I am grateful to Rev Dr John Squires for his paper on the DNA of the UCA, which he distributed locally at the Meeting of the Presbytery of WA in May, and on the Assembly website. It helpfully identifies ten characteristics of the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) which I warmly endorse. They are some of the reasons why my wife and I, despite many moments of disillusionment with the path taken since 1977 by the UCA, nationally and at state level, have maintained our membership of this faltering denomination throughout the past 40 years.
Rev Dr Squires’ paper also invites comment from his readers about his proposed list of key characteristics. I believe that identifying these particular characteristics – or genes, to maintain the metaphor – is a necessary, but not sufficient, clarification of the denomination’s DNA.
Despite a few unexpanded mentions of ‘God’, ‘the Spirit’, and ‘Christ crucified’ in the paper, it would be hard to deduce from this evidence alone that our denomination stands for much more than an ethical humanism shakily sustained by the unbounded slogan of ‘inclusion’. The list doesn’t yet identify as part of our DNA those ultimate beliefs about God which empower the ethic: his nature and his self-revelation in Jesus as reliably reported in the Bible; and his expectations of the species he has made in his image.
I’m not trying to be a nit-picker. But the key reality test for the UCA is: what ultimate truth claims constitute its DNA? What distinguishes the UCA from organisations in the secular domain? What bonds the ten (or more) strands together, to create the UCA genome?
Assuming that the Basis of Union is still the definer of the UCA’s foundation beliefs, more genes need to be identified.
Though the word ‘Bible’ does not appear in Rev Dr Squires’ paper, it would be wrong to assume that he does not respect its significance would be unwarranted. After all, he appeals to the Basis of Union for validation of four of his ten characteristics, and that Basis emphasises that the UCA hears the Word of God through the Scriptures, and validates other beliefs by them (see https://assembly.uca.org.au/basis-of-union#witness).
On the other hand, in characteristic 7, Rev Dr Squires quotes the need identified in the Basis to learn from ‘contemporary scientific and historical studies’ in dealing with contentious issues. Yes indeed, but the problem is that often many people appeal to such sources precisely to override the core testimony of Scripture. Biblically and historically, what bonds the genes of the Christian DNA together is the central affirmation of ‘Christ crucified and risen’ – primary proof of a God who acts within as well as outside his creation.
Some theologians have bowed to styles of biblical scholarship whose research assumptions discount in advance the historical truth-claim of the physical resurrection of Christ, and all that flows from it. But this key belief is what validates our confidence in the actual existence of the unseen God, and the reality of our personal interactions with his Holy Spirit; and it is also what motivates truly Christian worship and service. A few honorable mentions of ‘God’ are simply not enough to map the UCA genome.
Meanwhile, over the 40 years there have been some potentially lethal mutations in the genome, resulting in the formation of worldviews even within our ranks which dismiss this key belief on pseudo-scientific grounds, and leave us with purportedly ‘progressive’ beliefs which deprive faith of power and evangelism of its imperative. I mean no disrespect to those sincere people who have chosen to reshape the New Testament Gospel in this way, but shouldn’t they in all honesty relinquish the use of the adjective ‘Christian’ to describe their revisionist faiths?
Considering the faith traditions of the three denominations which merged in 1977 to become the UCA, it is sad to see the historic biblical faith eroded in this way. Something is not right. Certainly genes 2 and 3 in Rev Dr Squires’ list, for example, rightly celebrate greater recognition of the gifts of the laity, and of women in particular, but such gains cannot disguise the diminishing number of candidates coming forward for ordination, and the general ageing and numerical shrinkage of congregations. Let’s have all the facts on the table.
Such factors were among those considered in the research on plausible future scenarios for the UCA undertaken by Dr Keith Suter, of which Revive published a summary in 2014. Several attempts have been made since then to persuade our denominational councils to take his analysis seriously, particularly at this time of review. But the evidence is that Dr Suter’s research has been deliberately ignored or discounted.
One church leader said, “We didn’t commission it, so we don’t need to consider it.”
But I have supervised and examined enough doctoral theses over the last 40 years to be able to tell that Dr Suter’s research is far from lightweight. And some of his findings are very sobering.
A possible response to the misgivings I’ve expressed above would be to say, “This is not a time to be negative – let’s focus on the positives.”
Yes indeed, but not to ignore the negatives – whether statistical, theological, or administrative – which presently threaten to break down the UCA genome. To ignore them would be to undermine the service we all hope our denomination will continue to render to society.
There are, of course, many organisations other than the UCA who exhibit moral responsibility, compassion, and concern for the environment. If the recent Australian census is to believed, many Australians regard Christian truth-claims merely as heart-warming spiritual myths without scientific support, and have concluded that the good life can be lived without reference to religion.
I pray that the helpful start which Rev Dr Squires and others have made in prompting us to identify the DNA of the UCA, will be followed up by further probing enquiry into who we are and what is the Good News which Christ our Lord has commissioned us to bring to a fractured society and groaning world.
Brian V Hill