The Basis of Union: An Essential Read
From the 1960s (and earlier), there was discussion about many of Australia’s churches uniting as one denomination, a long-term project that initially included the Anglican Church. The Basis of Union document was written in 1977 when union finally took place. While not a constitution, the Basis of Union is an important foundation document. It sets out who the Uniting Church is called to be, and establishes much of the early identity that the church would embrace.
This is the first article in a series exploring the Basis of Union, why it is such an important document to the Uniting Church, and how it came to be.
Rev. Bronwyn Murphy is the Associate Secretary for NSW and the ACT Synod. She is a passionate advocate for getting Uniting Church members to read the Basis of Union. As Rev. Murphy puts it, “three flourishing denominations felt God call them to unity. So they put aside just about everything they held dear and opened themselves to the risk being something unheard of – The Uniting Church.”
“They placed God’s agenda over their own comfort and desire,” she said.
“This document set out the basis for that union. It spoke of what we believed about God and about each other as well as how we could behave with each other and the world.”
Less a map, more a compass
Rev. Dr. Geoff Thompson coordinates the systematic theology program at Pilgrim Theological College. He is the author of Disturbing Much, Disturbing Many, an exploration of theology that stems from on the basis of union. Rev. Dr. Thompson also recently wrote a new commentary on the Basis of Union that will be out later this year. He told Insights that the Basis of Union’s purpose is “less a map (with clearly defined routes), and more like a compass (which gives us direction in unfamiliar and changing territory).”
“Jesus Christ is the actual living foundation of the church. Obviously, the Basis cannot usurp this role,” he said.
“On the other hand, that the Basis has this ongoing function does not mean that it is the Uniting Church’s last theological word. It is, instead, the theological basis for our ongoing theological, moral, and spiritual discernment.”
The Basis of Union spans a wide range of subjects, with a lot of content crammed into its five pages. It starts with a section regarding the churches that formed the Uniting Church: The Methodists, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists. From there, it explores a variety of wider theological issues such as the Biblical witness, baptism, and interpretation.
The document then moves on to the shape of Uniting Church roles, before finishing with a reminder that the church will pursue better unity with other churches and “will use its worship, witness and service to God’s eternal glory through Jesus Christ the Lord.”
“It holds a picture of who we could be if we could keep God’s agenda before our own,” Rev. Murphy said.
“It tells us the church was called into being by Jesus Christ – it isn’t ours. All the discussions and tussles over buildings and budgets – none of which are ours to hold on to,” she said.
“Only ours to wisely and generously use for a season, to further the work God has entrusted to us.”
“It reminds us we are a pilgrim people on the way… not stuck in museums that worship a dead past. We are called to be vibrant, and active as we move towards God’s purpose of reconciliation and renewal.”
“It says that every member matters; every member has a place and what we do is determined by the people in the room. If there isn’t energy and passion to do something, let’s put it down and try something different. It is so permission giving and inclusive.”
An imperfect document
Despite being an “inclusive” document, the Basis of Union is not perfect. A product of its time, the 1977 text was updated in 1992, with the included rationale that the original wording needed to be updated and clarified. And while it was written by a team of eminent theologians and biblical scholars, none of these authors were female.
Rev. Dr. Thompson highlighted to Insights that he thought it was problematic that the document lacks any reference to Australia’s First Peoples.
“This is all the more unfortunate since it does include a reference, and makes commitments, to the churches beyond Australia’s shores,” Rev. Dr. Thompson said.
“Yet what was even by the 1970s an existing indigenous church was overlooked.”
“Another problem is the reference to Jesus making the response to God that “God had long sought in vain”. I think this problematically ignores the witness to God in Israel’s history and the lives of Jewish people prior to Christ,” he said.
“To affirm that earlier witness is not to deny the uniqueness of Jesus, but it does perpetuate the troubling Christian tradition of ignoring or bypassing Jesus’ Jewish forebears and, at some level, his own Jewishness.”
While a product of its time and place, and with some major omissions, the Basis of Union remains a document worth studying today.
“It comes alive when you read it with a group and discuss what it is saying,” Rev. Murphy said.
“It’s a great thing to talk about with friends over coffee or wine and cheese!”
The Basis of Union is available online here.
Jonathan Foye is Insights’ Editor
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