THE Uniting Church in Australia is a denomination born of ecumenical engagement between the Congregationalists, Methodists and Presbyterians.
The authors of the UCA’s founding document, the Basis of Union, clearly expected more denominations to enter the Uniting fold – as evidenced by the name ‘Uniting’ rather than ‘United’, the name adopted by other merged churches throughout the world.
Yet today it would appear the UCA is less effectively engaged with other denominations than at the time of formation.
According to the Oxford dictionary, ‘ecumenism’ is “the principle or aim of promoting unity among the world’s Christian churches”.
Ecumenism remains alive at the grassroots level in Australia, with several co-operating congregations and inter-church activities undertaken throughout the nation. But there appears to be significantly less ecumenical engagement at a higher organisational level; certainly not at the level envisaged when the UCA was established.
Former assembly president, and active ecumenist, Rev Dr D’Arcy Wood, accepts that it could be argued that the Uniting Church has not fulfilled the ecumenical charter imagined by its founding fathers.
“Three times within the 18 paragraphs of the Basis of Union it is clearly indicated that the Uniting Church would seek a wider union than just the three denominations. It (the joining of three) was not envisaged as the end but rather a stage in the process,” he said.
“The Joint Commission on Church Union had delegates from the three joining denominations and observers from the Anglican and Churches of Christ who attended and contributed.
“It was the sign of an open-ended process and the hope was that while they (the Anglicans and Churches of Christ) were not able to commit at that point in time… it was certainly envisaged others would join within 10 years and certainly within 20.’’
Does this mean the UCA has failed, or is falling short, in terms of its ecumenical endeavours?
Rev Dr Sandy Yule was secretary of the assembly’s Christian Unity Working Group between 2004 and 2012. He stressed that the ‘corporate mergers’ model – or other denominations joining the Uniting Church – should not be seen as the determiner of ecumenical success.
“In fact, the UCA understands ecumenism as seeking and living out the faith of the church with others,” he said.
The Church maintains dialogue with the Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans and The Salvation Army. This has led to some important ecumenical work such as the recently released Weaving a New Cloth report (received by both the Anglican General Synod in 2014 and the UCA Assembly in 2015), which provides a blueprint for future Anglican and UCA ecumenical co-operations at congregational level.
A working group with members from both churches produced Weaving a New Cloth. However, with the completion of this document there is no longer a national Anglican-UCA dialogue at a national level.
Meanwhile, a joint report on holiness and social justice undertaken with The Salvation Army is close to completion.
Dr Wood said it was important to acknowledge that the ecumenical movement worldwide had slowed significantly over the last five decades, which needed to be considered when assessing the UCA’s ecumenical record.
“The ecumenical atmosphere of 50 years ago would have led to an expectation that more uniting was possible and the UCA could have entered into serious negotiations with other denominations,” he said.
He said the framers of the Basis of Union probably overestimated their chances but were in the midst of an enthusiastic ecumenical atmosphere, where the tide of ecumenism was flowing strongly.
“Over the last two decades, while there has been (ecumenical) activity, it does not seem that an unstoppable tide is coming,” he said.
Dr Yule’s view is that to truly understand the UCA, it needs to be recognised that the Basis of Union was crafted as a response to the question: “What is the faith of the church?”
“This is not a question that we can answer and move on,” Dr Yule said.
“We need to keep asking this question in each new context of our collective life.
“In so far as we are falling away from ecumenism as a church, it is because we have lost hold of this question and the resulting attention to what the Spirit of God might reveal to us.”
His experience was that while important dialogue has been established, some denominations are far cooler towards engaging with the UCA. This coolness relates to the internal priorities and perceptions of those churches as much as it does to the public stance and internal practices of the UCA.
Dr Wood said, generally, people outside the UCA saw it as being more liberal – or left wing – because of its commitment to a broad range of social justice questions.
So was that an inhibitor to closer ecumenical relationships?
“Quite possibly,” Dr Wood said. “That is the point where discussions become somewhat more difficult, because the Uniting Church is more in the habit of entertaining new theological ideas.
“Paragraph 11 of the Basis of Union talks of engaging with contemporary thought so we see this engagement as a matter of principle.”
Dr Yule also said he felt there had been a temptation within some sections of the Uniting Church towards triumphalism – that is ‘our way is the best way’ – and to sometimes adopt political positions ahead of respectful listening to other Christians.
Assembly president Stuart McMillan offered a more positive assessment of ecumenism in the life of the Church today.
He said the UCA’s maturity as a church, and its openness to others, meant it was acting more ecumenically now than at formation, albeit in a less formal and structured manner but in a way which followed “where the Holy Spirit is leading us”.
“The way I see it our unity with other churches is abiding and grows deeper,’’ he said.
“The more that God opens our eyes to the world around us, the greater our aspiration becomes to be truly a fellowship of reconciliation, the body of Christ in the world.
“I’ve seen first-hand, and been deeply inspired by, the faithful work of our church partners across the Asia-Pacific, and in places like China and Lebanon where the Holy Spirit is doing amazing things.”
Mr McMillan argued it was the Church’s identity and practice as a post-denominational church committed to ecumenism which made such relationships possible.
“At the assembly level, ecumenism is woven through pretty much everything we do,” he said.
“It’s almost overwhelming and I wish we could convey the scale and scope of our work better. We have a lot to learn and to share with other churches and we are constantly collaborating.
“With Congress, we’re exploring approaches to Indigenous justice and sovereignty with First Nations members of the United Church of Canada.
“We’re active members and participants in the formal ecumenical councils – the World Council of Churches, the Christian Conference of Asia (CCA), the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC) and others.
“Our longstanding relationships with ecumenical partners through formal dialogues like the Lutheran/UCA dialogue and indeed less formal dialogues will always be a part of our work.”
Maureen Postma is the former chair of the assembly’s National Christian Unity Working Group.
She said the growing movement of receptive ecumenism – a Catholic construct which broadly encourages Christians to ask what their denomination can learn from engagement with others rather than what other traditions needed to learn from them – appeared to be passing the Uniting Church by.
“The question is, do we think there is anything we can learn from other churches? I am not getting a sense that (UCA) people necessarily think there is anything we can learn from other churches,” she said.
Murrumbeena Uniting Church youth and young adults’ pastor Kelly Skilton has been the driving force behind the rapidly growing ecumenical movement for young people called the Sonder Collective.
Ms Skilton said the collective placed importance on learning about the traditions and theology of all participating denominations, something she felt from her experience did not always happen within the Uniting Church.
“If it has not got a dove on it sometimes we don’t do it,” she said.
“I feel we just don’t make the effort to learn about the whole Body of Christ. But everyone is our brother and sister in Christ… not only those who wear the same clothes.
“When we talk about the one Catholic and Apostolic Church there is nothing separating us (from other denominations) in that.
“Being ecumenical means that we should stop doing things just as the Uniting Church and seek to do more things with other churches.” Dr Yule said, on a positive note, the UCA had made ‘a good fist’ of forging together three distinct cultures, with the lead of the Holy Spirit.
“The UCA way of responding to this vision of unity of Church as being an organic union is a good one,” he said.
He said that over its life the UCA had made very positive contributions towards multilateral ecumenism.
Dr Yule argued that the adoption of the Uniting Church’s consensus decision-making model by both the WCC and the WCRC was a prime example of it sharing practices with the worldwide body of Christ.
He said the UCA had been “as good as any Church in Australia” in providing money, energy and people to local and international ecumenical bodies and organisations.
The most significant progress for organised ecumenism in Australia in the last 30 years has been the expansion of the previous Australian Council of Churches to form the National Council of Churches in Australia in 1994. This allowed the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran Church to join.
The actual commitment required of each member church (based on what they have explicitly accepted) can be found in the National Council of Churches document, Australian Churches Covenanting Together. This was first adopted in 2004 and amended in 2012.
It is a seminal document given the commitment by all NCCA member churches to common prayer, interceding and caring for each other, exploring Christian convictions and current applications and “to explore such further steps as will be necessary to make more clearly visible the unity of all Christians in Australia”.
Only some churches have committed to support initiatives for sharing physical resources, explore issues and strategies for ministry, hold the sacraments in common and continue to work towards mutually recognised ordained ministry. The UCA remains the only church committed to all these additional areas.
The General Secretary of the Victorian Council of Churches, Rev Ian Smith, said from his experience the UCA has gone a long way to embody the principle of open and honest engagement with fellow travellers, not only on issues of faith but also social justice, equity and treatment of refugees.
While Mr Smith acknowledged some in the Christian community regard the UCA as lacking in spiritual depth, he was of the view the church was focused on living out the text of the Bible rather than simply “circling the wagons and working out how to survive”.
But, Rev Peter Weeks – the chair of the synod’s Ecumenical Relations Committee (ERC) – said he became frustrated that while ecumenism was part of the UCA’s DNA he did not believe it was always being pursued with the appropriate amount of vigour.
“In a lot of cases on our side we are more concerned with doing our own thing. It is supposed to be part of our being but we don’t seem to be pursuing it terribly strongly,” he said.
However, he was also quick to point out that the UCA was not alone in being less willing to engage at an ecumenical level.
“In a lot of cases I think that is across the board,” he said.
“We (all churches) seem to be going back into more of a silo mentality.
“Part of it might be that, as churches, we are struggling more (for numbers). Rather than seeing that as an opportunity to work together we are doing our own thing and building our own activities.
“From what used to be quite strong enthusiasm for the sharing of ideas, we have now become more involved in just our own issues.”
Mrs Postma agreed that the ecumenical movement today was very different to that operating when the UCA was formed.
“Now, each church is looking at its own missional strategies and it is at that point when ecumenism falls away,” she said.
She welcomed the fact that the Synod of Victoria and Tasmania retained an ERC, stating that the UCA was one of few churches which had working groups in each state seeking to engage in ecumenical activities.
She said such imprimatur is important if local communities are to remain engaged.
“While there are people in local contexts committed to working ecumenically within their own community, they very much need support from the structures of their own church to know that their endeavours were supported and valued.
“Activities at the local level will be known to be valued when supported by presbytery, acknowledged at synod and part of the vision of the assembly.”
Mrs Postma expressed concern that recent staff changes at assembly level meant she was not sure if anyone had explicit responsibility for encouraging ecumenical work, as occurred under Dr Yule and Dr Chris Walker, who recently retired as the national consultant for Christian Unity, Doctrine and Worship.
It was also a concern expressed by several members who attended last month’s
Christian Unity Working Group national conference in Melbourne.
Mr McMillan said a commitment to engage constructively with ecumenical partners was a key part of the Assembly Strategic Plan 2017-2020.
He said the strong relationships the Christian Unity Working Group had built through longstanding dialogue would be well supported within existing assembly personnel and resources.
However, it remains unclear as to how that will occur.
Dr Yule conceded that the UCA was in danger of losing its focus on ecumenism.
“This slippage can be addressed in part by ensuring that our young leaders are properly supported in ecumenical formation, through, for example, participation in programs sponsored globally by the World Council of Churches , such as those at the Ecumenical Institute, Bossey, and in our own region, such as the Youth in Asia Training for Religious Amity (YATRA) program,” he said.
“But these programs are not without significant cost and intentional action is needed.”
He also stressed the importance of not seeing ecumenism as a project but rather a gift of the Spirit.
“This is what God wants us to do and goes back to the original question of how we live out the faith of the Church.”
A belief that true ecumenism erupts from grass roots initiatives, coupled with the intervention of the Holy Spirit, certainly fits the experiences of the Sonder Collective, which started with little fanfare in Melbourne’s south-east. A germ of an idea and a willingness to take a risk have led to a multi-denominational youth and young peoples’ church network across Victoria.
It began in rather unexceptional circumstances when Murrumbeena Uniting Church youth and young adults pastor Kelly Skilton looked around her Church a couple of years ago and noticed a small handful of young people and young adults worshipping among the congregation.
Ms Skilton knew small groups of young people and young adults were also meeting in nearby Baptist, Uniting, Pentecostal, Anglican, Catholic and Church of Christ congregations. Individually, the groups had few members but, when amalgamated, they represented a solid number of youth and young adults keen to learn more about God.
Ms Skilton created an environment where all the young people could meet regularly to worship, encourage each other and learn about the different denominational teachings and traditions.
What seemed like a simple idea has evolved to the point where the collective not only operates at Murrumbeena, but also in Brighton, led by Alex Bolitho, from St Joan of Arc Catholic Parish.
The Sonder Yonder group draws young adults from churches across four denominations. It has also been established at Shepparton, led by Uniting Church couple Cam and Jen Shields, and covers many locations throughout rural Victoria.
Today more than 80 young people representing a broad range of denominations meet regularly as part of the whole collective and Ms Skilton is not finished there.
Discussions have already begun to take the ecumenical initiative to Tasmania.
Ms Skilton said that while Murrumbeena Uniting – located about 17km south-east of Melbourne – provides funds for the venture, it does not ‘own’ the initiative, preferring it to be seen as a truly ecumenical activity.
“I am proud of how my church looked at the work being done and decided that if it was good for our young people to be involved then it was good for all young people (regardless of their denominational affiliation),” she said.
“About 15 to 20 years ago, Murrumbeena Uniting came from an amalgamation of four churches, so that nature of being merged and becoming one is not obscure.”
“When it came to bringing a group of young people from different denominations together it was not seen as strange.
“Our church is beautiful because it is focused on the Spirit and when the Spirit moves, it moves.”
Ms Skilton said the collective operated with three broad objectives – uplifting each attendee’s home church, uniting together and praising God.
“While each region might run the group a little differently they are the general themes common across the group,” she said.
The neutral name has no affiliations with any particular denomination and was chosen to build on the ecumenical nature of the initiative.
In fact, the name draws its inspiration from a word created by US graphic designer, filmmaker and would-be poet John Koenig. He was inspired to create the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, to contain all the words he needed for his poetry, including emotions that had never been linguistically described.
Koenig describes ‘sonder’ as “the realisation that each random passer-by is living a life as vivid and complex as your own – populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness – an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.”
Ms Skilton said the definition was apt for the way the collective’s members sought to engage with each other.
The initiative is successful in encouraging a growing number of young people in their faith because of the buy-in received from supporting churches.
She said it was not designed to present an opportunity for ‘sheep stealing’.
“We all love our home church and all want to stay in our own community, but the love of Christ binds us together and that allows us to have conversations and learn from each other,” she said
“During the day we might play in the same paddock but at night everyone goes home to their own church.”
More information on the collective can be found at facebook.com/sondercollective