New President pays tribute to an inclusive church
New Uniting Church President, the Rev. Professor Andrew Dutney, has praised the church for its diversity and the great value church members place on its inclusiveness.
In his installation address at the Adelaide Entertainment Centre, July 15, Professor Dutney said variety and post-denominationalism were part and parcel of the Uniting Church’s life and ministry as it looked ahead for reconciliation and renewal.
Professor Dutney spoke with reference to John 10:14-16:
I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father…I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.
Describing the diversity of backgrounds within the Uniting Church, he said as the church’s health, welfare and educational agencies continued to grow and employ people with no affiliation with the Uniting Church, as the church welcomed more people from Asia, the Pacific, Africa and elsewhere, and with the noticeable shift in Australian spirituality, which involved an increasing disinterest with organised religion, there would continue to be opportunities to explain the Uniting Church’s vision, ministry and how people could share in it.
He said when he last looked over the list of ordination candidates in Adelaide’s Uniting College more than half had found their way into the Uniting after participating in other Christian denominations, other religious traditions or no religion at all.
That wasn’t an orderly transmission of a denominational tradition from one generation to the next, he said.
“It’s the wonderfully dis-orderly creation of tradition by a generation that has no clear memory of a shared origin but a strong sense of belonging together through a shared vision.”
He quoted former President Davis McCaughey telling the second Assembly that the Uniting Church had “no church identity, no distinctive marks – other than belonging with the people of God brought into being by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ on their way to the consummation of all things in Him. …We are embarked on a course in which we ask men and women to forget who they are and remember whose they are.”
Professor Dutney explained how the Basis of Union encouraged the Uniting Church to see itself as an interim way of being church on the way to the end of denominationalism as a whole, as uniting not united, and as anticipating post-denominationalism by insisting that the Uniting Church is only part of a pilgrim people, not the whole.
Over the last 35 years, he said, the Uniting Church had continued to be formed and reformed by people from many nations, cultures and denominations learning “to forget who they are and remember whose they are”.
Jesus in the Gospel of John welcomed “other sheep that do not belong to this fold”. Professor Dutney said, “The Uniting Church is a church of ‘other folds’. We don’t have ‘other folds’ stuck onto the edges of ‘this fold’. We’re ‘other folds’ all the way through.
“We’re all difference, diversity, variety, other. So it’s only to be expected that we puzzle each other sometimes and surprise each other in ways that may delight, annoy, frighten or reassure.”
He said, “We’re together not because we’re all the same, not because of who we are but whose we are. We have one shepherd. He knows us and we know him. He calls us and we come to him.”
Because there was one shepherd, he said, there was “one flock”. The only sense of identity that Uniting Church sought was to belong to that “one flock”, that “fellowship of reconciliation” which was a sign, foretaste and instrument of “that coming reconciliation and renewal which is the end in view for the whole creation”.
A preliminary report from the National Church Life Survey in 2011 found that, in response to a long list of characteristics of the denomination, 71% of the 19,768 attendees who answered indicated that the thing they liked most about the Uniting Church was its “inclusiveness of all types of people”.
The next most commonly chosen option was “provision of community services”, at just under 25%.
Professor Dutney said, “The votes are in. The message is clear. The thing we like most about our church is its inclusiveness.”
He said he wasn’t surprised at the response. He already thought the best thing about the Christian church was its capacity to include people regardless of race, gender, culture, social status, health status or anything else.
“It’s the astonishing, contentious, wondrous work of Holy Spirit. It’s the miracle of the Gospel. It’s always been the best and most in-your-face thing about Christ’s church, and it’s still the best thing about the Uniting Church.”
He said he wasn’t surprised but thrilled.
“It turns out that our congregations know and like what lies deepest in their DNA as Christian communities and uppermost in the vision of the mission of God, which the Uniting Church lives to participate in – “that reconciliation and renewal which is the end in view for the whole creation”.
He said, “It is the task of this 13th Assembly not to shore up a denominational identity, not to protect our brand, but to hear what the congregations we serve have said to us through the NCLS report and to lift our eyes to that horizon of ‘reconciliation and renewal … for the whole creation’ as we attend to our work.”