Opinion: The urgency of church reform remains the greatest challenge

Shaping the Basis of Union of the UCA: the influence of progressive thinkers

We are privileged to have received a positive response to our request to Rev John Gunson, author of God, Ethics and the Secular Society: does the church have a future? to produce a brief paper on the influence of the Congregational representatives at the negotiated construction of the Basis of Union first published in 1971 prior to union in 1977 of the Methodist, Presbyterian (in part) and Congregational denominations. The original BOU can be found here.

The historic text of the Basis of Union was prepared at a time when the desire for gender-inclusive language was only just emerging. By the early 1990s there was a need to re-examine the language and the Assembly Standing Committee approved the publication of the 1992 edition, which incorporates relatively conservative changes to the language of the Basis, while seeking to retain its meaning. The 1992 version can be found here.

John’s words below remind us of the importance of keeping the challenge of Paragraph 11 at the forefront of our progressive work.


“Openness to new understandings of the Faith”

As one who was heavily involved in the life of the Congregational churches at the time of the negotiations for union with the Methodist and Presbyterian churches, I believe I can accurately comment on the process by which union was consummated.  While I was not on the Joint Commission itself, which undertook the negotiations and drew up the Basis of Union, I was involved in inter-church discussions and in other ways preparatory to union.

There are those in key positions in the UC today who believe that the Basis of Union was intended as the forever definitive theological basis of the Uniting Church.  Some of those on the Joint Commission may well have believed that, or at least hoped that would be true.

What in fact determined the theological position expressed in the Basis of Union was the pragmatic need to find a basis upon which three very different denominations with widely diverging theological positions could come together in union.  In other words it had to avoid looking like a normative/typical statement of any one of the three negotiating churches.  e.g. “That’s Presbyterian.  We can’t agree to that.  That is a takeover.”  So let’s base it on one of the historic creeds that we give lip service to as part of the church’s history – a kind of neutral ground.  The Nicene Creed is more or less recognized across the major expressions of the church as the first official definition of faith and the first that came out of an ecumenical council.  Among other things it was an attempt to unify the many different theological positions of the time.  Congregationalists recognized the creeds as historic formulations of the church’s faith, and also Reformation confessions such as the Savoy Declaration and the Westminster Confession.  But for Congregationalists none of these were forever definitive, nor were they to be used as tests of faith.

Our union some 50 years ago happened at a time when neo-orthodoxy /Barthian theology was resurgent (that doesn’t mean it was right).  As a young man I had a decade previously returned from post-graduate theological study in the USA , my head filled with the excitement of Karl Barth’s massive and scholarly restatement of theology, in the light of which I moved away from the rather “superficial” expression of 19th century liberal theology that was characteristic of Australian Congregationalism at the time.  It was this neo-orthodox theology that was being embraced by  the young “turks” and the academics of the three negotiating churches at the time of union.

It should surely be clear to us now that the form our Basis of Union took was inevitably an expression of the times.  Had we come together in the 19th century we would have had an entirely different Basis of Union,. but simply the best and most pragmatic way to get agreement/union between the churches at the time, and thus subject to review and change.

The majority of Congregationalists would probably not have entered into the Uniting Church if they had not believed that the Basis of UNION was a starting point on which we could come together, not a permanent “once and for all” expression of the faith of the Uniting church.  Such a confession would have been called “The theological basis of the UC’, not the basis of UNION.

The second factor at work 50 years ago was the ecumenical spirit of that time.

Dominant in the life of our three churches, it brought home to us powerfully the scandal of denominationalism and disunity.  I, along with many others, was heavily involved in ecumenical activities and the work and scholarship of the World Council of Churches and the Australian Council of Churches.

Congregationalists historically did not look on themselves as a denomination but as a reforming movement in the life of the church, and we urgently desired and worked for both the continuing reformation of the churches and the unity of the church.  That was a much higher priority than a particular choice of a confession of faith we could all agree about at the time.

We believed that the Basis was a necessary pragmatic concession, in order to achieve union – which we could each interpret in our own way, in spite of its Greek philosophical thought forms, themselves incomprehensible to most.

To make absolutely sure this was the case Congregational representatives on the Joint Commission insisted on the inclusion of Paragraph 11.

Our representatives believed that modern scholarship was giving us new knowledge and understanding of our sources and our faith, and that we expected the Uniting Church to take that seriously.

For Congregationalists the church was always a church under reformation, and not to be imprisoned by a nearly 2000 year old statement of faith, expressed in the limited knowledge and ancient Greek thought forms forced on the church by a Roman Emperor; nor a 2000 year old interpretation of it, nor a modern re-expression of it.   Scholarship and knowledge has moved on, both in our understanding of the world and especially in the new insights into the sources of our faith through the work of the Westar Institute.

Our representatives on the Joint Commission would have approached each meeting of that body with the words of Pastor John Robinson ringing in their ears as he farewelled the Pilgrim Fathers (Independents/Congregationalists) on the Mayflower, fleeing persecution from “orthodoxy” in England for a new life in America in 1620.

Robinson urged them :    “I charge you before God … to follow me no further than you have seen me follow Christ.  If God reveal anything to you by any other instrument of His, be as ready to receive it as you were to receive truth from my ministry, for I am persuaded that the Lord has yet more truth and light to break forth from his holy word. …..  The Lutherans cannot be drawn to go beyond what Luther saw  … and the Calvinists  … stick fast where they were left by that great man of God, who yet saw not all things.  This is a misery much to be lamented.”

The Congregational representatives were of course outnumbered and exercised very little influence on the Joint Commission, but insisted on the inclusion of Paragraph 11, their version of which I am sure was carefully re-worded by the drafters of the Basis so as to not seem in conflict with the rest of the Basis.

Paragraph 11 reads as follows:

 Scholarly Interpreters.

The Uniting Church acknowledges that God has never left his Church without faithful and scholarly interpreters of Scripture, or without those who have reflected deeply upon, and acted trustingly in obedience to his living Word.  In particular she enters into the inheritance of literary, historical and scientific enquiry which has characterised recent centuries, and thanks God for the knowledge of His ways with men which are open to an informed faith.  She lives within a world-wide fellowship of Churches in which she will learn to sharpen her understanding of the will and purpose of God by contact with contemporary thought.  Within that fellowship she also stands in relation to contemporary societies in ways which will help her understand her nature and mission.  She thanks God for the continuing witness and service of evangelist, of scholar, of prophet and of martyr.  She prays that she may be ready when occasion demands to confess her Lord in fresh words and deeds.

(Note: Highlight & bold are my emphases).

The first problem with the expression of this paragraph (which I suspect was deliberate) is the heading.  It should have been headed “Openness to new understandings of the Faith”.  But that was not what the majority framers wanted to hear or express.

A third and powerful factor also determining the Basis of Union was the vision expressed in the deliberate wording of our name – the Uniting Church in Australia, not the “United” church.  In coming together we all believed that this was only the first step in a larger on-going process of union, beginning with the Anglicans with whom preliminary discussions were already underway, and ultimately, some dared to hope, even with Baptists and Roman Catholics. (See paras 1&2 of the Basis.)

To even start conversations with Anglicans and Roman Catholics we knew we had to have a theological/creedal basis with which they would readily agree.  Nicaea made obvious sense.  Further, in support of this goal, great consideration was given on the Joint Commission as to the possibility of including Bishops in the polity of the new church.

Again, “The Basis” was about achieving a starting point, and assumed an ongoing reformation and reformulation of the faith, not a capitulation to the other churches with whom we hoped for union, but from which we had deliberately distinguished ourselves since the Reformation.

Ecumenism, unity, and the scandal of denominationalism was the driving motivation, formulation of the faith was secondary and pragmatic (but not to the framers of the Basis.)

Ecumenism and ongoing church union is no longer a central priority of the Uniting Church.   Anglicans and Roman Catholics are only interested in absorbing us, not uniting with us.  The priorities of 50 years ago need no longer delay our urgent attention to a ”fresh confession of the faith” and the ongoing reformation of the church.

John Gunson.    30/1/23


5 thoughts on “Opinion: The urgency of church reform remains the greatest challenge

  1. Elizabeth Burns

    At last! For too long the Basis has been set in concrete, not answering the needs of many today. For many of us the hard line has become restrictive, not enlivening.

  2. John Squires

    A very helpful insight into the processes of the 1960s and 1970s, which speaks a word into the time of the 2020s. Andrew Dutney also has written about the contribution of Congregational leader Maynard Davies, who as I understand it drafted this paragraph. I also understand that the headings were not part of the original text, but were added when the Basis was publicised more widely—an attempt to make it more accessible to a wider readership. I agree that this is a most unhelpful and inapposite title for this paragraph.

  3. Bev Floyd

    Quite interesting to see how efforts to bring people and groups together by agreeing on doctrine, can (with the best intentions) become so muddled.
    Thing is… Do we need doctrinal guard rails… or would a simple, statement be adequate (at least for people who agree with Para.11)?
    Perhaps we need to hasten the transition from the idea there needs to be agreement on what we believe. Perhaps the imperative now is for people of ‘goodwill’ to build a strong alternative movement where there are NO requirements except to be searching for the best possible way to live our lives.

  4. John Gunson

    I appreciate all the comments.
    Thanks John Squires for the reference to Andrew Dutney and Maynard Davies.
    At the time of these negotiations, Maynard Davies was President of the Congregational Union of Australia, a layman (not an ordained minister), and an elder in the congregation in Sydney that I was serving at the time. I knew Maynard and his views very well. I don’t have his text in front of me, but there is no doubt he would not have agreed to the title, and my suspicion is that his text was subject to modification/re-expression in the final drafting.
    John G.

  5. John Squires

    Thanks for your comments, John (Gunston).: I know your name well from that Congregation. Many years (decades) later, I served for a few years as Treasurer of the two UCA Congregations in Epping, as they worked to join together (now successfully achieved). In that role, I administered a number of accounts with substantial amounts of money left as bequests—one (the largest) was in the name of Maynard and Ruth Davies. I worked hard with the minister of the time to ensure that this money was utilised in ways that would strengthen the progressive articulation of the Gospel — a challenging task in Sydney!! John S

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