What price membership?
Peter Ellis explores the current Assembly discussion paper on a change to the membership requirements of the Uniting Church.
Do you “belong” to and pay membership for a local motor boat club, bowls club, RSL sub-branch or football club? What about their requirements for membership?
What terms and conditions, and price, do you put on membership of your church? How is a special interest club different from a church?
I can be a member of my local baseball club and amateur radio club without attending one game or meeting. Similarly, there are members of the local Uniting Church who never darkening its doors, even while making regular financial contributions.
What do you think about these people?
There is a recent example of a nation that forgot about church culture. Albania’s oppressive Communist regime of 1944-92 suppressed Christianity so effectively that missionaries had to lead people not only to Christ but also to the complete cultural response to make a new church.
Is this the issue we might face in Australia?
The Uniting Church’s national Assembly asked a group of church leaders — Gregor Henderson, Andrew Dutney, Jenny Tymms and Chris Walker — to contemplate the meaning of membership within the Uniting Church. The Assembly Standing Committee has asked presbyteries to give their thoughts on the resulting report by August 31, 2011.
The changes come down to: Baptism is the sacrament that initiates people into the Christian life and is valid for children or adults; Confirmation is an affirmation of one’s baptism and acceptance of adult responsibility in the life of the congregation, and could be made a part of an adult baptism; discipleship and responsible membership of a congregation are the expected result of confirmation; and regular reaffirmation of confirmation (for example, annually) would become a part of the life of each congregation.
Also, membership categories would be simplified to: a local record of baptisms; a roll of confirmed and/or reaffirmed members; and a pastoral list of people associated with the congregation who are not confirmed.
In December 2010, the Standing Committee said, in part:
Many congregations find they have confirmed members who rarely participate in the life of the congregation yet retain their voting rights according to the Regulations. On the other hand, others come to participate in the life of the congregation and may be regarded as faithful members but have not formally become confirmed members or members-in-association or have not transferred their membership from another congregation. Strictly speaking, these active participants currently cannot vote in meetings of the congregation. Adherents may attend and speak at meetings of the congregation but also cannot vote. They can be appointed as members of committees but are not members of the congregation.
These proposed changes will mean that those able to participate in the decision-making life of the congregation will be active (confirmed) baptised people. Adherents should be encouraged to become baptised and to participate in the commitment service of the congregation if they wish to participate fully in the life of the congregation. The emphasis should be on baptism and discipleship — understood as following Jesus and actively participating in the life of the local community of faith, not simply gaining voting rights or joining an institution.
The significant issue, which discussions I’ve been in have highlighted, is that the service of reaffirmation then may be seen as a “them and us” exercise; with those on the pastoral list feeling excluded in practice, if not in actuality, from the life of their church.
How does this division for administrative purposes — confirmation would not become a sacrament — help make a cohesive, loving, church community?
What about people just trying out church?
This paper is one answer to renewing the membership basis of the Uniting Church and may be a good answer in some of our congregations.
However, will it help grow faith and community?
Find the Discussion Paper “The Question of Church Membership” Discussion Paper – Church Membership – Nov 2010. Give your thoughts through your council to the presbytery representative.
Peter Ellis is a member of Kippax Uniting Church in Canberra.