Victorian Synod View of the Report on the Basis of Union

Response to a Statement by the Assembly Advisory Group on Church Polity: The Status, Authority, and Role of the Basis of Union within the Uniting Church in Australia

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Note: This report drafted by David Beswick was prepared by a task group of the Standing Committee of the Uniting Church in Australia Synod of Victoria. A shorter version of the report was presented to the Synod and the recommendations were approved in September 1996.
It is noted with appreciation that, among several reasons for the preparation of this statement, the Assembly has responded to a request from this Synod

The general treatment of the subject and the recommendations help considerably to overcome the anxieties which led to the request. When this paper is taken together with the work of the Commission on Doctrine on ministry and the actions of the Seventh Assembly, the difficulties which arose following the Sixth Assembly decisions affecting the Church's understanding of the ministry of the Word have largely been overcome. It is important to recognise that those difficulties arose from a concern that the Church could be departing from its commitment to membership in the holy catholic church as expressed generally in the Basis of Union and specifically in para 2:

It is therefore particularly heartening to see that the Advisory Group focussed for its more general purpose on this central commitment and did so in the form in which it has proposed that the Church recognise the status, authority and role of the Basis of Union.

For this purpose, it is appropriate to use the meaning of "adherence to the Basis" which is defined in the Basis itself as

The proposed amendment to the Constitution in these terms, and the proposal to replace the commitments in the liturgy to "adhere" to the Basis with that specific content should help to focus attention on the central tenet of the union in which the purpose of uniting was to renew the church and move towards recovery of its wider unity by recognising its essential character as one, holy, catholic and apostolic.

The case for regarding the Basis as binding on the Church in its continuing life and not only at the time of union is well made and very important, while the necessary freedom to change and develop as the church is led on its pilgrimage is helpfully explicated as having been provided for and even required in the Basis.

The paper has demonstrated well the commitment with which the Uniting Church was formed, that the essential character of the church would be as it is defined in the Basis. It is properly acknowledged that there were clear and explicit understandings of the intention to continue to act in accordance with the Basis, and that guarantees were given when people were asked to vote for the union on the published Basis that the Constitution would be and would remain in agreement with the Basis.

The interpretation of the state Acts to require consistency with the Basis except in negotiations for union with another denomination, while welcome, might not, however, hold unless it is adopted by the Assembly, as it is contrary to interpretations given by the Assembly Legal Reference Committee. Unless the Assembly acts to clarify this matter itself by deciding how the Church will act, whatever might otherwise be permitted by the state Acts, the adoption by the Assembly Standing Committee of Presidential Ruling No. 13, which relies explicitly on the Legal Reference Committee's interpretation, might otherwise require future actions by Assembly bodies to contradict the interpretation which is favoured in this paper.

For this reason, and because the Assembly was constituted under the Basis with which it was required to determine that the Constitution is consistent, we recommend that a second amendment be made to the Constitution to require the Assembly to act in a manner that is consistent with the Basis and that the wording of that amendment should echo the wording of the state acts to make it clear that within its own life and self understanding the Assembly will act in accordance with the preferred interpretation. Otherwise the single proposed amendment

while good in its intended generality, might not be found to have any specific application, especially in the light of a contrary interpretation of the state Acts having been adopted previously. We have drafted a proposed amendment to the present paragraph 38 of the Constitution for this purpose.

That still leaves open the question of whether it would be wise to seek amendment to five of the six state Acts. We can see reason for caution, especially in having the determination of doctrinal questions clearly retained within the church, and we believe that the danger of violating the intention of the union could be significantly reduced by amending the Constitution at the two points noted above, but some risk remains of the Uniting Church ceasing to be a Christian Church through future amendments to the Constitution and the operation of the state Acts. We would raise with the Assembly the question of whether further consideration should not be given to amendment of the state Acts to guarantee the interpretation which the Advisory Group has given.

As noted above, it is commendable to replace questions on adherence to the Basis in the liturgies for ordination and for the commissioning of lay ministries with wording which spells out what is meant in the Basis by adherence:

Are you willing to live and work within the faith and unity of the one holy catholic and apostolic church as that way is described in the Basis of Union of the Uniting Church in Australia.

However to respond passively "I am willing" is rather too weak a commitment to be made in a solemn vow. The question would better begin "Will you ...", with an answer "I will", or perhaps "With God's help, I will." Other commitments in the ordination service are made in the form of either "I do" or "With God's help, I will." Another parallel might be taken with the marriage service where the response to the declaration of intent is a simple "I will". It is that kind of intention that is called for in this case where a person enters into a covenant to exercise a ministry within the general covenant that is witnessed to by the Basis of Union.

It should be noticed that to replace the present question on "adherence" in the ordination service with the proposed question will leave out the clause requiring submission to the discipline of the church. The replacement does not repeat that additional clause. Perhaps it was an oversight. In any case submission to an appropriate discipline is universally acknowledged as essential for the exercise of an ordained ministry, so it is proposed that the principle be retained in a separate question, preferably with specific reference to the exercise of the ministry to which the candidate is being ordained.

Recommendations

1. That the response prepared by the Task Group be approved and forwarded to the Assembly on behalf of the Synod with appreciation for the work of the Advisory Group on Church Polity and the following recommendations.

2. That in addition to the proposed new paragraph 2, the Constitution be amended by inserting new sections (b) and (c) in the present paragraph 38 as follows:

(b) The Assembly shall determine, declare and interpret matters of doctrine, worship, government and discipline in accordance with [new] paragraph 2 of this Constitution in such a way as to maintain consistency with the Basis of Union, while allowing that

(c) future developments that are consistent with the Basis but not specifically envisaged in the Basis may be required to fulfil the intention of the Church to remain within the one holy catholic and apostolic church, and in particular that that intention may be further fulfilled through negotiation of a different basis for union with another denomination, so that the powers of the Assembly under [renumbered] section (d) (xiii) hereof are not limited by [new] section (b).

and that the succeeding section be renumbered (d).

3. That further consideration be given to the advisability or otherwise of having the state Uniting Church in Australia Acts amended to incorporate the intention of the Church to act in accordance with the Basis of Union as described in the interpretation that has been given by the Advisory Group on Church Polity where it differs from the interpretation given in Presidential Ruling No. 13.

4. That the wording of the proposed replacement in the liturgy for questions on adherence to the Basis of Union be changed to ask "Will you ..." instead of "Are you willing ..."; and the answer be in the form "I will" or "With God's help, I will" instead of "I am willing".

5. That the clause in the present ordination vow which refers also to adherence to the Basis which asks "and do you submit yourself to the church's discipline" be retained in a separate question "Do you submit yourself to the discipline of the church in the exercise of the your ministry?", with the answer, "I do.

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