The Basis of Union: A Legacy
Following on from the first article in this series, which introduced the Basis of Union and why it is so important and beloved, we turn now to a closer look at the historical context that shaped the document.
The movement towards union was present in Australia’s Methodist, Presbyterian, and Congregationalist churches since federation, with the move towards an Australian Protestant Church the subject of an inter-church committee that formed in 1902. As Rev. Dr. D’arcy Wood writes in a Crosslight retrospective, this process stalled during the 1920s, when the idea of union was rejected by the Presbyterian Church and would not resume for another thirty years.
When efforts towards union began again in 1957, the three churches sent seven representatives each to work on a Joint Commission on Church Union (JCCU). With a view towards establishing a single church, the JCCU went on to produce two major reports, The Faith of the Church, published in 1958 and The Church: its Nature, Function and Ordering (1963). The latter document proposed that the new church would feature bishops and a concordant with the new Church of South India. These two items were opposed by the majority of the three denominations’ members and would not survive.
Work on the Basis of Union began in 1968. Rev. Dr. Davis McCaughey was its major author. The Professor of New Testament Studies for the Theological Hall at Ormond College, Melbourne University, he would later become the first Uniting Church president. When Rev. Dr. McCaughey passed away in 2005, the then-President Rev. Dr. Dean Drayton remembered him as “much of the vision, wisdom, and intellectual strength behind…union.”
As Rev. Dr. Wood recalls, the editing of McCaughey’s draft was a protracted process that yielded important results:
[quote]Every sentence of his draft was carefully discussed and not many sentences were left untouched. In the revised Basis of 1970, and a further revision of 1971, bishops disappeared; presbyters became “Ministers of the Word”; lay preachers were added; deaconesses were re-affirmed but the introduction of a “renewed diaconate” was postponed. The place of elders, embedded in the 1963 report, was retained in the subsequent drafts.[/quote]
Writing the Basis of Union, then, was a contentious process. This would carry over to disagreements over the text. One section devoted to biblical interpretation makes no reference to the inerrancy of scripture, a hotly-debated outcome that saw some Presbyterian congregations withdraw from the union process. Despite this fallout, the process shaped much of today’s Uniting Church, including the above-mentioned lack of bishops and the importance of lay leadership.
Context Leads To Omissions
Rev. Dr. John Squires is the Director of Education and Formation and Principal of Perth Theological Hall. He told Insights that while the Basis of Union is ahead of its time in many respects, the context behind its crafting means that one major aspect of the Uniting Church’s identity was not included, namely, “There is no explicit reference to the consensus method that we use in meeting, discerning, and deciding.”
Rev. Dr. Squires says that this is an understandable omission because, “[consensus decision making] arose two decades after the Basis was written.”
The consensus model was in place by Assembly 1994, after years of work by an Assembly working group to find a better decision making process. As past president Dr Jill Tabart recalled in February 2018, “The legalistic adversarial Standing Orders and Rules of Debate (based on the Westminster parliamentary system, and largely drawn from procedures used in the denominations before Union) increasingly seemed inadequate — and sometimes quite obstructionist,” in discerning the will of God. The process of finalising the consensus model is recorded in Dr Tabart’s book, Coming to Consensus.
While the first version of the Basis of Union did not include any overt reference to consensus, Rev. Dr. Squires says that “the first sentence in para 14 and another sentence in para 15 give glimpses into this way of operating, without being explicit.”
Similarly, the Basis’ context means that no reference is made to multiculturalism or interfaith relationships.
“They each have developed and blossomed in the decades since the Basis was written,” Rev. Dr. Squires said.
“However, if we do ever open the Basis for rewriting at certain points, a reference to these two factors would be very welcome.”
While the Uniting Church has grown beyond what could possibly be imagined in the Basis of Union, the church owes a good deal to the document whose crafting began fifty years ago.
Jonathan Foye is Insights’ Editor