Theological diversity within a multicultural church

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When we declared in 1985 at the 4th National Assembly that ‘the Uniting Church is a multicultural Church’ we affirmed that we are a diverse church. Diversity is the hallmark of a multicultural church. Many within our church would readily affirm how we are enriched by the cultural, racial and ethnic diversities.

However, there is a diversity that we seldom name or feel comfortable with – the theological diversity that exists within a multicultural church. This is one of the elephants in the room that we dance around.

If the truth be told, I become irritated when I hear someone say: “But this is not Uniting Church theology.” Indeed, what is Uniting Church theology? I know we have the Basis of Union but I am yet to find a document or book that states unequivocally what Uniting Church theology is.

I think there is an assumption within some parts of our church that the Uniting Church subscribes to orthodox theology or normative, transcultural, universal and historic theology. Anything else is considered ‘heretical’ or ‘dumb-down’ theology.

What is often considered ‘orthodox Christian theology’ has been a theology of empire, a theology of colonialism, a theology that powerful people used as a tool to achieve and defend land theft, exploitation, domination, superiority, racism and privilege.

One of the biggest challenges of a multicultural Church is this theological diversity – from conservatives to liberals or evangelicals to progressives. Due to our theological differences it’s almost impossible to agree on contentious issues such as same-sex marriage or ordination of homosexual ministers.

Much of the doctrine we take for granted and consider transcultural and trans-contextual was developed in response to questions that arose during the early centuries of Christianity. So we shouldn’t be surprised if ‘new’ theologies emerge today.

According to British theologian Andrew F. Walls: “The doctrines of Trinity and incarnation were developed as theologians grappled with the questions of the Hellenistic-Roman world. Christian theology is expanding today as it comes into contact with new areas of experience in Asia and Africa.”

Since diversity always means difference and often means disagreement, how can we maintain our unity within diversity? How does a multicultural Church with theological diversity like ours hang together?

First, we need to name and embrace the uncomfortable feelings of our diversities or differences.

We like to huddle with those who are somewhat similar to us. We need to become aware of our own preferences and biases and name them for what they are.
And some people fear differences.

Our society and church seem to be increasingly full of fearful, defensive people anxiously clinging to their property and inclined to look at the world with suspicion, expecting an enemy to suddenly appear, intrude and do harm.

But still – that is our vocation: to embrace the other as a guest and to create the free and fearless space where brotherhood and sisterhood can be formed and fully experienced.
In our world full of strangers, estranged from their own past, culture and country, from their neighbours, friends and family, from their deepest self and their God, we witness a painful search for a hospitable place where life can be lived without fear and where community can be truly found.

Second, work hard at building mutual respectful relationships across differences. We need to create intentional spaces to listen and engage one another. Try to hear what someone is saying and not just hear the differences. Refrain from judging another person’s theology because it’s different from yours. Practice generous orthodoxy.

How can we as “the theologically diverse church” begin to live to what Scripture clearly calls us to do: to treat one another with respect and dignity, especially in the face of theological difference? Practice mutual forbearance.

Gene March, Professor Emeritus of Old Testament, explains why this principle is so hard to embody. He says the stakes are higher the more common our ground becomes.
We may find it easier to practice mutual forbearance with those in other churches than we do within our own. We shouldn’t ignore our disagreements, but it’s possible to disagree with people without doubting their place at the table.

Third, we need to free our Church from Western/Euro-centric captivity. The cultural Church default setting is still the dominant culture and often operates from the assumption that European worldview can be applied to all people despite the cultural, ethnic diversity/differences. Our church governance, polity, processes, theological education and even pastoral care are informed by Euro-centric worldview. There is a great need to acknowledge and understand other worldviews.

We need to affirm Christian unity while celebrating the theological richness that arises from its racial and ethnic diversity. I do, however, acknowledge that there are ‘bad’ theologies that I would not support. For me, bad theologies are those that seek to dehumanise, discriminate, disempower and colonise others who are different.

Rev SweeAnn Koh
Director, Cross Cultural Mission & Ministry Unit
Commission for Mission

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