The Uniting Church: past, present, and future

The Uniting Church: past, present, and future

Rev. Dr Chris Walker gave the following sermon on the occasion of the 45th anniversary of the Uniting Church at Gosford Uniting Church on 19 June.

The theme today is “The Uniting Church: past, present and future.” I will relate this to our Bible reading John 15:1-8 which speaks about Jesus as the true or real vine.

John’s gospel is distinctive in having Jesus make “I am” statements. Jesus says, “I am the bread of life” and “I am the living bread” in John 6. He says, “I am the good shepherd” and “I am the gate for the sheep” in John 10.  In John 15 we have, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.” The emphasis in the passage is on Jesus as the true or real vine. Only as people abide or remain in Jesus will they be fruitful. Those who do not bear fruit are removed and even those that do are pruned to bear more fruit. He says, “Apart from me you can do nothing.” It is not that we cannot do anything, but if we are to bear fruit for God’s purposes then we need to be connected to Jesus, God’s Son. God will be glorified as we bear fruit and live as Jesus’ disciples. We do this by keeping Jesus’ commandments, namely to love one another as he loved us.

Past

Today we commemorate the 45th anniversary of the Uniting Church in Australia. A great deal of change has happened over the years since 22 June, 1977 when the Uniting Church was inaugurated. The Uniting Church was formed as a result of the ecumenical movement which was strong in the middle part of the 20th century. The ecumenical movement emphasised what John wrote in John 17 where Jesus speaks of “being one” that the world may believe. From 1901, the Presbyterian, Methodist and Congregational churches in Australia had sporadic discussions about a possible united church.

Possible union really got going in 1957 when the three churches appointed people to a Joint Commission on Church Union. This body produced three key documents each of which has had a major impact on the theology and ethos of the Uniting Church in Australia as it came to be. The first was The Faith of the Church (1959), then The Church: Its Nature, Function and Ordering (1963) leading to The Basis of Union (1971). It was not a matter of simply cobbling together a united church based on compromise, but rather trying to discern what was the true and full life and faith of the church. The desire was for an Australian church serving God’s mission of reconciliation and renewal. The Basis of Union in its inclusive language version of 1992, which also included headings, continues to inform the faith and ordering of the Uniting Church. Rev Davis McCaughey played a key role in drafting the Basis of Union. It is a significant document that former President Rev Dr Andrew Dutney in particular has focused on in his writing and speaking.

Implementing the vision for a new church was more difficult than anticipated. A significant percentage of Presbyterian churches did not come into the union and even some Congregational churches stayed out. The Methodists voted on block and all joined. While there was excitement about the new Uniting Church not “of” but “in” Australia, there was also some apprehension. The polity of the new church was closer to Presbyterianism and many Methodists felt the loss of their tradition. Congregationalists emphasized the local nature of the church.

A major issue was that there were many church buildings yet agreeing to sell and merge was not easy. This took a great deal of time and effort detracting from the mission of the church. Getting used to the new terms and arrangements also took time. Culturally the mainstream churches were entering a time of decline, first of the Sunday schools then youth groups. Meanwhile the Pentecostal churches were rapidly growing, often attracting active former members of the Uniting Church.

The National Church Life Survey over a number of surveys provided a picture of the churches with recommendations for becoming stronger, but congregations found it hard to implement the ideas. Similarly church experts from overseas gave various advice about church growth, healthy churches and missional churches but carrying the ideas into effective practice was another matter. I was personally involved in this, especially with the visits of Kennon Callahan from the United Methodist Church in the USA, whose speaking and writing about effective churches and leadership was very helpful.  But decline continued for the most part.

Yet it is important to say that some Uniting churches did grow and many were faithful in what they did in serving their people and community. They sought to be missional but found it difficult to draw others into the life of the congregation. Many Uniting Church people are involved in voluntary organisations, as well as the church, serving the common good. We have not been so good at sharing faith and evangelism.

Present

As the Uniting Church has developed a number of qualities emerged. Let me outline the main distinctive qualities of the Uniting Church at present.

  • The Uniting Church is deliberately called the Uniting Church ‘in Australia’, not ‘of Australia’, to indicate that it is located in Australia but its primary allegiance is to God revealed in Jesus Christ by the Spirit.  It is seeks to be a church for Australians serving God’s mission.
  • It is a church which affirms the gifts and talents of all people.  This includes the full equality of women in ministry and leadership. The last two Presidents have been women and the next one will be a woman also.
  • It is known as a church that is concerned about social justice and advocates for those who are disadvantaged.  It is in a strong position to do so with its extensive network of congregations and caring agencies across Australia.  The Uniting Church is the largest non-government provider of welfare in Australia. It also has contacts overseas with a number of partner churches in the Pacific, Asia and Africa. 
  • The Uniting Church has developed a covenant partnership with indigenous people in the church who since 1985 are organised as the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress.  A new preamble to the Constitution of the Uniting Church that was affirmed at the 2009 Assembly recognises the experience of the first peoples.
  • The Uniting Church has identified itself as a multicultural church since 1985 and inclusion is a primary value.  It has many ethnic and language groups within it and is learning how to ensure that all voices are heard and not only the formerly dominant British heritage ones.  Many people in the Uniting Church come from other church backgrounds. On any Sunday some 26 different languages are used in worship. It readily accepts people whoever they are. The national President-elect and Moderator-elect in NSW are both Tongan women.  
  • This also means commitment to dialogue with other Christian denominations and other faith traditions.  I belong to a multifaith network concerned about climate change for example. This does not result in a “believe in anything” approach for it does have a particular tradition going back to the beginning of the church.  The Uniting Church identifies itself as part of the Catholic, Reformed and Methodist traditions.  This means continuity with the church universal, a recognition of the need to engage in continual reform, and a desire to share the good news of Jesus Christ and serve in practical ways.
  • This also involves a willingness to discuss contemporary issues even when they are controversial.  It does so with an emphasis on the freedom of members to form their own views on these issues rather than tell them what to think.
  • The structure of the Uniting Church is distinctive.  Decisions and oversight are via councils rather than individuals.  A consensus model of discernment and decision making is now used.  This is not simply a matter of involving people in the decisions but seeks to discern the will of God by being sensitive to the Spirit of God who may speak through minority voices.

Let me suggest that each congregation to a large degree shares these qualities while having its own unique qualities given its people and location.

Future

The future of the Uniting Church Is hard to predict. The danger with looking at trends and statistics and projecting from them is that they do not take into account the unexpected, the surprising and what God might do. Sociological analysis is all very well but the church is not just a sociological organisation but a theological one. It is based on God and God’s desire to work through the church to carry out God’s will. We need to acknowledge that God works through other churches and even outside the church, but it is those who consciously know God through Jesus Christ who are called to point to him and continue his mission.

Nevertheless, it does seem that the following is likely to take place. The Uniting Church will continue to have an important role in Australian society through its many caring agencies. This includes advocacy for social justice and inclusion. These need to be seen to be connected to the Uniting Church and not just be another caring agency.

Congregations will probably continue to merge or collaborate and this needs to be done strategically so that we will go on having a presence across Australia. Some congregations are necessarily lay led. Providing resource Ministers will be important. Other congregations need to see themselves as regional churches consciously serving the area not just their own people. This might be through close cooperation rather than merger. This is taking place in Parramatta for example where I am. The Uniting Church will become increasingly multicultural with leaders emerging who are not the traditional white male. This is already happening.

Our reading from John’s gospel emphasised the need to abide or remain in Jesus. We need to be connected to him and draw inspiration from him and his Spirit at work in us. We are to bear fruit, the fruit of the Spirit in our own lives, and the fruit of making a positive difference to the lives of others. Often, we do not see the result of our efforts but if we remain true to Jesus, we can be confident that there will be fruit. Loving like Jesus is not wasted. Jesus himself had to go to the cross hoping that God would use his death. At first the disciples thought the crucifixion was the end of Jesus and his mission. The resurrection proved otherwise. The coming of the Spirit at Pentecost set in motion the movement which was the early church which came to change the known world.

My encouragement to you is to focus on abiding in Jesus, bearing fruit and living self-consciously as Jesus’ disciples. Be open to the leading of the Spirit for God is a God of newness and is not bound by the past or present. Do not be anxious about the survival of the Christian faith or the closure of church buildings. Be confident in your faith and be ready to share it with others.  Peter tells us, “Be ready at all times to answer anyone who asks you to explain the hope you have in you, but do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3: 15-16).  Jesus is still the living Lord. The church buildings we do have should be places of worship but also be used to reach out to the community. Similarly, we can be engaged not only in church activities but in those that touch those beyond the regular attenders. We can consciously seek to connect with people in the wider community in service in the name of Jesus. As I said we are called to be Jesus’ disciples and bear the fruit that comes from loving like Jesus.

Let me finish with this example. There were two churches on the Gold Coast that had acceptable buildings with small congregations. They could have continued as they were for some time but the prospects for significant ministry were limited. The decision was made to sell the properties which were in valuable areas and buy a larger piece of land at Robina which was going to be a major centre just back from the coast. An excellent property was bought and a larger regional church was built. They had the vision but the initial Ministers were not able to implement it much. A change of leadership did result in growth and the potential of the regional church began to be realised. As well as worship, there was ministry with people with disabilities and various other groups and services developed.

Another change of leadership brought Rev. Stu Cameron who carried the vision much further. He was there for almost 15 years as Lead Minister and the name of the church changed to New Life to signify what it was about. It became the largest congregation of the Uniting Church in Australia. He is now the superintendent of Wesley Mission Sydney. He was ably served by a very capable administrator Melissa Lipsett who is now the CEO of Baptist World Aid Australia. Before he concluded his ministry at Robina, they had begun to plant two new congregations: one in Brisbane at Wesley Mission Brisbane and another at Coolangatta Uniting Church. A team of people were involved in each case under a lead pastor and they have been able to grow two new younger vibrant congregations. It was not a matter of assisting the existing congregation but rather starting a new congregation with the team, skills and backing of the congregation at Robina. This was all carefully negotiated and has worked really well.

That is a particularly notable story. It did not happen overnight. But growth not decline can happen, even in the Uniting Church. A negative mindset does not help. Rather we need to be looking to God and seeking God’s guidance for the future. Our faith needs to be joined by hope and love in order that we faithfully remain in Jesus and bear the fruit that God wants us to bear. There may be times of pruning along the way, but God wants us to persevere and promises to be with us and enable us to live as Jesus’ disciples and part of his ongoing church at mission in the world.

Amen

Rev. Dr Chris Walker

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