I am preparing to teach a couple of days on the Basis of Union, the foundational document on which the Uniting Church was created (back in 1977). That led me to thinking about the key things that I really love about the Basis. Here are some of them:
First, I rejoice that it was a document ahead of its time—many of the ideas which it contains, although written in the late 1960s, remain as relevant and timely for the church in the late 2010s (and hopefully beyond …).
Second, and just as significant, I view the ecumenical commitment of the Basis in paragraphs 1 and 2 as being of vital importance. This still guides us today, even if we have found it hard to hold to this vision in the complexities of the Australian church scene, where division and separation seem to be more valued (by some) than co-operation and collaboration.
Third, in my mind, the Basis avoids getting bogged down in the intricacies of dogma as it has developed over the centuries—it obviously reflects a strong theological viewpoint, but it isn’t caught in the dead-end of detailed debate about arcane matters that often (in my opinion) bedevils systematic theology.
Fourth, there are many points at which the Basis has strong resonances with important scriptural passages. There is just the one direct quotation from scripture, early in paragraph 3 (quoting Paul, 2 Corinthians 5, on the ministry of reconciliation). However, what it says about Jesus at many points throughout paragraphs 3 and 4 reflects both passages in the Gospels and some other things written by Paul: the announcement of the sovereign grace of God by Jesus, the response of humility, obedience and trust which Jesus demonstrated, that in him God pardoned sinners and made him a representative beginning of a new order which is characterised by two key scriptural values: righteousness and love.
Paragraph 3 also evokes scriptural terms in describing the Church as the fellowship of the Holy Spirit and a fellowship of reconciliation. The affirmation that the Church lives between the time of Christ’s death and resurrection and the final consummation of all things is thoroughly dependent upon the eschatological orientation of the later parts of the Hebrew Scriptures, as well as the Gospels and the letters of Paul.
These scriptural resonances continue in other parts of the Basis. What it says about the ministry of the whole people of God (para 13) reflects 1 Corinthians 12. What it says about the nature of scripture (para 5) as unique prophetic and apostolic testimony is consistent with the central biblical pattern of human beings bearing witness to the actions of God. I have written about this elsewhere.
A Pilgrim People
The central image of the church as a pilgrim people on the way (paras 3 and 18) also reflects the pilgrimage motif that is found in Exodus and Deuteronomy, and repeated in Luke and Hebrews, among other places. A number of the affirmations made about the sacraments (paras 6, 7 and 8) also draw from the scriptural accounts of baptisms in the early church, and accounts of disciples sharing together at table as a community of faith.
Fifth, a hugely important element of the Basis for me is that it affirms the adoption of a thoughtful, critical, contextual approach to the development of what the Basis calls an informed faith (paragraph 11). I understand this paragraph to be a paradigm for the way in which we need to go about interpreting the Bible and expounding its significance in the contemporary world. In my opinion, this approach is what is meant back in paragraph 5, when the Basis declares that we hear the Word of God when scripture is appropriated in the worshiping and witnessing life of the Church.
Interpretation is a dialogue, a conversation, between our contemporary context, and the words and stories that were spoken and told, and then written down, millennia before our time, in the Bible. So, the Basis recognises that our interpretation of scripture needs to be shaped by four crucial aspects. It is to be:
- critically informed (as we enter into the inheritance of literary, historical, and scientific enquiry)
- ecumenically engaged (as we relate to our partners within the worldwide fellowship of churches)
- contextually relevant (through the contact we have with contemporary thought)
- and missionally oriented (as we engage with contemporary societies).
How enlightened! How important for our times!! As we engage in the study of scripture, we need to be sure both that we understand it within its own context, and also contextualise it appropriately for our present time. I’ve written earlier about this.
Following on from this, as a sixth affirmation: I greatly appreciate that, in paragraph 9, the Basis invites us to study the classic creeds with the same critical approach. It acknowledges that the creeds were framed in the language of their day and commends ministers and instructors to the discipline of interpreting their teaching in a later age. They are contextual documents which need to be re-contextualised. They are not blocks of stone that sit solemnly in their own right; they need to be probed and interpreted.
By analogy, I believe that the same process applies to the confessional documents identified in para 10. Interpreting them requires us to bring a critical perspective to their words, understand them in the contexts in which they were created, and seek to find ways in which they might speak afresh in today’s world.
Seventh, I appreciate the ethos of openness to renewal and change that permeates the Basis. Look at the occurrences of key terms like reform (para 1), renewal (paras 1, 3, 4 and 15), reconsideration of traditional forms (para 15), and fresh words and deeds (para 11; also the phrase consider afresh in para 15). There is a clear acknowledgement in paragraph 4 of the changes of history, through which we are called to remain faithful in following Jesus. It was very clear, from the start of the Uniting Church, that we would be living out our faith in contexts that were constantly changing–and the Basis of Union certainly affirms this and calls us to reshape and re-express our faith in new ways as the situations we face change and develop.
A clear example of how this orientation towards change has worked, can be found in the introduction of a renewed Diaconate within the UCA, which is prefigured in paragraph 15. This was eventually introduced in 1991. Another paragraph that continues in this vein (paragraph 17) contains an affirmation in that church law is always subject to revision, and therefore the UCA will keep its law under constant review. That has clearly been evidenced in the updated versions of the Regulations which keep appearing. We are most certainly a Church of the Reformation!
Finally: the reference to Asia and the Pacific in paragraph 2 is brief, almost just in passing. Nevertheless, this does provide a grounding of sorts for the flourishing in the multicultural life of the church within Australia which has taken place. If anything, this could have been expanded; but it wasn’t really much on the agenda of life in the late 1960s/early 1970s.
A Multicultural Church
Certainly, the way that the church has picked up this hint and developed it has been encouraging: for instance, in the declaration that we are a Multicultural Church (1985) and the institution of National Conferences for different ethnic groupings (there are currently 12 such conferences). There is also a generous openness to worshiping in languages other than English: the last figures that I heard were that, on any given Sunday, worship takes place in Uniting Churches around Australia in 26 different languages other than English–as well as an unspecified number of Indigenous languages spoken by the First Peoples of Australia.
Speaking of the First Peoples–there is no reference to them in the Basis of Union. And that brings me to what important matters are NOT referred to in the Basis. But that’s a subject for another post…
This piece originally appeared on An Informed Faith
John Squires is the Principal of Perth Theological Hall