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?

28 Comments:

Anonymous said...

Perhaps Andrew prefers the self-righteous in your face, only we possess the "truth", religious psychosis now being dramatized and promoted by right wing religionists all over the world, especially in the USA.

Right wing religionists that link into various outfits that now feature Russ Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity as their leading edge public face.

And to the degree that they do not criticize or dissociate themselves from these raving looney psychotics, they thereby effectively support these looneys.

Anonymous said...

Totally - as I was reading, I kept thinking, "Okay, here comes the paragraph where he's going to slam Rush Limbaugh" - but alas, it never came.

dbhamill.wordpress.com said...

I'm not sure about "Andrew", but I doubt Scott Stephens thinks that presenting the current theocons of the US as the only alternative to the path taken by the UCA is an intelligent criticism of his paper. It is typical of the liberal protestantism that Stephens criticises to define itself as the only real alternative to right-wing religion.

Ben Myers said...

And just to add to the previous comment: the really exemplary thing about the Basis of Union (it's a remarkable text) is that it refuses both the unthinking certainties of the right and the high-minded certainties of the left, opting instead to stake everything on the precarious venture of faith in the one who calls us to follow.

Peter Chapman said...

Cracking article - well said Scott - we need more people prepared to name some home-truths about the UCA: it has lost its theological bearings and as a result is in rapid decline and facing oblivion. May God indeed call this pilgrim people back to the narrow path!

John Squires said...

Scott's fear that the church will become simply an NGO provider of aged care ignores the history of the church; churches have initiated and instigated many things which then go on to be incorporated into 'mainstream' society. And the church goes on, looking to the next initiative that is needed; and continues to fulfil its prophetic role.

Alongside this critique-from-within, we should set the observation that so many people in society who are not active in church stil regard the UCA as a viable and positive entity in their world. Their critique-from-without is actually more hopeful than Scott's pessimistic piece suggests.

Do we really want to spend more time praying and repenting? (leaving less time for ... what ?)

kim fabricius said...

Thanks for the jeremiad, Scott. I thought I was reading about the United Reformed Church in the UK. We too are busy rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic - initiating reviews, rejigging ministerial assessments, urging churches to adopt the latest x-year plan, jollifying worship, dancing around the shrine of relevance, etc.

Of course it is de rigueur to talk about being "a church in exile", but it's guff and flapdoodle because of the singular failure to connect the dots of exile with the quaint idea judgement.

So we whistle in the dark and encourage each other with "confidence-building" stories instead of taking our time indwelling biblical narratives of loss - "only grief permits newness" (Brueggemann) - and (another quaint idea) repenting - which is not "the great 'I'm sorry'" (Campbell, Holloway) but costly turnaround. Believing that Christ is risen and reigns might be worth a try as well.

A. D. Hunt said...

I'm so glad that I don't have to worry about this in the Episcopal Church...wait...

Sally D said...

Miserable stuff, Ben. And boring, too. Yada, yada, "headlong rush into oblivion"..."God is killing the Church".."sacred birthright"..."quasi-pagan slop"..

For goodness' sake. Let those who share these concerns get out there and talk to people ("Christianity for the Rest of Us" by Butler-Bass sets the pace for that but is too American). Find out what inspires your people, what they care about, what they are praying for, find the glowing embers of faith, and blow gentle encouragement on them. Keep things in perspective, and do the basics. Here's how:

http://bishopalan.blogspot.com/2010/01/herding-cats-and-counting-sheep.html

Whistling in the dark it may be, but that sure beats pompous huffing and puffing. So does a nice afternoon nap.

Sally D
South Africa

Fat said...

How dare Scott Stephens try to discuss the elephant in the vestry. How dare he even raise the subject.

Brian said...

Mr Stephen does well to exhort the UCA to look to it origins. But he offers no evidence at all that it has strayed or that it is headed for oblivion. It all assertion and no argument.

nwcc said...

The Basis of Union is a great document. The Bible is even better. Well, ... far better. Eve so, yes, the church has been equipped with good words, on good paper.

Most Australian church-goers know that the Uniting Church has been dominated by a very liberal leadership, ideologically and politically-driven. Often quenching the Spirit. This has flowed on to form the theology of many of the people who have remained. This has kept the leadership similar!

So many faithful members—who have deferred to Scripture rather than acquiesce to liberal (& sometimes looney) scholarship—have been trampled upon, labelled as 'fundamentalists' (the worst of sins in the UCA), and often happily waved goodbye, as they have often reluctantly sought a place to function in other denominations. This lack of love towards the more conservative members of the UCA has often been shameful (yes, and then their response has often been wrongly bitter, I know...)

All sorts of people—often young families—have walked away from their UCA families and friends, only to attend the church building a bit further down the road. And then... they still meet their dear persistent, loyal, remaining UCA member grandparents, later on, on Sunday's for lunch together.

The outcome has been very painful (not to mention inefficient for one's green footprint). And a sort of hardened, liberal-elitism has developed in the UCA attitude toward the more crusty denominations. This is hardly a 'uniting' approach... Some repentance probably needs to focus on the attitude: 'too bad if their are casualties—it is just friendly-fire. It is the price we must pay for our ideology-slash-theology!'

But of course a safe environment has been ... instituted... for 'careerists and panderers'! The good news is that God is our gracious Father, Jesus our death-overcoming Lord, and the Holy Spirit still guides us into the truth (even via a very long route). Time to listen again to McCaughey ... hah... and the One who speaks 'through' the bible!

Paul Tyson said...

Fat’s comment interests me. I am sure that Scott is amongst the most intelligent and well read theological/philosophical thinkers we have in Australia, as well as being passionately engaged in the fight against the idolatry of religious consumerism. I admire him enormously for these reasons. But his use of Protestant Liberalism as a foil against the UCA mystifies me. As far as I can tell Scott is a materialist who doesn’t believe anyone (ie God) is there when you pray, he maintains that the church is the Holy Spirit, and he is himself somewhat intellectually embedded in progressive left wing Marxism. He strikes me as being quite at home in the quasi-atheistic intellectualism of Protestant Liberalism himself. Hmmmm. I thought his piece above was very much on target, but I can’t work Scott himself out in relation to what he would be repenting towards.

Anonymous said...

As an ex-member of the UCA (now Anglican) I cannot recall in my years attending UCA churches my opinion was sought on anything (apart from an NCLS survey once). Possibly paying attention to the vision of people within the church may be a start rather than the theorists. I found too many congregations with an average age of early 70s with presbyteries divided into "progressive" and "evangelical" a problem, so much for "Uniting".

Theophilus said...

Almost everything said here about the Uniting Church in Australia (minus the Davis McCaughey parts) applies perfectly to the United Church of Canada as well.

Andrew M said...

I agree with the gist of comments above: while short on evidence (it is an opinion piece, after all) Scott does seem to be talking about the elephant in the vestry.

My own experience as one who grew up in the Uniting Church and now attends elsewhere, is of a church that has definitely changed since I was a kid (late 70's), particularly theologically. As I visit my parents (who are still active members of the Uniting Church) it's heartbreaking to see a once vibrant congregation now aging and (literally) dieing.

I understand that culturally much has changed since 1977 (more precisely, since the early 70's) but it seems to me that the decline of the Uniting Church has at least as much to do with its drift in theology (from personal experience I understand that universalism is an acceptable view for elders in the UC these days) and the rise of political correctness (just try reading Journey sometime) as it does with the change in Australian culture.

Good on you Scott for being willing to raise this. (And good on you Journey for being willing to print it, tho' abridged.)

remylow said...

As a recent 'immigrant' to a Uniting Church, I somewhat understand what Scott seems to be driving at. Mind you, since when did churches measure their holiness by their numbers? (actually, hmmmm...)

It seems strange to me that many people see the 'solution' to the problems within the UCA as a return to some pre-ideological, pre-political Christianity (whether it is through some unmediated 'word' or 'spirit'). So I guess the big question is - 'repent' to what?

Perhaps the problem with flaccid liberalism lies not in its engagement with the contingencies of context/place/politics/culture, but the manner of its engagement, which often manifests as an polite Christianity that tries to humanise society. Perhaps it should go in the other direction, towards a more self-consciously political and ideological community that is unapologetic about its confessional status, and that enacts lives directed at what it understands to be its regulative ideal (e.g. 'kingdom of God', etc). As Stuart Hall once said, the difference between liberalism and radicalism may only be half a turn of the screw away, but the half turn makes all the difference.

Anonymous said...

remylow's comments are good ones. Trouble is, when you have a congregation whose average age is early 70s (they've always done things a certain way, etc etc), a minister on the verge of retirement trying to keep warring parties speaking to each other, and no youth ministry whatsoever - this is the congregation I encountered when I joined - idealogical argument means what??

philbaiden said...

Just adding my voice to Kim's. This could have been written for the URC in the UK.

"guff and flapdoodle." Can I quote that?

Anonymous said...

I find it less than helpful to read that "this could have been written for the URC in the UK'. "guff and flapdoodle" it might all be, but people have experienced real grief when they've had to leave a denomination they've committed to. Maybe taking notice of 'people' instead of 'ideologies' would be a start.

Marvin said...

It's fine to criticize an institution's theology, but to say that institutional malaise is God's punishment for bad theology is, um, above the writer's pay grade. Neither Scott Stephens nor the Great and Powerful Stanley is the Deuteronomic Historian. It's a dicey proposition to line up temporal blessings and setbacks with a neat scheme of divine reward and punishment, so much so that Augustine wisely recommended that outside the history of Israel as recorded in the scriptures we just don't know for sure the exact contours of God's providential weal and woe, especially as institutions go.

Wasn't Elijah outnumbered 400 to 1? Maybe the Church of Baal was where all those highly coveted young families were going back in the day.

Didn't Jesus' ministry seemingly end in failure? Don't the theologians tell us that God is on the side of the marginalized?

Maybe liberal Protestantism's "demise" is a prophet's reward.

The issue is faithfulness to the gospel, which will result in either more or less members, revenue and cultural influence. Implying that if only we were more faithful, more money, members and influence would quickly follow is just another Prosperity Gospel.

philbaiden said...

Anonymous,

I'm a bit confused by your response. Both Kim and I are ministers in the URC and we've both spotted some parallels with the UCA. I'm pondering why you feel that we don't seem to care about people from small comments on a blog.

Marvin,
You're right it is about faithfulness to the Gospel. If the church was declining but we were being faithful then we'd hang on in there and patiently bear our crosses. I think the problem is that liberal denominations are less than faithful as they go after "the strange gods of impotent theology, liturgical gimmickry, inert bureaucracy and social respectability."

remylow said...

If ideology = the languages, concepts, categories, imagery of thought and the worldview asociations which different groups deploy in order to make sense of, figure out and render intelligible the way society works, then I neither see how there can be a 'Gospel' or 'Christ', nor a congregation (even of avg. age of 70+) that is not already functioning ideologically. The question is what ideology, why and for what ends?

Isn't this precisely the problem with liberals, that they see everyone else as being 'ideological' except for themselves as the true universalists? Sliding to the opposite end of the pole to some 'non-ideological Truth' may win a Church some numbers (which may be construed as blessing/godliness), but I'm not certain that reactions, especially ones aiming at winning numbers, are very honest. It's like secretly trying to be relevant by being irrelevant (a Christian version of Bourgeois Bohemians or emo kids maybe?)

Anonymous said...

philbaiden,
Your comments seemed to reflect an approval for words used to describe a very sad and heartbreaking occurrence in ordinary people's lives. That is how I interpreted it.
Are people being unfaithful to God when they change a situation that is making them, literally, ill. People fighting within a congregation, a minister unable to do anything and a leadership largely silent - I think that's being unfaithful to God.

philbaiden said...

Ah, ok. I was responding to Kim's comment above which was speaking institutionally.

I wasn't responding to the situation you describe.

Anonymous said...

...good points being made and thank you Scott for "just saying it" (I'm so very, very over people being sensitive about issues that can't afford to be sensitive!), but amidst all of this i am gravely concerned over the current "where to from here": our family has been at pains to find a good bible-teaching community of believers that we can send our kids along to to get a good program and fellowship with good people...people of substance. i am aghast at the idea of just settling for what most find themselves defaulting to: Hillsong and commercial fundamentalism. God forbid. Where's this all headed? Moreover, what are we to do?

Martin Shields said...

While I think Scott Stephens accurately identifies the situation that the Uniting Church now finds itself in, I suspect he places too much confidence in the Basis of Union. In spite of McCaughey's plea for a return to the Basis of Union and its repeated approbation by many (mainly within the Uniting Church), in many ways it is the Basis of Union that lies at the root of the problem in the Uniting Church. As Scott notes, the Basis anticipates confession in "fresh words and deeds." The inclusivity of the BoU opens the door for all manner of novelty without any real constraint. It is the absence of clear authority in the Basis which inevitably results in the situation the Church finds itself in today.

So when, in paragraph 18, the Basis offers the prayerful hope that God will constantly correct the erroneous, it offers no clear basis for identifying when the church veers into error and so each party can claim to represent the voice of God. In spite of the propensity to assign blame to the adoption of "quasi-pagan sentimentality and soft-left political correctness," those who have led the church in this direction would generally claim to be acting in accord with the BoU and their interpretation of the Spirit's leading.

Historically, creeds, confessions, and articles of faith sought to outline precise parameters by which the truth could be discerned from error. This is largely lacking in the BoU so it offers no real remedy for the situation the Uniting Church finds itself in today.

R D Parker said...

As a former Uniter, I agree with a lot of what Martin Shields says. I always had trouble with the Basis of Union as it referred to Wesley's sermons and the Westminster documents in a manner that suggested they were similar theologically. How wrong that was. Wesley was a godly evangelist but quite Arminian, while the Westminster documents are reformed and Calvinistic. No union between Arminians and reformed evangelicals could be successful. Spurgeon warned of such things a hundred years before, in his Downgrade Controversy - Arminianism leads us down the slippery slope to Arianism, liberalism, neo-orthodoxy and all the other heresies that come from the pit.

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