Theological diversity within the Uniting Church in Australia

compassBy Rev Prof Andrew Dutney

Theological diversity is a sign of health in the Uniting Church. That’s because the UCA was never intended to be anything more or less than ‘Christian’. There is room in the Uniting Church for an amazing diversity of theology because there is room in the Christian movement – the church of God – for an amazing diversity of people, languages, cultures and, indeed, theologies. And it has been like that from the very beginning.

The Uniting Church didn’t set out to be a new, distinctive denomination. It was supposed to be a new way of being ‘church’ after the end of the three denominations that formed it and, in fact, an interim way of being church on the way to the end of denominationalism as a whole.

Having embarked on this journey “in fellowship with the whole Catholic Church”, the Uniting Church “lives and works within the faith and unity of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church” (Basis of Union pars 1 and 2). So Davis McCaughey once warned:  “… the Uniting Church must be particularly careful not to develop a terminology which suggests distinctive doctrines. We have no identity to separate us from the Church of God.” On another occasion he said: “… the only identity we need to focus on is that of ‘the church catholic, reformed and evangelical’” – a description that is so inclusive as to be subversive of any impulse to denominationalise Christian fellowship.

Denominationalism says: “We are this, not that. We are these, not those. We are us, not them.” By contrast: “The Uniting Church affirms that she belongs to the people of God on the way to the promised end.” (Basis of Union par 18) Our diversity – including our theological diversity – is a sign of health. It is a foretaste, sign and instrument of that “promised end” to which the whole people of God is drawn.

Are there no limits? Of course there are. And the Basis of Union sets out those limits – especially in its first 11 paragraphs. But the limits are specifically drawn in such a way as to include the whole Christian movement. They presume that extravagant diversity which is the gift of the Holy Spirit.

The Assembly Working Group on Doctrine has described theological reflection as “the Church’s ongoing conversation about how to speak and live the gospel”. Keeping that conversation open and inclusive is a constant challenge for the Uniting Church. For it doesn’t only include voices from the obvious polarities such as Orthodox v Progressive, or Liberal v Evangelical. It doesn’t only include the difficult dialects of the various “adjectival theologies” such as ecological, feminist, missional, black, or post-colonial theologies.

The UCA’s conversation about how to speak and live the gospel also needs to consciously include the lived experience and insights from the full breadth of our culturally and linguistically diverse fellowship. This includes refugees from Africa or the Middle East, diaspora communities from the Pacific and Asia, converts from Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism or atheism, and, most fundamentally, the First Peoples from every part of Australia with their particular insights into the gospel formed through their privileged relationship to this place and their distinctive experiences of dispossession, exclusion and disadvantage.

In this UCA conversation about how to speak and live the gospel, increasing diversity is a sign of rude health … as long as we can maintain mutual respect. So in 2000 the 9th Assembly endorsed a document entitled Called to Community of Difference: A Uniting Church Charter which was intended to guide this theological conversation. It has eight principles of behaviour. Each one has a brief explanation, but I’ll just share the headings here:

  1. Respect the personhood of others and their full membership in Christ.
  2. Practice strenuous tolerance in the Spirit of Christ.
  3. Listen to the person first and foremost then seek to understand his or her doctrinal position.
  4. Carefully respect the views and sensitivities of those with whom we are in disagreement.
  5. Avoid all inflammatory or demeaning words and never resort to vilification or harassment.
  6. Avoid comparisons, especially those that contrast your own ‘best case’ with other’s ‘worst case’.
  7. Be open to mutual conversion to the ‘more excellent’ way of Christ.
  8. Let uniting be the expression of our process, direction, and Godly hope as a ‘pilgrim people’.

To grasp what this might mean, I invite you to think of those who represent the theological perspective that you find the most offensive, foolish, flawed or dangerous. No really, bring them to mind. Then read through the eight principles again, imagining what each one means for your relationship to that theological ‘other’.

“Called to a Community of Difference” makes me reflect on a very familiar, ancient charter of behaviour addressed to a similarly multicultural, multilingual, theologically diverse church:

“I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:1-4)

Rev Prof Andrew Dutney
President, Uniting Church in Australia

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