Basic guidelines for unity in diversity

by David Beswick, February 2001

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What kind of diversity is compatible with the Basis of Union? If this question on the limits to acceptable differences is asked with reference to the Constitution of the Uniting Church in Australia we could get a different answer from what would come to us if we went first to the Basis itself, and that reveals something "basic" about the conflict in the Church in recent years. It raises questions which are theological, pastoral, ideological and legal. Many hares are running, many different agenda are being pursued, in a discussion of diversity in unity, or unity in diversity, but recent developments in the polity of the Uniting Church do help to focus attention on the key issues, so I will try to answer with reference to the most important constitutional change. In what follows, although placing limits is a matter of law in some sense, I am thinking more in terms of a practical and pastoral theology of church order than in a strictly legal sense - which is not my field in any case. The questions of first importance are theological and pastoral, although we struggle with them within a constitutional framework.

When new clause 2 was inserted in the Constitution by action of the Assembly of 1997 it read,

The Church, affirming that it belongs to the people of God on the way to the promised end, lives and works within the faith and unity of the one holy catholic and apostolic church, guided by its Basis of Union.

The amendment which was recommended by the Advisory Group on Church Polity had not contained the phrase affirming that it belongs to the people of God on the way to the promised end, and instead of saying guided by its Basis of Union it had proposed that the church be bound to live and work within the faith and unity of the one holy and apostolic church as that way is defined in the Basis of Union. That last phrase had come from the definition of "adhere to the Basis" which the Basis itself provides at the end of paragraph 14, following requirements for ministers, elders and lay preachers at the time of union to adhere to the Basis:

In the above sub-paragraphs the phrase "adhere to the Basis of Union" is understood as willingness to live and work within the faith and unity of the 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.

As part of the background to the change in 1997, which arose out of reaction to the departure from the Basis of Union which Assembly took in its decisions in 1991 on ordination, it should be noted that the Basis and the Regulations required that individual ministers and some other leaders adhere to the Basis, but there was no such requirement imposed explicitly on councils of the Church. The majority of the Assembly was not prepared to allow the Church be so bound in its Constitution. It softened the requirement by introducing the reference to being the people of God on the way and by saying that the Church would be guided by its Basis of Union rather than being bound to its definition of adherence.

The first of these innovations recalled the idea of progress as an official ideology which had been propagated by the Assembly following its adoption in 1991 of the theme "Forward Together" with its emphasis upon the church being a pilgrim people. Although there has been a sentiment favouring ideas of progress, with the implication that the church should not be burdened with an excessive load from the past, the image of the pilgrim in the Basis also carries the implication that neither should we accumulate baggage from the surrounding culture. Rather our eyes should be fixed on the goal, not the past or the present context. As the Basis puts it: she is a pilgrim people, always on the way towards a promised goal; here she does not have a continuing city but seeks one to come. The goal or end towards which we consciously move is defined in the preceding sentences:

God in Christ has given to men in the Church the Holy Spirit as a pledgeand foretaste of that coming reconciliation and renewal which is the end in view for the whole creation. The Church's call is to serve that end: to be a fellowship of reconciliation, a body within which the diverse gifts of its members are used for the building up of the whole, an instrument through which Christ may work and bear witness to himself.

Therein you have a direct statement of the governing purpose of diversity in the church: the diverse gifts of its members are used for the building up of the whole. The kind of diversity being endorsed here is not that which makes a first principle out of the pursuit of individual rights, but the valuing of differences for their contribution to the building up of the whole body, which is a biblically inspired understanding of diversity, not one derived from the present culture of individual liberties and group identities. There is no reason in the Basis itself why the image of a pilgrim people should be lifted out and given special prominence, as if it were a filter through which our understanding of the rest of the Basis must be forced, but when it is properly understood in its context, both within the Basis and in the biblical imagery which it evokes, it is not to be seen as an ideological imperative so much as an encouragement to faithful discipleship within the body of believers of which Christ is the head.

The second variation which the Assembly made to the Advisory Group's proposal by introducing the term "guided" grew out of two concerns, one legalistic, the other ideological. One was a general concern which the legal advisors of the Church had held since the time of union, that the Church itself should retain control, under its Constitution, of all questions of faith and order, so that it was not bound legally by any external constraint which might give rise to a challenge in which a secular court made a decision about whether the Church had acted in accord with its doctrines. That possibility is not avoided completely by what has been done, but is was a consideration.

It seems a little strange that the Basis could be regarded as external, but it is external to the Constitution, and the State Acts of Parliament which constituted the Church as a legally recognized corporate body made some debatable references to the Assembly not being bound in certain decisions by the Basis of Union. I say debatable because the Advisory Group in its report to the Assembly gave a different and much more restricted interpretation (applying it to negotiations for union with other churches) than the Legal Reference Committee favoured in its view of the what the State Acts said. It is an important question whether the Basis of Union is to be regarded as law, and there was some fear that too strong a reference to it in the Constitution might open up legal complications which would not arise if it were referred to in some such phrase as guided by. Some members of the Church might prefer that the Basis functioned in law like a part of the Constitution, but it was "reduced" to something more like guidelines for some quite strong reasons. As I will argue further below, it was not so much a reduction as an elevation of the Basis to a set of guiding principles which are not subject to review.

The second reason for substituting the language of guidance instead of the stronger definition of adherence was, it seems, a pervasive antinomianism in the dominant liberal culture of our society, which is reproduced in the Church, especially among the majority of leaders who favour "progressive" ideas. People who see themselves as "on the way" (but not in the sense that the Basis intended) might, for the sake of unity, be prepared to be "guided", but they will not readily accept any past constraint which they cannot review and then decide for themselves whether they will allow it to limit their freedom of action. Nevertheless, a Constitutional provision is intended to limit freedom of action. While the new clause 2 of the Constitution does not make the Basis into law which will binds the councils of the Church, it is still a requirement to take notice of the Basis, and that must have power to influence future decisions. It should in practice limit the range of diversity that could otherwise develop in the church if different councils make different policies on matters which are addressed in the Basis.

As to the Basis of Union functioning as a kind of higher law, constraining what might be done under the Constitution, which is not what the new clause 2 has established, it might be worthwhile to take note of what the Basis says about church law in paragraph 17:

The Uniting Church acknowledges that the demand of the Gospel, the response of the Church to the Gospel, and the discipline which it requires are partly expressed in the formulation by the Church of her law. The aim of such law is to confess God's will for the life of his Church; but since law is received by man and framed by him, it is always subject to revision in order that it may better serve the Gospel. The Uniting Church will keep her law under constant review so that her life may increasingly be directed to the service of God and man, and her worship to a true and faithful setting forth of, and response to, the Gospel of Christ. The law of the Church will speak of the free obedience of the children of God, and will look to the final reconciliation of mankind under God's sovereign grace.

There is in that paragraph good reason for the Basis itself not to be regarded as law. If it were law made by the Church it would be subject to amendment and it would have to be reformulated and subject to review; and the review would have to be conducted in the light of the Church's understanding of the Gospel which would need have to been established elsewhere beyond the law. That is, there must be a faithful witness to the Gospel, independent of the law which the Church makes, in order for the law of the Church to be shaped in response to it. The Basis was not understood to be law in the sense in which it speaks here of the law of the Church, but as something which points to the wider framework within which the law of the Church is developed and will function. Critical to the faithful discipleship which it calls for in response to the Gospel is the way in which the Basis itself characterizes the Gospel. In part it defines key features of the Gospel by the confessional statements which are contained in the Basis, in part it is defined by reference to the apostolic character of the church and thus to the apostolic witness to the Gospel within it, and in part through its reference to the authority of Scripture. So it imposes constraints on diversity by pointing to the Gospel as an objective starting point, but it encourages a degree of diversity by allowing for free obedience in which different people may make different responses from place to place and time to time.

The Basis remains, nevertheless, a significant point of reference for determining what the Church may do. So long as the new clause requiring guidance by the Basis remains in the Constitution it will always be possible to ask, with some force, how a council of the Church in making any decision was guided by the Basis, especially any decision which is open to question on grounds of doctrine or church order. For example, one could ask for an account of the procedures which were followed to ensure that the decision was appropriate for a church which lives and works within the faith and unity of the one holy catholic and apostolic church, guided by its Basis of Union. Was anyone consulted on that question? What advice was received? How did the council reconcile its proposed action with specific commitments in the Basis? There is nothing new or unusual in asking such questions. It is what the Assembly Standing Committee has done on occasions in the past when it has sought advice on the implications of the Basis of Union for decisions on matters before it, and it is not unusual especially in committee reports for the Assembly itself to hear argument on how the Basis might guide a decision. It has been less common for other councils which tend to operate more strictly under the Regulations, but it could become relevant for presbyteries when they are considering making diverse decisions, even if matters of doctrine are determined by the Assembly.

A testing point for presbyteries has come when they have had to make decisions on particular ordinations which have doctrinal implications. Some attempts have been made to take a policy position in general, in advance of a decision in a particular case, such that the presbytery will or will not accept candidates for ordination who are, for example, living in homosexual relationships, but such policy decisions run the risk of usurping the role of the Assembly which has determining responsibility in matters of doctrine, worship, government and discipline. The trouble arises in an acute form when the Assembly has avoided its determining responsibility on a matter for which other councils are inclined to adopt differing policies which have general implications for the Church at large. Ordination is such a matter. A presbytery ordains a person to a specific ministry in the wider church: indeed in a strict liturgical and theological sense a person is ordained to a ministry in the universal church, not only in the Uniting Church in Australia. There are obviously wide implications of local decisions on matters of this kind. It is clearly a point at which it is appropriate to ask how in the decision now being made, The Church,... lives and works within the faith and unity of the one holy catholic and apostolic church. Others in the Church who are affected by the decision then have a right, indeed a responsibility, to ask how the presbytery concerned was guided by the Basis.

I have argued elsewhere, in submissions to Assembly and Synod committees and in particular cases when asked for advice on what a presbytery may decide, that presbyteries are not free to act as if the church had no relevant doctrine on a matter under debate simply because the Assembly has not made a determining resolution which defines the position of the Church on the matter in question. If the Church had no doctrine except where the Assembly has made specific resolutions we would have very little that has been formally determined, but in fact we have comprehensive doctrines covering most things that have been of historic importance in the church. Our doctrines are what they were at the time of union unless the Assembly has decided otherwise, and they are evident in the Basis of Union, in approved liturgies, especially in the vows ministers are required to make at ordination, and in the explicit basis that is sometimes given for policy decisions; and they may sometimes be inferred from disciplinary actions. It is clear from the Basis that the union of the three churches was intended to strengthen commitment to catholic and apostolic continuity in the Church and not to create a rootless institution vulnerable to the prevailing winds of social influence. The constitutional requirement to be guided by the Basis in understanding that commitment to catholicity and apostolic witness strengthens the duty that was always there in the tradition of the church. This brings us to the specific limits on diversity which are characteristic of our Basis of Union.

Perhaps I can illustrate the ways in which the Basis puts limits to acceptable diversity by taking as an example the rationale which Allan Thompson and I gave for a proposed resolution of the Victorian Synod in 1996. We were proposing that Assembly should be advised to refer to other councils of the Church any decision which would have seriously divisive consequences. We said in part:

There are several principles in the Basis of Union which could be seen by other councils of the Church to be called into question if the Assembly decided, for example, to make provision in the discipline of ministers to allow a minister to live in a sexual and domestic partnership with a person of the same gender. Such an action would raise questions about the capacity of the Uniting Church to live and work within the faith and unity of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church and to be engaged in mission by working together and seeking unity with other Churches. [Paragraph 2.] Opinions which could lead to division are likely to be held about whether in this matter its faith and obedience are nourished and regulated by hearing the Word of God in the Old and New Testaments. [Paragraph 5.]

Under the Basis, the principle that the unity of the church should be guarded is a higher principle than any regulation defining the powers of decision making bodies, whatever the Constitution may say. Members of the Assembly have understood this and have generally acted responsibly in applying the principle that unity is essential. It is not simply a pragmatic judgment of what is in the interests of the Church as an organisation, but it is essential to the nature of the Church as a body which is committed to remain within the faith and unity of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. The Uniting Church cannot be true to its Basis and decide that it is expedient for its mission to drive out any minority which might stand in the way of what a majority believes should be done. By the same token it is unacceptable for any group within the church to threaten schism as a means of imposing their opinions on others. Both sides in a debate can play that game destructively. The principle that unity must be maintained does not justify a call for all to accept unlimited diversity, but it is a constraint on all to moderate claims to rights, privileges and perceived truth and to listen to each other. It is not possible to legislate the limits in detail and in advance. It requires practical pastoral discernment by the church in its constitutional processes to decide whether in the circumstances the differences in question would cause the Church to depart from that holy catholic and apostolic unity which is essential to its very being.

It is not as well understood that we are committed also to maintain and increase the unity of the universal church by working together and seeking unity with other Churches. Too often it has been argued, at the Assembly in particular, that we cannot be held back by ecumenical considerations. That is an argument that the ideology of progress takes precedence over the catholic principle of unity, and that is something that cannot be if we are really guided by the Basis. When testing whether a decision is being made under the guidance of the Basis it is appropriate to ask not only who else in the Uniting Church was consulted but whether other churches were consulted. The Uniting Church in Australia is a very small part of the universal church. Being a denominational church constituted nationally in a relatively small population, it is not subject to the constraints on acceptable diversity, or to the claims for valid recognition of differences, that must be considered in a church in which decisions are made with the acknowledged presence of a greater range of peoples and missionary challenges. We are blessed, however, through the presence of immigrant groups and aborigines, with significant cultural diversity, and that has proven to be an effective deterrence to single minded enthusiasms which would never have been accepted in a broader international church. But that internal constraint is not sufficient if we are to be guided by the Basis, for the Basis commits us to work together and seek unity with other churches. We are compelled to consider not only the impact of diversity on the unity we already have, but how it could limit the greater unity we seek in the church of God.

If unity is of the essence of the church in such a way as to both encourage and constrain diversity, so also is its apostolic character. Two different senses of the apostolic nature of the church are relevant, one historic and the other contemporary. There is an historic witness to the Gospel combined with continuity of faithful teaching which is derived from it, and there is the living witness of receiving and celebrating the Word. The apostles were primary witnesses to the resurrection of Christ, and that witness as they were sent out to the ends of the earth points also points to Christ as one who is a living presence among those who receive the Word. There it acknowledges the work of the Holy Spirit in the present sense of being apostolic. There is apostolic continuity with the presence of Christ in the community of the faithful, so that we are not only looking back but moving on with him authentically. Looking back, the best guide we have to the historic witness is in the Scriptures, whose role is specified in the Basis in statements which are additional to the confession of belief in the apostolic church. According to the Basis, the ecumenical creeds also form part of the apostolic witness in the historic sense, and the witness of the Reformation gives further authoritative guidance in its historic confessions and in Wesley's later preaching, especially in regard to the saving grace of God. Again it is not a question of authoritative teaching, or the historic creeds, or the liturgy, or the Scriptures, giving us a set of laws which limit acceptable diversity. It is rather a requirement to discern the Gospel by all means available to us as a living community of faith and to make a lively and disciplined response.

The authority of Scripture belongs to the apostolic character of the church universal, but the Basis declares it also in specific terms. That embedding of the authority of Scripture within the essential character of the church as apostolic is evident in paragraph 5 of the Basis: The Word of God on whom man's salvation depends is to be heard and known from Scripture appropriated in the worshipping and witnessing life of the Church. It must be appropriated in the life of the Church as a living witness so as to form a response to the Gospel. Such a response is not defined in advance of the Gospel being heard, but the validity of a response as true to the Gospel is to be tested by reference to the Scriptures. The Basis says that the response is nourished and regulated by the Word of God which is heard in the prophetic and apostolic testimony:

The Uniting Church acknowledges that the Church has received the books of the Old and New Testaments as unique prophetic and apostolic testimony, in which she hears the Word of God and by which her faith and obedience are nourished and regulated.

Our faith and obedience are to be nourished and regulated so that whole of our lives is a response to the Word of God. That means that personal preference and culturally defined identity should not limit the faith response or take precedence, but should themselves be subject to reshaping. In other words, diversity which arises from such personal and cultural limits to the faith response is not encouraged by the Basis. There is the further constraint of paragraph 11 which requires interpretation of the Scriptures to be scholarly and sensitive to the present situation of the Church. While the range of responses can be wide it remains subject to the test of whether it is nourished and regulated by the prophetic and apostolic testimony. Cultural relativity and personal preferences are secondary. Similarly, in the presentation of the Gospel, ministers of the Word and all true witnesses are constrained to teach, not what they prefer or what suits their identity, but what the apostolic church teaches. There is no case for diversity of that kind in the substance of the faith. As the Basis has expressed it, in regard to the liberty of opinion which is allowed to those who adhere to the Basis, Such adherence allows for difference of opinion in matters which do not enter into the substance of the faith. One could not be guided by the Basis and not hear these words, both as to the freedom allowed in response to the Gospel and in regard to the discipline of the church in its proclamation in such a way as to guard both truth and unity.

That still leaves open the question of what constitutes the substance of the faith, on which I have written elsewhere but which might briefly be said to be understood in the Basis to be found in its direct confession of the faith including the apostolic and catholic nature of the church, its description of the authority of Scripture and the proclamation of the Word, and its acceptance of the sacraments, while it does not include those sections of the Basis which deal with church government, or the recognition of ministries, which the Church is bound to implement but on which people can hold differing opinions and which can be further developed in the light of experience.

Wherever the boundaries might be drawn on what constitutes the substance of the faith, at its centre is belief in and allegiance to Jesus Christ. The Basis gives grounds for commitment to unity as a first principle in what it says about membership in one holy catholic and apostolic church in paragraph 2, but the church is built upon the foundation of Jesus Christ. All that is confessed of the faith depends upon what is said about Christ in the next paragraph which begins with that foundation:

The Uniting Church acknowledges that the faith and unity of the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church are built upon 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. In Jesus Christ God was reconciling the world to himself. In love for the world, God gave his Son to take away the world's sin.

After confessing the saving acts of God in Christ, the Basis then describes the church as a fellowship of the Holy Spirit who confesses Jesus as Lord of its own life and the Head over all things:

The Church as the fellowship of the Holy Spirit confesses Jesus as Lord over her own life, she also confesses that he is Head over all things, the beginning of a new creation, of a new mankind.

Jesus Christ is our primary and continuing legitimate authority. The paragraph concludes by saying that the gift of the Holy Spirit is a foretaste of that coming reconciliation and renewal which is the end in view for the whole creation, towards which we move in our pilgrimage with Christ who feeds us with Word and Sacraments, and we have the gift of the Holy Spirit that we may not lose the way. If there are constraints on diversity, as well as free obedience in the Spirit, then we are governed by allegiance to Christ in the present reality of the apostolic fellowship as well as by the historical witness.

As a great leader in adversity once said, "If one opens a quarrel between the past and the present we shall find that we have lost the future." If looking back we look primarily to the Scriptures we do so knowing that Christ is the key to interpretation, and that we know him in the present fellowship as well as in the historic witness. Nothing can be settled finally by looking to the historic canonical sources of doctrine alone, though much false and divisive teaching might be brought under discipline. We are bound in a living fellowship to work things out together, acknowledging what God is doing amongst his people today. At the same time, the fact that apostolic authority in the church exists in the present fellowship of the Holy Spirit as well as in the historic witness does not give us licence to do as we choose: the value of diversity in the church is not to be honoured in licentiousness, and certainly not by promoting within the church our own individual or group interests. Mistaken beliefs in the grace God, who gives us freedom to respond in the present day, sometimes lead to false affirmations of human freedom, but before God we have no rights to claim. We might note that in Scripture it does not say that in Christ "There is both Jew and Greek", but "There is neither Jew nor Greek". Diversity that is acceptable in the fellowship is not a matter of the civil rights of individuals or groups, but of different gifts for membership in the body of Christ. Loyalty to the living Lord, the one Lord Jesus Christ, makes abuse of the fellowship which is his body a personal abuse of Christ himself.

Everything of basic importance depends upon a faithful response to the Gospel truly set forth and received in the life of the Church. It cannot be written down in legislative form, but in our faithful response to the Gospel we as a community will find the kind of diversity that is compatible with the Basis of Union. The Basis provides us with some guiding principles which are essential to the life and character of the church and which will help us to make a faithful response of unity in diversity. Those principles include unity, both within our own nationally constituted church and with other Christians, catholic continuity in time and place, apostolic witness past and present, nourishment and regulation by Scripture, freedom from unnecessary burdens from the past or cultural conformity in the present, the purpose of diverse gifts in the building up of the whole body, and above all allegiance to Christ.

[Note: Where I have referred to other work, further discussion can be found on this site in documents on the Basis of Union and related matters under "Issues in the Uniting Church" linked to the page "The Commitment to Catholicity in the Basis of Union of the Uniting Church in Australia": which was previously linked as]

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