by David Beswick

From Crosslight Extra, September 1992

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[Note: This article, published as a supplement to "Crosslight" (the journal of the Victorian Synod of the Uniting Church in Australia) September 1992, was written when other issues regarding ordination were threatening division, following the 1991 Assembly and earlier actions by officers of the Assembly. It was before the controversies appeared in regard to homosexuality; but the basic questions concerning the nature of the church were the same. As we have seen more clearly since, the partial substitution of ideology for the catholic faith as church members and their leaders conform to the dominant culture is a long term and deeply damaging development. Oddly, I had at the time been defending the right of a candidate for ordination to hold private opinions on a matter of church order (not the substance of the faith) with which I strongly disagreed but in which I believed the Basis of Union gave him liberty of conscience, while people of influence in the Assembly were threatening to bring out the thought police to ensure that no one could be ordained who held such objectionable opinions, however privately, and however much he undertook to submit to the discipline of the Church. Since then, the same people who would not allow any difference of opinion on such matters have, in a peculiarly contradictory if not hypocritical way, insisted that not only diversity of private opinion but different official practices should be being allowed or even encouraged in different parts of the Church in regard to who may be ordained. It points to the political nature of the movement. (Can it be that when they have the numbers they are prepared to impose their will, and when they can't they argue for diversity?). It makes the essential catholicity of the church more relevant than ever. See also The Constitution and the Basis of Union , especially the sections The Substance of the Faith and Membership in the Catholic Church and Confession of the Faith . For some later developments see Multiculturalism in Church and Society: Progressivism, Tolerance and Unity , Learning from unworthy teachers, Taking a stand in the midst of Tragedy, and the recent Basic guidelines for unity in diversity. DB 18 February 2001]

The Uniting Church lives and works within the faith and unity of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic church. [Basis of Union para. 2.]

We have entered a time of crisis. We in the Uniting Church struggle to maintain unity in diversity as do other mainstream churches, but our future is more seriously threatened because we lack agreement on basic principles. It might be thought that we have those principles in the Basis of Union, but it is the Basis itself that is now in question.

There are destructive tensions from which we will not be able to escape until we recognize the catholicity of the Uniting Church to which the three uniting Churches agreed when they adopted the Basis of Union. Any attempt to overcome disloyalty and division will fail if we do not know what we mean in the Uniting Church when we say in the Apostles Creed `I believe in ... the Holy Catholic Church'.

The great diversity of the Uniting Church is obvious. It is often remarked upon by Moderators and others who travel widely. We have many cultural differences and varied forms of worship; theological emphases vary greatly; and there are different views of mission, social justice and personal responsibility. How can this rich diversity be maintained in unity?

Work of the Spirit

The Uniting Church is not just another denomination, indeed it was not intended to be a denomination at all, but a step on the way to recovery of unity in the whole universal church. Its early lack of distinctiveness has been troubling to people like most of us who are used to thinking in terms of brand names, and who just like the people who built the tower of Babel strive to `make a name for ourselves; [saying] otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.' [Gen. 11:4].

It is the work of the Holy Spirit that makes the difference: in the Apostles Creed at the point quoted above `the Holy Spirit' appears between `I believe in' and `the Holy Catholic Church', just as it is the gift of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost which reverses the Tower of Babel divisions of humanity. After that `they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and the prayers' [Acts 2:42]. Those are marks of catholicity and remain so with us today. In the Basis of Union we are committed to recognize and maintain the catholic way of life and work in faith and unity that we have in the apostolic teaching, fellowship, sacraments and prayer; these are works of the Spirit to which Scripture bears witness, and there is no true or lasting unity without them.

Unity in Christ

It is tempting to think that unity can be preserved simply by tolerating differences, but truth and love set limits beyond which lies and breaches of fellowship cannot be allowed. Others have advocated uniformity in order to maintain unity, so non-conformists were driven out. Neither emphasis can succeed. In the last precious moments before he was parted from his disciples to die, Jesus did not pray that they would be able to tolerate their differences while each sought his own vision of the truth and personal fulfilment. Nor did he pray that they would agree in everything. He prayed for them and `those who will believe in me through their word, that they all may be one'. But how? `As you Father, are in me and I am in you may they also be in us, that the world may believe that you have sent me.' [John 17:21].

It is through our dwelling in Christ as the branches draw on the life of the vine [John 15:4,5], and his dwelling in us, that unity is given and made fruitful: `The glory that you have given to me I have given to them, so that they may be one as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world my know that you have sent me and have loved them as you have loved me.' [John 17:22,23].

It is this relationship with Jesus Christ the risen Lord that is the foundation of our life and work, without which there can be no catholic unity. In the words of the Basis of Union (para. 3): `The Uniting Church acknowledges that the faith and unity of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church are built on the one Lord Jesus Christ. The Church preaches Christ the risen crucified One and confesses him as Lord to the glory of God the Father.'

Confession of faith

So we have the basic confession of faith that is shared by all Christians: Jesus is Lord. This outward confession is joined with an inner conviction about our continuing life with him: `if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved' [Rom. 10:9]. That which we share in common with all Christians is sufficient for salvation. Yet this is the very point at which we must begin to deal with controversy, which sadly now threatens our life together and our hopes of greater unity.

The confession that `Jesus is Lord' can be elaborated into a trinitarian creed: belief in the Lordship of Jesus, the Christ, and his saving work, implies belief in God the Father who dwells in him and whose work he does, and as no one can say `Jesus is Lord' except by the inspiration of the Spirit [1 Cor. 12:3], it implies belief in the Holy Spirit and his presence in the church; but there are limits to the implications that can be required to be believed. The kind of inward conviction that is required to hold the faith by which we are saved ought never to be required for any other belief.

Liberty of conscience

What the church teaches rightly includes, as well as the faith confessed, such other important matters as how social justice may be achieved, what constitutes personal morality, and how the ministry and membership of the church may be defined. These other important matters need to be accepted as part of our life together, but they are not required to be believed in the same way. They are not required by way of confession of faith for admission to membership through baptism (and confirmation) or included in declarations of the faith made at the Lord's Supper. We recognize other Christians by their belonging to Christ, not through their agreement with us on all matters that we believe are important. That was established at the very beginning of the church in apostolic times and is clearly attested in the New Testament. It is false teaching to require belief, by way of personal conviction, on those other matters which are not `of the substance of the faith' however seriously wrong different opinions may be.

So the Basis of Union provides, in regard to acceptance of the Basis itself by ministers and other leaders, that he phrase `adhere to the Basis of Union' is understood as willingness to live and work within the faith and unity of One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church as that way is described in this Basis. Such adherence allows for difference of opinion in matters which do not enter into the substance of the faith.

This principle of liberty of conscience, like recognition of men and women in ministry without discrimination, conciliar government, and other important principles, must be accepted and followed as part of our church order by all who adhere to the Basis whatever they may think of it - but we do not have to believe it in the same way that we believe Jesus is Lord.

Dangers of false doctrine

Now we must confront some serious violations of the Basis of Union that could lead to division. A recent pastoral letter from the President and General Secretary of the Assembly gave false teaching to the Church when it said that the Standing Committee believes it is reasonable to require the same kind of inner conviction about the ordination of women as about the existence of God or the Holy Trinity. This teaching directly violates three principles of the Basis of Union: the primacy of belief in God, our commitment to the universal church, and liberty of conscience. To attempt to impose such a doctrine would be divisive. If it succeeds it would impose great strains on the Church as a bitter struggle ensues to root out the heresy.

Hopefully it will not come to that, but it could if the Assembly Standing Committee acts in September as proposed. It would compromise the Uniting Church in discussions of unity with any other Churches; and it would expose candidates for specified and commissioned ministries (including elders, lay preachers and ordained ministers at the time of a new settlement) to harassment and investigation of their consciences in a most intrusive and damaging way.

The tragedy is that it is all unnecessary. There is no threat to women in ministry. I do not know anyone in Presbytery, Synod or Assembly who would support a change of position on the ordination of women, indeed we would not tolerate any discrimination, nor could it be allowed under the Basis of Union.

Seeing this disaster develop has been like watching children playing on a railway line: you see the train coming but you are too far away to rescue them; you call out but they cannot or will not hear you.

Ideologies and factions

Underlying much of the false teaching and nonsense in the church today is a sense of alienation that comes from decay of liberalism as the guiding philosophy of Western civilization. It is apparent almost everywhere in twentieth century art and literature and in political ideologies of both the right and the left. It may be expressed in commitment to nationalism, environmentalism, feminism, socialism or capitalism, or the left wing synthesis known in America as `political correctness' - a `liberal' form of fundamentalism, no less potent and repressively authoritarian than the older right wing forms. Any just cause which becomes absolute can be oppressive.

The church is useful in philosophies of alienation only insofar as it can be made to function as a tool for the achievement of goals derived from ideologies. Principles of secular ideology tend to be identified with or incorporated into Christian doctrine. That is one of the main sources of heresy today. All of these things represent intrusions into the church. If we do not recognize objective doctrinal standards we are highly vulnerable to manipulation and even risk take-over by secular movements, or `the world', the dominant culture. At such times it is necessary to stand up and say: LET THE CHURCH BE THE CHURCH.

Apostolic teaching, authority and sacraments

It is critical to the life of the Church that the authority of the apostolic teaching is guarded by a ministry that is under discipline and which has oversight of preaching and the sacraments.

The role of the ordained ministry in the life of the church is undergoing big changes, and rightly so, but the greater emphasis given officially to new ministries and all members being regarded as ministers of Christ has been misunderstood. Lay ministry should not threaten but liberate ordained ministries for their essential work. Much better teaching on the meaning of ordination is required.

Introduction of the new ministry of deacon has been done in a way which contradicts what the Basis of Union says about the ordination of ministers of the Word (who might now be better known as `presbyters'). The [conditional] decision to ordain `community ministers' has raised serious questions about training and discipline. [In fact this tentative decision of the 1991 Assembly was changed at the 1994 Assembly after consultation with presbyteries to make 'Community ministry' a specified lay ministry.] Proposed changes to the practice of Baptism threaten the unity of the church through lack of discipline.

Failure to refer basic changes to the church at large for approval as the Basis of Union requires is another violation. Norman Young, one of the architects of the Basis of Union and the Constitution wrote that never in his `wildest dreams (or nightmares)' would he have expected the Assembly to make such important changes without the approval of other councils of the Church. After the last Assembly a number of our more theologically informed ministers were greatly worried and have maintained critical loyalty to the Uniting Church only with great difficulty. They hope for some correction of the errors that have been made. [That was in regard, particularly to ordination; and some of the errors were corrected in 1994.]

Much of our difficulty in regard to ministry is due to confusion about the nature of ordination. It is not a professional qualification, nor does it imply endorsement of the candidate's opinions, personality or way of life. The critical point here has to do with authoritative witness to Christ and his gospel. Submission to the discipline of the Church is essential to ordination as the proper basis of authority for the ministry to which a person is set apart. We do not license people to teach and practice what seems good to them but what the Church teaches and practices. That is the organizational basis of our hope of unity in Christ.

New contributions to catholicity

Moving towards unity and true teaching in the church universal is not a matter of turning the clock back. Nor does it imply authoritarian forms of leadership, though it does imply leadership with authority. Completeness of the church requires us to discover what God is giving us now, fresh and new, as he leads us on our pilgrimage. That is part of the genius of the Basis of Union.

A professor of history at Berkeley asked me how it was possible for such different traditions as we have to come together without our taking the lowest common denominator in their doctrines and thus watering down our faith. I tried to explain how the Basis of Union allowed us to move forward with diverse riches in which previously conflicting elements produce creative solutions consistent with ancient traditions, in fact to become more catholic by going forwards rather than backwards. We should expect to learn and grow as we journey together.

The inclusiveness of Galatians 3:28, for example, is still being unwrapped: `neither Jew nor Greek' was understood fairly well in the early church, but we are still learning about racial and cultural differences; `neither slave nor free' was only partially understood for many centuries; and we are now learning more than ever before what `neither male nor female' can mean for completeness in the life of the church and society. The ordination of women is part of our church order and one of the contributions we hope to make with others to complete the universal church. Renewal of the diaconate and new forms of personal oversight within conciliar government should also make significant contributions to ministry in the church universal.

Ecumenism and catholicity

Ecumenical commitments are important to us but little further progress can be expected without the deeper qualities of catholicity. As Karl Barth wrote when the WCC had just begun:

Because `ecumenical' only brings out one dimension of the term `catholic' we may deplore the fact that it has been chosen to describe the modern attempts at reunion and unity. Some part of the responsibility must be attributed to the meaningless but passionate opposing of the terms `Catholic' and `Protestant.' But there are signs that as progress is made in these attempts the wider term `catholic' will fill out or burst through the narrower term `ecumenical.'

Catholicity does include a commitment to ecumenical action for mission but especially at points where serious questions of faith and order must be addressed. I was reminded of this a few months ago when I stood between the Anglican and Roman Catholic bishops at the induction of Judy Redman, a Uniting Church minister, as Ecumenical Chaplain of Monash University College, Gippsland. Her ministry is going well, but we do not know where it will lead as we struggle with such questions as the possibility of combined sacramental worship. It is fully in accord with the missionary, serving and ecumenical emphases of the Basis of Union.

To defend the Basis and the catholicity of the Uniting Church is far from making a conservative defence against `progress'. It is not an argument against change, but about the direction of change. To uphold the Basis is to challenge false teaching that would take us in the wrong direction. It is a reminder of the way of faith and unity.

[Published in `Crosslight Extra', September 1992]

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