As we celebrate the 40th year of our Church, it is only fitting that a new book has chronicled our history of advocacy in the public space. Ex-Moderator Rev. Dr Brian Brown reviews For A World Reconciled: Justice Statements from the Uniting Church in Australia 1977-2015, edited by Cynthia Coghill and Elenie Poulos.
How good it is to have a comprehensive account of the justice heart of the national Uniting Church at one’s fingertips! The next time someone tries to tell you that the Uniting Church “does not know what it believes”, refer them to For a World Reconciled: Justice Statements from the Uniting Church in Australia 1977-2015. They will find strong, clear, and well-researched documents laying out the convictions of our national church about matters of justice (social and ecological).
It is true that our church may sometimes appear indecisive, in its reluctance to endorse hard and fast statements of belief based on biblical and theological fundamentalism. But this is due to the UCA embracing diversity, valuing the common ground of wisdom, and remaining open to a wide range of contemporary scholarship. All of the really big issues are complex and do not easily yield black and white answers.
Helpfully, this compendium of statements is arranged in sections for easy reference. Each section has an informative introduction by a scholar of our Church with a strong connection to the subject.
The convictions expressed throughout For A World Reconciled are firmly based on a biblical ethic of the common good found in the scriptures in general, and the prophetic literature in particular. Contrary to the populist view of ‘wishy-washiness’, the Uniting Church often speaks truth to power with conviction that other denominations lack.
Room to improve
There are, of course, exceptions. As you trace recent documents in this compendium about sexuality, ministry and marriage, one finds a frustrating inability to resolve such matters to the satisfaction of our entire Church. We end up saying that we cannot reach a consensus; and that the best we can do is stay open to the issues, and try to be respectfully present to one another. Even so, this is better than being stridently out of tune with the mind of Christ.
Another source for potential pessimism is the discovery (upon surveying the documents) that our Church has been consistently speaking out on key issues such as the relationship between First and Second Australians (appropriately the most frequently addressed issue), asylum seekers, and ecological justice — with little or no sign of impact on government policy. As former President Dr Jill Tabart puts it, “Clearly we have very little to cross off the wish list in the approaching fortieth year anniversary of the Uniting Church in Australia.” She suspects that the Uniting Church is having a diminishing impact on Government policy, and wonders whether this may now be more the time for individual Christians “…to make a difference in advocating for changed policies and in living changed lives that really make a difference to those suffering.” (p 5)
However, there are signs that this is already the trend, such as when individuals involved in groups like Love Makes a Way occupy the offices of MPs, demanding justice for asylum seeker children and their families, and kayakers on Newcastle harbour try to disrupt the export of coal. For such individuals and groups, the key justice documents of our national Church can provide an important theological underpinning for just action in the face of powers who have closed their eyes to human suffering, and their ears to the moral argument.
The way in which documents are set out in this compendium allows us to trace the development of theological thinking and conviction over the past 40 years. This is especially clear in the perception of the value of the natural environment. According to the “Statement to the Nation” (1977): “We are concerned with the basic human rights of future generations and will urge the wise use of energy, the protection of the environment and the replenishment of the earth’s resources for their use and enjoyment.” (p 7, emphasis mine). Eleven years later, though: “We affirm our belief that the natural world is God’s creation; good in God’s eyes, good in itself, and good in sustaining human life.” (p 9, emphasis mine). In the Resolution of 1991, “The Rights of Nature and the Rights of Future Generations”, these two sets of “rights” are placed alongside each other, implying they are equal.
Elenie Poulos, co-editor of For a World Reconciled, writes in the “For the Sake of the Planet” section that “the shifting theological foundations for our ecological care can be seen in these resolutions, as the language moves between the various expressions of a ‘stewardship’ approach (a natural environment given to us by God) and a more recently expressed understanding of the interrelatedness and mutual dependency of humanity and the natural world.” (p 222)
The earliest statements in this section deal with the issue of uranium mining, and the concern Australia not retreat from its stand on nuclear proliferation safeguards. While this issue has faded from public consciousness, it may well have to be revisited given US President Trump’s stated views about rebuilding its nuclear arsenal.
The final statement in this section is about climate change, drawing attention to, among other things, Australia’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions through mining and using fossil fuels. This concern is picked up in the “Justice for Peoples in Other Countries” section, in the observed risk of rising sea levels. Everything is connected, especially when it comes to vulnerability of the poor and weak.
Daring to care
It is truly said by individuals who invest a lot of energy caring about big social justice issues that one cannot worry about everything all the time. As a committed collective, though, it is possible, indeed necessary, to be concerned and active about most things most of the time. For a World Reconciled illustrates the efforts of a Church that has not missed much during the past 40 years. But some might be surprised to find documents on such diverse topics as the manufacture of infant formula, the Armenian genocide, and military aid to the Philippines. Jesus exhorted his followers to take the Gospel to all the world. In his ministry, he showed that this includes not missing the needs of the ‘little ones’.
The statements gathered in For a World Reconciled are not just empty words — the call to action is everywhere, from solidarity with Aboriginal People to sanctions against Apartheid South Africa and divestment from fossil fuel companies. A resounding summary of these statements could be: “Christian is as Christian does.”
They encapsulate the ethos of the Uniting Church, and cogently describe who we are when we are at our best. As our President says in his introduction, “While there have been times when we have failed to do what is right, and failed by not speaking out when we should have done so, we are known in our country and beyond as a church that ‘stands up for justice’.” (p XIV).
This compendium is a great gift to teachers and preachers who now have the key justice statements of our church at their fingertips. It will hopefully also provide a resource for other members who want to be informed about what our church has said and is saying about the big common good issues of our day.
It has the potential to equip all of us to give an account of our faith.
Rev. Dr Brian Brown is an ex-Moderator of NSW/ACT Synod