By Rev Randall Prior
(with gratitude to Norman Young, D’Arcy Wood and Graham McAnalley)
In the 1990s, in the city of Knox in Melbourne’s outer east, I was involved in a local Uniting and Anglican Churches initiative to establish a single worshiping community. It failed. After three promising years there was a change in priestly leadership in the Anglican congregation and the regional diocese decided that, for the sake of a stronger Anglican church in Knox City, the newly emerging partnership with the Uniting Church congregation would need to dissolve. When the Uniting Church challenged the Anglicans about the decision they had made, the response was that such cooperative ventures can only work when the ‘glue’ that holds any such cooperation together is the fact that neither partner can survive on their own. In other words, only a threat to the survival of a congregation will sustain a commitment to join two local churches into one.
The genius of the Uniting Church and the reason for its successful birth in June 1977 was that the coming together of the three separate church traditions – Congregational, Methodist and Presbyterian – was driven, not by any ‘glue of survival’ but by the compelling call of the gospel itself. Let me explain.
At the very heart of the Christian gospel is the astonishing news that in Jesus Christ, God has acted to renew the whole of creation, to overcome the powers of sin, evil and death which destroy and divide nations and peoples, and to reconcile all creation to God’s own self. Nothing less than this renewal, which is both cosmic and personal, has been accomplished in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. It is both the gift and the promise of the Christian gospel, for all people, for all creation. This gospel message finds rich and varied expression in each of the New Testament writings as well as in the Basis of Union (eg para.3).
Thus the apostle Paul declares to the Corinthians: “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to God’s own self” (2 Cor 5:19). Preceding this declaration is the statement: “It is the love of Christ which compels us – for one has died for all, therefore all have died.” In other words, the love of God, expressed in Christ, is such that we are ‘born’ into a new way of living in the world – a way which is marked by a renewed relationship with God and with others.
This renewed relationship crosses all distance and separation between ourselves and God, and therefore between ourselves and others.
It is this explosion of renewed relationships which is celebrated by the church and to which the church is uniquely called to bear witness. In doing so, the church embodies the faith of the gospel and holds up a light to the world – a light which illuminates a new way of living in the world and which forecasts a renewed world, one which is no longer marked by destruction, division and death, but by reconciliation and life. This is the gift and the hope of the Christian faith.
It was this fundamental and far-reaching insight which was the catalyst for the birth of the Uniting Church. If the Christian gospel speaks about the reconciliation of all peoples and the renewal of the whole of creation, then this must be apparent in and mirrored by the Christian church. The fact that there were separate church denominations which divided Christians from each other was understood to be an anathema to the gospel itself; it constituted the living of a lie, a failure to obey the compelling call of the gospel, a rejection of the accomplished work of God’s love … and something needed to be done about it. It was no longer possible simply to live with the separation of the churches as if this were normal and acceptable.
One of the other passages of the New Testament which was influential in driving the inauguration of the Uniting Church was the prayer of Jesus recorded in the Gospel of John, a prayer for the unity of all Christian disciples. But in this case, the nature and purpose of this unity are defined.
Jesus prays “that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21). In this passage, the unity arises from our immersion in the unity of love between the Father and the Son (“just as you are in me and I in you, that they may be in us”), and insofar as it does so, it has an evangelical impact in the world; the unity is not for its own sake, nor for the sake of the church, but for the sake of the world (“that the world may believe”). In this sense, the separation of the churches was a denial of the unity between the Father and the Son, and was an obstacle to the evangelical vocation of the church.
One question which arises is how this unity is to be expressed. More particularly, is the organic union of different denominations the only or necessary form of unity? The founders of the Uniting Church were strongly influenced by the answer given to this question by the World Council of Churches when it met in Lund, Sweden in 1952. In response to the question of the form which unity ought to take, the ‘Lund Principle’ determined that churches ought “to do separately only those things that for conscience sake cannot be done together”.
It was the conviction of the three separate churches that came into union that there was nothing that ‘for conscience sake’ they needed to be doing separately. Then ‘why unite?’ became ‘why not become one organic church?’
Thus, the catalyst for the coming together of the three church traditions to form the one Uniting Church had nothing to do with what was then called ‘ecclesiastical carpentry’. In other words, it was not about convenience, rationalisation of property and resources, a strategy for greater social or political influence, nor a necessity in response to the threat to survival. Rather, it was seen to be the only obedient response to the Christian gospel; in the face of this gospel, the separation of the churches stood in shameful opposition.
Of course, the vision which compelled the birth of the Uniting Church is a vision which encompasses all church traditions … which is why the inauguration of the Uniting Church was never intended to establish one new church tradition to replace three others. If the call to unity and reconciliation is a call which embraces all Christians, indeed all humankind, then Christians can never be settled and satisfied until that end is reached. Therefore, those who were involved in this new church decided to name it ‘Uniting’ and not ‘United’; what was being created was not a new denomination but a dynamic movement whose vision was the unity and reconciliation of all people.
Thirty-eight years after the inauguration of the Uniting Church, it may be timely for this vision to be reclaimed by the church, both for its own sake and for the sake of the world.