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On doctrine and the Uniting Church in Australia

Now that the Queensland Synod has passed resolutions asking the Assembly to consider amending how matters of vital importance are brought before the whole church and to clarify how we determine doctrinal matters, it seems appropriate to address some important matters raised in the debate about the nature of the church and how the church should work and to get us thinking about these important matters.

What was proposed in the rationale for clarifying doctrine was that the intercounilar structure of the Uniting Church in our constitution is a statement of how we believe Christ forms the church and which recognises that no single council including the Assembly can be assumed to uniquely know the mind of the Holy Spirit. It was suggested that doctrinal statements formulated by the Assembly should be referred to the councils of the church before their formal adoption as a matter of course. I would further add that it would be good in the light of the UCA being multicultural that such doctrinal statements be translated into all languages used by the church in this process. Pragmatically, this may be the only way to actively include those who use other languages who are part of our church.

Rev Dr Geoff Thompson usefully defined Doctrine as the teachings of the Church regarding the specific content of the Christian faith and Theology as the discourse which emerges from the church’s ongoing critical reflection on its received faith.

The General Secretary of Assembly sought to describe an alternative understanding to the Synod. As I understand it, this is that the Assembly hears the other councils and makes up its mind on behalf of the church. If that is the role of assembly then it seems quite impertinent for one or two individuals to claim otherwise. However this is not simply the case.

A Reformed understanding of the church is that inter related councils only work in mutual submission as they make agreements together. What the General Secretary of Assembly described to the Synod is a dominant understanding currently held in the courts of the church. However, while this is consistent with how former Methodists have interpreted Presbyterian church polity, it is not how Presbyterians understood how doctrinal decisions should be made. This was not trivial as disagreement on this matter delayed union for some years and was behind the successful High Court challenge which lead to the repeating of the vote to enter union in the Presbyterian church to be based on a 2/3s majority of congregations rather than the whole denomination. While I was not yet a confirmed member at that point (too young), I do remember that this was a matter of considerable importance to the adults of my church.

The Reformed understanding of the relationship of councils if adopted would remove power from the Assembly and that seems to be being seen as a threat. Perhaps it is power it should never have had?

Upon reflection I think I now begin to understand a question raised from the floor of synod that perplexed me at the time. It came for a person who I respect. It was, “You proposed clarifying how the Assembly determines doctrine and then why do you suggest a change? It only seems like a change. When I assented to the Basis of Union the Reformed process of mutual submission and agreement between councils is what I understood it to mean. Clarifying and settling the process in a Reformed way has the dual virtues of both being theologically sound and pragmatic, whereas the other is too often a-theological and a-pragmatic.