Saturday, 14 June 2014

The Uniting Church in Australia and its on-going ecumenical task

In a post I wrote around this time last year, during the week preceding 22 June (the day many congregations of the Uniting Church in Australia celebrate the anniversary of the UCA's inauguration in 1977), I posed the question, "Has the Uniting Church lost its ecumenical 'mojo'?"  In this post, I made the point that the Uniting Church was becoming overly "comfortable" as a denomination and needed to recover its earlier ecumenical enthusiasm.  I suggested that the UCA could begin this recovery, at least in part, by rediscovering the gifts and graces of its three parent denominations. 

Following on from that earlier post, I believe that some of the concerns of the UCA's three parent churches can help us define our ecumenical task today.

One of our parent churches was Congregationalism.  The Congregationalist Church was part of the legacy of 17th century Puritanism in both England and in North America.  While the Puritans as a group were not without their glaring faults, with examples of these faults in evidence on both sides of the Atlantic, they were also a community with a strong sense of personal and communal integrity.  The legacy of Puritanism carries on today not only in Congregationalism (and in the Congregationalist influence in such churches as the UCA), but in a variety of other faith communities.  A more conservative approach to the Puritan heritage can be seen in the Baptist churches, while more "liberal" or "progressive" approaches to the Puritan heritage can be seen among the Quakers and Unitarians.  Our Congregationalist forebears enjoyed a continuing relationship with each of these Puritan strands of Christian faith.

Following on from our Congregationalist heritage, I believe that one of the UCA's ecumenical tasks today is to engage in relationship with communities of Christian faith that are outside the Christian mainstream, whether these non-mainstream communities see themselves as more conservative (either in their faith or in their social attitudes) than the rest of us (evangelicals, charismatics, Pentecostals, Latter-Day Saints ...) , or significantly less conservative than the rest of us (Quakers, Unitarians, various gatherings of "progressive" Christians, ...).  The aim would be to provide a means of communication between these various groups of Christians and those communities that constitute a "classical" understanding of the Christian faith.

Another of our parent churches was Presbyterianism.  This strand of Christian faith and practice saw teaching as an essential dimension of Christian ministry.  Accordingly, Presbyterians always gave a high value to scholarship.  An educated ministry was not an "optional extra", but something that was crucial to the well-being of the Christian church.

Following on from our Presbyterian heritage, I believe that one of the UCA's ecumenical tasks today is to advocate for the need of all Christians (both ordained and lay) to be well-read and well-informed about our faith, and about how our faith relates to the world around us, and to offer opportunities for all people to become better-informed about the scriptures, history, and theology of the Christian faith.

Finally, the UCA's largest parent church, and the one most influential in the life of Australian communities, was Methodism.  Methodism developed as a reform movement in Britain in the 18th century.  Much of the motivation behind the reforms of the Wesley brothers and the early generations of Methodists was found in their rejection of much of the theology of John Calvin, particularly Calvin's understanding of God's grace and of human nature.
  • There was a rejection of the notion that God's grace was selective, and that God only chose to extend his grace to some people, and not to all.
  • There was a rejection of the notion that people were somehow "predestined" to follow (or not to follow) in God's ways, and that we had no choice in the matter.
  • Increasingly, there was a rejection of the gloomy notion that people were irredeemably corrupt in our very nature (or, to use the Calvinist jargon) "totally depraved", affirming instead the much older Christian belief that we exist in the image of God.
Crucially, and following on from our Methodist heritage, I believe that one of the UCA's ecumenical tasks today is to advocate among all Christians on behalf of more optimistic understandings of God's grace and of human nature.  At a time when many Christians still adhere to unhelpfully negative views of human nature and when they scandalously proclaim a God whose love is selective, the Christian faith needs to hear once again this Methodist insight that affirms:
  • that God's love is infinite and universal, 
  • that people have the capacity to choose to follow in God's way of love, and
  • that we all exist as the image of God.
The Uniting Church in Australia continues to have an ecumenical task today.  Guess what?  It's a continuation of the same ecumenical tasks our Congregationalist, Presbyterian, and Methodist forebears had before us.

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Constructive comments, from a diversity of viewpoints, are always welcome. I reserve the right to choose which comments will be printed. I'm happy to post opinions differing from mine. Courtesy, an ecumenical attitude, and a willingness to give your name always help. A sense of humour is a definite "plus", as well.