Cultural Conformity of the Leadership in the Uniting Church

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In recent years, since about 1990 when for a few years things had things seemed to be going well and there was plenty of new life and growth in the Church, I have become deeply concerned about the direction of leadership in the Uniting Church. My concern developed gradually. As a person of influence in the Church I kept my concerns to myself for some time, except for private communication with office holders and constrained open contributions in public debate within the normal processes of church government in which I was always measured in what I said. One strong criticism of the Assembly leadership was published when it seemed to me they had put a matter of secondary importance ahead of basic principals by denying liberty of conscience in the treatment of a candidate for ordination. As a regional representative I tended, generally, to defend the official structures and leadership against local criticism, but on that occasion, against my pervious inclination, I had to defend the candidate and local presbytery against attack at the national level and the experience alerted me to the kind of danger the church was facing and which became apparent to many more at the next Assembly meeting. Although deeply shocked by the virtual take over of the National Assembly at Brisbane in 1991 by certain sectional interests, and the disregard then shown for the Basis of Union (as set out elsewhere in these pages), I counselled several senior ministers who were at the Assembly against leaving the Uniting Church because of what the Assembly had decided about ordination (and which was corrected three years later at the 1994 Assembly). I had publically challenged the way things were going on occasions over the following years, but it was not until after the Victorian Synod of 1996, and when I was unable to publish my concerns through official channels, that I decided to come out openly in the 'opposition' church press and name the corruption that was by then firmly established. A letter and article taking up the need for mutual recognition of basic differences and the dangers of a new pressure to conform to ideologically defined social and political imperitives were then published in The Auburn Report. The following is the latest piece, critical of the church leadership, which has been published in the June 1998 of The Auburn Report.

What would I like to see the Uniting Church do?

In December 1997 I was asked to write one of several brief responses to the question above for circulation as background to people attending a conference of a unusual combination of groups in the Uniting Church in Australia who came together at Mt Waverley, Victoria, in February 1998, out of concern for the future of the Church in the light of events surrounding the Eighth Assembly of the Church which was held in Perth in July 1997. This reaction brought together groups which normally would have had little to do with each other. They included representative members of ethnic congregations, the Fellowship for Revival, the Evangelical Members of the Uniting Church, and reformed theologians associated with the Forum on Faith and Society. There was a report on the conference in The Auburn Report in April 98. I should say that I am not member of any of the groups who involved in the conference, and that I am very wary of the sectarian influences, but these are serious times and one must be prepared to take a stand and to use whatever means of communication are open when the preferred normal channels are closed to dissenting voices arguing the basic issues in depth. The official journal of the Victorian Synod (Crosslight) did, however, publish a letter in April correcting a report on my retirement, and in which I expressed some of the same sentiments as are expressed here. That letter is reproduced below after the brief article.

What would I like to see the Uniting Church do? Repent and believe the gospel! It is, of course, a temptation to assert the unfaithfulness of one's brothers and sisters, knowing all too well that none of us would be qualified to cast the first stone; but, forgive me, I would not be honest if I did not say that I believe the Uniting Church has lost its way as a public institution in late twentieth century Australia. We have suffered a damaging failure of leadership, especially in Victoria and in the office of the National Assembly. In spite of this, the general membership of the church has maintained a surprising level of commitment to the historic faith, though less well equipped than previous generations in important respects, and yet is able to accept the need for change of approach to mission in a rapidly changing world. So my call for repentance is addressed more to the leadership and the emphasis on belief to the membership as a whole.

It is no accident that according to the census and survey information the Uniting Church has lost more members since 1991 than any other church nationally and that the loss has been greatest in Victoria, while there has been growth in some areas. Nor is it surprising, given the failure to encourage ordinary members in their discipleship and the devaluing of the ministry of the Word, that the number of candidates for the ordained ministries has fallen dramatically in the last five years, after significant increases and new signs of hope a few years before. One of the saddest consequences is that able and dedicated ministers in their later years are being eased out for want of settlements while many parishes, clearly viable only a few years ago, especially in Victoria, face the prospect of closure or amalgamation. Many, young and old, are paying a high price for the unfaithfulness and self indulgence of the stewards of the church. Those responsible need to repent or make way for a new generation with a clearer vision.

There has been abuse of office in which official leaders and members of staff (many not all) have used their positions as a means of advancing their own private or sectional and partisan interests. The catholicity of church has been ignored and compromised by the expenditure of personal energy and the resources of the church on matters of secondary importance which are divisive and distracting, while loyalty has been treated with contempt and commitment to the primary faith has been greatly weakened. If I say, "Repent", in these circumstances, it is to turn away from compromise with the dominant culture and seduction by a secular ideology of progress, to be ready to stand apart and proclaim the unique and compelling nature of the gospel of Jesus Christ in the face of a hostile world. One thing the world does not need is a worldly church.

We need to recover more of the depth and multidimensional richness of the Christian tradition so that our members and others can see that the big and interesting questions really have nothing to do with the old progressive vs. conservative, liberal vs. fundamentalist, dimension. I would like to see people of influence in the church challenged by the incompatibility of a popularly reinforced liberal humanist doctrine of progress with the apostolic witness to the catholic faith, while at the same time they retain the capacity to protect vulnerable members from narrow predatory authoritarian fundamentalism and equip them for effective witness in a society marked by change and unpredictability. The confusion of the Christian faith with particular kinds of social change on the one hand or with resistance to such change on the other, is a genuine difficulty. Many people cannot see the difference between the faith and whichever it is that they prefer of acceptance or resistance. Means are confused with ends, and derived principles with the essence of the gospel. I would like to see the Uniting Church recover its commitment to catholicity in which those simplifying idols can be set aside, but not in any abstract purity for we have our treasures still in earthen vessels and any expression of the faith in any place and time must risk contamination by engagement in the process of transforming the life of the world. The great gift of the Spirit is for the people of God to be the transforming leaven rather than the dry potsherds of a dying culture meekly crying "me too".

A letter to the Editor of Crosslight published in the April 1998 issue.

The report of my retirement published in the February issue of Crosslight, which I did not see until I returned from six weeks revisiting my roots in Tasmania, did reflect the generosity and good wishes of my farewell at Templestowe, but the concluding statement about my interests in retirement could be misleading in one important respect.

When people, perhaps especially ministers, retire, they should be glad to hand over responsibility to another generation. They should give up any positions of influence which they might have held and be available to assist only in a more low key consultancy type of role and only when called upon.

I have resigned from all committee positions, so it creates the wrong impression to say that I plan during retirement "to concentrate also on theological writing and .. involvement in the church's policy committees."

Certainly, I retired a little earlier than I might otherwise have done because I hoped to have some strength left for research and writing, in psychology and education as well as theology. I felt an obligation to do so. But if I am so blessed it is my hope to contribute to scholarship in church and society generally rather than within the particular structures of the UCA.

Difficult as it is to maintain loyalty in a church that is deeply corrupted by secular ideology, especially in its leadership over the past five or six years, and while I feel a sense of failure in not having been able to do much about that, I must hope that others will come forward with the faith and courage to challenge the pressures to conformity with the dominant culture which are so strongly represented in the Uniting Church.

I have seen some potential leaders, both men and women, in the younger generation, who have the ability, the personal faith and the theological insight to do what needs to be done, but any who try will be made to suffer, and whether they will be able to stand the strain is something which we can only make a subject of prayer. I remain, nevertheless committed to continue in the obligations of membership and under the discipline of the ordained ministry, while I seek to share more widely some of the things I have learned over the past forty-five years or so, and what I hope still to discover.

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