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Have we lost ourselves along the way?

ULTIMATELY, IT matters little whether the Uniting Church in Australia is in fact the first ‘home-grown’, truly indigenous expression of Australian Christianity.

The only question that should concern us now is, have we been faithful to what has been entrusted to us?

Thirty years ago, the Uniting Church had the chance to liberate itself from the tyranny of ecclesiastical inertia, to shed the aura of impotent harmlessness to which the church in general had become so accustomed.

It could begin to develop a muscular theology, framed in language appropriate to its vocation and self-understanding, and blessedly free of unnecessary traditional baggage.

Indeed, this theological task would be the crucial one. By it, the church would determine the role it would play within our suffocating, banalising culture.

It needed to invent a language that was at once resonant with the Australian vernacular and yet sufficiently robust to break free from the debilitating downward pull that every culture exerts on its occupants.

It needed to invent a language that would war against its own basest tendencies, that would trigger an internal revolution if and when the church lost sight of its mission.

Seizing the opportunity, this fledgling church could then exemplify the vocation given to the church as a whole, paraphrasing Karl Barth, to declare the unqualified “Yes!” of God’s reconciliation in Christ to all people, and God’s unrelenting “No!” to every idolatrous political, cultural and religious fad.

From this perspective, paragraph 3 of the Basis of Union is a stunning achievement.

In it, the framers took the unprecedented steps of giving the Christian confession an overtly ecclesiological shape, and then defining the church as the immediate continuation of Christ’s own mission.

But the concentrated genius of this brief statement dissipates rather quickly, until, by paragraph 14, it loses its clarity altogether (“the substance of the faith”).

However profound that initial confession may have been, it is this lack of theological clarity that has left the more conspicuous mark on the subsequent experience of the Uniting Church.

For instance, without a sufficiently developed prophetic theology to sustain it, any radical or dissenting dimension of the church’s life had to be informed and nurtured by far Left-wing or ‘Green’ currents already present within Australian culture (ranging from feminism in the late-70s and 80s to the various contemporary forms of eco-spirituality).

As a result, the church’s voice has become practically indistinguishable from the predictable brays and barks of the Leftist menagerie, and is frequently dismissed as just another member of the feral herd.

Further, the lack of a theological vocabulary distinctive enough to take on the dominant idolatries of our time and articulate enough to present a real alternative to our societal tribalism has stunted the moral growth of our congregations.

Regardless of the official ‘progressive’ or Leftist stance of the Uniting Church, our congregations continue to exhibit much of the unenlightened bigotry, chauvinism and even racist feeling that beset Australian society as a whole.

This situation is compounded by the widespread use of ‘respect for the rights of another’ as the cardinal rule for the church’s ethical and practical decisions.

But the ubiquity of this ill-formed principle effectively makes a mockery of the Christian injunction to self-emptying discipleship (“have the same mind which also was in Christ Jesus”) and allows the urgency of the church’s vocation to be taken hostage by the propensity – even eagerness – of some to take offence.

There is a frightening parallel between the behaviour that is thus permitted in our churches and Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s description of the logic of Western multiculturalism, in which “everyone has the right to their own backwardness.”

It is hard not to come to the conclusion that the Uniting Church is more symptomatic of Australia’s deep cultural divisions and ethical dysfunctionality than it is truly prophetic.

But perhaps it is among our ministers that the consequences of our insufficient theological development is most obvious.

Isn’t there something diabolically fitting about aimless, theologically illiterate congregations being presided over by dispassionate clergy who limp from one week of the lectionary to the next, with some vague sense of the liturgical calendar, but none of the demands of the gospel, much less its transformative power?

The solemn pastoral duty to beckon the congregation to discipleship has thus been replaced by a weak pandering to people’s longing to be coddled.

And the old Puritan charge to “preach only that unto others which thou hast preached first to thine own soul” has been replaced by novel forms of liturgical gimmickry and the proliferation of on-line preaching aids.

So what then? Despair? Discouragement? Not at all.

We ought instead to recall the words with which Karl Barth began his colossal Church Dogmatics:

“I hold myself forbidden to be discouraged by these things. For I believe that we shall wait in vain for a Church which takes itself seriously unless we are prepared to attempt in all modesty to take the risk of being such a Church in our own situation.”

Thirty years on, it is time for a new revolution, one that changes not our procedures, modes of governance or church ‘branding’, but our very minds. This, after all, is our truest act of worship.

Scott Stephens is an author, theologian and minister at Chermside Kedron Uniting Church. He teaches ethics at Trinity Theological College and is a regular contributor to Journey