Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Happy birthday, dear Uniting Church…Happy birthday to you!

The Uniting Church in Australia celebrates its birthday each year on 22 June. This is one of the things that makes the Uniting Church distinctive: we have our own birthday, and it was not very long ago (relatively) that this denomination came into existence – in 1977, a mere 34 years ago. Other denominations trace their origins back centuries, to the activity of one of the Reformers, or to a decision of a particular monarch, or to a particular split between churches. Some look back millennia, for their origins in journeys which apostles were claimed to have made soon after the time of Christ. The Roman Catholic Church understands its origins to be with Jesus himself and the leader of his disciples, Peter. So the UCA is a mere babe-in-arms amongst such company!

We are also different from other denominations in that we came in to being as a result of a democratic vote amongst members. It wasn’t a battle with another church, or a rejection of the customs that were valued by another group of believers, but it was a desire to do things together, to be authentically Australian, and to set our own direction that was relevant to our own society, that motivated the formation of the Uniting Church. To be sure, as a church, we have always held a strong commitment to talk with and work alongside the other Christian denominations in our society. It was our ecumenical commitment to the unity in faith and mission of the church that led to the forming of the Uniting Church in the first place.

Yet in the three and a half decades since then, the Uniting Church has grown to become different from other denominations in Australia. Often what is most noticed about the UCA is that it offers a distinctive Christian voice within our society. Even as we share beliefs and commitments with people across all Christian denominations, the UCA does take a stand on issues and strive to put into practice a form of faith which is relevant and contemporary, and shows a commitment to compassion and justice in all that we do. It is a good thing that we have people in Synod and Assembly positions who devote their time to researching and writing communications on such issues – justice for refugees, fair treatment of indigenous people, care for the environment, lobbying for policies that uphold the rights of the marginalised, a commitment to ethical living. And it is a good thing to belong to a church like this! It is also a challenge to find ways of doing this at a local level, within our own immediate community. That is the particular challenge that we are thinking about in our ministry on the mid north coast.

The Uniting Church was founded by people coming together and agreeing on a document, known as the Basis of Union, which provided a – well, a basis for the union that took place! In this document, the orientation is resolutely forward-looking. Whilst the past is noted, and accepted, it is the future which generates the energy and passion for being the church. One of the most inspiring sentences in the Basis is the phrase which declares that the Uniting Church is always ready to confess its Lord in fresh words and deeds. I think it is important to note that this was written nearly four decades before the ‘fresh expressions’ movement got going – we were already committed to fresh words and deeds way back in 1977. This was no dogmatic commitment to doing something the same way we had always done it. Instead, this demonstrated an open-minded attitude towards future possibilities. This is also expressed, in paragraph 1, as being willing to remain open to constant reform under [God’s] Word. The UCA is, and continues to be, a reforming, reformed church. Our present time is to be marked by being open to constant reform.

The Basis of Union uses other inspiring phrases to indicate the key characteristics of our shared faith. It was a long way ahead of its time in making explicit reference to how we need to live out of faith in ways that make sense within our particular geographic location – in Asia and the Pacific. Our faith is to be exercised in ways that are contextual – relating to the world as we currently know it. The most important need in the contemporary world is for faith to be expressed and lived in ways that are relevant. That means taking seriously the forms and practices of the society of which we are a part.

That doesn’t mean, however, that the Uniting Church has lost touch with its origins – in the Reformation, in the church universal, in the movement which was started by Jesus of Nazareth. The Basis of Union declares that our faith is to be informed by tradition, and makes clear and direct reference to the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed, as well as later reformation statements. In paragraph 9, it describes these creeds as authoritative statements of the Catholic Faith, framed in the language of their day, and it explicitly commits its ministers and instructors to careful study of these creeds and to the discipline of interpreting their teaching in a later age.

However, this process of interpretation is further elaborated in paragraph 11, which refers directly to the inheritance of literary, historical and scientific enquiry which has characterised recent centuries and to contemporary thought. Indeed, it is this paragraph which ends with the prayer that the UCA may be ready when occasion demands to confess the Lord in fresh words and deeds. So we are to be guided by the creeds and understandings of the past, although in no ways limited or constrained by those understandings. And the discoveries and insights of the present are just as important, and need to be equally valued, as we seek to be faithful in our daily lives.

So the Basis of Union insists that our faith is to be open to innovation and new insights – informed by the discoveries of science, developments in philosophy and literature, and through contact with people of other cultures and faiths. This leads us to foster an open, enquiring, critical, engagement with faith. From the start of the Uniting Church, we have affirmed the importance of strong and constructive relationships with people of Christian faith who belong to other denominations. The church as a whole belongs to ecumenical bodies and always seeks to work with other denominations where possible.

In recent years, we have come to realise how important it is to do this with people of faith who do not have the same central commitment to Jesus Christ. There are many ‘people of faith’ in our society, and it is both important for us and important for them, that we engage in discussion and exploration about issues of faith. So interfaith dialogue is at the heart of who we are as a Uniting Church. In such dialogue, we can find our own faith deepened as we share on faith issues with people of other faiths. And they often report the same experience, for them, in relation to their own faith. This is a very significant way in which we are opening ourselves to new insights and fresh expressions of faith.

So, where do the ‘fundamentals’ of our faith fit in all of this? What do we believe about God, Jesus, the Spirit, and the Church? When we go back to paragraph 3 of the Basis of Union, we find this statement: God made in Jesus a representative beginning of a new order of righteousness and love. This understands Jesus to be, not the one who scrutinises us and judges as to what is right and what is wrong in our lives, in order to punish us; but the one who offers hope and inspires us in our life. The hope that Jesus portrays for us, is that a new order will come about, in God’s time, in God’s way. That’s what we believe will come to be, in the future, as God’s will is implemented in our lives.

Paragraph 3 of the Basis of Union also has a similar way of talking about the Holy Spirit. It describes the Spirit as a pledge and foretaste of [the] coming reconciliation and renewal which is the end in view for the whole creation. The Spirit isn’t a understood in a narrow sense, as gift for particular individuals or parties, chosen and set aside from the larger group, to be special. Instead, the Spirit has a role in relation to all of society – in fact, all of creation! And the orientation to the future is clear: the Spirit is not described in terms of deeds past – the day of Pentecost, for instance, or the 19th century holiness movement – but in terms of the future: that time of reconciliation and renewal which characterises the goal of our living. The Spirit is the resource which enables us to live with this future orientation, looking forward to renewal and reconciliation. That’s the vision for society that we have!

Another element in this paragraph also reaches into the unknown of the future, and offers a further statement of hope and anticipation. Along with Jesus, and the Spirit, we find that the Church is described, not solely in terms of the past, but resolutely in terms of the future. The Basis of Union places Jesus in relation to the Church in this way: The Church lives between the time of Christ's death and resurrection and the final consummation of all things which Christ will bring; and a little later, the Church is a pilgrim people, always on the way towards a promised goal. That’s an important feature of how we see ourselves as a church: not as the ultimate, the be-all and end-all, the best of what God is doing. No, rather as a step along the way, towards what God promises. So that puts all our church planning and politics and pettiness into perspective! The Church exists and functions for the sake of the whole of creation. That’s why sustainable living, fair trade, justice for refugees, and compassion for those oppressed or ill or distressed, are integral to our lifestyle as Christians within our contemporary society.

There is one final part of this reflection on what marks the Uniting Church as distinctive in today’s Australian society. The Basis of Union starts with a brief history of “the way into union” in its first paragraph. Here, the very first thing that is said of the denominations that came together to form the Uniting Church, was that they were seeking to bear witness to that unity, which is both Christ’s gift and his will for the Church. We have already noted the importance of unity. Alongside that, the description of the Church as bearing witness to the way that God wants us to be, needs some attention. The Uniting Church has taken very seriously the call to bear witness to the Gospel, in situations of oppression, despair, fear, as well as in the ordinary things of daily life. And it is the task of bearing witness that is the particular challenge for living faithfully in our immediate context.

One of the striking things about the Wauchope Uniting Church is that this community of faithful people has developed a series of connections with the wider community, which places the church in a quite distinctive position within the local community. There are a number of places in the town where the classic formulations of evangelical Christianity are declared. They certainly have their place in our society. But from our participation in the Wauchope Ministers Association thus far, it has become clear to us that this Uniting Church congregation offers something different, and something perhaps more attuned to “where people are at” in their daily lives. Through programmes such as the Friday Lunches, the Community Markets, the weekly KUCA club, and the regular worship and fellowship events for Bundaleer residents, we have strong points of connection with people beyond the group of people who gather each week for worship.

So the challenge to all of us is: How do we bear witness to what God wants for all humanity, within these relationships and connections? How do we build a society that values faith, that lives ethically, that ensures compassionate justice for all its members? For this is surely how God wants us all to be. That is something that the Uniting Church is committed to grapple with, day after day. And that is something that we seek to keep as a focus in the ministry of God’s people in Wauchope and the surrounding areas.

So happy birthday, Uniting Church! It is good that you are here and contributing to the common life of our society in these ways.

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