Opinion: A Vision for a Contemporary Church

In response to a request from the Assembly of the UCA, newly retired Uniting Church minister and scholar Rev Dr John Squires offers his thoughts about the highlights and joys of his 42 years of ministry and also his thoughts on the UCA identity, and that all-important question: what’s the future of the Uniting Church?

What does the future of the Uniting Church look like to you?

It is so hard to know. A few years ago there was widespread discussion of ‘four scenarios’ for the future Church—word and deed, secular welfare, return to the early church, and recessional. They were helpful as catalysts for discussion, but rather artificial in the black-and-white options they proposed. I don’t see any one of them being the single way the Church will go in the future; rather, there will be a mixture.

So, what will change, and what will stay the same? People and structures are remarkably resilient in our Church. That’s a good thing, because it means we don’t easily give up, but it’s also problematic, because it means that we resist change until well past the time when transformation is feasible.

It’s not hard to know that the traditional pattern – Sunday morning worship service run by a minister living in the house next door to the church with his wife and young family, with a big Sunday School in the hall next to the church, midweek women’s and men’s fellowships, a Friday night youth group and a ‘youth service’ on Sunday evening – will not exist. It has already disappeared in so many places, even though some still continue to believe it’s ideal and that we just need to ‘get back to the good old days’. It’s not happening.

New patterns of gathering, praying, serving, and witnessing will emerge, indeed, there are already many such examples. The Church will become more local, contextualised and differentiated, across all the places where Uniting Church folk are to be found. We don’t have a master plan for congregational life, so each place will find its own pattern.

Such flexibility and diversity is to be valued and encouraged as it contributes to the health of the future Church. What we do need to ensure is that we continue to provide opportunities for people to grow in discipleship and offer channels whereby disciples can engage in constructive, hope-giving mission in society.

What are the things that are critical we get right?

We have a clear set of core commitments as the Uniting Church. First, we are committed to developing a destiny together with First Peoples, working for this locally and advocating for this nationally. Next, we are committed to learn from the practices of First Peoples and live in ways that honour the land, value all creatures, and reduce the impact of our lifestyles on the planet. Third, we have identified ourselves as a multicultural church and are committed to expressions of church fitting for the many language groups and ethnicities present in our Congregations. These three commitments are critical for us to maintain.

We are inclusive, accepting and value every person, no matter how society might want to categorise them. We are justice-oriented, serving and advocating for those people who are marginalised, abused, or rejected by forces at work in society. Those who are vulnerably housed, those experiencing domestic abuse, those unable to pay all their regular bills, those seeking the safety of refuge in our land, all merit our support and advocacy. We are participatory in our governance, our worship practices, our valuing of giftedness, especially in terms of gender and ethnicity. These things are core to our identity and essential to our future. It is essential that we get and keep them right.

We are also evangelical in the best and true sense of the term, even though that is a word that has been corrupted by terrible misuse in recent decades. And we are, still, ecumenical. Perhaps we might recapture this core commitment as: we welcome with open arms lay people and ministers who have served in other denominations, but have been bruised, burnt, or frozen out because of debates and decisions in those places. Can we recapture evangelical ecumenism and offer that in creative ways to society at large?

And then, we also must get the range of compliance matters right. Good ethical standards and transparently ethical practices are critical. Nobody should offer for leadership in the UCA these days with the naive thought that ‘it’s just a couple of meetings’; all leaders need to model and lead in ethically upright ways, and that means devoting time and energy to provide good leadership.

I think that now, the time is ripe for a thoroughgoing revision of what it is that we expect our ordained leadership to be doing. The mid-20th century paradigm of ‘preach, preside, and pastor’ is still reflected in our Regulations—but more recent modifications to the section on “Responsibilities of a Minister” (Reg. 2.2.1) move us towards a revised pattern, in which the key elements (in my mind) are “pioneering, collaborating, and resourcing”. I have reflected on this in two recent blogposts here and here.

In today’s context, what does it mean for us to be a church committed to scholarly inquiry?

Personally, I can’t imagine being content with any expression of faith that fails to engage mind as well as heart. Our Basis of Union commits us to “the knowledge of God’s ways with humanity that are open to an informed faith”—a faith that is contextualised, critically developed, alert to contemporary understandings, and engaged with contemporary society.

That invites us to know what discoveries are being made by scientists, psychologists, and sociologists, through exploration of the whole cosmos as well as investigation of ecologies and systems close at hand, and to bring those discoveries into conversation with our faith and the developments that have occurred in our theological understandings through the faithful work of exegetes, theologians, missiologists, educators, activists, writers, and preachers. We are also invited to attend to the creative offerings of poets, novelists, composers and artists, helping to shape our understanding of God and of one another.

So in our exegesis of biblical texts and articulation of theological insights, in our decision-making about church polity and our implementation of missional projects, we are always to be informed by these matters. Our expressions of faith always come to birth in the context in which we find ourselves, and always engage our whole being.

As that wonderful paragraph 11 of the Basis of Union affirms, I join in giving thanks “that God has never left the Church without faithful and scholarly interpreters of Scripture, or without those who have reflected deeply upon, and acted trustingly in obedience to, God’s living Word”.

What have been the joys of your ministry? What are the things you have learned and will treasure?

I have learned much and enjoyed much; so I have many things to treasure! I will limit myself to six.

Funerals. From early in my ministry, this was top of the list. I felt that, amongst both the “game playing” and the drudgery that can be experienced in ministry, visiting bereaved people and leading services of thanksgiving and remembrance were always moments when “I was doing something real”—connecting with people’s lives at raw and fragile moments, representing the grace and compassion that are at the heart of the Gospel.

Musicians. As a minister, musicians can be the bane of my life. And as a musician, ministers can be the bane of my life! But as a minister, working with liturgically-aware musicians is wonderful; and as a musician, playing with good musicians is bliss, and playing in worship led by theologically astute ministers is most enjoyable. Music makes such an important contribution to communal worship and personal spirituality, so musical ability is a gifting that is to be valued and nurtured.

Lifelong learning. Just as our church values scholarship, so we prioritise learning experiences for all people—lay and ordained, those in leadership and those participating as active disciples. Great moments for me have come in seminars and workshops, both as teaching facilitator and as learning student. I have learned at overseas universities and in local congregational settings, in training courses and in practical sessions, and even, more recently, in online groups!

Collaborations. All of my ministries have been in teams, with both ordained colleagues and lay leaders. Learning to work together in the best way, valuing each others’ gifts and working creatively to produce a truly collaborative partnership, always results in a joyful outcome. I have had fine collaborations with fellow ministers, teachers, committee and board members. My best and most enduring collaboration has been with my wife Elizabeth—fellow minister, educator, musician, creator. We have done some fine things together—many Lay Preacher courses, a good number of dialogue sermons, some Christmas in July fun nights, a shared placement for five years, a number of online Bible study series, and regular musical offerings in worship.

Variety. No one placement has been like another. And within my longest placement (20 years as a Faculty member at UTC), there were seasons with different focal points: initially, developing subjects to teach, then overseeing ministry formation, strengthening teaching amongst the Faculty and developing research supervision as Academic Dean, helping with the transition into Charles Sturt University, serving as Vice Principal and encouraging emerging scholars. Such variety is something that I have always valued. It has, I hope, kept me fresh in doing what I do.

Faithful, committed, dedicated people. Whilst I appreciate the privileges and responsibilities of ordination, I have always deeply valued the committed faith and dedicated discipleship of those many lay people amongst whom I have ministered. I have always seen them as part of the same team and have sought both to encourage, and to learn from, lay people in equal measure. Our Basis of Union is strongly affirming in this regard.

And maybe that’s a seventh thing that I can squeak in, which I treasure: the Basis of Union, and its lesser-known sibling, the 1977 Statement to the Nation. These, along with the 1988 Statement, are immensely valuable documents; they have served us well for decades and will continue to do so on into the future. They express so much of what I value within the Uniting Church.

John Squires

For more reflections from John on ministry, theology, the Uniting Church and the Bible, follow his blog.



One thought on “Opinion: A Vision for a Contemporary Church

  1. Bev Floyd

    It isn’t necessary to be critical
    of a life dedicated in service to people and a cherished organisation. So I won’t do that. There is a lot to commend.
    I particularly found the description of the UC ‘s approach to the first people and refugees encouraging.
    YET… when I looked at the Basis
    of Union document I quailed.

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