It was made up of lay and ordained, theologians and church leaders (all of whom, unsurprisingly for the 1950s, were white men).
Strikingly, the JCCU was mandated to “negotiate until union was achieved”. The negotiated union was achieved in 1977. What happened in those 20 years?
The JCCU (the membership of which changed over time) produced two lengthy and substantial reports for separate consideration by the three churches.
The first was published in 1959: The Faith of the Church; the second in 1963: The Church Its Nature, Function and Ordering.
Three features of the JCCU’s work during this period deserve comment. First, the Commission resisted doing ‘ecclesiastical carpentry’; a union deeper than a mere institutional merger was called for. This was related, secondly, to a deep concentration on Jesus Christ as the foundation of the church. Thirdly, the new Church was not to be about self-preservation or status, but to serve the world as part of Christ’s own mission in the world.
The 1963 Report had, in fact, contained a proposed Basis of Union. Each of the Churches discussed it and responded to it. The major sticking point was its proposal for bishops and a related ‘Concordat’ with the Church of South India.
Broadly, the intention was to identify the new Church with the then emerging Churches of Asia and, by reclaiming the ancient office of bishop, to signify an even broader ecumenical unity. For many, the proposal for bishops was a step too far.
Yet, mandated to ‘negotiate until union was achieved’, the JCCU pressed on.
Another proposed Basis was published in 1970, but a slightly changed final proposal was released in 1971. It was this 1971 version on which the churches voted and which would become the UCA’s actual Basis of Union.
This Basis generated more debates. Some were concerned that it didn’t say the Bible was the ‘word of God’. Instead, it described it as “testimony, in which it hears the Word of God” (who is understood to be Jesus). Others were unhappy at the absence of any theory atonement; it simply declares that in “love for the world, God gave the Son to take away the world’s sin”.
Finally, however, it was time to vote. Throughout 1973-74, the Basis was approved by large majorities in both the Methodist and Congregational Churches, but had a handful of votes gone the other way in the final vote at the national Presbyterian Assembly, this union would not have happened. But it did. In 1977 the UCA was inaugurated.
Through that 20-year process we have been bequeathed a short but eloquent document of 18 paragraphs. Among them are some beautifully written statements of Christian belief, not least Paragraph 3 on Jesus Christ, the ‘basis of the Basis’.
There are also very nuanced definitions of the sacraments (Paragraphs 6-8), encouragement to “continue to learn” from the Reformers and Wesley (Paragraph 10), a commitment to bring biblical scholarship to bear on contemporary witness (Paragraph 11), a clear statement about the ministry of the whole people of God (Paragraph 13) and an innovative approach to the Church government through inter-related councils (Paragraph 15).
For these and other elements of the Basis we are in debt to its authors.
(In 1992, a version of the Basis was published which incorporated gender-inclusive language. It is available at http://www.uca.org.au/basisofunion.htm.)
Rev Dr Geoff Thompson is Co-ordinator of Studies: Systematic Theology at Pilgrim Theological College. He is the author of a study book, Jesus Christ According to the Basis of Union available from Mediacom, and he blogs about the UCA, the Basis and systematic theology at http://xenizonta.blogspot.com.au.
Did you know…?
This month we introduce the first of a series of articles exploring different aspects of the Church. We encourage readers to send suggestions on topics you would like us to feature each month. Send questions to: firstname.lastname@example.org