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Remembering the call

OVER THIRTY years ago the Uniting Church in Australia embarked on what could have been a remarkable journey, but has it abandoned its original course?

It is now a shell of its former self, like so much Liberal Protestantism throughout the West. The past decade has witnessed the Uniting Church rid itself of any prophetic vocation it might once have possessed.

In an extraordinary act of apostasy, the Uniting Church has decided to stand for the path of least resistance, a facile alternative to fundamentalism, evangelicalism and pentecostalism.

The Uniting Church’s inaugural President Davis McCaughey warned against this possibility.

In his address to the 1979 Assembly, Dr McCaughey expressed his fear that the Church would be hijacked by bureaucrats and pedants — specifically that: “Our Constitution, Regulations and Procedures are … in danger … of becoming ends in themselves”.

He also warned against the temptation to adopt any kind of Church patriotism, believing it would obscure and ultimately destroy the Church’s vocation to carry on the mission of Christ.

“In an important sense, we in the Uniting Church in Australia have no identity, no distinctive marks other than belonging with the people of God brought into being by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ,” he said.

Dr McCaughey argued against any suggestion that the Basis of Union, the foundational document of The Uniting Church in Australia, was merely an aspirational document or some transitional text that brought the uniting churches together.

The Basis has been bequeathed to the Church as a liturgical document, shaped by the logic of Christian worship.

It is intended to inform communal prayer just as much as confession. Just notice the prominence of prayer-language, confession and doxology throughout the Basis.

In the opening paragraph, the uniting churches “pray that this act [of union] may be to the glory of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit”.

Following the proclamation of the gospel (paragraphs 2-8) and affirmation of the Faith of the Church (paragraph 9), the Basis “prays that she may be ready when occasion demands to confess her Lord in fresh words and deeds” (paragraph 11).

Paragraph 18 concludes: “She prays God that, through the gift of the Spirit, he will constantly correct that which is erroneous in her life, will bring her into deeper unity with other Churches, and will use her worship, witness and service to his eternal glory through Jesus Christ the Lord. Amen.”

The Basis of Union provides the Church with the prayers it needs to keep it faithful and to keep renewal possible.

But the Uniting Church has traded its birthright, thereby following the rest of the Liberal Protestant herd in its head-long rush into oblivion. This opens up a truly terrifying possibility. What if God is killing the Uniting Church?

Here is what Stanley Hauerwas told the congregation of Broadway United Methodist Church in South Bend, Indiana, in 1993: “The plain truth is that Broadway survives as part of a larger church that is dying. Mainstream Protestantism in America is dying. Actually I prefer to put the matter in more positive terms: God is killing Protestantism and perhaps Christianity in America and we deserve it.”

Either way, the Church is left with only two options: to go on indulging in Church patriotism and erecting stop-gap measures in the hope of delaying the inevitable, or to embrace God’s gracious judgment with joyful repentance.

For is this not the hope that the prophets extended to that pilgrim people in exile: repent, and return, for who knows what God may yet do?