The first impressions of an outsider

John Flett

Photo by Bret Salinger

By Rev Dr John G Flett

As one new to the Uniting Church, I thought that I might relate my first and uninformed impressions. These no doubt occupy a narrow band of experience and fail to reflect the range of UCA constituencies.

But, fresh eyes sometimes highlight the unexpected and encourage conversations otherwise difficult to initiate.

First and foremost, the welcome my family and I received has been second to none. I have worked across four continents and no other institution has come close to the care shown us by the Uniting Church. This includes a feeling of excitement regarding the positive contribution my work might make to the life of the church. I have experienced it as a quite humbling thing.

It speaks well, in my opinion, for the lived theology of the Uniting Church.

After welcome, however, ‘anxious’ perhaps best summarises my impression of the UCA.

One of my first meetings consisted of largely uninterrupted lament over the dying of the Church. Following this came a consistent narrative of declining numbers, greying congregations, budgetary restrictions, ministries under ‘threat’, the impact of Uniting our future, the need for ‘new models of the church’, etc.

Though this reflects pressures today common to church in the west, the UCA appears to be in the middle of a sustained panic-attack. Nor does this appear benign; it seems to direct much of our thinking and acting.

That is an impolite claim, and I only have space to give two examples. The first focuses on institutional culture. As an outsider, I might name this ‘emotivist’. There seem to be a great number of simmering tensions which find expression in binaries and categorical statement, and not a little degree of sniping. Anxiety at once intensifies the rhetoric while encouraging an impatience and immediacy. Discussions lack proper depth and complexity, and polices become determined by judging between oppositional positions.

This produces ‘winners and losers’ and associated frustrations and disaffections.

I have been party to a number of discussions that suffered from somewhat superficial questions, a paucity of informed opinion, and yet which pushed findings due to a profound sense of urgency. It makes for unsatisfactory decisions.

This is not to suggest a lack of professionalism. It is to say that institutional controls become the necessary form of mediation within an emotivist culture. Professionalism can, in this context, be confused with the doctrinaire and the mandating of universal principles formulated to control and direct unruly subordinates.

We are left with an environment which advises ‘flying under the radar’, and against ‘rocking the boat’ (actual quotes to me from various parts of the synod), because the percentages say that any realignment will likely be downward.

We appear to be tied in knots and lacking in grace.

The second and related example concerns the place and role of theological discourse.

I have been informed that the ‘Uniting Church is a broad church’. This seems to indicate that the Church encompasses a spectrum of evangelical and liberal voices within it. But it seems to me that we suffer from a lack of robust theological engagement. The ‘breadth’ in question takes the form of isolated binaries held together within an institutional framework.

For fear of being pigeon-holed within an oppositional discourse, we seem only to be able to utter a plaintive cry: ‘the gospel does have something to say (doesn’t it)’? Bloodless and boring.

There is nothing wrong with theological contention and disagreement, with argument. Within an emotivist culture argument often turns septic. Theological contention should be the very opposite.

In my own experience, institutions that promote only one theological voice are sterile. Know that there is proper theological disagreement, that this can be open and contentious and not ‘resolved’, and that such is necessary for the life of the church.

Argument is a skill that can be learnt. It belongs to theology as a sustained historical investigation, a living economy, a wrestling, all governed by the common table. This is all basic to theological creativity. Anxiety is killing off the very discourse that is part of the church’s historical continuity.

Much of this might be fruitfully related to the ‘identity’ question.

Identity is found in the positive and the creative, not in the fearful and controlling, not in an institutional dogmatism where the answers lie in process and minute counting. We seem mired in an anxiety which declares the message to be false: the religion of fierce liberation is bound by paper chains. We seem to be cowed by the threat of a parking ticket.

Where is the creativity, the excitement, the discovery of the pearl of great price? The gospel is explosive, a public doxology. It is resurrection, not death and dying. Joy. Hope. Love. Peace. Patience.

The challenges are real, so is the pain. But the clamour of panic leads to superficial engagement and poor decisions. Relax. Have a glass of wine. Break some bread. Proceed in the sure knowledge that God in Christ died for you, and as you share in this death so shall you share in God’s life. This life is abundant, a life of joy.

If you want to know why the church is growing outside the west, the answer lies here.

Rev Dr John G Flett
Coordinator of Studies – Missiology
Pilgrim Theological College

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2 Responses to “The first impressions of an outsider”

  1. Leighton

    The key perhaps to the growth of evangelical churches such as song perhaps lies in your second last paragraph.
    Life and freedom is to be celebrated . Lift your heads high with hope confident in your eternal position rather than moaning on what has been.

  2. Peter

    This is So good… Can’t wait to hear more from Dr Flett.