CIVIL wars are the most destructive of conflicts. They divide communities, friends, and families. They inflict deep and abiding wounds. Life in this synod presently feels like being in the midst of a civil war. The failure of Acacia College and its consequences have wounded many and set people at odds with one another.
I grieve for those who feel hurt and betrayed. I agree we need to give voice to the pain and anger in our congregations. I am troubled by the ineffectual consultation process that has unfolded in parts of the synod. I believe a fuller accounting needs to be made for the failure of Acacia College.
But does this mean the Synod meeting, which invoked “special circumstances”, acted improperly?
Does it mean congregations are justified in colluding with the media or threatening the wider church with legal action? Does the fact of pain and grief justify the abuse that has been directed toward synod staff? Should a church supposedly committed to Christ’s Gospel of forgiveness and reconciliation ‘punish’ those who are ‘to blame’ for Acacia College? I don’t think so. Why? Because I believe we are all of us collectively responsible for a church culture that made the Acacia College failure not just possible, but almost inevitable.
The essence of this culture lies in the distinctions we make between the ‘church’ that is our local congregation, and the wider church represented by the other structures of our polity. This is a culture that privileges congregational life over the life of the wider church – a privilege that fails to understand that the two are inextricably linked.
Consequently, too many people within the UCA think the real church stops at the doors of local congregations.
Too many people think obligations are owed by synods and presbyteries to congregations, but not the other way around. Too many are suspicious or dismissive of the other levels of our polity, whilst having only the vaguest notion of the work they perform.
Perhaps these attitudes stem from Reformed Christianity’s historical antipathy toward centralised authority; from perceived losses of identity wrought by post-Union mergers and closures; from a failure by the Church to ensure its members understand that we all participate in the life of the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church”.
Whatever the cause, the UCA is at present saddled with a culture of congregational parochialism that embeds identity in locality and property, rather than in the shared life of the whole community of faith.
This parochialism runs counter to the spirit of our polity, whose shape calls on us to move beyond suspicion and insularity. Yet, is it not the case that, at every presbytery meeting, there is always a solid block of members who persistently fail to attend?
Are not the councils and committees of our church yearly populated by the ‘same old faces’? Is it not getting harder to fill vacancies within our polity? These realities are not primarily a function of diminished participation by our ageing and declining congregations.
They arise from a vision of church that is limited to the four walls of our worship spaces.
Acacia College failed, not just because of the failures of those directly involved, but also because our neglect of the life of the wider church amounts to a whole-of-church failure in governance and oversight.
I accept these are minority views and deeply unpopular.
But I maintain that if our synod is to move beyond its present conflicted state, we must all of us examine the culture of church in which we are currently embedded, and resolve to cease protecting our parochial smallholdings in order to become what we are actually meant to be: the Body of Christ that lives for God’s eschatological tomorrow.
Rev Brendan Byrne