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The Uniting Church in dire straits

By Peter Sellick - posted Thursday, 29 April 2010


It is always a bad idea to alter the theology or the liturgy of the church to meet political ends. The Pauline epistles describe controversies in the early church about whether Jewish Christians should observe Torah law, whether non Jewish members of the church should be circumcised, whether it was right to eat meat that had been offered to idols. The gospel precipitated a clash of cultures and it took some time for the new culture of church to emerge. The early church resisted changes in its belief in order to produce a political settlement in an attempt to satisfy all parties. It concentrated on enunciating the gospel of Christ in the midst of political and cultural conflict.

So, when we hear that the 12th Assembly the Uniting Church plans to alter the preamble of its Constitution in order to placate the Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress, apprehension rises. Will the political triumph over the theological? Will the desire for restorative justice over-run key theological concepts rob the church of its foundations? The Synod of New South Wales has already agreed to the changes and the church needs another three synods to give assent and two-thirds of its 33 district presbyteries by October 31,2010. The alterations do not just tinker with the language in a well meaning fashion, they distort the accepted theology of the church. If the Uniting Church accepts these alterations the question arises as to whether it remains in solidarity within the Niceno-Constantinopolitan consensus.

A close examination of the propositions demonstrate the predictable; the faith of the church is betrayed for political purposes. The first propositions runs:

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1. When the churches that formed the Uniting Church arrived in Australia as part of the process of colonisation they entered a land that had been created and sustained by the Triune God they knew in Jesus Christ.

This statement attempts to join the Triune God, whose name is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ to something that existed in this land without any of the preceding identifications. The problem is that the particular God of Israel who was incarnate in Jesus Christ is identified with a God who has no name and no history. The warrant for this claim is that it was the same God who created this land and sustained its people. The argument is not from the proclamation that we see God in Jesus Christ, but that we see God in the creation. The problem is that while Jesus is the Word of God, speaking to us the word of grace, the creation is essentially dumb. We may learn from creation about all sorts of things about how to survive but it does not speak to us the Word of Grace. Indeed, creation is ambivalent to us, as we have seen in recent natural disasters. The relationship that Christians have with Christ is personal, one can hardly say the same about the world.

The following statements make the argument that the Spirit has been in the land revealing God through law, custom and ceremony. However, the Spirit is never ex verbum, it is never without the Word. In Trinitarian language the unity of God is preserved by acknowledging that no person acts independently, the three persons act together even if one is more prominent than the others. The Father always acts through the Son in the power of the Spirit, the Spirit cannot go off and do its own thing. The idea that the Spirit of God has been with the aboriginal people by way of their culture cuts the connection between Spirit and Word and represents a rupture in Trinitarian language. It also suggests that aboriginal people, for some reason that is not defined, do not need the gospel.

Arguments that centre on the importance of culture are inherently weak because culture includes all human activities. We might say that we have a culture of sport or heroism or child abuse or violence. Aboriginal culture had a strong culture of tribal identity and payback and story telling. The point is that culture should not be identified with the Spirit of God. Culture is always a mixed bag, it is always stained by sin. What we observe in the early church is a transformation of culture, for many from Judaism, a very rich and old culture, to Christian. In the early church Jewish and Hellenistic Christians gave up their culture in order to become church. The Jews stopped going to the synagogue and the Greeks ceased sacrificing to idols. This has been the pattern throughout church history, long established cultures have been transformed by the gospel. This is not a matter of cultural imperialism. Indigenous culture is important but for aboriginal Christians it must come under the gentle reign of Christ. Life denying aspects of culture must be transformed, for example the tradition of payback must stop.

The exclusivity of Christ is as much of a scandal now as it was in the time of Paul. It was “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” But to try to reduce the scandal by saying that everyone is informed by the Spirit of God so as to be inclusive, critically maims the gospel. The price to be paid for a political settlement with those who want to assert their unique culture is theological relativism. It means that the church is bound to baptise anyone’s spirituality just because they hold it. It means that the Church can no longer preach the gospel without also acknowledging other paths to God. Preachers would have to modify what they say so that no one is offended, a recipe for limp sermons that say nothing.

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The other aspect of the proposed preamble that caught my eye was that it unashamedly distinguishes Australians as First Peoples (those indigenous to this land) and Second Peoples (those who have come after the First). This is a big mistake for so many reasons. Why is it important who was here first? If we all came out of Africa we are all immigrants. There is no theological reason to make this distinction, surely we are all one in Christ. Why would you make this distinction unless there was a political agenda? Do First Peoples have something that the Second Peoples do not? Much of the document is concerned with the history of colonization and displacement. It is inappropriate for Aboriginal people to use their grievances for past wrongs as a central platform for change in the preamble. We have all done bad things and we hope, through grace, to do better things. But to rub each other’s nose in the bad does not help, to use the past for political leverage is worse. It is the essence of grace and forgiveness not to do so.

Certainly reconciliation is necessary and the events of the past should be fully aired. The church should confess its sins where appropriate. That is one thing, but to sacrifice theological integrity, which will disrupt the church’s relationship with other denominations and queer its future is entirely another. Once these decisions are made they will never be reversed and the church will be lumbered with a dysfunctional theology. Theology should not be tailored to political concerns as is clearly the case here. Rather, theology is a response to the gospel. This excludes all other considerations.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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