Someone, reflecting on the foundational documents of the Uniting Church (UCA), once said to me that the UCA is ‘perfectly designed’ for stasis. He wasn’t being complimentary – he was suggesting that our beloved inter – conciliar structure and our even more beloved commitment to consensus meant that all the forces were equal and opposing thereby cancelling out any movement towards change. There are moments in the life of this church that lead me to sympathise with my (non- UCA) colleague although, at the time, I was inclined to enthusiastically defend the UCA.
Stability is, generally speaking, not a bad thing. I’m grateful for the stability of the church over millenia. However imperfect the institution and however contemptible some of its actions, the reality is that, mysteriously, the Holy Spirit has been able to with and through this institution up to and beyond the creation of the UCA. I’ve no reason to suppose that that same Holy Spirit is likely to give up on our, undoubtedly limited, undoubtedly flawed, attempts to continue to witness and give concrete expression to the Gospel of Jesus Christ in our own time.
However, it’s increasingly obvious that the ongoing contraction of the membership base renders the future of many congregations and, ultimately, the Uniting Church as a whole, uncertain and, to some people, almost unimaginable. It’s no surprise that anxiety and hopelessness, implicitly or explicitly, colour many church conversations and inhibit creativity, innovation and experiment. The temptation (of hopelessness) is to believe that the circumstances that we face and the system as it currently exists is the last word, and we’re simply watching and waiting for the inevitable end.
I imagine that all those who took up the challenge of change in the founding denominations of the UCA must have been familiar with this temptation. Thankfully, faithful, creative disciples chose to ignore that temptation and took up the challenge to create an Australian church.
We have the same sort of choice. Put starkly, we have to decide whether the UCA is a living church or a dying church. How we engage faithfully as individuals and as church depends on our choice. Personally, I see no reason to surrender the conviction expressed in the Basis of Union:
“The Church lives between the time of Christ’s death and resurrection and the final consummation of all things which he will bring; she is a pilgrim people, always on the way towards a promised goal; here she does not have a continuing city but seeks one to come. On the way Christ feeds her with Word and Sacraments, and we have the gift of the Spirit in order that we may not lose the way.”
With that security and with that sort of freedom, we can turn our attention and imagination to equipping the church of the future. Regardless of the particular burden and blessing of heritage, how can a church designed for people born after 1970 or 1980 come to life among us? Alternatively, in 50 or 100 years time, what will people in the Uniting Church be thankful for?
We can, and we frequently do, use our structure and our processes to derail, dilute, inhibit and prevent change. The status quo is, sadly, a much more immediate and tangible reality even though hanging on to the status quo seems to imply that the pilgrim people have already arrived at their intended destination. We really haven’t.
To conclude, paraphrase of a comment made by Marilynne Robinson in a conversation she had with Barack Obama:
“…in our earlier history…there was a conscious sense that (the UCA) was an achievement…It was something that people collectively made and they understood that they held it together by valuing it…It’s a made thing that we make continuously.”
The church is indeed a ‘made thing’ – made by God out of human hope and imagination for the transformation of the world.
Rev. Jane Fry