So just over 40 years ago, in 1977 – the year of Star Wars, Saturday Night Fever, The Spy Who Loved Me, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the Uniting Church in Australia came into existence; merging the Methodist Church, most of the Presbyterian Church, and most of the Congregational Churches in Australia to form something new.
On June 22nd, 1977, the first assembly made a statement to the nation. It seems fitting to me for us to take the time to actually read it – it really surprised me how well it has aged. Better perhaps, than some of those movies…
People of the Congregational, Methodist and Presbyterian Churches have united. A new church has been born.
We, who are members of the first Assembly of the Uniting Church in Australia address the people of Australia in this historic moment. The path to unity has been long and at times difficult, but we believe this unity is a sign of the reconciliation we seek for the whole human race.
We acknowledge with gratitude that the churches from which we have come have contributed in various ways to the life and development of this nation. A Christian responsibility to society has always been regarded as fundamental to the mission of the Church. In the Uniting Church our response to the Christian gospel will continue to involve us in social and national affairs.
We are conscious of our responsibilities within and beyond this country. We particularly acknowledge our responsibilities as one branch of the Christian church within the region of South-East Asia and the Pacific. In these contexts we make certain affirmations at the time of our inauguration.
We affirm our eagerness to uphold basic Christian values and principles, such as the importance of every human being, the need for integrity in public life, the proclamation of truth and justice, the rights for each citizen to participate in decision-making in the community, religious liberty and personal dignity, and a concern for the welfare of the whole human race.
We pledge ourselves to seek the correction of injustices wherever they occur. We will work for the eradication of poverty and racism within our society and beyond. We affirm the rights of all people to equal educational opportunities, adequate health care, freedom of speech, employment or dignity in unemployment if work is not available. We will oppose all forms of discrimination which infringe basic rights and freedoms.
We will challenge values which emphasise acquisitiveness and greed in disregard of the needs of others and which encourage a higher standard of living for the privileged in the face of the daily widening gap between the rich and poor.
We are concerned with the basic human rights of future generations and will urge the wise use of energy, the protection of the environment and the replenishment of the earth’s resources for their use and enjoyment.
Finally we affirm that the first allegiance of Christians is God, under whose judgment the policies and actions of all nations must pass. We realise that sometimes this allegiance may bring us into conflict with the rulers of our day. But our Uniting Church, as an institution within the nation, must constantly stress the universal values which must find expression in national policies if humanity is to survive.
We pledge ourselves to hope and work for a nation whose goals are not guided by self-interest alone, but by concern for the welfare of all persons everywhere — the family of the One God — the God made known in Jesus of Nazareth the One who gave His life for others.
In the spirit of His self-giving love we seek to go forward.
So who are we, in the Uniting Church? What makes us, us? In a world of thousand denominations, what do we, the Uniting Church in Australia, bring to the table – what do we contribute to the Kingdom of God?
I’m sure there could be a thousand different answers to that question. But for me, reflecting on the statement to the nation and on my experience over the past 20 years or so that I’ve been in Australia, I’d like to suggest three things: two that are real strengths, really meaningful contributions that the Uniting Church makes to the world of Christianity; and then one where we really suck.
So the first genuine contribution that I believe we make is in the first part of our name: Uniting.
When union took place quite a lot was made of that word: we were not the “United” Church, as other merged denominations named themselves, but “Uniting” – a continuous verb, a sense of movement, of direction, not of completion.
Now the cynic would have no difficulty poking fun at that idea. For the merger of denominations in 1977 turned out really to be the last gasp of the institutional ecumenical movement; we haven’t continued to unite.
And that’s true enough. But I think it misses something far more important. In the words of the statement to the nation: this unity is a sign of the reconciliation we seek for the whole human race
The Uniting Church is not, in the end, about institutional unity – it is about the unity of reconciliation.
Sureka once told me about one of our partner Churches overseas – I think it might have been in China – commenting that the reason they found it so easy to work with the Uniting Church was that we value being together more than we value agreeing with each other. And it seems to me that that captures something very real about who we are: that, for the most part, we don’t see differences of doctrine, of practice, of belief, as reasons to stand apart from one another.
Yesterday morning I went to a breakfast at the Anglican Church in support of “Street Work” – a youth off the street project. Later today I’ll preach at Crave, an affirming Pentecostal congregation in Paddington. In neither of those places would I agree with all that was said; but it is the Uniting Church way to value our unity deeply: not denying our differences but not allowing them to drive a wedge between us.
For what unites us – our faith in Jesus or simply our common humanity – is greater than what divides us.
Or, as Penny Wong put it, in a Federal Senate motion this week “the Uniting Church has chosen togetherness in faith to be of utmost importance, with members committed to living as one diverse community, despite often differing views”
So we are Uniting. And we are also “in Australia”.
Again, a small change in language with a significant difference. It’s not the Uniting Church “of” Australia, but “in”. It’s not a statement about our heritage or our origins, but about our mission, our place, our context, our calling.
We are the Church in Australia. This is where God has put us. Not looking to some distant land – to Rome, or Scotland or anywhere else for our purpose, our calling – we are Church in Australia.
Which is part of the reason that we are so diverse – for we reflect the nation that gave us birth. The Uniting Church has deep relationships with indigenous Australians, especially with the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress; and at the same time, we are a Church of immigrants; those who came many generations ago, as well as the first and second generation migrants who make up so much of our congregations.
Being in Australia is, I believe, what drives much of our mission: working in child care or aged care, family support, disability services, emergency service chaplaincy, political advocacy, remote and regional Australia, schools, universities, refugee and asylum seeker support, environmental campaigning, community organising, campaigning for justice, whether it be economic justice, gender justice, environmental justice; we are involved in all of the aspects of Australian life.
More, perhaps, than most Christian groups, the Uniting Church has taken to heart the words that Jeremiah wrote to the Jewish exiles: “seek the welfare of the city where you find yourself”. We come from all over the globe, either we or our ancestors, but this is where we find ourselves. And so part of our calling as God’s people is that we seek the welfare of Australia.
We are involved. We are active. And of course, since we don’t always agree, that is sometimes a tension of the Church. But rather that abdication of our calling to be a Christian Church in Australia.
And part of being an Australian Church is that we are also deeply connected to the pacific region. More, perhaps, than any other Christian group, we have links with our partners in the pacific which are genuine links of friendship and partnership, and not of paternalism or neo-colonialism.
We are Uniting, and we are in Australia.
But I said my third observation would be less positive. Since union, the Uniting Church has shrunk by something like 40%, and has the oldest demographic of any of the major denominations. Roseville is something of an exception, having children, teens, young adults.
And lots of interesting and sophisticated explanations get offered for the reason we have shrunk over the decades, and there is wisdom in many of them.
But over the past few months I’ve come to wonder if the real reason might be really quite an obvious one.
That we, in the Uniting Church, for the most part, are really rubbish at telling other people about Jesus.
Really, there’s a pretty basic logic here. We serve our community – and that’s good, that’s really good, that is a demonstration of the love of God and an incarnation of the kingdom of God. We welcome the stranger, we fight for the powerless, we stand for the disadvantaged. And that’s all absolutely core to who we are as Jesus’ followers.
But if we don’t tell people about the Jesus we are following, is it surprising that they don’t join us in following him?
So today we celebrate our birthday. At forty, perhaps it’s not a bad time to have a mid-life crisis. To celebrate what we do so well – and there is so much to celebrate – and at the same time to ask, “is there something we wanted to be that we’re not?”
Because 40 is still young enough to decide that there must be more that this.