Monday, 1 February 2010

The lowest common denomination: a lament

by Scott Stephens (Scott is a pastor and theological educator in the Uniting Church in Australia, one of the country’s largest mainline denominations. In this piece, Scott discusses the Church’s founding confessional document, the Basis of Union. A shorter version of this piece was published in the denominational magazine, Journey.)

Over thirty years ago, the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) embarked on what could have been a remarkable journey, but it deviated from its original course with devastating consequences. It is now a shell of its former self, like so much Liberal Protestantism throughout the West, having gone whoring after the strange gods of impotent theology, liturgical gimmickry, inert bureaucracy and social respectability.

The past decade in particular has seen the UCA relinquish any prophetic vocation it might once have had — along with a considerable portion of its ecclesial and evangelistic vitality — and instead assume the inoffensive role of the religious division of a non-government provider of community and health services.

And so, in an extraordinary apostasy from its original calling, the UCA has decided to represent the ‘middle way’, the path of least resistance, a facile alternative to fundamentalism, evangelicalism and pentecostalism. In short, it has become the lowest common denomination. It doesn’t take much effort to imagine that, if God sees fit to grant it another thirty years, all that will be left of the Uniting Church itself is the logo on hospitals and Blue Care letterhead — and that for purely historical reasons.

But perhaps most troubling is that the fledgling church was warned against this very apostasy by Davis McCaughey, inaugural President of the Uniting Church. In his incendiary address to the 1979 Assembly of the UCA, McCaughey expressed his fear that the Church would be hijacked by bureaucrats and pedants, and that its clergy would be reduced to careerists and panderers:

“We no longer seem to expect our ministers to spend hours (literally hours) every week, thinking, reading, praying: so that when the hungry sheep look up they may be fed.... And I am not wholly convinced that our Constitution, Regulations and Procedures are sufficiently and rigorously controlled by [our eschatological hope]. I am not persuaded that they are not in danger ... of becoming ends in themselves.”
He warned just as passionately against the tendency he perceived to adopt a form of incestuous Church patriotism, which would obscure and ultimately destroy the Church’s vocation to carry on the mission of Christ:
“At all events the cry for a sense of identity in the Uniting Church cannot be answered by the offer of a new kind of Church patriotism. 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 on their way to the consummation of all things in him.… We have embarked on a course in which we ask men and women to forget who they are, and chiefly to remember whose they are.”
Throughout his address, McCaughey pleaded for a return to the Basis of Union as a source of correction and renewal of the already deteriorating Church — a renewal, he emphasized, that must begin with the congregations themselves. Hence, for McCaughey, any suggestion that the Basis is merely an aspirational document or some transitional text that brought the uniting churches together (a ‘vanishing mediator’, as Max Weber would have put it) must be rejected out of hand.

The Basis is a liturgical document, shaped by the logic of Christian worship (“the rhythm of the gospel,” as McCaughey called it ); as such, it lends itself fully as much to communal prayer as it does to confession. Just notice the prominence and deliberate usage of prayer-language and doxology in 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.” Having thus placed their past divisions under the sign of the strong name of the Trinity, they engage in a kind of corporate repentance for the disobedience of times past by pledging their “sole loyalty to Christ the living Head of the Church” and vowing “to remain open to constant reform under his Word.”

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).

In paragraph 15, after describing the ordering of the church so shaped by the gospel, those already existing agencies within the uniting churches are invited to place themselves under the gracious judgment of God’s Word, and thereby “consider afresh their common commitment to the Church’s mission and demonstration of her unity.” The paragraph concludes with the prayer “that God will enable them to order their lives for these purposes.”

Finally, paragraph 18 gathers everything together into a concluding supplication: “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.”

This liturgical approach highlights those defining prayers which have been given to the Church, but which have been scorned and neglected to its peril: the prayer for continual repentance (that God “will constantly correct that which is erroneous in her life”) and for strident witness (that the Church would be ready “to confess her Lord in fresh words and deeds”).

At present, having traded its sacred birthright for a slop of quasi-pagan sentimentality and soft-left political correctness, the Uniting Church in Australia seems to have made up its mind to follow the rest of the Liberal Protestant herd in its head-long rush into oblivion. And yet, as I write this, I can’t help up think that there is another explanation for the UCA’s almost assured disappearance. 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.”
Is God is killing the Uniting Church? Perhaps. Either way, its only alternatives are to continue indulging in the gratuitous “Church patriotism” that has blinded it to its plight thus far, and go on erecting stop-gap measures to stave off the inevitable; or it can embrace the fact that the Basis of Union has already placed the Church under the judgment of the Word of God with joyful repentance.

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

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