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12-06-2002 08:30 AM


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12-06-2002 08:30 AM


On June 22, 1977, Australia's Congregationalists, Methodists and Presbyterians joined to form the Uniting Church in Australia. The Uniting Church has since gone on to take a prominent role in political and social affairs, taking a stand on environmental issues and working at the forefront of Aboriginal rights and reconciliation. Along the way it has grown to 300,000 members across 2,800 congregations. We look at the past, present and future of this unique denomination.


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Religion Report -

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Stephen Crittenden: Welcome to the program.

This week on The Religion Report, we're celebrating 25 years of Australia's first home-grown church: the Uniting Church.


Stephen Crittenden: Twenty-five years ago this month, the Uniting Church in Australia was born, as the majority of the membership of three major reformed churches came together: Presbyterian, Methodist and Congregationalist. At the beginning the new Uniting Church had a bright vision that it would be an ecumenical church, a truly Australian church, with a particular commitment to social engagement, and that it would attempt to be as democratic and non-hierarchical as possible.

For all its many achievements, there's an air of depression hanging over these celebrations; we were astonished that everyone we spoke for this program, left, right and centre, said they wanted us to explore the question of whether the Uniting Church has lost its way, whether it's still a church in search of a soul, or a binding idea.

So to discuss these issues we've put together a panel of prominent church members from around the country. Joining us in our Canberra studios is Gregor Henderson, who for eight years was General Secretary of the Uniting Church's National Assembly. He's now Chairman of the National Council of Churches. In our Melbourne studios is Bronwyn Pike, Victoria's Minister for Housing and Aged Care. She's a former Director of Justice and Social Responsibility for the Church's Victorian Synod. In Sydney is theologian Chris Budden, who's General Secretary of the Uniting Church's New South Wales Synod. And finally, Mary Hawkes is national spokesperson for EMU, the conservative ecumenical movement within the Uniting Church, and Mary is speaking to us from Adelaide where EMU was originally formed.

Welcome to all of you - and let's start with you, Chris Budden: what does the Uniting Church do well, and what does it do poorly?

Chris Budden: In some areas we've done really well. I think we've involved people, we've recognised gifts, we've expanded ministries, we've kept going in social justice, great commitment to the ecumenical movement, and to our relationships with other churches. The one area I think we struggle with is: how does the Uniting church manage to share its sense of faith and invite people to be part of the life of the church? Part of that is that the Uniting church was part of that whole era where the church's role was to defend public morality and support the life of the society, and we showed that in the 1950s and 60s, with hundreds and hundreds of kids in Sunday Schools entrusted to us, to tell people how they should behave. When the agreement in society about how people should behave and the kind of society we are broke down, the churches struggled to discover then how it's relevant, and we're still struggling to find out how we tell people about Jesus Christ in a way that they actually hear.

Stephen Crittenden: Gregor Henderson, what do you think the Uniting church does well and what does it do poorly?

Gregor Henderson: What we do very well is our sense of national identity as a church which has very strong ecumenical commitment, which has a key commitment to being an Australian church: our involvement in Aboriginal issues, our involvement in remote areas ministry, our involvement in seeking for Australian liturgies. We do social justice and community service on the whole very, very well. We're huge players in the community in those areas. But what we have not done well is the enormous struggle for the effectiveness of local congregations, where numerically our membership and the number of our congregations has been in decline really since the 1960s, but the Uniting Church's coming has not arrested that decline. And the struggle to find how we can be relevant and how we can touch people's lives, how we can proclaim the Gospel and live it out in local communities through local congregations. That's where we are really struggling - along with most churches in the Western world.

Stephen Crittenden: Mary Hawkes in Adelaide, your group, the Evangelical wing of the Uniting Church, emerged in the 1990s. It began I guess as a backlash against the idea of gay clergy, but it's actually much more than that, isn't it? It's about this issue of proclaiming the Gospel more than anything else, isn't it?

Mary Hawkes: Absolutely, Stephen, yes. Yes, you're right, it did start at that point, but we very quickly realised that there's a whole lot more that we're very concerned about. How do we engage as a church with younger people? We don't even actually engage very well with older people, given the number of older people in our society.

Stephen Crittenden: I saw an astonishing headline in the Uniting Church newspaper Western Impact the other day, looking at the results of the National Church Life Survey, which showed that more than one-third of the membership of the Uniting Church is now aged over 70. And the headline was "Cause For Optimism as Church Grows Greyer". That's a bit bizarre, isn't it?

Mary Hawkes: Well, I think it is. There was a similar thing in a newspaper here in South Australia. I think it's bizarre and denial - is that the word for it? - while we live in denial, we're not going to be able to move on. If we're insisting that everything in the garden is rosy, then we're going to have enormous problems. But once we can say we actually do have a problem here, and we do need to learn how to engage with younger people and how to be relevant to younger people as a church, how to change the way we do things, the language we use, not the Gospel, but everything else about being church, to something that young people find attractive, user-friendly, all that sort of stuff.

Stephen Crittenden: Bronwyn Pike, you obviously have a big connection with the church's welfare arm, and it's important to remember isn't it? that the Uniting Church has the biggest church welfare arm in Australia.

Bronwyn Pike: Yes, and I think that the Uniting Church makes a wonderful contribution in community services right across the country. But in a sense, that is part of the church's dilemma as well, because a lot of that service and mission to the community emanated from the church's congregational life, and its mission and outreach, its love and compassion for those in need. Now, of course, community service is very dependent on government funding, is very driven by government priorities, and I know that the church has struggled for a long time with this, and how this expression of ministry really fits in to its core understanding of its role in the world.

Stephen Crittenden: From where you sit, as a Minister in the Victorian government, are those sorts of relationships with government in danger of becoming too close, and indeed, diminishing the church's prophetic role?

Bronwyn Pike: Look, there's always a tension between community service agencies and the government, but it's fundamentally about funding. And I must say that having been in the position of Director of Justice and Social Responsibility in the Victorian Synod, and now moving into the place of being a government minister, I'm surprised that the churches don't give me more grief. I don't say that too loudly.

Stephen Crittenden: You want more grief, do you?

Bronwyn Pike: Well I'm a member of the Uniting Church, I think I have a good understanding of what the church's prophetic role is, and the church, because of the transformative nature of the Gospel, is all about social transformation. And whilst we engage with the communities from a church's perspective in the provision of care, what the church is concerned about is the order of the world, and those things that cause injustice in the first place. So I think that the relationship between any government of whatever persuasion, and the church, should by nature have a creative tension in there. And I guess from my perspective I don't see it that much - although I will say that I think the churches have played a very, very important role in the debate about mandatory detention and our whole treatment of asylum seekers and refugees.

Stephen Crittenden: Gregor Henderson, some people might say that the Uniting Church these days has less bite, less clout with governments in fighting big issues, than it did even ten years ago.

Gregor Henderson: I'm afraid I would have to agree with that. I think 10, 20, 30 years ago, when the church spoke to the government on some social issue, especially if the churches were able to speak together on it, then the government took enormous notice - not only listened, but tended to change their policies or be influenced quite heavily by the churches.

Stephen Crittenden: I mean, particularly when you think that a church like the Methodist Church, for example, in the 70s stood up to people like Bjelke-Petersen very bravely in Queensland. And I wonder whether that kind of cutting-edge stuff is still there.

Gregor Henderson: Well I think we have become more timid. I think also the government has tended to disregard us, and because the numbers of members of churches have declined over the last 20 years and has probably meant a little loss of political influence for us, governments can also play off one denomination against another if there are some degrees of difference in viewpoint from churches, and I think politically the going has got harder. But overall, I would agree that the church has lost some of its social bite, has lost some of its prophetic figures and prophetic leadership, and that's something that I would hope that we would look to to rediscover and re-emphasise in our next 25 years.

Stephen Crittenden: I want to ask now about theology. As the various churches that fed into the Uniting Church came together, it's very significant in my mind that they came out of very different theological traditions. You know, you had the Calvinism of the Presbyterians, the warm-hearted, social concern of the Methodists; I wonder whether those differences have been digested, whether they still remain undigested, whether they've come together to produce something completely new. Could I start with you, Gregor?

Gregor Henderson: My feeling is that we have largely digested those various streams. I think there were fewer differences between the three denominational theological emphases coming into union than is often said. We do retain various streams sort of like the classically-formed theology that came out of the Presbyterian and to a lesser degree the Congregational Church, the evangelism and social action which was strong in the Methodist Church, we've certainly got those streams here. But I would say overall, the Uniting Church created a more umbrella of a sort of a 20th century ecumenical theological vision that became our new major stream. I think we probably have run the danger of looking for newness so much that we've thrown out and disregarded some of the value of the older traditions from our former denominations. And I would want us to do some more theological checking, some more theological reflections, some more historical checking of how the church lives these days, and probably recapture some more of the passion that was in those various streams. That's where the churches become too timid, not only socially but also theologically in my view.

Stephen Crittenden: Mary Hawkes, would the Wesleys, who are often invoked by the Uniting Church, would they be turning in their graves if they saw the Uniting Church today?

Mary Hawkes: I think they would, personally - I think John would; Charles stayed an Anglican - because their passion for the Gospel was so huge, to ride around England on a horse for however many years he did, and the thousands and thousands of miles, there's got to be an enormous passion that drives that, and I think we've lost that largely as a church. Not totally. We're not so sure that we've got something so really good that we have to get out there and shout about it any more. And that's a real pity, because the truth is, we still have got something that's worth shouting about.

Stephen Crittenden: Bronwyn Pike, has one of the problems been political correctness? And is indeed political correctness one of the first things you think about when you think of the Uniting Church?

Bronwyn Pike: I'm not sure about that. I've met some bold people in the Uniting Church and I think we've had some very feisty and healthy debates over the time. I think though that the church really maybe has lost its confidence. I believe absolutely firmly that people's lives can be transformed in a relationship with Jesus Christ, and I think that we've tended to think that maybe people's salvation is only found in psychology or counselling and all of these things help, but true transformation is still there and available when people come to understand that by giving their lives away, they find it.

Stephen Crittenden: Chris Budden in New South Wales, what do you think about that?

Chris Budden: I think Bronwyn's right. I mean part of the thing that we struggle with in the bringing of traditions was an established church like a Church of Scotland in its background, really as a reformed church brought the whole understanding of grace and a gift from God, as did Methodism, but it added to it the sense that you also have to be transformed individuals. I mean part of the movement into working-class kind of thing. I think that's what we've struggled with, is that the Gospel is about personal and political transformation. The social justice people in our church hang on to the political transformation, and others hang on to personal conversion, and you've actually got to hold on to them both. And in Victoria recently in their paper, they had a number of editions where they struggled with "does the Uniting Church actually believe in conversion?" And it's an important question for us, because that's where I think we've lost our nerve - not in the political stuff, but in calling people to believe that Jesus actually makes a difference to their lives, which is personal and political. But we find it hard, I think, in a changing world, our theology, our sense of how we talk about Jesus, people find that very difficult. Many members of the Uniting Church have a lot of sympathy for Spong. I think Spong talks about old things. But the reality is, he's actually tapping into some sense that the language we use no longer makes sense to people, and the Uniting Church doesn't spend enough of its time and energy trying to help its members talk about the things that they believe, find language to tell people why they believe in Jesus.

Stephen Crittenden: Gregor Henderson, let's talk about the structures of the church; is the democratic ideal of the Uniting Church an impediment in many ways, the kind of consensus model that was established?

Gregor Henderson: I think the consensus model has in fact been a gift to the church. It's enabled us to deal with some of our more complex and emotional internal issues. It could have been much more divisive if we hadn't had the consensus model to help us deal with them. But on the other hand, I think it also takes away from Councils of the church being led by particular individuals who have a passion for some particular point of view and can lead the church more strongly in that point of view. I think we have lost some of our cut and thrust in debate because of our keenness to move in consensus. I think our actual model doesn't need to be employed that way, but in practice we have become a little too easygoing, and I think we have not thrown up, and our consensus procedures may a factor here, have not thrown up new church leaders of whom the whole community says "boy, that person makes sense, that woman really talks well", and where governments are in a sense, forced to take note of what such a church leader says.

Stephen Crittenden: One of the watershed moments in the history of the Uniting Church was its Eighth National Assembly in Perth in 1997, when there was an anguished debate over gay and lesbian clergy, centred on Dorothy McRae McMahon, and here's a reminder, an emotional interview that Dorothy McRae McMahon gave after the assembly.

Dorothy McRae McMahon: I was literally shaking as I said it. It was a very hard decision indeed. It really did, without being in any sense blasphemous, feel like walking towards my Jerusalem, it did feel like the Way of the Cross. I love the church, and I've had a 63-year passionate love affair with the church. I still love it. But I would find God a mocking God if that God had created homosexual people to long for a loving relationship with another person, and then say that that is a sin.

Stephen Crittenden: Now listening to that, Chris Budden, I wonder whether people didn't in a sense retire hurt after that assembly, and not want to ever get into a debate that was quite that fierce ever again?

Chris Budden: I think that's partly true of course, and people did get wounded about it. But the positive part about it was we actually held that conversation, there was some pretty open and honest and strong comments in the middle of that, and yet we proved to be a church that could actually hear those and struggle with them and deal with them. And yes, we decided we didn't want to visit it for a little while, and yes, we decided there were some other really important issues in our life, but there was an enormous sense that we actually stayed together and were able to continue a conversation with each other.

Stephen Crittenden: But Chris, I wonder whether that wasn't the moment where the diversity model, if you like, actually broke down. I mean the numbers were there on the floor of that assembly to support gay clergy, and yet you backed away from it because it was opposed by the Aboriginal groups and the ethnic groups in the church. And it was out of respect for them, and yet if you'd been a gay person at that assembly you might have thought in advance that everyone shared this ideal of diversity, that the ethnic lobby, the Aboriginal lobby, would have been absolutely gung-ho to support the gays in the Uniting Church, and it all just fell apart. Isn't that the truth?

Chris Budden: Well that's one way of looking at it. The other way is that there is always limits to diversity in any community. You've got some boundaries and some openness, and the question that the Uniting Church was debating in Perth is where's the limits of our diversity and how do we talk about those limits. And it was clear that there were some limits, and if we'd have pushed them to make that more open diversity, we'd have lost a whole lot of people who didn't want to participate in that church. And it was a very painful moment, of course.

Stephen Crittenden: Mary Hawkes, Dorothy McRae McMahon - despite what happened to her - says that in her view, it was actually one of the high points in the history of church. What do you think?

Mary Hawkes: I think there were pluses and minuses with that.

Stephen Crittenden: Because your group obviously opposed the gay clergy issue, didn't it?

Mary Hawkes: Yes. Not gay people, but gay clergy, and still does. Nothing's changed there. And I might just say that some of our people did leave the church after the Perth Assembly. They couldn't, they felt, remain with integrity.

Stephen Crittenden: But I think you would agree with Chris, wouldn't you, that one of the things that was going on there, and one of the things that your group was really doing, was testing the limits of consensus?

Mary Hawkes: I suppose that's right.

Stephen Crittenden: As indeed Dorothy McRae McMahon was.

Mary Hawkes: Yes. I think we would have said perhaps more that we were looking at what are the limits of the Gospel. For us in EMU, it's certainly important that we understand what the limits of diversity are within the church, because the bottom line is that we are united in Christ, and we believe that the Gospels give us the limits that Christ has for the church. I mean he wasn't accepting of everybody and everything, he was accepting of everybody, on his terms. It was 'Go and sin no more'. And there's a danger, I think, that as a church we're getting to a point where we are wanting to be so diverse that maybe we will cease to be Christian in a true and pure sense.

Stephen Crittenden: Gregor Henderson, the Uniting Church was Australia's first indigenous Australian church. Has an identifiably Uniting Church spirituality emerged, in your view?

Gregor Henderson: I think it would be very difficult to assert that with any great degree of confidence - in the sense that the Uniting Church's spirituality, first and foremost, is Christian spirituality, very much obviously founded, centred, on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. However, you could add to that that there have been some important influences from being a free Australian church, no longer tied to mother's apron strings overseas. For instance, there is probably more expression of Aboriginal spirituality being adapted to Christian understandings of the creation, and of community, that have come even into our liturgies. For instance, one of our main communion, the sacrament of holy communion liturgy speaks about "in time beyond our dreaming". There's an Aboriginal concept right there at the heart of Christian worship in the Uniting Church. We've also, from the leadership of people like Dorothy McRae McMahon and Bruce Prewer, Denholm Grierson, and others who have helped us to see what it is to be Christian in Australia and how things, motifs out of the bush, out of our multiculturalism, out of our history here in Australia, can be incorporated into our worship. And those things are very prominent in the worship services of many, many Uniting Church congregations these days, where worship has a distinctly Australian flavour. Add to that the Australian hymn book, which was an ecumenical effort and which now in its second version includes more Australian songs and hymns, and there are Australian spiritual overtones within the Uniting Church that would not have happened if the Uniting Church had not come into existence when it did.

So I would say yes, there is an Australian spirituality there, but rather it should be described as a Christian spirituality with an Australian flavour.

Stephen Crittenden: Chris Budden.

Chris Budden: I think one of the things that shapes us is the Basis Of Union when it talks about Jesus and what the kingdom means. It says it's not only a future reality but a present unfolding, and I think Australian Uniting Church spirituality is shaped by that sense, that we have to deal with present reality and - unlike some spiritualities that talk about God doing everything, including finding you a car park - ours is much more about a sense of responsibility, of shared responsibility. And so the spirituality we seek grows out of that. And the National Church Life Survey says that many Uniting Church people believe the Eucharist, rather than - surprisingly enough, again - our old traditions that would have been sermon or something, lies at the heart of their life.

Stephen Crittenden: Eucharist?

Chris Budden: Yes, Eucharist.

Stephen Crittenden: In other words, the sacramental aspect.

Chris Budden: The sacramental aspect is what people really are after, and so they're trying to explore their spirituality with God, their sense of being responsible, and yet sharing with God rather than being told what to do like in sermon styles, as something where they can actually experientially know who God is and join a journey. It's a different sense of relationship with God and the world than, I think, we grew out of.

Stephen Crittenden: Can I ask you all, by way of closing, whether the Uniting Church is going through a kind of identity crisis after 25 years, whether it's a bit like the Australian Democrats at prayer - finally, whether the problem in the end isn't that it's all a bit bland because of the need for consensus. What do you think, Gregor?

Gregor Henderson: I would say it was far too strong to call it an identity crisis, because I think our identity is pretty well set, but I would agree that there are issues there about the limits to our diversity and because of our huge areas of diversity, there is a danger with our consensus emphasis of just becoming too bland. What I would hope happens in the next decade or two, is that on the basis of our current sense of identity and credibility and recognition of the Australian community, we become bolder and more passionate about finding ways that the Christian Gospel does and is relevant to Australian people, young, old, multicultural, Aboriginal, cities, rural, everywhere, and I think we'll find that the church will strengthen in that boldness in the next ten years and that edge of our identity sorts of issues will be resolved more happily. I do think we'll be a more confident and more passionate church in 10 or 20 years' time than we are now.

Stephen Crittenden: Mary Hawkes, has the Uniting Church suffered from trying too much to be all things to all people?

Mary Hawkes: I think you could make a case along those lines, definitely. It does of necessity then dilute what you believe or what you are prepared to speak out about, because you don't want to upset anybody. I think though, Gregor has made an excellent point. In fact if we don't manage to become more passionate in the next 10 years, and more sure of who we are and where we're going and what we believe, we won't exist any more. And that's a pretty dire statement; I think we are at the point of almost no return, we either start to pick up ourselves and become passionate, confident in the Gospel and get out there and make it known, or we are content just to fade away into nothing.

Stephen Crittenden: Bronwyn?

Bronwyn Pike: I think the church totally underestimates the deep spiritual yearning there is in the broader Australian community. People would be surprised at how often issues of spirituality and religion are discussed around a Cabinet table. There's a great interest in these things. People would be surprised at the number of secular events I attend that have a spiritual component. At every major crisis point in our nation's history, you know at Port Arthur massacre, at the S-11 event, people turned to the churches, the broader community, they want to express their spirituality, they want to light candles. And I think that's a real challenge for the church, to identify ways to reach out and touch those deep yearnings that are there in the community and make sense and form and meaning of those yearnings so that they play out them in the broader fabric of our community lives.

Stephen Crittenden: And finally, Chris Budden - and you've got a very short time to sum up - is there cause for concern, is there cause for optimism?

Chris Budden: I think there's cause for optimism in terms of the passion of the people in congregations. I think there's cause for concern if we don't understand that we're moving into a post-denominational age where your identity cannot in fact be that of a major corporate kind of bureaucratic organisation that sees its identity in the Councils of the church beyond the congregations. We actually have to discover that our identity is located in local communities who will relate in a less structural way, in a looser formation, that encourages, and that's my hope that we will in fact reman that kind of encouraging strengthening networking of congregations.

Stephen Crittenden: Thanks to all of you. It's been great talking to you all. Thank you.

And our panel was Bronwyn Pike, Gregor Henderson, Mary Hawkes and Chris Budden. That's all this week: thanks to David Rutledge, John Diamond and Greg Richardson.