Transition – any number of us may be rather pleased if we never hear that word again. Transition is change: change of structures to match the future of the church; change of budgets to match the size of the congregations and forms of ministry; change of cultural contexts that have different expectations of the social value and role of the church. For these reasons, transition is an exhausting and tension laden exercise.
Yet, while the above reasons are significant causes of tension, they are not the most basic. Within theology, every structural question, every budgetary implication, everything that might be said and embodied in the local context, stems from the message: what is the good news that the church is to live and express?
All other questions flow from this one. Discussions concerning the shape and form of transition are discussions concerning the contemporary embodiment of the message. I recognise this might not relieve the anxiety associated with transitions, but it does help re-centre the question. Structure, necessary and good, is a secondary question.
This observation is contained in the name of the church: we are not the ‘united’ church, but the ‘uniting’ church in Australia.
D’Arcy Wood, in his exposition of paragraph 2 of the Basis of Union (BoU), notes how this name doesn’t intend “to separate us off as a distinctive church”. It points us, rather, “toward our fellow Christians in Australia and throughout the world”. To be uniting calls us to be active in seeking relationships.
In Building of a Solid Basis, Dr Wood sets out three forms of relationship: those with other churches in our local area, with church bodies in our geographical region (for example Korea, Indonesia, Tonga), and with wider ecumenical bodies, such as the Christian Conference of Asia, the World Council of Churches, or the World Communion of Reformed Churches. Every relationship demands change.
The Uniting Church seeks ecumenical relationships. Ecumenical relationships mean changes in form and structure. The Uniting Church seeks to be a just and socially engaged church. Justice and social action mean changes in form and structure. To be called into seeking relationship means that we are called into different forms of embodying the gospel.
But it is also true that the world has turned since the first publication of the BoU.
Interreligious relationships have become a necessary and everyday part of life in plural secular liberal democracies such as Australia. The church has been mobilised to join with other faith traditions in opposing immigration policies that look backward rather than forward in this regard.
The church does not occupy the same political or social role it did 50 years ago. This does not erode the truth of the gospel, or its expression as developed in paragraph 3 of the BoU, but it does demand attention to the message and the potential forms of its embodiment in the local Australian context.
Some significant critique has also emerged of the formal ecumenical movement. This centres on colonialisation and its ongoing effects.
To what extent do the processes, languages, and results of ecumenical discussion reflect particular cultural values and processes? How much does the idea of unity reflect a certain set of western values and expectations which locate unity in structures?
In his essay World Christianity and the Early Church, historian Andrew Walls suggests the key ecumenical question today concerns not the institutional unification of western-derived church bodies, but how “African, Indian, Chinese, Korean, Hispanic, North American and East and West European expressions of Christian faith and life can live together and bring mutual enrichment and correction.”
The interpretation of cultural practices and sacred texts takes on a central significance in this form of ecumenical relationship building. It also demands mutual enrichment and correction – ‘mutual’ meaning that we (churches in the west) too will receive correction and will need to review our structures accordingly.
All of this talk regarding global ecumenical relationships may well appear distant from the specific question of transition and restructuring we are currently experiencing within the Synod of Victoria and Tasmania. It is not. Every generation is called to come to a knowledge of the message (a discussion which demands generative theological discussion) and so to the question of embodying and structuring that message.
That message is not something that we as a body possess. The good news is only understood in its being shared.
This is why questions of structure should never be driven by the language of death and decline.
The gospel points us beyond ourselves. This moving beyond ourselves and into the global ecumenical discussion lifts our horizons to where God is acting. Structure occurs in relation to this reality and its demands.
This may sound ideal and that is because it is! Hallelujah. We would not be the Uniting Church if it were otherwise.
John G Flett
Coordinator of studies
Pilgrim Theological College