How provocative is the Basis of Union?
Disturbing Much, Disturbing Many: Theology Provoked by the Basis of Union is a collection of recent articles by Dr Geoff Thompson, related to the Basis of Union – the foundation document of the Uniting Church in Australia. This book promises to disturb (according to its title) and to provoke (according to its subtitle). Belt yourself in and get ready for the ride!
Reviewed by John Squires
Dr Thompson is co-ordinator of studies in Systematic Theology at Pilgrim Theological College in Victoria, and he also teaches at the University of Divinity in Melbourne. Dr Thompson is well-placed to lead us into a tempestuous, bumpy ride of provocation and disturbance.
I have read his book during a period of my own life that promises disturbance (a new ministry placement means moving from the East Coast, over to the West).
Navigating the turbulence and challenge of such disturbance requires equanimity, trust, and hope. I am confident that this book will foster such qualities in the theological imagination and ecclesial commitment of anyone who reads it.
Disturbance and Theology
Thompson’s title is taken from the 1959 report of the Joint Commission on Church Union, which predicted that “if we go forward into a union on the basis of a fresh confession of the faith of the church, we shall disturb much and disturb many”. The structure of the book relates, in large part, to a number of the primary topics addressed in the Basis of Union.
An opening chapter addresses the thematic role of “disturbance” and its place in theology. Subsequent chapters probe ways in which this has been provoked in the words of the Basis, as well as associated debate and discussion in the UCA. The second chapter addresses some of the rich themes found, in paragraph three, on Jesus Christ. Yes, I did find this chapter quite provocative, not the least because it drove me to turn to the back of the book — not to find “the right answer”, but to consult the text of the Basis of Union. I wanted to explore what was, and was not, being claimed for Jesus (and his followers) in this richly-worded paragraph. Surely, this is the best result from constructive provocation; a disturbed understanding of who Jesus is and along what pathway he calls his followers.
Debate about how we use the Bible has been at the root of many of the controversies that have taken place over the nearly six decades since the JCCU’s 1959 report. Chapter four explores issues raised in paragraph five, on the witnesses of Scripture. Interpretation from within the Church is accorded a primary, overarching role; a provocation hitting the core of contemporary critical biblical scholarship. Disturbing much, disturbing for many.
The Basis of Union paragraph on Scripture segues into the life of the Church, with the concluding claim that the sacraments are “effective signs of the gospel, set forth in the Scriptures”. Paragraphs six, seven and eight of the Basis thus flow seamlessly from paragraph five, in an exploration of the two sacraments (Baptism and Holy Communion). I was just gearing up to rejoice at a provocative theological argument which defused the special role of these two sacraments — in accordance with a solid reformed understanding of the Scriptural witness — when the argument took a sudden turn towards safety and familiarity. Sacraments, it seems, still occupy a set-apart space. The disturbance I hoped for did not eventuate.
There is no specific discussion of contextual theology within the Basis of Union, but the issues of method associated with this way of going about the task of doing theology, are undoubtedly integral to the debates about what the Basis means, and how we use it. In chapter five, Dr Thompson pins his flag to the mast and declares that theological method can indeed be contingent — but grand claims about contextual theology are perhaps overshooting the mark. More provocation, here, for those who want to think about how we articulate our theological commitments.
The Creeds and Reformation
Personally, I was much provoked – and greatly disappointed – by chapter six’s discussion of the Creeds and Reformation Witnesses identified within the Basis (paragraphs nine and ten) as being worthy of our attention. Dr Thompson focuses almost exclusively on the claims made about the Creeds as being “authoritative statements of the Catholic Faith” which are used “to declare and to guard the right expression of the faith”.
There is no acknowledgement that the Basis makes it clear the Creeds are “framed in the language of their day” and should be subjected to “careful study” and “the discipline of interpreting their teaching in a later age”. Provoked? Yes! Disturbed? Yes – for the implicit stance that regards the Creeds (and to a lesser degree, the confessions of Reformation Witnesses) as givens which stand, apart from and without due scrutiny by contemporary interpreters. Paragraph 11 applies to the way we begin to undertake interpretation of the Creeds (and how we also listen to the various Reformation Witnesses), as much as it does to the witnesses of Scripture.
But wait, there is more! Even more dangerous ground is traversed in the next two chapters, which range beyond the Basis of Union to grapple with critical issues in the Church’s contemporary life. In chapter seven, dealing with contributions of Indigenous life to the contemporary Church (exploring one section of the Revised Preamble to the Constitution), does Dr Thompson remain caught in the ethereal (Western) world of endlessly fine-tuning arcane philosophical assumptions, rather than sitting around the campfire and yarning with the long-term (40,000 plus years) custodians of this continent? I am afraid that has happened, despite firm words of assurance to the contrary. But you read the chapter for yourself — and then decide.
What usefully can be said in this review about how chapter eight responds to the hugely contentious area of human sexuality (and, in particular, homosexuality)? This is the longest chapter, the one that pushes again and again in seeking a “fresh confession of the Church”, and the one that most resists succinct summarising. It is a helpful, detailed, considered discussion. Buy the book, or borrow the book, and read and consider for yourself!
The final two chapters wrap the whole enterprise in a careful and faith-filled discussion of the Church’s “ministry of scholarship”. There is a useful discussion of a number of matters relating to how we see ourselves, and express ourselves, as the Church. There are more occasions for constructive disturbance in these final chapters.
So, do you feel provoked? Are you one of the many who are disturbed? And have you been disturbed much by this short review? Dr Thompson has grappled with a wide range of topics, and has sought to show how the intention of the authors of the Basis of Union has been worked out in the ongoing discussion among Uniting Church people (and, indeed, in the wider arena of the church). If you read this book, or selected chapters from it, you may feel disturbed much.
For myself, as should be clear, I have been disturbed a little, and would like to be disturbed more… or, at least, would like to see many others sharing more fully in the process of being disturbed by the expression of “fresh words and deeds” as we make our journey as the pilgrim people.
Thanks to Dr Thompson for a fine and provocative contribution to the ongoing disturbing discussion.