UCA 40th anniversary • 22 Jun 2017

Are We There Yet?

A sermon preached at Willoughby Uniting Church on Thursday 22 June 2017, by David Gill,
at a service marking the 40th anniversary of the formation of the Uniting Church in Australia.
The preacher was the second general secretary of the National Assembly of the Uniting Church in Australia, 1980-88

“Are we there yet?” The flyer inviting us to tonight’s celebration posed that question, and it’s a good one.

In one sense, of course, the answer is ... indeed we are. We arrived 40 years ago tonight. After those long decades of dreaming, praying, thinking, hoping, working and yearning, it finally happened. Australia’s Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregational churches had found their way to become organically one. With the signatures of the three denominational leaders, in Sydney Town Hall on the 22nd June 1977, the Uniting Church in Australia was born.

By all accounts, it was quite an occasion.

Most of us here this evening missed it. I certainly did, for I was on the other side of the world, in Geneva, slaving away at the headquarters of the World Council of Churches. My only contribution to the event came when my boss, the WCC’s general secretary Philip Potter, called me in for a briefing, as he prepared to fly to Sydney to preach at the inauguration. A gentle hint that I’d be glad to come along and carry his suitcase produced a hearty Caribbean laugh, but that was all.

So, it happened. At last we were there. But, in three important respects, we weren’t there at all. We were only just setting out.

Our founding fathers – and I’m not being sexist, that’s exactly what they were – were wise when they chose the name. Not United, but Uniting. A present participle. Continuing action. That ‘ING’, we have learned, is important. For three reasons.

First, human relationships. Signing a document is one thing. Developing understanding, forbearance and trust is quite another. Four decades down the track, this is still a work in progress. You can unite structures. But uniting the hearts and minds of the people within them takes time, dedication, patience ... and grace.

We have learned, sometimes the hard way, just how important, and how difficult, relationship-building can be. My own view is that the Uniting Church scores pretty well in this area. In our continuing reaching out to one another, our consensus decision-making, our attempts to make space for grace in thinking through divisive issues, this church is trying to do justice to the human factor in uniting. But we’re not there yet.

Second, inclusiveness. If bringing three churches to live together under the same roof proved complicated, building a church with space for the whole human family is turning out to be pretty challenging too. The problem is, the human family is so darn complicated. And we’re products of a culture that doesn’t cope well with that complexity. A culture that loves building walls, passing judgement, drawing lines, putting people in boxes, determining who belongs and who doesn’t, deciding who’s in and who is not.

But the heart of God embraces all. And we know we’re called to create a church that does the same. A church in which there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, rich nor poor, male nor female, gay nor straight, white nor black, where the labels the world frets about matter not at all. Are we there yet? I don’t think so. But we’re trying, we’re certainly trying.

The third reason our Uniting is important, the one uppermost in the minds of those who chose our name, is ecumenism.

Remember what drove the decision to unite. It wasn’t the merger mentality of big business, the desire for a more efficient use of manpower and resources, the hope that a larger church might have more clout in Canberra. None of those things. What motivated us was the overwhelming conviction that visible unity is Christ’s will for his people, that division is a scandal, and that – in the immortal words of Bishop Lesslie Newbigin -- “a divided church has as much credibility as a temperance society whose members are perpetually drunk”.

That’s why our Basis of Union declares a desire to work together and seek union with other churches. The commitment to a wider ecumenism is built into our DNA. It is explicit in the name we bear.

This participial church of ours is on an ecumenical journey, more precisely it believes the whole Church is summoned to a journey, towards the unity that is Christ’s will for his fractious people. On that journey, how are we travelling?

In some ways, I think, rather well.

This church has its heart in the right place. And not its heart only. If a school teacher were writing an annual report on us, she would probably say the Uniting Church “plays well with other children”.

In most congregations there is a genuine desire for good relations with other Christians, often extending to joint efforts on specific projects.

If you’re running a local interchurch event, you can be pretty sure that, however other denominations may respond, the Uniting Church will be there.

Cooperation, in many areas, is now the name of the game. Whether in theological education, refugee policy or responding to human need, the prevailing instinct is to work with allies rather than go it alone.
At the national level, we’re involved in talks with other denominations. Some of these, like the work on interchurch marriages with the Roman Catholic Church, have had important practical consequences.

Our contribution to ecumenical leadership has been consistent – often, embarrassingly, way out of proportion to our size.

We do play well with other churches. There is goodwill. There is cooperation. And yet ...

And yet, forty years ago we had hoped, prayed and committed ourselves to more. So much more. Why haven’t we done better?

Some of the problems we’ve run into on the journey were not foreseen. Even if they had been, solutions to most of them were far beyond our control.

For one thing, the spiritual climate of Australia – indeed of the secularised West as a whole – has changed enormously through these four decades. I’m not thinking of the multireligious make-up of Australia today, so much as the easy enthusiasm with which so many of our compatriots happily proclaim themselves to be atheists, agnostics, indeed anything other than Christians. The responsibility for this can be sheeted home in various directions: to a changed world view, to damage done to the Christian brand by the Evangelical Right in the United States and here too, to the media’s delight in reporting religious conflict and stupidity. There’s not much the Uniting Church could have done about any of these. We’re stuck with the result: a generally hostile spiritual climate.

For another, although we didn’t see it at the time, the 1960s when the Uniting Church was conceived and the vision behind it was capturing Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregationalist hearts was a high point for church life in this country. Membership was strong, youth groups thrived, new churches were being built, Sunday School anniversaries still happened. Half a century later, it’s a very different picture, for almost every denomination. No surprise, then, that with numbers down, finance tight, status diminished, scandals aplenty and morale heading south, churches have turned their attention inwards and put unity on the back burner.

A third problem we did not foresee: our approach to unity has itself come under question. Is a series of national, organic mergers of two or more previously separated denominations the only, or the best, way forward? The gospel call to be reconciled is clear, but trying to replicate what happened in Canada, South India, North India, Australia, the Philippines and elsewhere may not be what is required now. The entry of Rome as a serious player since Vatican II certainly shifts the unity focus away from such national initiatives. Now we hear more reference to global, bilateral dialogues, with the use of terms like “reconciled diversity” and “receptive ecumenism”. This spanner in the works is something we did not foresee and cannot do much about. And it may not even be a spanner. It could turn out to be a helpful device that’s just what our ecumenical engineering now requires.

However, the problems are not all out there, in others, beyond our control. Some of the roadblocks on the journey towards unity are of our own making.

Some were built in by our founders, some have been created by decisions the Uniting Church itself has taken and habits we’ve fallen into, and some result from an assumption that’s all too common among the churches. Let me unpack that.

First, the built-in hindrances. Our founding fathers left us with several. As you know, at one stage there was an approach from the Anglican Church asking if it could join our conversations about union. This was rejected, on the grounds it would slow things down. That response was understandable but ecumenically unhelpful. As you are also aware, the original scheme for union envisaged the historic threefold ministry of bishops, presbyters and deacons. This too bit the dust. Again, an ecumenical negative. Then there is our revolving door approach to leadership, our excessive layers of church government and the way we tangle ourselves up with committees. These elements in the design of the Uniting Church reflect a very Australian anti-institutionalism and distrust of those exercising power. But they hamper our mission, misuse our human resources and complicate our relationships with other churches.

Second, hindrances we have created. Ours is a rather pragmatic church, which in some ways is good. But that pragmatism can lead us to make decisions – for example, in saying no to bishops, defining the role of deacons and loosening the tie between ordination and eucharistic presidency – with little awareness of the emerging ecumenical consensus and little appreciation of what we might be doing to relations with other churches. Then there are hindrances created by our bad habits, especially in worship which is where our worst mistakes are made. Uniting? We should try occasionally to see ourselves through the eyes of others. Sometimes we don’t look much like the kind of church any other in its right mind would want to unite with.

Third, the attitude that assumes we have found the way and we’re waiting for other churches to see the light and join us. Remember the old Roman Catholic line that used to bug other churches so much in the days before Vatican II – unity means the rest of you coming back to Rome. Sometimes the Uniting Church seems stuck in the same mindset – we are uniting and we’re waiting for the rest of you guys to join us.
Well, I can but I don’t really want to imagine other churches in Australia joining us as we are, or even becoming like us. That would be so sad. And, thank God, it’s not the way the ecumenical game is played.
Authentic ecumenism entails an openness to change, a willingness to receive from other traditions, a yearning for enrichment from beyond ourselves, a commitment to move forward to a future the shape of which nobody yet sees.

How are we to move forward?

A few years back, the then general secretary of the World Council of Churches was in the Swiss capital, Berne, speaking on the role of the churches in a world of political and religious conflict. One sentence in that speech caught my attention: “Christians must develop the spiritual capacity to hear and see the grace of God in the other,” he said.

Translate that to Australia’s interchurch relationships today. Christians must develop not the diplomatic skill to charm the other, not the political know-how to manipulate the other, not the worldly power to coerce the other, not the theological clout to convert the other. But the spiritual capacity to discern what is truly of God in the other.

Such an emphasis shifts the ecumenical problem away from the other – the denomination that’s difficult to get on with, the church leader who won’t play ball, the doctrinal stance that seems set in concrete – and focuses attention back on us. Each of us. Not just the experts, the church leaders, the ecumenical bureaucrats, but us, and our capacity to discern. Christian unity is no mere exercise in ecclesiastical carpentry. It’s about transforming hearts and minds, nothing less.

Strengthening human relationships. Building a church that’s truly inclusive. Reaching out afresh to other churches. We’re not there yet, but we know we’re on the way. Looking back through these four decades, tonight we commit ourselves anew to becoming in truth a uniting church in Australia.

But a word of warning. Do not take the institution itself more seriously than it deserves. Never become so engrossed in the ups and downs of this church that you lose sight of what is far more important: namely, the vast and wonderfully varied family of Christian faith, stretching down through the centuries and out across the nations, in which by God’s grace we have been set.

There is a story told about Ignatius Loyola, the Spanish founder of the Society of Jesus — otherwise known as the Jesuits. In 1555, a Cardinal named Carafa had just been enthroned as Pope Paul IV. He was tough, and known to detest Spaniards in general and Jesuits in particular. What would Loyola do, he was asked, if the new pope were to act against the Society that he had established and that meant so much to him.
“Even if the Society were to melt away like salt in water,” he replied, “I believe that a quarter of an hour’s recollection in God would be sufficient to console me and to reestablish peace within me”.

Australia’s churches, our own included, need to become equally relaxed about their identities, structures and ways of work. And equally confident that, in the good purposes of God, whatever is of enduring value within them will go forward.

Among the things I’ve learned from Pentecostal and charismatic friends is the gesture of the open hands. You know it: hands open, palms facing upwards. A powerful symbol of dependence and need, trust and confidence.

Think of the Uniting Church today and that’s where we are. A time of change and uncertainty. Yet with an enhanced awareness of dependence. And an enduring confidence that God never abandons his Church, that the divine purpose will prevail.

So let us face the future with our hands open, expectant. And with the prayer

Come, O God. Renew the life of your Church. Lead us into your future. And kindle within us the fire of your love. Amen.