Union not an easy step for many congregations

On 22 June 1977 the inauguration of the Uniting Church in Australia was telecast live nationally on ABC television. An amazing thought in this changed media landscape. The formation of a Uniting Church, which was also enshrined in all Australian states and territories’ legislation in 1977, was a significant step not just for its members, but for Australia.

Church members and other dignitaries packed Sydney Town Hall to witness the birth of this new Australian church. Civic and church leaders also sent greetings to the new Church.

Sir Henry Winneke, Governor of Victoria, said: “The church is the servant of God, certainly. But surely the church is no less the servant of all mankind. In your life together may you have the faith and courage to live out that dual concept.”

However, the merger which had been a long time in the planning and consultation, was not without its difficulties.

All Methodist Churches joined the Uniting Church and in Victoria and Tasmania the vast majority of Congregationalists did likewise, but there were many Presbyterians who remained separate.

Voting in the Presbyterian congregations on whether or not to join the Uniting Church wasn’t straightforward.

Members of congregations had two questions to answer. The first asked: if union occurred did they want their congregation to be part of the new church? The second asked: if a new church was established, did they want their congregation to remain part of the Presbyterian Church?

It was a legal matter. For a congregation to be able to join in the new Uniting Church with the Congregationalists and Methodists, at least two-thirds of its members needed to vote ‘No’ to question two.

However, to vote for and to join the union, the congregation had to vote  ‘Yes’ then ‘No’, which created some confusion.  Many Presbyterians voted ‘Yes’ to both questions even though they wanted their congregation to come under the Uniting Church banner. That meant they were legally locked out of joining and had to remain in the Presbyterian Church.

There was some talk among Presbyterians of a legal challenge to the questions, since the ’yes and no’ requirement seemed contrary to natural justice.

In one case at least, a Presbyterian congregation in Victoria that was already part of a joint parish with Methodists was forced to remove itself from the arrangement because too many of its members had voted ‘Yes’ and ‘Yes’. It was keen on union but many members had misunderstood the second question.

However, strong support for union was borne out in the many stories of congregations joining and becoming stronger under the Uniting Church.

One such story was the joining of the East Kew Presbyterian and Methodist congregations.

It was made easier by the fact the two churches had strong links and the two ministers – Hamish Christie-Johnson (Presbyterian) and Norman Beurle (Methodist) – were already good friends and strong believers in ecumenism.

East Kew Uniting member Alan Mathews, who eventually became a Uniting Church minister, said the two congregations had worked together for more than a decade prior to union.

Mr Mathews recalled that the two churches had formed a football team, East Kew combined, as early as the late-1960s and a joint youth group had grown out of an evening service and coffee lounge run out of the Presbyterian Church.

“We were running a combined youth group, combined confirmation classes, combined confirmation services and shared Sunday School with some ages at Normanby Rd (Presbyterian) and others at Stratalbyn St (Methodist),” Mr Mathews said.

However, the eventual merger of the two congregations was not without some hiccups.

East Kew member Jenny Little – a Presbyterian who met her Methodist husband, Colin, at the coffee lounge – said feelings about union within the congregations were mostly positive, but some members of both churches were concerned traditions and autonomy would be lost.

She said a few members felt obliged to continue with the Presbyterian heritage.

“The two ministers were crucial in managing high feelings and troubled concerns that arose during that time. Both gave wise and enlightened counsel to all and the ideal of uniting was pursued and achieved,” she said.

Mr Mathews said when the inauguration occurred it did not feel like anything different for most congregants because they already participated in many joint activities.

“There was a sense of inevitability about it,” he recalled.

He agreed the two ministers had been pivotal to the success of the exercise.

“The joint congregation occurred very much because of the strong ecumenical leadership from Hamish and Norman,” Mr Mathews said.

“Certainly Hamish was a strong leader and Norman was a gracious man who would have greatly assisted with the pastoral work and enabled things to happen.”

Mr Mathews also said he and his wife Bronwyn’s first child was baptised jointly by both men.

He said the sale of the Methodist Church to the Masonic Lodge made the decision for the two congregations to join on the Presbyterian site easier.

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