Reflecting on Act2: In Response to God’s Call
Rev Dr Peter Walker is Principal of United Theological College and Rev Dr Chris Budden is a former General Secretary of the Synod of NSW-ACT.
A Theology of Being Church
To be the living church is not to be an institution in search of its ideal structure. The living church is already here. It is where Christ is now in the world. Christ in all the movement, suffering, and joy of life. The call of the church movement is to be with Christ in the world and to join his ministry.
To be the living church is not to think first of ourselves and then of God. The living church is the work of God. The church’s attentiveness is first and always toward God, who calls the church into being. Theology shaped with, for and about God is the heart of all creativity and planning about the church.
Christians imagine, plan for, and become the church in response to our faith in the triune God and our baptism into Christ’s ministry. The nature and ways of the church are to reflect the nature and ways of God made known to us in Christ through the stirring and guidance of the Spirit. Who is God? How and where do we believe God is at work in the world? Having thought about these things we ask: How then shall we faithfully reflect the life and mission of God in the life and mission of the church?
The doctrine of the Trinity expresses the distinctively Christian understanding of God. Wherever this understanding is marginalised or lost, the church is in danger of losing its identity. The triune nature of God is a mystery that we cannot fully comprehend, yet the grammar of the Trinity seeks to put into words ‘the wonderous depth of divine love that freely gives of itself to others and creates community, mutuality, and shared life’. Our confession that God is one, revealed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is an articulation of the faith of the church that God is creative, loving, and dynamic.
God’s relationship with the world is an expression of the deep love that binds the Trinity. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus are the sign and seal of that love. Upon the shoulders of Jesus, every burden that would keep us from God’s grace is lifted. Jesus models and teaches a life lived within the reign of God and dedicated to its promised fulfillment.
Discipleship is following Jesus; sitting where he sits, listening to the voices he is hearing, growing to understand what he means by loving God and neighbour. Discipleship is more than the confession of words about Jesus. It shapes our lives and determines our loyalties. An historic challenge for disciples is how far it is possible to live the life of Christ, and to anticipate the life of the kingdom as a seed, in a still-broken world. A community of disciples in which a Bible is open and bread is broken can make this burden light. The church is a network of communities of disciples; people called, nourished, and led by Christ who hold and bear witness to the story of God. The church provides a glimpse of the communion of
reconciliation and renewal intended by God for all creation by forming disciple communities around the risen Christ in the world, and nurturing the faith and habits of those who make the decision to follow him. The church is also a public institution with responsibility to mediate between the lives of the powerless and the sites of power in the world. We stand with Christ in caring for the least and most vulnerable.
The Church Event
As affirmed by several treasured phrases in the Basis of Union, the church has the nature of a movement. We are ‘a pilgrim people’. We are ‘on the way’. We have no ‘continuing city’. The church is people and activity. Church happens. The church is an event.
Yet the church event almost always leaves its trace. There is evidence of its presence in relationships, reconciliation, justice, and lives touched by God. The traces of the church event are also found in texts, regulations, and buildings – in the structures of the institution. The church is not an event that happens and then fades away. Nevertheless, while traces of the church’s permanence are important, we affirm that we are called to be a pilgrim people.
In the field of physics, Werner Heisenberg proposed what is called the uncertainty principle. Observing the behaviour of particles, a physicist can establish with accuracy either the position at which a particle is detected, or the momentum with which the particle is travelling, but never the two simultaneously. The more precisely the location is defined, the less sure our understanding of the momentum becomes.
A similar principle can guide the church. We institute the church in structures, and we constitute the church in motion. Both are needed. However, an undue focus on instituting the church in structures puts at risk our understanding of, and energy for, constituting the church in motion. The church is helped by stability, but it must have fluidity. Those spaces of fluidity are important for they are where the church event happens.
As an image of the Trinity, the church of the triune God is creative, loving, and dynamic, and is marked by diversity, mutuality, and servanthood. The church movement organises its life, not as an end itself, but always and only so that it may offer the worship, proclaim the good news, encourage the discipleship, provide the teaching, express the love, and grow the relationships that will sustain the people on the way.
Challenges on the Way
Act2 is helping the Uniting Church to understand where we are now, as well as discuss where we wish to be in the future, and plan how we will get there. These are akin to the questions put to the first Assembly by Davis McCaughey during his inaugural sermon. He said:
The fundamental questions have to be answered afresh: Where do you come from? Where are you going? Who are you? Union means nothing, absolutely nothing, unless it drives us back to those questions. Where do you come from? From the hand of the living God who engaged with [humanity] in a new way through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the outpouring of the Spirit. Where are you going? To make disciples of all nations; to fulfil the commission with which we have been charged. Who are you? A people with whom that same Christ has promised that he will be present, to the close of the ages. Are you and I prepared to find our bearings afresh?
We have fewer people and resources than in 1977 and our movement is under stress. Act2: In Response to God’s Call offers us options to consider for the future. In this period of shared discernment among the councils of the Uniting Church it may be helpful to consider:
- How will we become a church that interconnects stability and fluidity, in which there is space to change without unnecessary constraint, so the pilgrim people can join Christ in the world?
- Given the capacity challenges outlined in the Act2 report, for which of the suggested restructure options do we have the people, energy, and resources needed to achieve a positive outcome?
- Have we learned from processes already underway in synods and presbyteries that there is space for renewal through creatively using our current regulations and structures?
These challenging times and opportunities are best approached and addressed through shared theological reflection. Attending to our challenges theologically will ensure we shape not only our answers but also our identity, our bearings, and our focus.
 Daniel Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 79.
 Vitor Westhelle, The Church Event: Call and Challenge of a Church Protestant (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2010), 2.
 ‘This next phase is an opportunity to invite everyone who calls the Uniting Church home into an intentional period of prayer and deliberation to consider afresh the ordering of our life so we can live out the vision to which God is call[ing] us.’ Act2: In Response to God’s Call, June 2023.
 These three questions were originally posed by Jurgen Moltmann in his book The Church in the Power of the Spirit, as was acknowledged by McCaughey in the sermon.