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Review by Penny Mulvey
Last month, UCA past president Rev Alistair Macrae and the moderator of NSW/ACT Synod were both arrested for participating in a joint action of civil disobedience in the Melbourne office of the opposition leader and the Sydney office of the prime minister.
An Informed Faith is a compilation of chapters about key aspects of the Uniting Church at the beginning of this century. One of those chapters, by Associate Professor Rodney Smith of the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney, examines Australian politics in the 21st century and in particular, the Uniting Church’s engagement with politics.
He writes: “Direct protest confrontations between Uniting Church and Australian governments have diminished in recent years; however, this does not necessarily mean that the Uniting Church has become timid…
“The techniques it uses to express a prophetic voice have changed since the 1970s; however, the basic political impulses of the Uniting Church have remained constant into the new millennium.” Political engagement is alive and well in the Uniting Church.
Editor William Emilsen has brought together a number of outstanding Uniting Church theologians to capture the ‘big themes’ of the Church’s life over the past decade. Associate Professor Smith was one of the first people Prof Emilsen approached when planning this book. Rodney Smith suggested surveying Uniting Church clergy, so in 2012 Smith and Emilsen conducted ‘The Uniting Church in the New Millennium’ survey to inform some of the thinking presented in An Informed Faith.
The reader can dip in and out of this book depending on his or her particular interest. Those from within this synod might be intrigued by the chapter on management by Sheila Bellamy who refers to some current issues impacting VicTas. In her conclusion, Prof Bellamy writes: “Sometimes our approach to management has unintended, negative effects…the problem arises where program areas start to frame their goals primarily, importantly or solely, in revenue generation, profit, or financial surplus terms, where we adopt business attitudes to service delivery and employ business-like rhetoric.”
Prof Bellamy poses a fundamental question often overlooked in the busyness of ‘doing’ church: “… is church as we know it preventing church as God wants it?”
John Michael Owen seeks to determine whether the Basis of Union has stood the test of time. Owen writes from a place of knowledge, having been an alternate member, and later a member, of the Joint Commission on Church Union.
He asks how the Basis is received in the life of the Uniting Church today. Dr Owen does not gloss over his perceived failures of the Church to model the founding document. He believes the preaching of Christ’s gospel is not valued in today’s Uniting Church.
Dr Owen also questions a move away from the building up of Christ’s body, putting the emphasis instead on ‘achieving something in the world’. “That implies,” Dr Owen writes, “that the Church no longer needs its risen Lord to come and gather it, build it up, rule and renew it.”
The Basis is falsely interpreted, Dr Owen writes, “when one plays one side of the Basis off against the other.” He urges the church to tackle afresh the serious task of studying the Basis, “which identifies the foundation of the Church’s faith, life, unity and mission”.
Dr Ian Breward, former Professor of Church History at the Theological Hall in Melbourne and recently retired archivist for this synod, writes a chapter on Evangelical Christianity. He documents the painful debates about sexuality which led to several thousand members leaving the Church and the formation of the Evangelical Movement in the Uniting Church (EMU).
He ends optimistically, reminding evangelicals that they cannot afford to be isolated. “…it seems fair to predict that they (UC evangelicals) have a good spread of ages and will continue to bear fruitful witness to the Gospel in the Uniting Church and to its sister churches here and overseas.”
His chapter is followed by one exploring the other end of the theological spectrum – Progressive Christianity, written by Val Webb. Dr Webb asks, under a heading ‘‘Correct’ Theology: who decides?’: “…how and where does the UCA decide its theology; and how is this open to change and evolution?” Dr Webb states all Christians, whether ordained or lay, need to be both learners and teachers.
Quoting Karl Barth, Dr Webb concludes that no one “can be content … to be indolent, to be no more than a passive spectator or reader”.
An Informed Faith is an engaging read, its authors writing from a place of knowledge and passion. They are willing to provoke and challenge within an academically rigorous setting.
For Church members interested in engaging further in the ‘big’ themes of the Uniting Church – spirituality, faith-based schools, our relationships with other faiths, our non-Anglo and Indigenous Christian brothers and sisters and the place of ministry and the environment – then this is for you.