Rev Randall Prior’s article in June Crosslight (‘Why Unite?’) prompts me to respond to assertions he has made about the formation and future of the Uniting Church.
The Uniting Church was formed largely through the faith of its leaders in the ecumenical movement, even as ecumenism had begun its downward slide in the 1960s. Randall’s strong faith in what he terms “the Christian gospel” is not in doubt. He relies on its efficacy to express great concern that the Uniting Church has not lived up to what he terms “the compelling call of the gospel itself”.
It is to his assumptions about ‘gospel’ and the universal nature of ‘gospel’ that I wish to turn. Like many who argue that the gospel is universal, Randall gives us two particular quotes. The first is “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to God’s own self “(2 Cor. 5:19). The second is from the gospel of John (17:21), where 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.”
Before pressing them into service as a guide to a renewal of the Uniting Church, it is informative to consider the origin of those two biblical quotes.
The first is from Paul, whose greatest challenge was to find for his fellow Jews a credible reason why the Messiah had died. His solution, adopted by the gospel-writers, is that it was the will of God, whose purpose was to resurrect as ‘the Christ’ the tortured-to-death Jesus of Nazareth. Through the atoning death and resurrection of Christ, the whole world would be reconciled to God. Randall takes the traditional view that this reconciliation to God represents the “reconciliation of all peoples and the renewal of the whole of creation”.
One only has to think briefly about the implications of that to realise it is not a recipe for universal unity. Instead, this doctrine is the surest pathway to the alienation of Christians from people of all other faiths and of no faith. That has unfortunately been the experience of the Church for nearly two thousand years. It is the reason people in multi-cultural and multi-faith societies are increasingly walking away from the Church.
The way forward that will truly unite all people is through their shared knowledge of ethics for life.
The Church already knows an ethical foundation for the future that can unify all people. That foundation is in the Sermon on the Mount and associated parables about the kingdom of heaven on earth (the best possible world). Those teachings are recognised as authentically from Jesus of Nazareth. Following his truly universal ethics for the best way of life is the surest way to the deepest possible relationship (or reconciliation) with God who is Love.
The most often-used quote for people wishing to claim Christian dominance and issue a call for the ‘unity’ of all Christian churches, comes from the Gospel of John. This is the so-called ‘prayer for unity’.
The first problem in claiming this prayer as ‘gospel’ is that it is in the Gospel of John. John’s gospel is certainly replete with profound truths about relationships with a God of love, even though Jesus is depicted as the perfect Passover sacrifice for human sin.
However, and most importantly, John’s gospel is recognised by modern scholarship as a theological representation of Jesus. It depicts how Jesus was understood by some of the earliest followers (early second century CE) of Jesus the Messiah/Christ. John’s gospel cannot be relied on as a historical record of the words of Jesus.
That leads us to ask: “Who is calling for unity?” If not Jesus, for whom is the unity of followers of Christ so important that the ‘prayer for unity’ is placed in Jesus’ mouth?
If we look at the situation of the network of churches around Ephesus that most likely comprised the ‘Johannine community’, we can soon see that they are in deep conflict with mainstream Jews in the area.
John says they have been thrown out of the local synagogues. For a community including many Jews, that would have been a bitter experience. Their great desire was to convince their fellow Jews that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah/Christ. In the prayer of chapter 17 we can see that longing expressed very clearly. If only (they thought) all of the Jews, as well as Gentiles, would believe what they believed about Jesus, there would be unity between all of them as (John says) there is between the Father and the Son.
This is not a call from Jesus. It is not a call from Jesus to the Church; Jesus never knew the Church existed and at the end of the first century CE it still consisted mainly of scattered house groups. The Church then embraced (as it does now) many and varied interpretations of Jesus.
There have always been theological, cultural, historical, racial and sociological differences between the churches. Yet the good news is they can be united. There is profound scope for unity of purpose at least, through a common upholding of the ethical teaching of Jesus of Nazareth, and through faith in the forgiving God he loved. This teaching is indeed universal – for “all humankind”. It is found in all of the great religions and, if embraced together by people of all religions or none, it can be the basis for world peace and harmony.
The Uniting Church as it is, based on christological understandings of Jesus in its Basis of Union, is going the way of all religions lacking the capacity to address the human predicament in changing human societies.
Sadly, because it has held to the theology of Christendom even as Christendom disappeared, the Uniting Church is not and never was equipped to be “a dynamic movement whose vision was the unity and reconciliation of all people.”
But we need not despair. Even as the institutional Church dies around us, there is time to plan for the future. There is still time to prepare the people of the Uniting Church for their authentic role in the world.