The Constitution and the Basis of Union
David Beswick, September 1993
 
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Contents

Background note [1997]
Introduction [1993]: Presbytery Resolutions seeking Assembly action
Assembly Standing Committee referral to the Advisory Group
The State Acts
The Intention at the time of Union
Corporate v. Theological Understanding of the Church as an Institution
The Implications for Councils of the Church of Adherence to the Basis
The Substance of the Faith
Membership in the Catholic Church and Confession of the Faith
Dependence of the Interim Constitution on the Basis
The Interim nature of the Interim Constitution
The Context of Progress and Development
Possible steps for the Assembly to take

Background note: In 1997 the Eighth Assembly of the Uniting Church in Australia resolved to amend the Constitution of the Church by adding a new paragraph 2 incorporating reference to the Basis of Union and membership in catholic church. This amendment was confirmed by the Synods and Presbyteries. It declares that:
This was the outcome a process of review after some strongly negative reaction to an apparent disregard for the founding commitments of the Church at the Sixth Assembly in 1991, particularly in actions the Assembly took on the report, Ministry in the Uniting Church. Essentially the issue was whether on constitutional questions the National Assembly was bound by the Basis of Union, the terms on which the Congregational, Methodist and Presbyterian Churches agreed to unite in 1977. The difficulties arose mainly from Assembly decisions affecting ordination.
The following paper was submitted by the Presbytery of Gippsland to an advisory group of the Assembly which had been requested by the Assembly Standing Committee to prepare recommendations on the role of the Basis of Union in the Church. The Gippsland paper which I wrote when I was Presbytery Minister of that region was submitted in support of Presbytery resolutions set out in the first section which expressed concern about actions of the Assembly that appeared to be inconsistent with the Basis, and a ruling by the President that the Assembly was not bound to act in accordance with the Basis.
The Synod of Victoria and other councils of the church had also sought clarification of the role of the Basis after the Sixth Assembly and the matter was referred by the Assembly Standing Committee to the group which normally advises on questions of church polity. The terms of referral to the Advisory Group are reproduced in the second section.
Significant developments have taken place since, including reversal by the Seventh Assembly in 1994 of the decisions on ordination which gave rise to the most concern, and my own view on the best way to solve the problem has changed somewhat [see the Victorian Synod response to the report of the Advisory Group]; but the important theological and constitutional issues which were then under discussion remain relevant to the present life of the Church.
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At the time it was written the paper was introduced as follows:
This paper is a submission to the Assembly Advisory Group on Church Polity prepared by David Beswick, and forwarded with the approval of the Standing Committee of the Presbytery of Gippsland, in support of the resolutions of the Presbytery on 7 August 1993 as follows: 

Introduction: Presbytery Resolutions seeking Assembly action
 
1. Presbytery brings to the attention of the Assembly Advisory Committee on Church Polity its concern that actions of the Assembly, and confirmation of Presidential Ruling number 13 in particular, may constitute a departure from the Basis of Union without the concurrence of other councils of the Church or the Congregations.
 
2. That the Assembly Advisory Committee on Church Polity be requested in all its work to observe the principles of faith and order to which the Church is committed in the Basis of Union and to make recommendations to the Assembly which will ensure that:-  

3. That the attention of the Assembly Advisory Committee on Church Polity be drawn to the recommendation of this Presbytery in May 1992 that:   4. That the Standing Committee of the Presbytery be requested to forward any papers it considers appropriate in support of the above recommendations to the Assembly Advisory Committee on Church Polity and to advise the Assembly of the actions and concerns of the Presbytery in this matter.  

Other resolutions of the Presbytery of Gippsland in May 1992 when commenting on the proposed amendments to the Constitution concerning ministry should also be noted:  

1. That Presbytery conveys to the Assembly Standing Committee its disquiet regarding the process taken at the Sixth Assembly in reaching its decisions in this vital area of the life of the church.  

2. That the Presbytery conveys to the Assembly Standing Committee its concerns about the unfair way in which issues concerning ordination and ministry have been presented to it: the interlinking of the two issues of the renewal of the diaconate and one ordination prevents each significant issue being addressed separately.  

It was also resolved that

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Assembly Standing Committee referral to the Advisory Group  

The Standing Committee of the Assembly by Resolution 93.23.3 requested the Advisory Group on Church Polity to prepare a statement on the status, authority and role of the Basis of Union in the Church, and to submit the statement to Standing Committee by the March 1994 meeting. It is envisaged that, in the process of preparing the statement, the following matters will be considered:  

(a) the legal position vis-a-vis the Constitution and Regulations;  

(b) the role of the Basis in determining the doctrinal standards of the church;  

(c) the role of the Basis in determining the polity of the church;  

(d) the role of the Basis in determining the standards of discipline of church members, ministers and councils;  

(c) the meaning within the Basis of the church being a "pilgrim people", with particular reference to paragraphs 3, 11, 17 and 18;  

(f) the meaning of the concept "adherence to the Basis of Union" in the Basis of Union and in the liturgies of the church and the appropriateness of the continuing use of the concept in the liturgies;  

(g) the extent to which the church has moved from or developed the understandings expressed in the Basis of Union;  

(h) any safeguards of the status, authority or role of the Basis of Union which the church should adopt including possible amendment of clause 39 of the Constitution; 

The Standing Committee of the Assembly also resolved 93.23.4 to forward to the Advisory Committee on Church Polity copies of the correspondence from the Synod of Victoria and the Presbytery of Gippsland relating to the Basis of Union.  

The resolution of the Synod of Victoria, 1991, which was referred was as follows:  

Correspondence referred to from the Presbytery of Gippsland in February 1993 requested the Assembly Standing Committee to take up a resolution of the Presbytery from May 1992 which is quoted above in the Presbytery resolution of August 1993.  

It might be assumed that the referral also arose from the consideration by the Standing Committee of Presidential Ruling No. 13 in which the President commented on a reference in Dr. Watson's submission for a ruling in which he referred to some uncertainty in the Church about the authority of the Basis of Union. The President commented as follows:  

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The State Acts  

Similar acts were enacted by all State Parliaments in Australia under the title "The Uniting Church in Australia Act", giving the Assembly authority to amend the constitution adopted by the first Assembly in accordance with the provisions of that interim constitution. These acts include the following clauses [which varied somewhat from state to state]:  

The President observed in his Ruling No. 13 that - Dr. Gordon Watson has obtained legal advice from a QC that no basis appears for requiring that the constitution remain forever within the ambit of the Basis of Union, and noting that I had objected in my submission to the Assembly Standing Committee on Presidential Ruling No. 13 that the President had relied on the State legislation, the QC commented:   There is much that can be argued about this, especially in respect to what was known at the time of union, but I think we need to accept that the Act does provide that the Assembly may do what the Constitution says it can. Even if this is a literal and technically correct interpretation, I would claim, that it avoids the intention with which the Constitution was drafted and the intention with which it was adopted by the Uniting Assembly. I would submit that, if the law does not do what the Church intended and still intends should be the case, then the law should be changed. Otherwise it amounts to a kind of legal trickery, achieving unintended results.  

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The Intention at the time of Union  

When members of the Congregational, Methodist and Presbyterian Churches voted on the proposal to unite, they had the clear understanding that the church they agreed to enter would be the church described in the Basis of Union. For example, in the Methodist Church, the General Conference Standing Committee received the Basis of Union in 1971 (revised edition) and, as authorised by the General Conference of 1969, commended it to all Methodist Church members for careful study and remitted it "as the basis on which the vote on union is to be taken". This formal action of referral to the membership of the Church to vote on that basis was supported by educational material elucidating the Basis of Union. Discussions took place which left no doubt that the question before the people was whether to agree to a church which would have the doctrines and forms of government which are described in the Basis. There was no suggestion at any time that we were engaged simply in a corporate merger with the governing body of the corporation having the power to decide without limitation the future purposes for which the corporation might function. Yet it is that corporate view, which is a secular view of the nature of a corporation, which is now being advocated in violation of the solemn undertakings given at the time of Union.  

That there was an intention that the Basis of Union should have a continuing effect is clear from the recollection of those who took part in the negotiations, and particularly from the leaders, e.g. the Rev. Dr. Norman Young, who was Convener of the Methodist General Conference Church Union Committee, has no doubt about the intention to enter a union in which what was agreed in the Basis would continue to be applied. He said, "It is a charter under which we agreed to go on in mission together". Or, as the Rev. Dr. Davis McCaughey, who was Presbyterian convener, has pointed out, the very wording of the Basis makes that clear, e.g in paragraph 10 the Basis declares "The Uniting Church continues to learn from the teaching of the Holy Scriptures" (note "continues"). Or the Rev. Dr. Ian Gillman, who also served on the Joint Commission, said, "It is the hope of the Joint Commission that the Basis will have continuing formative role in the life of the Uniting Church rather than merely a reference source as so many definition-type statements of the past." [For further evidence of the intention, and undertakings given that the Constitution would remain in accordance with the Basis, see later articles by McCaughey and Young in Champion, M (Ed.) Forward Together: On What Basis? Published by The Forum on Faith and Society, 1994.]  

There is ample evidence from the Basis of Union itself of what that intention was. In addition to its general character as a charter, it is evident in language which is cast in the future tense at many points where forward commitments are made, commitments which would make no sense if the Basis were to be evidence only of an understanding which ceased to have any effect when the union was accomplished. For example:-  

The continuing commitment to act as agreed is evident in the forward-looking character of the act of reconciliation and commitment to evangelism contained in paragraph 1, in which the three churches

In paragraph 2, specific forward commitments continue:  

Paragraph 5, similarly:   Paragraph 7   It might be noted that, when the Church made a further definition of its doctrine concerning baptism, it took care to build upon and not to contradict this statement of the continuing position of the Church.  

Paragraph 8  

Paragraph 9 - In reference to the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds   Paragraph 10 - In reference to the witness of the Reformation Fathers and the preaching of John Wesley   Paragraph 11 - In reference to the scholarly interpreters of scripture, the Church   Paragraph 12 - In reference to the recognition of members   It might be noted in this connection that the practice of admitting children who are not confirmed to the Holy Communion has been developed and explicated since union at a time when similar developments have taken place in other churches, and especially in the Anglican Church. That illustrates the kind of development that is consistent with the Basis of Union but which leads us into new experience that the Basis itself envisaged.  

Paragraph 13 - In reference to gifts and ministries, after declaring the acceptance and recognition of ministries

This is followed in paragraph 14 with further specific commitments with continuing effect in regard to ministry   Then follows a commitment to recognise Ministers of the Word and to define that ministry as noted elsewhere in this paper and with a further commitment concerning the nature of their being set apart   Again it can be seen that the Basis of Union envisaged further development of the kind that is currently taking place in the debates concerning the significance of ordination and the general ministry of the members of the Church. These developments can easily be seen to have been anticipated even if their eventual outcome was not known. The Basis is not left behind but further developed in the experience of the Church. Similarly, in regard to other ministries, paragraph 14(b) includes   In paragraph 14(c) we have the recognition of deaconesses and a forward-looking commitment to seek further development of the ministry which they have given in the past.   Paragraph 14(d) - In reference to the recognition of lay preachers: -   At the end of paragraph 14 there is an acknowledgement that the Uniting Church comes into being at a time of "reconsideration of traditional forms of ministry" although there is no specific commitment to action in that regard other than what is said above about the diaconate, but there is a specific acknowledgement that "the type and duration of ministries to which men and women are called vary from time to time and place to place".  

Paragraph 15 concerning the government of the Church is cast largely in the present tense in terms of what the Church recognises and acknowledges and makes provision for in her constitution. There are certain specific commitments cast in the future tense, e.g.  

It is important to note today that there is doubt about whether this particular commitment to recognise the limits of its authority has been honoured in the Assembly itself.
 
Paragraph 15(a) includes the following, after the definition of congregation: -  

Paragraph 15(c) - In regard to the presbytery: -  

Paragraph 15(e) - After defining the general powers of the Assembly, it imposes a specific obligation: -  

The first Assembly was in this section to be "vested with such powers as may be necessary to establish the Uniting Church according to the provisions of the Basis of Union"; and this implies continuing affect of the Basis for many of its provisions were not included in the interim constitution.  

Paragraph 17  

The final paragraph, 18, includes a prayerful hope for "the people of God on the way", that God will correct errors and bring the Church into deeper unity with other churches, and will use her worship, witness and service to His eternal glory. So it can be said that the Basis of Union includes many forward commitments which entailed that it was understood to have continuing effects and not to cease in its operation as soon as an interim constitution was adopted by the Uniting Church. At the same time those forward commitments are in many respects open ended. They envisage certain directions of development and confess some lack of knowledge about the ways in which the Church may be led in the future. This is clear evidence of the intention of the Churches at the time of union for the Basis of Union to have continuing effect and authority in the life of the Church without hindering its development.  

It is not only in the quotations above which are in the future tense that a continuing application of the Basis can be seen to be expected. Only a small number of statements in the Basis refer to what is explicitly intended to take place at the actual time of union. The greater part of what is said by way of what the Uniting Church acknowledges, confesses or accepts can only be read in the present tense in a way which is intended to be read with application at the present time in the future of the Church. Note that, although the Basis of Union was adopted by the Churches before union, it says what the Uniting Church is, i.e. the present tense is used with the intention of a future application. These is no foundation at any point for the view that the Basis was ever intended to be merely an historical document, the purpose of which would be fulfilled when the union was accomplished. It is a completely different kind of document with clear, continuing application in the future.  

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Corporate v. Theological Understanding of the Church as an Institution  

If a strictly corporate legal view is taken, then the purposes of any corporate body can be changed. One can buy a shelf company and use it for some completely different purpose from that for which it was originally established. Under the law there is nothing to prevent any clause in the Constitution being changed, if this view is taken, in such a way as to change the whole purpose and operation of the body corporate. So, for example, the clause on the Purpose of the Church in the Constitution could be changed. Currently Clause 3 of the Constitution says:  

So the President comments that, "The Church would not wish to make any doctrinal determination which amounted to a denial of the Gospel of Christ", but, if the legal view he has taken is correct, those clauses in the Statement of Purpose in the Constitution could all be changed and the Church could become the institution of a different religion or of some secular organisation. Changes of that kind have taken place historically, e.g. some Congregational and other independent Christian Churches in England, and especially in New England (U.S.A.), became Unitarian Churches in the early nineteenth century by legal processes which changed statements of belief and carried with it legal effect which applied to the property held by the Churches. On the face of what has been said so far about the legal situation, there is nothing to prevent the Uniting Church being taken over in the same way, and I submit that is clearly contrary to the conditions under which the three Churches originally agreed to unite and clearly contrary to the understanding that the people had when they voted for the union. In that sense the law is wrong and/or it is has been wrongly interpreted.  

The sense in which the law then appears to be wrong is that it did not implement the intention of the Churches in uniting. That intention is clear in the Basis itself and in the recollection of those who took part in negotiating the Union, and indeed in the memory of the majority of Church members who voted for the Union and are still with us. For most of them, it is not correct to say, as the legal opinion quoted above makes out, that the Basis of Union was adhered to knowing that the Constitution could be amended without regard to what had been agreed upon in the Basis. I believe that, had such a position been made out at the time, neither the general membership nor the governing bodies of the Churches would have agreed to the union. In fact I would submit for the consideration of the Advisory Group that most members of the Uniting Assembly and of other responsible bodies were not aware of the wording of the Uniting Church in Australia Acts and of the implications which severed the relationship between the Constitution and the Basis of Union.  

What can be said in favour of provision for change and development is that the Basis itself, the educational materials and the tenor of discussion which took place preceding union clearly anticipated that there would be further developments in the understanding of the faith and ordering of the Church. It was never intended that the Basis itself would have the status of law in the sense that it would be binding until amended or that there would be provisions for amendment to it. In that sense it is an historical document, but the trouble with technical legal arguments about lack of continuing effect is that it becomes an all or nothing possibility: either the Basis is binding or it is not, they say. The law may say it is not but the people of faith believe that it is, but not without the prospect of incorporating future developments in the life of the Church. What has been revealed is that the Constitution is deficient in not specifying any limitation on the kind of changes which can be made while the corporate body remains what it was intended to be, a particular embodiment of the church catholic, building upon the reformed and evangelical traditions.  

The Assembly has acted on a number of occasions in a way which demonstrates that it continues to regard the Basis of Union as having authority, especially in regard to the doctrines of the Church. Most recently, the Sixth Assembly authorised preparation of an inclusive language version of the Basis of Union. The arguments put forward in the debate, and the purposes to which it has been put, indicate that this version was prepared precisely because the Assembly recognised the continuing relevance of the Basis to changed circumstances. The Assembly has continued to require adherence to the Basis in the ordination vows and elsewhere. This has been maintained in the special tests which the Assembly Standing Committee prescribed for candidates for ordination in 1992. Ministers of the Word continue to see their ministries in terms of the Basis of Union and to adhere to it, and requiring them to do so imposes a reciprocal obligation on the Councils of the Church.

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The Implications for Councils of the Church of Adherence to the Basis  

The Basis of Union itself defines adherence to the Basis as  

Ordained ministers and others engaged in recognised ministries must then be willing to work within a church which acts as the Basis of Union says the Uniting Church will act. Liberty of opinion is allowed on matters that are not of the substance of the faith (we will return to the question of the substance of the faith below), but that does not change in any way the obligation of ministers to be willing to work within such a church. Whether they agree with all of its provisions or not, they must accept that the Church will act in such a way. There is then at least a moral if not a legal obligation on the Church to maintain that way of life which it requires its ministers to accept. This must impose a duty on all Councils of the Church to act in accordance with the Basis of Union.  

A special obligation applies in regard to ministers accepted into the Uniting Church from the three Uniting Churches. The Basis of Union, paragraph 14(a), specifies  

Even if it is argued that the Church may cease to require adherence (which is doubtful), the obligation to ministers who entered from the uniting Churches would remain.

Whether or not the term "Minister of the Word" was used officially in the Churches before union, the understanding of who is to be recognised is seen in the description of Minister of the Word which follows later in the same paragraph   This commitment in the Basis of Union is one that is directly taken up in the Interim Constitution (paragraph 12(a) of the 1993 version):  

Ministers of the Word

It is interesting to note that the Uniting Churches before union and the Assembly after union may each prescribe the manner of adherence. This is another indication of the intended continuity of the process of adherence and of the standing of the Basis of Union in the Church.  

Ministers who entered the Uniting Church from the three churches which united did so on certain conditions. Those conditions included their willingness to confess the faith in a particular way and to accept certain principles of church order. The Uniting Church has no right to reject them or to impose other conditions on their continuing acceptability at a later date. The Basis of Union in this sense also has continuing relevance and authority limiting what the Assembly may do in regard to the discipline of ministers who have been received into the Uniting Church from the uniting Churches.  

Another implication of the acceptance of ministers from the Uniting Churches who adhere to the Basis is that the ministry into which they are accepted is the ministry defined in the Basis of Union as the Ministry of the Word. They cannot subsequently be placed in a different category or recognised as ministers of a different kind, at least not in such a way as to deny their recognition as Ministers of the Word in the manner specified. There is a problem with the current definition of Minister of the Word following the Sixth Assembly as it appears in the 1993 version of the Constitution where that ministry is not recognised, i.e. the definition of Minister of the Word in the Constitution following recent amendments is not consistent with the current paragraph 12(a) or with the Basis of Union. The Assembly Standing Committee has initiated a review of this definition. The continuing relevance of the Basis of Union would indicate that, at least in regard to ministers received into union from the Uniting Churches, the definition of Minister of the Word contained in the Basis must be maintained. The implication for Councils of the Church of ministers adhering to the Basis of Union is that, at the very least, Ministers of the Word must continue to be recognised as Ministers of the Word, and that continuity implies a continuity of understanding of the nature of that ministry.  

The notion of adherence to the Basis of Union which has now been applied more generally in the Church was originally developed in the negotiations for union for a more limited purpose, specifically in relation to ordination vows. It was because of the apostolic character of the ministry to which people were being set apart that it was necessary for them to confess the apostolic faith and to be subject to a discipline which is a current expression in the Church of the discipline of Christ. How this came about is seen in the 1962 Report of the Joint Commission on Church Union entitled The Church, its Nature, Function and Ordering. That report, page 84, gave the following version of what now appears in the Basis in a shorter form.  

Obviously, the Church united on a somewhat different basis and we are not bound by these words, but they are instructive nevertheless. The proposal to introduce bishops was not approved and provision was made for the ministry of deacon to be developed differently from what was then proposed. Those have been matters of debate but the vows ordinands should make were not a point of controversy when the union was being formed, and this early formulation is helpful in several ways. Most significantly, it does not leave undefined the question of what is meant by the substance of the faith. General Articles 1 and 2 cover much the same contents as paragraphs 3-9 of the present Basis. Membership, Ministry and the Councils of the Church were covered in General Articles 3, 4 and 5 respectively, and were intended to be excluded from what was to be affirmed as the fundamental doctrines of the Church. It was clearly intended that questions of Church order could be matters on which opinions could differ, but that people would be required to accept the way the Church was ordered, and to see it as theologically justifiable. The implication for Councils of the Church, and for the Assembly in particular, is that the fundamental doctrines of the Church defined in paragraphs 3-9 of the Basis at least are intended to be maintained. Requiring adherence to the Basis carries with it an implication which prevents the Assembly from abandoning those doctrines. That should be recognised in the Constitution and legally enforceable.  

The implications in regard to Church order are a little different and can be illustrated with reference to our understanding of ordination. For example, if a question concerning the validity of an ordination is raised, reference to the Basis of Union rather than to the Constitution and Regulations will make it clear that acceptance of the validity of an ordination, or the ordination of any person or class of persons, requires a theological understanding of what the Church does when it ordains. It is not a mere legal or institutional act which gains its validity from the propriety of the Church's actions. People are set apart and commissioned for a particular ministry by prayer with the laying on of hands when the Church acts as the body of Christ with the authority that Christ gives. When people who are properly authorised act in the prescribed way in good conscience with the intention of doing what the Church does, the ordination is valid, and it is valid not merely because as a human institution the Church acted properly within its legal Constitution, but because it acts as an instrument of God's will. Candidates, or any other persons who under the guidance of the Church accept such ordinations as valid, are doing more than accepting the mere propriety of the Church's actions. They are at the same time affirming the theological foundations of the ordination and a belief that God acts in what the Church does.  

In other words, when the Church deals with questions of Church order, it is dealing with theological questions and they are questions that cannot be answered by reference only to legal documents such as the Constitution unless such documents point beyond themselves to another source such as the Basis of Union. Councils of the Church, if they are to act as the Church, are bound to recognise this and not to rely upon legal formulations alone. This brings us back to another important element in the definition of adherence that is contained in the Basis of Union, namely the commitment to the one holy catholic and apostolic church. That commitment has implications beyond what follows from adherence to the Basis and will be considered further below. First, we should note that there are other general considerations than adherence to the Basis in the notion of the substance of the faith which adherence requires us to understand.  

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The Substance of the Faith  

Adherence allows for differences of opinion in matters which do not enter into the substance of the faith. As noticed above, there are good reasons to believe that what was intended to be understood as the substance of the faith is contained in certain paragraphs in the Basis of Union concerning the fundamental doctrines of the Church, but there are other questions which in the history of the Church have commonly been asked to help decide whether a confession of faith is orthodox or whether a proposed test of belief is necessary. Such questions are:  

1. Is it necessary for salvation? We know, for example, that a simple confession that Jesus is Lord and a belief in the heart that God raised him from the dead is sufficient for salvation (Romans 10:9).  

2. Was it part of the original apostolic proclamation? Is it recognised as Kerugma and, in particular, with reference to the summaries of the teachings of the apostles in Acts and the Epistles where the apostolic tradition is summarised at certain points. Of course, this leads to consideration of the gospels as a more general summary of the apostolic teaching, but it does not necessarily include amongst the things necessary to be believed all of what was taught in the Churches. Only a limited confession of faith was required for people to be baptised and received into membership of the Church.  

3. Is it found in confessions of faith made at baptism or used in tests of membership in the church catholic? Here we would refer both to scriptural sources and to the history of the Church, and indeed to our own liturgy in which the confession of faith is summarised in the Apostles' Creed.  

4. Can it be found in any of the confessional statements in our traditions? Certain confessional statements are acknowledged as sources of teaching worthy to be studied by ministers of the Uniting Church. Ministers who entered the Uniting Church from the three Churches will have made commitments to some of these sources of doctrinal authority.  

5. Is it widely received as doctrine in the Church today? There is a legitimate sense in which the substance of the faith is what Christians as a universal fellowship believe in common.  

When questions such as these are asked, it is clear that the answers are concerned with our belief in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour and that some elaboration of this basic belief into a trinitarian formula is possible and may be regarded as necessary, but that the elaboration does not extend to other aspects of the Church's teaching such as Church order, social justice and personal morality. The substance of the faith then includes belief in the lordship of Jesus as the Christ and in 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 Corinthians 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 be required for any other belief. Other matters may be required to be accepted as a matter of discipline but cannot be subject to tests of belief.  

This is part of what the Reformation was about and it was a critical element in the struggles which followed the English Civil War when with reference to the difference between consent and assent in those and later struggles, which are closely related to the origins of our traditions in the Uniting Church, it was argued that it was possible for a person to consent to live in the Church of England as prescribed without giving unfeigned assent to everything in the Prayer Book. Most of those who had served in the Church in its Presbyterian form prior to 1662 would have been happy to have the Prayer Book and an episcopal church under those conditions but could not give unfeigned assent to it. A good example is Baxter's statement, "Had I my choice I would receive the Lord's Supper sitting, but where I have not I will use the gesture which the Church uses". The result of the insistence on unfeigned assent was that 2,000 ministers were driven out of the Church. Non-conformity became a fact of life in England and an important element in the future of the evangelical revival in the form of the Methodist Church. If we have not the sense to learn from this history, then we surely run the danger of repeating the errors of the past. We should conclude that it is incumbent upon the Councils of the Church to guard the unity of the Church by maintaining commitment to the substance of the faith in a relatively simple form and by avoiding all temptations to make matters of discipline questions of belief.  

When the Joint Commission on Church Union presented its first report in 1959 under the title "The Faith of the Church", it introduced its discussion of historic statements of the faith we have received in this way (page 11):  

These purposes are similar to the criteria noted above for deciding upon what may be included in statements of the substance of the faith. We make such statements of the orthodox beliefs of the Church for purposes of instruction, correction, and maintaining the unity of the Church.  

It is therefore essential that adherence to the Basis or some similar confession remains a requirement of ministers who carry the responsibility of teaching what the church teaches.  

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Membership in the Catholic Church and Confession of the Faith  

Whatever the Constitution may say, or fail to say, and whatever implications may be drawn about the substance of the faith and Church discipline from the requirement to adhere to the Basis of Union, it is an important consideration to note that the ministry and membership of the Church do affirm belief in the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. This is clearly evident in the liturgy both in what has been prescribed and recommended by the Assembly and in the common practice of our congregations. A constitution which failed to recognise this reality would be incomplete. Any change to the Constitution which attempted to alter this fact of life in the Church would be a change of vital interest to the life of the Church. But what do people understand by their membership in the church catholic? Ministers who adhere to the Basis of Union would be inclined to respond by reference to the Basis where we find a very strong commitment and some elaboration of the concept. The point, however, is not so much that people would refer to the Basis as to recognise that some such source is necessary to define what we mean by membership in the catholic church and that a commitment has been made to a particular source of authoritative teaching on the nature of the Church.

Paragraph 2 of the Basis of Union declares  

There is here an understanding that unity in faith may be only partially realised short of a unity in which faith and life are shared more widely than the Uniting Church alone can achieve. Nevertheless it was the intention of the Uniting Church, declared in the Basis of Union, to confess its faith in a way which approached as nearly as we could with our limited understanding a confession of faith that ensures that the Uniting Church would live within the one holy catholic and apostolic church. In the next paragraph, the Basis of Union goes on to acknowledge that the faith and unity of the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church are built upon the one Lord Jesus Christ. It then goes on to spell out our understanding of how God reconciled the world to himself in Jesus Christ and follows this with a declaration of the Church as a fellowship of the Holy Spirit, which leads to a recognition of the way Christ feeds her with word and sacraments. The intention is clearly to confess the faith of the catholic church.  

It is critical to an understanding of the Uniting Church to see that the purpose of the union was as much one of reform as it was one of bringing three churches together in one corporate body. There was not at any point an attempt to discover the lowest common denominator of faith and practice. In no way was any weakening or watering down of confessions of the faith considered. The Churches were not engaged in negotiations about how much their beliefs would have to be compromised in order for them to come together. Rather they set themselves a nobler task of rediscovering the catholicity of the church and of bringing its present institutions into conformity with a much longer term and broader vision than one which would be required for mere institutional amalgamation. The Basis of Union bears witness to this intention and stands in stark contrast to the narrow legalistic view which might be derived from the State Acts and the Constitution considered alone where the purpose might be thought merely to have been amalgamation.  

One of the implications of the purpose of the union which strengthens the position of the Basis of Union as an authoritative guide to the faith and order of the Church is the commitment made to seek a wider union. It is the confession of the catholic faith which most importantly forms the cornerstone of any future more comprehensive union. The faith was confessed in such a way as to make that possible. In regard to matters of church order, the commitments made in the Basis of Union were also made with the consciousness of what may be necessary to seek a wider unity. One of the cornerstones of that commitment was the maintenance of the apostolic ministry, especially in the Ministry of the Word. In other words, the commitment of the Uniting Church to membership in the one holy catholic and apostolic church carries with it that understanding of the nature of the Church and its faith which is set out in the Basis of Union. That the faith of the Church was being confessed by the Uniting Churches in a way which envisaged a wider unity is clearly documented in the report The Faith of the Church, 1959, pages 22-23.  

The recovery of catholicity in the confession of the faith was paramount. It was then seen as something shared with others in a renewal of the faith and in a commitment to reform and wider unity. The Basis of Union bears witness to that commitment. The Uniting Church cannot be true to the purpose of the union which constituted it without receiving that witness.  

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Dependence of the Interim Constitution on the Basis  

The preamble to the interim constitution includes several references to the Basis of Union:  

Leaving aside for the moment the implications of this being an interim constitution, and of there being provision for it to be replaced, we should note that the Church was formed on that Basis. The implications that can be drawn from this recognition in the preamble are not at all obvious, but it must mean at least that the Constitution should be interpreted in the light of the purpose of the Churches in uniting as set out in the Basis on which they agreed to unite.  

I believe that the implication that the Constitution was to be interpreted in the light of the Basis was not spelt out at the time because it was understood and expected by all concerned. References to the gospel of Christ in the preamble to the Interim Constitution imply an understanding of the Christian faith that is not spelt out there but anyone reading the preamble would presumably look to the Basis of Union for the Churches' understanding. If it were not obvious, they would be led to do so by the requirements in paragraph 12 of the current version of the Constitution which has provisions, dating from the original Interim Constitution, referring to the way Ministers of the Word, deaconesses and lay pastors would be required to express their adherence to the Basis of Union. These members of the Church, having the responsibility to teach what the Church teaches, are the members particularly required to recognise the authority of the Basis. It is implicit that the doctrines of the Church are the doctrines set out in the Basis of Union.  

We noted above that the purposes of the Church are defined in paragraph 3 of the Constitution where direct reference is made to the worship of God, to proclaim the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, to promote Christian fellowship, and to nurture believers in the Christian faith. Thus, while it might be legally possible, if the current interpretation of the law affecting the Constitution is correct, for the Constitution to be amended to delete this and other references to the Christian faith, it is quite clear that the Uniting Church was intended to be and is now a Christian church. It is as such radically different from other corporate bodies because it is in the nature of a Christian church that it cannot become anything else. It can only be incorporated into a wider unity and eventually to hope to celebrate the kingdom at the end of time. The Constitution points to the Basis which witnesses to this self understanding and without which the Constitution makes no sense to Christian people.  

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The Interim nature of the Interim Constitution  

The fact that the Constitution does not explicitly state that the doctrines of the Church are those agreed upon by the Uniting Churches in the Basis on which they agreed to unite is an error of omission if the Constitution is considered to be a complete document without the Basis being implicitly incorporated with it. It is what might be expected of an interim document which was not intended to be complete or long lasting but which had only a limited purpose in the context of the union being formed. In other words, I am claiming here about the Constitution what some have claimed about the Basis - that it had a limited and temporary purpose. The real long-lasting commitment was made by the members and councils of the three Churches adopting the Basis of Union. The Constitution was very much a secondary and derivative matter. That understanding of the relationship between the Basis of Union and the Interim Constitution is clearly set out in the second report of the Joint Commission on Church Union, and similar statements were made at the time when the revised Basis of Union was remitted to the Churches in 1971. The 1962 report, page 9, includes the following:  

It is important to note that the basic theological decisions to be made in the vote to unite would be determine the Church's faith and order. The spelling out in the Constitution was intended to follow and to implement those decisions. That determination was not intended to be a once-only event but a continuing process. For this reason, the Commission proposed that "an interim constitution" be prepared and, in explanation, they commented   The proposed Basis of Union published with the second report of the Joint Commission in 1962, and which was subsequently amended and published in a shorter form in 1971, contained a section on the Constitution and Interim Constitution, page 88: The Constitution we have now is the Interim Constitution which was adopted at the First Assembly and which has subsequently been amended but not replaced. The title "Interim Constitution" has, however, been modified to read simply "Constitution" in the recent publication, albeit with a note that it was adopted as the Interim Constitution. As noted above, the preamble makes it explicit that this Constitution is an Interim Constitution which may be repealed and replaced by a new constitution. Paragraph 72 makes provision for a later constitution to be adopted. It would be expected that the Uniting Church in preparing a new constitution would draw on both the Basis of Union and its experience as envisaged by the Joint Commission.  

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The Context of Progress and Development  

It is important to recognise that controversy about the standing of the Basis of Union in the Church has arisen in a context in which a secular ideology of progress is widely held and influential within our society and within the Church itself. It is certainly true that the Basis of Union and the Constitution envisage future development in understanding and that it was never intended in the formation of the union that the limited understandings of faith and order which were held then should bind the Church in every respect in future generations. When coupled with the passionate demands of sectional interest groups, however this possibility of future development can all too easily be linked with a secular ideology in which the particular changes being sought are described as progressive, and opposition to those particular changes is dismissed as conservative defense of the status quo. It is most important that the Advisory Group on Church Polity be able to stand aside from that kind of conflict and to see that opposition to one kind of change does not entail opposition to changes in general. As I have argued elsewhere, the battle to defend the Basis and the catholicity of the Uniting Church is far from making a conservative defense 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.  

The question is how we can distinguish the kind of changes which lead us towards the fulfillment of the true purposes of the Church from those which take us in the wrong way. I believe that, while the Basis of Union envisages some changes which its authors had not anticipated, it also points to the direction in which those changes will be found. Thus new doctrines should be consistent with the substance of the faith. New principles of Church order should move us towards the fulfilment of the same purposes as were understood in general terms for the older principles. In this regard, our understanding of the faith and order expressed in the Basis of Union is much like our understanding of scripture. We can sometimes see in scripture the beginning of a direction of change where future development is an implication of the gospel. For example, the inclusiveness of Galatians 3:28 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. We can see how the teaching of Jesus and his actions in relation to particular people foreshadowed and initiated those directions of development. So it is, I believe, with our later formulations of faith. Allowing for development is not an argument in favour of abandonment.  

It would have been impossible for the members of the early church to have anticipated what changes would follow as a result. So it is with us. We must expect change and further development in the directions initiated by the Lord himself, and which are confessed as the faith of the Church. The important question is whether the changes which are claimed to be new developments of the faith are consistent with the original teaching and intention of Jesus, or whether they result from conformity to the dominant culture of the society in which they occur.  

Even in the very early days of the Church when the Christian way of life was being worked out for the first time and people were being encouraged to expect growth into a greater maturity, tradition was already acknowledged. For example, 2 Thessalonians 3:6  

That tradition which refers to the apostolic teaching is contrasted with human traditions which are not Christian, e.g. Colossians 2:8  While the apostolic tradition must be maintained there is another sense in which changes of tradition are an essential element in the Christian teaching, but then we are talking about human traditions or customs, even when they might be thought to have divine inspiration and authority. For example, Acts 6:14 where the Jewish council has horrified about the implications of Stephen's preaching and they had false witnesses say   So some customs might change, but handing on of traditions was also of vital importance in the life of the Church. Not least in relation to the central act of worship in the eucharist. 1 Corinthians 11:23-24: -   Or in terms of the central teaching, the nature of the gospel, we have the same conception of handing on a tradition. 1 Corinthians 15:3-5   Note how Paul refers to this tradition as being of first importance. The faith of the Church is not simply what people happen to believe at a particular time. The Basis of Union witnesses to this truth and points to scripture where the tradition of the apostles is authoritatively affirmed, albeit within a context in which further development of our understanding is anticipated. The Church cannot be cut off from its roots and still be the Church.  

Now it is important to note that, in the argument presented here, I have been referring to scripture in a way which assumes that scripture has some authority. That will be a ready enough assumption for most members of the Church, but it is by no means obvious in the world at large and, if the current interpretation of the law governing the powers of the Assembly in relation to doctrine turns out to be the case, then I could not have presented that argument without first establishing some basis on which scripture has authority if there were any challenge under the state or common law. The circumstances in which a challenge might be mounted could be where the Church attempts to exercise discipline over a minister or a congregation which denied some of the teaching in these passages of scripture and in the Basis of Union. Unless there is a legal basis for the Church's doctrine, we are very poorly placed.  

It may be said in response that the Constitution, supported by the law of the State, gives the Assembly power to define the doctrines of the Church. Two points need to be made in consequence:  

1. The Assembly has not so far defined the doctrines of the Church in any general way. Only very limited doctrinal statements have been made to deal with specific difficulties, such as baptism, which have arisen in recent years. If a question should be raised as to whether a person is teaching what the Church teaches, then, without the Basis of Union, there is no general definition of the doctrines of the Church. Opposition to making a general declaration that the doctrines of the Church are those specified in the Basis of Union could be made on grounds that it is not progressive or that the Church should be prepared to make its determinations of doctrine from time to time without any general adherence to a particular formulation. That is an extremely dangerous situation, a departure from the purpose of the union and an act of bad faith in regard to the reasonable expectations of those who entered the union adhering to the Basis.  

2. Besides a current definition of what the doctrines of the Church are, it is necessary for it to be recognised that the powers of the Assembly to make doctrine are not unlimited if the arguments above about the purposes of the union and the nature of membership in the Catholic Church are valid. Some recognition of the sources of doctrinal authority other than in the legislative provision is necessary. The Basis of Union describes not only the basic doctrines but the sources from which the Church's teaching is derived, and it sets out the kind of authority which those sources have, together with some of the procedure by which the teaching of the Church is formulated. Without provisions defining the sources of doctrinal authority which are explicitly stated or implied in the Constitution, the Uniting Church cannot claim to be, by the nature of its constitution, a Christian Church.  

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Possible steps for the Assembly to take  

Recognising that the nexus between the Constitution and the Basis of Union has been called into question and may be broken, the Assembly needs to define the basic doctrines of the Church and the sources of doctrinal authority which are acknowledged by the Church. The proper way for that to be done is for the Assembly is to determine that the Basis of Union is an authoritative witness to the faith and order of the Church and to require the basic doctrines and sources of doctrinal authority affirmed in the Basis to be observed by all councils of the Church. That will serve as an interim measure and should be determined as soon as possible, but it is not sufficient because it does not bind the Assembly.  

It is essential that the powers of the Assembly be limited in a manner that is legally enforceable. That can be achieved in the present circumstances only by amendment of the Constitution. If doing so involves a measure of self limitation on the part of the Assembly, there are sound Christological reasons for the willing acceptance of such limitations. The recommendation from the Presbytery of Gippsland quoted at the beginning of this paper is one way to proceed. Paragraph 39 of the Constitution, at least, could be amended for this purpose.  

Recognising that confessions of faith or doctrinal statements of governing bodies are, as acknowledged in the Basis of Union, always couched in the language of their time and will have some limits on their suitability in changed circumstances, it would be well for any constitutional amendment giving authority to the Basis of Union to provide for modification and further development of the Church's teaching. Hopefully, this could be done in a manner that is consistent with the Basis itself and which is capable of resisting demands for conformity to the dominant culture.  

Given that changes in its basic doctrines should be recognised as matters of vital importance to the life of the Church, and that the vote to enter the union was essentially a set of theological decisions which were taken by both the relevant councils and the individual members, it would be consistent with past practice and with the nature of the Church to require that changes of basic doctrine fall under those provisions of the Basis of Union and Constitution which require reference to other councils, and on occasion to congregations, as matters of vital importance to the life of the Church. Hence the suggestion in the Gippsland recommendation that, while we might accept the basic doctrines in the Basis for the time being, the longer term constitutional requirement limiting the powers of the Assembly should have within it the means of change by reference to a procedure for obtaining the approval of the Church at large.  

Under the present Interim Constitution, there is, however, a serious weakness in the referral power. It does not acknowledge the obligatory nature of the reference provided for in the Basis of Union. Requiring a two-thirds majority vote in the Assembly allows the advocates of any change which is supported by more than a third in the Assembly at the time to block any reference. One could argue rather that it should require a two-thirds majority to stop any reference to the other councils, or at least to argue for a simple majority.  

In regard to possible amendments to paragraph 39 (and possibly to other paragraphs) which might define the initial basic doctrines of the Church as those in the Basis of Union, the question has been raised as to how it could be decided whether any action or proposed action constitutes a departure from the Basis of Union, or for that matter from any other formulation of the faith of the Church, especially in view of the acknowledgment that the Basis itself envisages new developments in faith and order. I would suggest that the Advisory Group on Church Polity, perhaps with further appropriate advice from the Commission on Doctrine and the Legal Reference Committee, might consider the following possibilities:  

1. A tribunal similar to the Appellate Tribunal of the Anglican Church of Australia might be appointed by the Assembly.  

2. A case for inconsistency with the Basis or any acknowledged doctrinal standard might be said to exist if the Commission on Doctrine advised the Assembly or its Standing Committee that an action or proposed action was inconsistent with that standard.  

3. A simple majority of the Assembly or a resolution by two Synods or by one-third of the Presbyteries might be sufficient to establish that a matter is of vital importance to the life of the Church, and thus necessarily referred under paragraph 39.  

The general principle should be to ensure that the guiding role of the Basis of Union, which continues to be acknowledged in the Church, should be formally recognised and that the basic principles of faith and order which it contains should be changed only with a level of agreement in the Church similar to that which was required for its adoption.  

A more radical and, in the longer term, more satisfactory procedure would be to acknowledge that the time has come for the Interim Constitution to be replaced by a constitution which achieves the same result in regard to doctrinal standards as is recommended above, but which does so in a comprehensive review based on both the Basis of Union and the experience of the Church since union. To this end, the Advisory Group on Church Polity might recommend that the Assembly establish a Constitution Commission to draft a new constitution. I would like to see in the guidelines for a constitution commission not only the points argued for in this paper which will ensure that the Uniting Church remains part of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church through the way its faith is expressed and the way its life is ordered, but also a requirement to undertake the development of a new constitution in consultation with other churches. That would be entirely consistent with the Basis of Union and the process by which the union was brought about. It might be noted in this context that the Anglican Church of Australia is currently reviewing its constitution and that the commitment of the Uniting Church to a wider unity might be facilitated by consultation between the two churches on constitutional provisions which might help or hinder the realisation of our Lord's prayer that they all might be one.  

Finally, I would submit that the wording of The Uniting Church Act in each state should be amended in such a way as to make it impossible for the Church, as an institution, to be taken over and used for any other purpose than that to which it is committed in the Basis of Union. Legal advice should be sought, but I believe it was never the intention of the councils of the churches or their members to have all limitations on the possible extent of amendment to the Constitution removed as appears to be the case in Section 9(3), or to allow any doctrine whatever to be imposed by the Assembly, as appears from Section 10. Consideration should be given to removing from 9(3):  

and from Section 10: -   The basic, unavoidable, and almost universally acknowledged, commitment of the Uniting Church to remain within the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church must be secured. Our understanding of what it means to be so committed is described in the Basis of Union.

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