By Rev Dr Jennifer Byrnes, Geoff Thompson, Sharon Hollis and Rohan Pryor.
The Uniting Church has built its organisational life on the concept and practice of inter-related councils. This is a practice that is often misunderstood and frequently not used to its full potential across many aspects of the Church’s life.
The UCA did not invent inter-related councils, yet the UCA has established a unique expression of inter-related decision-making. It has done so in the belief that this inter-related nature expresses more fully (than some of Christianity’s inherited systems of church government) that the Church is ruled by Jesus Christ through the attentiveness and giftedness of the people of God.
Historically, Protestant discussions about ‘councils’ emerge from suspicions toward ecclesiastical authority and its displacement of both scripture and conscience.
The 16th century reformer John Calvin opposed the hierarchical nature of popery – which in his writings he identified as overshadowing the authority of scripture – but nevertheless, he acknowledged that the ‘courts’ of the church were necessary to ensure that Christ’s voice was heard.
When the UCA was inaugurated through the Basis of Union some aspects of this system of governance of the Church were embraced with a couple of significant correctives to that received from the antecedent denominations.
The Basis of Union affirms that inter-related councils are a positive expression of the nature of Christ’s community, attentive to God’s will, collaborative, and comprised of gifted and representative women and men. Thus as the inter-related councils were established they were affirmed to be a) non-polemical – that is, not against somebody or something; b) in affirmation of the community of equals witnessed in the Gospel; c) reliant on Christ ruling his Church; and d) Councils are called to wait upon God’s Word which is known through scripture.
The UCA further understands that the inter-related nature of the Church expresses the differentiated and limited authority of any one Council, with separate but overlapping areas of responsibility, and with the need for all Councils to be in “mutual submission in the service of the Gospel”.
Thus, for the UCA the councils are not ‘courts’, nor are they to be ‘top-down’.
D’Arcy Wood reinforces this mutual submission in the service of the Gospel: “The Uniting Church is not a democracy, because a democracy is a form in which the people as a whole rule. The Uniting Church does not aim to represent the will of the people on any given issue, but to seek the will of God by prayer and by consulting together in the light of the Word of God.”
So the UCA has established four Councils: the Assembly, the Synod, the Presbytery and the Church Council of the Congregation. Each Council is comprised of elected or appointed members with a diversity of gifts to offer. Each of these Councils has primary oversight and decision-making for particular spheres or responsibilities within the life of the church.
This means that each Council, whilst having responsibilities in a particular area, needs to also keep in mind where the limits of their responsibility and oversight end and another Council’s responsibility and decision-making are taken up.
One way to understand this is to think of a pyramid, where each side represents a council of the church. For the decision-making to work well each side needs to remember there are three other sides which may have a role in the decision being considered. Each Council needs to be aware of the breadth and limitations of its sphere of responsibility; and also to accept accountability for the sphere under its governance.
In order for this organisational expression to be resilient and effective there needs to be a spirit of partnership across the Councils and a collaborative spirit rather than a competitive or individualistic spirit about the church’s discernment and responsibility.
For example: councils need to always ask the question as to whether the matter before it lies solely within its responsibility for decision-making, or whether indeed another Council of the Church may have a view or responsibility and needs to be consulted, or indeed if the matter needs be referred to another Council.
For example, times of local worship are set by the Church Council, while Presbyteries hold responsibility for accrediting recognised worship leaders, Synods for providing training, and Assembly for setting standards for such education and recognition. The Assembly and other regional councils would overstep their responsibilities by setting times for local worship, but the local council would ignore the regional responsibilities for oversight if it disregarded the missional and ecumenical implications of Christian worship by promoting disunity and disharmony.
For this organisational life to be effective, Councils are to adopt and express a posture of attentiveness, diligence, humility, conviction and patience.
It is clear that there are some within the UCA who believe the inter-related nature of the councils of the Church has not delivered effective decision-making and discernment. In this view the inter-related nature has not served us well in an increasingly complex and fast-moving world. There are others who in witnessing and experiencing this struggle to be effective, believe the cause to be that many in and beyond the Councils have not understand nor fully implemented the principles of its inter-related nature. In this view effective discernment and sustainable decision-making take time, and lead to better decisions for the whole church, and its witness to the whole gospel of Jesus Christ.
In a contemporary context, where business and executive authoritarianism and organisational haste is often promoted, faithful and care-full discernment by the community of Christ requires almost as much counter-cultural strength as the reformers of the sixteenth century.
To learn more of the inter-related Councils of the Uniting Church and how they are to work to complement each other for effective discernment and decision-making, the Centre for Theology and Ministry (CTM) provides workshops in regional areas on request. For more information regarding these workshops, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org .