‘Look Up, and See’

uniting church 1977

A Comment on the ‘Statement to the Nation’ from the First Assembly of the Uniting Church.


Forty years ago, the first Assembly of the Uniting Church delivered a ‘Statement to the Nation’.

It was deliberately framed to address all Australians, religious or not religious. It spoke to people who believe in the existence of what is called GOD, and to people for whom the name GOD has no meaning.

It included timeless ideals and values that make connections with people of any faith, or no faith. It settled as easily into the minds of atheists, as into the thinking of people with traditional Christian structures of belief. The Statement addressed the very best that human beings can aspire to, and covered the whole spectrum of ultimate values and ultimate human need.

All of that is roundly confirmed in its penultimate paragraph: “Our Uniting Church, as an institution within the nation, must constantly stress the universal values which must find expression in national policies if humanity is to survive.”

It was later acknowledged that the first Statement of this sort had made the sad error of omitting to speak specifically of the welfare and dignity of the First People of Australia. That was corrected in a statement to the nation from the Fifth UCA Assembly.

Acknowledging that omission, where did this marvellous statement come from? What inspired that first Assembly to write and affirm these words?

These days, people reading the Statement feel enormously uplifted and inspired by what it says about ways the Uniting Church people can make a good difference in the world. Yet time and again, I have heard people say, “There’s no Christology in this.” Or, “This could be written by Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and people of any major faith.”

So where did it come from? I could say: Dear Uniting Church, turn around; look back, and recognise the sacred foundation stone of your faith. See that every word in that first Assembly Statement is based on the holy vision of Jesus of Nazareth. I could say, turn around; look back.

Instead, I will say, Uniting Church people, stop looking back. Look up and look ahead. Jesus of Nazareth’s holy gift to humanity is not to be found by looking back to the past, with eyes veiled by time-bound doctrine. Look up, and you will see the holy gift of Jesus in front of your eyes. You will see it to the right of you, and to the left of you. You will see it in the faces of your neighbours and in the needs of people all around and far away. You will ‘see’ it, in your heart. Look up, and you will find that you have not travelled further away from Jesus; you have come full circle.

Look up, and you will see and recognise the words and loving spirituality of Jesus for what they are: the ongoing, world-altering, holy vision of God for humanity.

Dear Uniting Church, look up and see. See that there is nothing in the 1977 Statement that relies on imperialist Christological beliefs from another age and place. See that there is nothing in the Statement or in Jesus’ words, about waiting for God to appear at an imagined ‘end time’ and make the world perfect. See that there is nothing in the Statement about clothing Jesus in ancient ideas and beliefs about a Messiah who dies to win God’s forgiveness.

Most importantly, see that there is nothing in Jesus’ God-inspired teaching that relies for its ongoing and universal relevance on Christological beliefs as they are written into the Uniting Church’s Basis of Union.

The First Assembly understood that if it was to reach the hearts and minds of all of Australia’s people, it must speak in universally understood words of love and justice, peace and freedom. It knew that exclusive beliefs about Jesus as the Christ would be alienating and excluding of all who do not profess belief in ‘Christ’.

The members of the First Assembly knew they had to look up and look forward. They knew they had to look through the inclusive eyes of God, if they were to see future possibilities for following Jesus.

On the other hand, the Basis of Union was written with its focus primarily on the imperial theology of the Anglican and Catholic Churches. It was written to enable the vision of its framers to come to fruition: union with the ‘apostolic’ Anglican and Catholic communions.

Instead of encouraging the birth of a truly post-colonial ‘Australian’ church from its three founding traditions, the writers of the Basis of Union wanted to ensure that the Uniting Church always looked back. They hoped that the Uniting Church would never see itself as a new church following Jesus in its own right, but as an ‘interim’ church waiting for its ‘fulfilment’ in that ancient apostolic tradition. Hence the name, ‘Uniting Church’.

Dear Uniting Church, after 40 years it is time to stop looking back to beliefs that bind you to the past. It is time to look up, and see clearly what you have always held within your heart – timeless, sacred, spiritual truth for life and living – given at the risk of his own life, by Jesus of Nazareth.

Look up, and you will see there your future.

As we celebrate 40 years, is the Uniting Church in Australia too mired in the past?  

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