The Commitment to Catholicity in the Basis of Union of the Uniting Church in Australia

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The role and status of the Basis of Union under which the Congregational, Methodist and Presbyterian Churches agreed to unite in 1977 has been a matter of controversy especially in the light of Constitutional changes made at the 1991 Assembly concerning ministry and ordination which many saw to be inconsistent with the Basis and a departure from the commitment to remain within the holy catholic church. There have since been other challenges to the continuing catholicity of the Church.

My most recent contribution, a brief version of which is to be published in The Traveling Emu, Autumn 2001, is the article Basic guidelines for unity in diversity, written in answer to the question, "What kind of diversity is compatible with the Basis of Union". It also brings up to date the effect of the Constitutional change in 1997 which began with the difficulty in 1991.

The paper The Constitution and the Basis of Union is an extensive analysis of the theological and legal questions raised at the time of the 1991 Assembly and subsequent actions of the President. It reflects the high degree of concern that was felt by many in councils of the Church, especially in the Synod of Victoria, and the Presbytery of Gippsland of which I was then Presbytery Minister. I was than an active member of the Synod and the National Assembly. It was written in the heat of controversy. It is a long and heavy paper which no one will want to read on line from the screen, so go to sections of interest set out with bookmarks in the table of contents at the beginning or down load and save it for later study.

A little of what led to writing that paper can be seen in submissions I made to the President and the Assembly Standing Committee concerning the Basis of Union in the preceding year.

Some of the heat went out of the conflict when the Assembly in 1994 changed the most contentious decision of the previous Assembly on ordination, and some more careful and deliberate reflection was undertaken by the Commission on Doctrine regarding ordination, and the Advisory Group on Church Polity on the role of the Basis of Union. The reports of Presbytery and Synod groups for which I did most of the drafting reflect fairly well how my thinking developed in making responses to the Assembly reports on the Ordination and Ministry in the Uniting Church and The Status, Authority, and Role of the Basis of Union within the Uniting Church in Australia. Others of course contributed to these responses made on behalf of councils of the church, but I was happy with the result; so these papers together with the one on the Constitution and the Basis give a fair view of my theological thinking in recent years. Further background may be seen in an earlier article Unity, Diversity and Catholicity .

Copies of the Basis of Union in the 1992 inclusive language version and the original version of 1971 can be accessed on the Victorian Synod web site.

The 1997 Assembly approved an amendment to the Constitution which removes some of the risk of departure from the Basis of Union, the apostolic faith and the catholic church, by incorporating reference to the Basis in the Constitution as a source of guidance on the intention of the Uniting Church to live and work within the faith and unity of the one holy catholic and apostolic church, the wording of the amendment is weak and open to ideologically inspired interpretation: The Church affirming that it belongs to the people of God on the way to the promised end, lives and works within the faith and unity of the one holy catholic and apostolic church, guided by its Basis of Union. A good deal more work remains to be done on the sources of doctrinal authority in the Church, individual liberty, the responsibility of church councils on questions with doctrinal implications, and the unity of the church.

Closely related is the question of the just what are the doctrinal standards of the Uniting Church at the present time. Here is my attempt to answer that question for a study group in 1995. This might be taken together with the section on the substance of the faith the 1993 paper on the Basis. There will of course be some tendency to want to put a "progressive" spin on it, given the "Forward Together" commitment of the Assembly, officially for a period in recent years, but as I have argued in the section on progress and development and in my sermon Do Christians believe in progress?, it is not so much a matter of whether you have your foot on the brake or the accelerator as what you do with the steering wheel.

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