uniting Church minister Warren Clarnette. He is an insider and he has a story to tell so here it is. We would be delighted to publish any responses to this next week.

The Uniting Church in Australia began with vision and enthusiasm. Warm encouragement came from leaders in church and community, as three reforming traditions established a distinctly Australian denomination. It was not a merger of existing churches but an experiment in ecumenical innovation, but aided by compatible ways and familiar building blocks. The title chosen for the new church expressed both the hope that further unions would follow, and the belief in unity as a prerequisite of the church’s witness to the gospel.

Furnished with optimism and community good will, and only briefly troubled by arguments over Presbyterian properties, the Uniting Church represented for most of its members a response to public disenchantment with institutional religion. A successful union would dispel the inertia of the past and inspire new encounters with Australian society. The time was right for a new rapprochement between church and society.

Twenty-three years later this new denomination has become an embarrassment to most of its members, and in the wider community it has a reputation for being more ethically unconventional, more indiscriminately compassionate, more politically activist and more disinterested in doctrine than any other Australian church.

Currently the church is divided over the question of sexuality, following release in 1995 of a study document “The Interim Report on Sexuality”. But the present argument is not a bolt from the blue. It arises directly from the church’s history of public pronouncements and its desire for media exposure. A detailed history of this development would explain why in its first two decades the church abandoned both its original vision and the traditions which informed the best efforts of the participating denominations.

Soon after union the church’s administrative wing assumed a dominant role in policy formation, ousting, in the process, the theologians and scholars who had guided the participating churches in the years before the union. Strictly speaking, the administrators (three ministers were appointed , one from each of the uniting bodies, as an interim measure) had no authority to make policy, and indeed they did not at first, in keeping with the principle of decision-making by ‘interrelated councils’ – the national Assembly, the State synods and the regional presbyteries. Local parish councils, according to the fiction of democratic rights, had a constitutional right to represent the rank and file constituency.

Very quickly, policy-formation succumbed to the gravitational pull of the central bureaucracy in each State. The Uniting Church is now a non-hierarchical body (whose State moderators and Assembly presidents command virtually no authority) controlled by elected officials, backed by hand-picked committees, who consistently show contempt for the notion of accountability and the sort of open government which, publicly, they demand of politicians.

Centralisation took place slowly and was hardly pre-planned. The doctors of the church who had successfully argued the case for union withdrew to their teaching duties. Only rarely in two decades were they found making public statements on behalf of the denomination. This task was left to the bureaucrats. In their defence, the bureaucrats had to make quick decisions in an unfamiliar environment. The new church faced enormous psychological problems of group identity and the need to weld together three sets of denominational finances and properties. Teachers in theological colleges had their own problems in preparing students for ministry under new and untried rules. Nobody could foresee that the principle of rule by interrelated councils would mutate so quickly into the authoritarian structures under which the Uniting Church now operates.

It should be said that the seeds of this process were present in the latter years of the Congregational, Methodist and Presbyterian churches. This was not because those traditions were authoritarian in principle, but because by the time they were ready for union the denominations were experiencing doubts about their own traditions. As well the cultural atmosphere was inimical to the old order. Political activism became the means to effect social change. Political slogans were baptised by the church, and received the status of truth, albeit of the unexamined kind. The consequence is a church officially active in the politics of the nation and with a clearly defined social and cultural program that may be summed up under a few broad headings.

In no particular order these include:

Antagonism to what Michael Novak calls ‘the spirit of democratic capitalism’; Constant reference to the evils of Western civilisation, and particularly of the United States; Division of society into victims and oppressors, the latter being the wealth-producers and, curiously, the employers of labor; Church formation as the recruitment of congregations for community welfare and activities of a socially useful nature; And the gradual closure of congregations where age and infirmity make social outreach impossible.

The opportunities such a policy provides for involvement in public policy debate are endless. The Uniting Church, at first tentatively and more recently with some professionalism, achieved representative status as a church lobby group on the national stage out of all proportion to its total membership, and out of sympathy with the majority of those in whose name the officials claim to speak.

The fact that a considerable majority of Uniting members do not approve of the official program outlined above seems hardly to concern the church hierarchy. Heads of church sometimes, but more frequently administrative officers, regularly disregard the membership and even on occasions take them to task for refusing to follow the official social and political line.

National (Assembly) officials are said to be prepared to suffer a membership loss of 30 per cent if they succeed in achieving the ordination of actively homosexual women and men. The question of ordination of homosexual persons will be debated at the national Assembly in Adelaide in July 2000, but is unlikely to be resolved. A vote either way will not satisfy the side which loses. If homosexuals are ordained, thousands of members will sever their ties with the denomination.

But ordination is only a symptom of a broader issue. What is at stake is the authority of the Bible for Uniting Church ministers and lay people, and the related question of the church’s founding document, “The Basis of Union”. The “Basis” is a document which all ministers entering the new church were required to sign, by way of commitment to an interpretation of the Bible based on modern scholarship and the formative creeds of the universal church and the uniting denominations. The authority of the document has been weakened to the point where it no longer commands the policy-making apparatus.

The church’s first president, Dr Davis McCaughey, who helped write the “Basis” in the 1970’s, said in 1994 that “there was no intention that the Assembly … would be in control of the ‘Basis’, but rather that the commitment explicitly made by the Uniting Church in the ‘Basis’ was to control the life of the Assembly, as of every other part of the church’s life.”

With the “Basis” no longer authoritative, the interpretation of the Bible is now a point of conflict between various Uniting groups, especially where interpretation impinges on issues of sexuality, abortion, euthanasia, wealth and poverty, political activism and economic management. As the new century begins, the church’s administration and policies are directed towards greater centralisation of power, and risky experiments in the relationship between congregations and their ministers, resulting in growing unease among ordinary members.

It is unwise to predict social movements, and futile to tell what may become of Christian movements. No-one foresaw the rapid decline of the Uniting Church from its position of strength at union in 1977. It is just as difficult to predict the state of the church in ten or twenty-five years’ time. Present divisions may be preparing the ground for what the original architects of the new church had in mind: a new expression of the Christian faith that is ‘made in Australia’.

Peter Fray

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