By John Evans
Here is a pandemic conundrum: when did the Uniting Church in Australia begin?
“OK,” I hear you say, “there is a trap here”. And you would probably be right. Don’t we year in year out celebrate the anniversary of the formation of the Uniting Church on June 22, 1977? Some of us can even remember the occasion itself; and some may have actually been there in the Sydney Town Hall all those years ago.
This all happened after decades and decades of talk, hopes and dreams. The Constitution of the Uniting Church in Australia was adopted as one of the first acts of the first Assembly of this “new” church and was thus constituted.
There it is, that is when we began. Or did we?
Don’t we actually say the church began at that first Pentecost after Christ’s death and resurrection? Isn’t this the birthday of the church – with all those events recounted in Acts 2? This is the actual beginning of the one holy catholic and apostolic church. Well, yes, but the Uniting Church also began in 1977!
Our Basis of Union, and the Constitution of the Uniting Church is, however, wonderfully nuanced at this point and it would seem to allow us to claim both dates. And I would like to suggest that is very significant.
As a former lawyer and frequent a writer of constitutions for church-related bodies, I have always been intrigued with our own Constitution. Usually, a constitution will have an opening clause that says something such as “Pursuant to XYZ authority (or Act of Parliament) the ABC entity is hereby created.” And indeed, our Constitution has a preamble which outlines something of our back story, but it does not then definitively declare that a new church is created on a date in 1977.
Here are the first two clauses of the Constitution:
- The Church shall be known by the name of “The Uniting Church in Australia”.
- The Church, affirming that it belongs to the people of God on the way to the promised end, lives and works within the faith and unity of the one holy catholic and apostolic church, guided by its Basis of Union.
In other words this “new” church is actually not “new”. It is a continuation for all those faithful people “on the way to the promised end”, except that a particular section of those faithful people of that one holy catholic and apostolic church is going to be from now on guided by a Basis of Union, and these people will be known as “The Uniting Church in Australia”.
Indeed, at this point one needs to go back to the very first sentence of the Basis of Union to see how these “twin start dates” come about.
“The Congregational Union of Australia, the Methodist Church of Australasia and the Presbyterian Church of Australia, in fellowship with the whole Church Catholic, and seeking to bear witness to that unity which is both Christ’s gift and will for the Church, hereby enter in union under the name of the Uniting Church in Australia.”
Once there were three denominations who were a part of the “Church Catholic” (which began way back at Pentecost) but from within that “stream” of being the church they sought to unite, enter in union. This union – on June 22, 1977 – would have a name: The Uniting Church in Australia!
This was not a new church, with a new creed, a new insight, or having the claim it is the one true church. It had not split from anyone, there was no great schism – indeed, the remaining Congregationalists or Presbyterians also continued within that stream of the Church Catholic. That stream continued to flow, but with the change that a certain group of the faithful were now being guided by a Basis of Union; and they had a name: The Uniting Church in Australia.
As I said, our Constitution and, before it, the Basis of Union, is a highly nuanced statement as to how we now sit in this great stream of the Church Catholic. A union has a start date, but in reality, we look back to Christ himself: as the Basis says – we give out sole loyalty to Christ the living Head of the Church.
All of this explains why a key hallmark of our identity, which is reflected in the Constitution and Basis, is that we are always seeking closer relations with other churches; indeed union with other churches.
As the Basis says: “The Uniting Church declares its desire to enter more deeply into the faith and mission of the Church in Australia, by working together and seeking union with other Churches.”
At every turn we should seek to “play” within the great stream of the Church Catholic so we “may enter more deeply into the faith and mission of the Church in Australia” – that is, be a part of the faith and mission of the whole church, and not just of the Uniting Church in Australia.
Sadly, over the years we have seen ourselves just as another denomination, with our own faith and our own mission and even our own start date – rather than, first and foremost, being a part of the Church Catholic within Australia. It is little wonder why union with other churches was a key part of this new Church’s vision from the start: it was after all Christ’s gift and will for the Church!
So when did we begin? Our answer can determine our attitude to other Christians and what we are called to do for the sake of Christ. It is not as simple as it looks!
Rev Dr John Evans is a retired Minister.