What’s ‘Missing’ From The Basis of Union?

I’ve offered some reflections in an earlier post concerning the things about the Basis of Union that I really appreciate:

But I ended those reflections with the note that the First Peoples of this continent (and related islands) are not mentioned anywhere in the Basis of Union. This needs to be noted, first of all, as a striking (and unfortunate) deficit in the Basis. I want to think further about this, and some other matters, that are absent from the Basis of Union.

It could well have been noted. It was 1977. There had already been growing awareness of the significance of the Aboriginal people in Australia (witness the strong support of the referendum in 1967). The three denominations which formed the UCA had undertaken work amongst Aboriginal people for decades; they were all aware of their presence and, presumably, of their significance as the First Peoples of this continent. Not mentioning this in any way, is a striking omission.

Certainly, the Uniting Church has undertaken a series of actions in the ensuing years which flag a commitment to working with the First Peoples. The first step was the establishment of the UAICC (the Congress), in 1985; this body bears primary responsibility for ministry with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Next, the Covenant between the UCA and the UAICC was agreed together in 1988; this formalised our working relationships for the future.

Then, the Revised Preamble to the Constitution was adopted in 2009. This last matter is a remarkable theological affirmation, given that it makes very clear the view that the Spiritwas already in the land revealing God to the people through law, custom and ceremony. Nevertheless, there remains a sense that, across the church, we need to foster a stronger sense of place, and of the people who belong to that place, from before the time of colonisation. Having this in the founding document at the time of union would have been good, providing an enduring reminder on into the present of the importance of these peoples and our relationships with them.

Obviously it is a shame that the renewal of the Diaconate has not been able to be incorporated into the Basis. There was a huge debate about this matter some three decades ago, as to whether the Basis of Union could be altered. The end result was to include changes that made the language more inclusive, less gender-specific; but there was strong resistance to any further changes, including the matter of Deacons.

I think this is a shame. The way that the UCA understands and practices the Diaconate is distinctive amongst churches; a clear articulation of that within our foundational document would be a valuable resource. The irony is that the Basis of 1977 rightly referred to the ministry of Deaconess; but since 1992, we have ordained women—and men—to the ministry of Deacon, so this sits in the document as something of an anachronism. Alongside this, the renewed Diaconate itself is not referred to in any part of the Basis.

Indeed, I would be happy, not only for this matter, but for other developments in the life of the UCA to be reflected in the Basis.

For instance, there is no explicit reference to the consensus method that we use when we gather as councils of the church, to meet, discern, and decide. Obviously, as this arose two decades after the Basis was written, it could not have been referred to in the 1977 document. But a revision of the Basis to signal this could well have been undertaken. There are glimpses into this way of operating, without being explicit, in the first sentence in paragraph 14 (the statement about the Church seek[ing] the guidance of the Holy Spirit) and another sentence in para 15 (It is the task of every council to wait upon God’s Word, and to obey God’s will in the matters allocated to its oversight). But a stronger reference to discernment as the task of the councils of the church would be good.

Both the multicultural vibrancy of the UCA and the strong engagement in interfaith relationships are missing. Understandably, as they each have developed and blossomed in the decades since the Basis was written. However, if we do ever open the Basis for rewriting at certain points, a reference to these two factors would be very welcome.

It is indisputable that First People, multiculturalism, and interfaith relationships have all been addressed in important statements made by the Assembly in subsequent years, so in a sense they belong to “part two” of the story. The wonderful 1977 Statement to the Nation also needs to have attention drawn to it more often—it also was prophetic and remains a timely document.

Had we opened to Basis of Union to reshaping, each of these could well be finding a comfortable and essential place within such a revised document. So their absence, today, feels unfortunate, at the least.

A couple of years ago, when I was reading Geoff Thompson’s wonderful book on the Basis (Disturbing Much, Disturbing Many), that I realised that paragraph 3 passes over the whole history of God’s relationship with the people of Israel in just one short phrase – so, given the UCA commitment to interfaith relations (and our specific commitment to ongoing dialogue with the Jewish community), I would like to see this oversight rectified.

Furthermore, the way in which this long history is depicted is quite negative: the Basisasserts that Jesus made a response to God’s love in his humility, obedience and trust which God had long sought in vain. That latter clause says only negative things about the people of Israel. This is a classic Christian misstep, to portray the whole of the Old Testament in negative terms, as a history of failure, and thus as the set-up for the sending of Jesus to rectify this sad saga of disobedience.

Yet the Hebrew Scriptures contains many, many examples of people of faith, dedicated to the covenant, committed to the way of God, fervent in prayer, devoted in service, compassionate in their seeking of justice, intent upon really being the people of God that they were called to be. The single negative phrase found in the Basis of Union provides no room for these stories, as it simply follows the classic line of viewing all of the OT as a massive failure.

In fairness to the people of the covenant, faithful Jews right throughout history, even up into our own time, we need to offer a different assessment of the foundational stories and ongoing narrative of the Jewish people, amongst whom Jesus was able to live out the story which you present. We need to reflect the more positive affirmations that Paul, for instance, was able to make in Romans 9—11. So as well as an expansion of this tiny section of paragraph 3, I would like to see it rewritten to be more reflective of the long and faithful story that is recounted in the books of Hebrew Scriptures.

(Which reminds me of another interest that I have, in terms of the classic Creeds of the Church  … what they include, and what they omit; but that needs to be another post!)

Some people feel that the Trinity is not identified often enough in the Basis. I am not overly concerned about this alleged theological omission; in fact, my theological friends know that I would appreciate fewer explicit Trinitarian claims in it. But I know I am on a loser with this. (I started an article on this, but have let it lapse … probably just as well!)

There are other theological emphases which might have been sharpened or dulled (depending on your particular theological commitments). I appreciate the emphasis on renewal and fresh ways of confessing the Lord, but others consider that these phrases are to be balanced by other elements in the Basis. I find the leanings towards Barthian theology helpful in some instances (the notion of scripture as human witness, for instance), but at other points the neo-orthodox overlay feels, to me at least, a little suffocating. I’m not a great theologian, so these are just my hunches, I confess.

So,to conclude: I love teaching about the Basis of Union; I always incorporated it into my teaching of biblical studies when I was a teaching member of a theological college faculty, and I have led a number of teaching days in various presbyteries about the Basis. There are some ways in which I find it lacking, either by omission or by unhelpful wording; but overall, it is a rich document which has more and more to offer each time we return to its words.

This piece originally appeared on the blog An Informed Faith

John Squires is the Principal of Perth Theological Hall




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