A Story of Hope and Grief

by David Beswick, August 1999,

Published in Joy Pain: Belonging in the Uniting Church, edited by Hugh McGinlay, Melbourne: Uniting Education, 2000

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The high hopes I held for the Uniting Church began to be formed in my first encounters with the ecumenical movement fifty years ago. The idea of Christian unity with its promise of overcoming centuries of religious prejudice was part of the mixture of faith and tradition into which we in the burgeoning Methodist youth movement entered with enthusiasm in the years of promise after the war. It was inspiring to hear the Australian youth delegates speak at a youth rally in Launceston after their return from the First Assembly of the World Council of Churches which was held at Amsterdam in 1948, and then later to experience the fellowship of Christians from other traditions in the Student Christian Movement at the University of Melbourne where it was then a very significant influence. First news of what became the Uniting Church was given to us at Queens College about 1954 when Calvert Barber, Professor of Theology and President-General of the Methodist Church, told us of the beginnings of negotiations for union.

By the time I returned from Harvard in 1961and completed my preparation for ordination, the reports of the Joint Commission on Church Union were beginning to appear. These were the most exciting church documents I had ever seen. It was also the time of Robinson's Honest to God, Harvey Cox's Secular City, and the proclamation that "God is dead". There appeared to be no limit to "The New Reformation", although I was critical of its skepticism. Debates on the form of the proposed union were closely tied up with radical discussion of reform in the church. We voted gladly for the ordination of women, and brought recommendations for new forms of ministry. We younger ministers were not to be satisfied with a cozy practical amalgamation, and we were pleased to see the renewed and more challenging conception of the church in its catholic and apostolic character that was coming out of the union negotiations.

There was naturally also much anxiety. On one occasion Harold Wood, a strong supporter of church union and a greatly respected leader of the Methodist tradition, wrote to the church paper lamenting some of the changes underway in the church and saying "Methodism is dying". I wrote back to say, "The physician has told us the terrible truth, Methodism is dying, let us therefore take out our little black books and prepare for the funeral service: it begins, 'I am the resurrection, and the life, says the Lord.'" We really expected new life to be born of the struggles then underway.

It was at that time that I decided to return to academic work with the blessing of the church to explore the ways in which psychology and ministry might be combined, and how alternative patterns of ministry might be developed beyond the traditional structures of the church. Unfortunately, it took many years for the official structures to be changed, bridging into the period of union. Some of the changes which needed to be made when I reported to the Victorian Synod on "Ministers without Settlement" in 1979 were not put into the regulations until 1998, after I had retired, and by that time the great majority of the ministers in my research who were working on the margins had been lost to active ministry in the church. It was one of my greatest disappointments. In this respect as in many others the Uniting Church did not turn out to be what I had hoped that it would be, a combination of faithful witness to the apostolic faith and an open, adventurous, disciplined and adaptive Australian church. It was neither sufficiently faithful nor as flexible as I had hoped. Nevertheless, I returned to full time regular work in a ministerial settlement as Presbytery Minister for Gippsland in 1989 still with high hopes for the future of this branch of the Church of God.

Some of our hopes were being fulfilled. The role of elders and the presbytery, were definite improvements, as were the greater pastoral skills of recently trained ministers. The increased emphasis on the sacraments was very welcome, but the degree of freedom in forms of worship was not matched by the ability of ministers to create their own liturgies, while the quality of preaching had declined. Better lay leadership at all levels was beneficial, but ordained ministers lacked assurance in their essential tasks and I became concerned with the amount of stress to which ministers were subject. The presence of women as colleagues in ministry was a great improvement. Sadly, there was an intrusion of a secular ideology which had grown out of the cultural revolution of the sixties without the faith commitment and theological depth which had guided the work for union in that period. It had a damaging impact on the church at the 1991 Assembly when the commitments to catholicity in the Basis of Union were abandoned, and from about that time I wrote a good deal in defence of the Basis against pressure to conform to the dominant culture.

When the claims of the homosexual lobby began to receive attention in the church I had a fairly open mind about it but I had reservations on two points which led me to firm opposition although I was happy to have a reasonable degree of tolerance without endorsement: the claims they were making did not make scientific psychological sense in so far as they supposed a predetermined identity with a fixed pattern of behaviour; and the argument for inclusion did not make theological sense either for it seemed to depend on a generalised doctrine of gentile inclusion which was not valid. I cannot argue these points here, but I had a solid professional background on which to form those views. It was very hurtful to be excluded and treated as ignorant, afraid, foolish and prejudiced because I dared to differ from the dominant group at a time when the mainstream was marginalised. Closer to the heart, was the keenly felt loss of the catholic and apostolic vision with which the Uniting Church had been conceived. We were in danger of splitting and becoming a minor sect serving a limited number of special interest groups, instead of moving towards a real life embodiment of the ecumenical hope. Hence my deeply felt grief at the loss of what might have been; but I still believe in and hope for "the resurrection and the life".

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