I recently reflected on “what I like about the Basis of Union”. It was a visionary document for its time, and in many ways it stands us in good stead as we seek to be a pilgrim people, always on the way towards a promised goal (para 3). That affirmation has shaped our understanding that, as a church, we are undertaking a journey, during which we continue to look to the final reconciliation of humanity under God’s sovereign grace (para 17).
At the same time (1977) as this document provided a foundation for three denominations to come together as a new Church, the inaugural national meeting of that body issued a Statement to the Nation. This document has lived under the shadow of the Basis. We could do well to read and reflect on it regularly. You can read this Statement at https://assembly.uca.org.au/resources/introduction/item/134-statement-to-the-nation-inaugural-assembly-june-1977
In fact, my wife and colleague, Elizabeth, has regularly referred to this document in her preaching and teaching with Congregations … so here I am simply continuing that good work, by offering my own reflections on “what I like about the Statement to the Nation”.
This statement underlines the commitment of the church to the ministry of reconciliation, by affirming that the unity of these three denominations is a sign of the reconciliation we seek for the whole human race. That locates the church, theologically, in the same space as the Basis of Union claims. The church has an eschatological role. That is, it offers hope and speaks of the promise that comes when God breaks into human history, providing new and fresh ways of being human.
Unfortunately, the 1977 Statement failed to address the key form of national reconciliation that was needed at that time—and still remains, today, as work that we really need to do: reconciliation with the First Peoples of this continent.
That is work that the Uniting Church, and to a lesser degree the Australian nation, has turned to in the subsequent decades. In the Bicentenary Year, 1988, the Uniting Church actually issued another Statement to the Nation which had its primary focus on this issue. You can read that Statement at https://assembly.uca.org.au/resources/introduction/item/133-statement-to-the-nation-australian-bicentennial-year-1988
Back to the 1977 Statement. There are some key features of this document that I really appreciate.
The Statement makes a fundamental affirmation, that it is right for national policies and practices to come under the scrutiny of people of faith. It emphasises that the first allegiance of Christian people is to God, so as we seek to discern the will of God for us, we also seek to find ways that this divine will is lived out in our society.
It is under the judgment of God that the policies and actions of all nations must pass. Preaching and teaching within the church is never apolitical; the Gospel is always related to the policies that our governments legislate for and the practices that we live out in our society. I like that the Statement affirms this dimension of our faith! It reinforces the need for studies and sermons regularly to be focusing on the human needs and national policies in our society.
The consequence of this theological foundation is made in a very clear declaration, that a Christian responsibility to society has always been regarded as fundamental to the mission of the Church. The Statement is clear that the Gospel cannot be reduced simply to personal piety or sexual morality or doctrinal disputation or practical ethics. The Church is most fully on mission when its people are engaged in society, not only tending to the needs of vulnerable and unwell members of society, but also advocating for their rights, lobbying for changes in the law, pressing for justice in daily life.
So the intention of the founders of the church in 1977 was crystal clear: in the Uniting Church our response to the Christian gospel will continue to involve us in social and national affairs. And there have been many occasions in the ensuing decades, where we have seen this at work, as Uniting Church people were active in movements for Aboriginal rights, nuclear disarmament, policies relating to refugees and asylum seekers, and environmental concerns.
The heart of the Statement then provides a series of affirmations which focus on particular areas of concern and need within society. Looking back from four decades on, it is heartening to see how many critical matters were already “on the radar” of the church at that time, as well as how much subsequent generations have struggled with these issues. That’s another powerful prophetic aspect of the Statement.
I love the way that the Statement highlights injustice and discrimination within our society as matters which we cannot, in good conscience, let stand uncontested. It provokes us to consider ways by which we can maintain a healthy activism in our faith, making a commitment on behalf of the church to seek the correction of injustices wherever they occur and to oppose all forms of discrimination which infringe basic rights and freedoms.
The Statement explicitly names poverty and racism as matters which merit our faithful and active attention. These were live issues in 1977; they remain pressing issues for so many in our society today. The recent debacle with Centrelink (causing additional stress for those already struggling to survive below the poverty line) and the more recent outrageously racist scaremongering in a speech by a new Senator both attest to the ongoing vitality of these forces. We continue to be called to address them and work for justice for those affected.
In terms of the inequitable distribution of wealth within our society, the Statement pulls no punches. Noting the daily widening gap between the rich and poor, it poses a direct challenge to values which emphasise acquisitiveness and greed. As we look at the ensuing four decades, we can see only consistent growth in this gap and a related strengthening of such values.
This focus ought not to be a surprise to faithful followers of Jesus; in the four New Testament Gospels, the topic most regularly addressed by Jesus was the responsibility that rich people had, to provide for the poor in their midst. We can’t sideline this concern as a secondary matter for faithful Christians, since it was front and centre for Jesus. And it ought to be at the forefront of our own discipleship today, as individuals, and as faith communities.
The largest challenge that is facing all of humanity, in the early decades of the 21st century, is undoubtedly the changes that are taking place in the global climate, as the temperature of seas warm, the incidence of extreme weather events grows; as islands and delta areas are subsumed by rising sea levels and the number of climate refugees steadily grows; as farmers experience extended periods of “drought”, which actually reflects the new reality of the climate for their regions.
Forty years ago, the Statement to the Nation recognised the importance of the kind of lifestyles that we lead, and the impact that they are having on the environment of which we are an integral part. With growing awareness of this matter over the ensuing decades, we can clearly recognise, today, the imperative of the words from 1977, urging us to ensure the wise use of energy, the protection of the environment and the replenishment of the earth’s resources. These matters were evident then; they are pressing and urgent today.
Environmental responsibility sits at the heart of the story of God’s dealings with people, as it is recounted in the biblical texts. From the myth of origins of the creation, as recounted in Genesis, to the vision of a renewed heaven and earth, as portrayed in Revelation, the concern of the divine is for the goodness of creation. Human beings of faith have an integral and important role to play in seeing that this remains a reality for people in our own time. The Statement was provocative and prescient in this short paragraph.
I noted above that the Statement does not explicitly address reconciliation with the First Peoples of Australia. However, it is quite explicit in naming the connections that Australians have, by virtue of our geography, with Asia and the Pacific. The Statement makes a strong regional commitment, which has been lived out through the partnership work undertaken by Uniting World and supported by many Congregations and individuals around the continent.
Our enduring and developing relationships with these overseas partner churches ensure that we are always focussed on our responsibilities within and beyond this country. Christians are not called to engage solely with narrow, parochial concerns. Charity does not begin (and end) at home, but covers the whole range of people, within Australia, within our region, and across the globe.
Finally, it is worth noting that the Statement clearly highlights this firm commitment to the welfare of people everywhere. It states this early on, when noting the reconciliation we seek for the whole human race. The whole document comes to a close by reaffirming a concern for the welfare of all persons everywhere — the family of the One God.
It is important to note that, at every step, the people who are in view are not simply the people of faith who worship in UCA congregations each week, but rather, the whole vast expanse of billions of those who are, on this one planet, simply our neighbours. These are the people we are to love—by putting our faith into action. That’s what the Great Commandment directs us to do.
Alongside the eschatological vision that I noted above, the Statement holds firmly to a hope for the universal salvation of all peoples, to be worked out in the reality of life on this planet, in these times, in tangible ways, within our society. And that’s a vision that resonates strongly with me!
Indeed, when Jesus told stories and parables about “the kingdom of God”, surely it was this kind of universal vision that he had in mind. The Statement to the Nation functions, in my mind, as a contemporary expression of that ancient, and enduring, message.
May it also be the way that the Uniting Church continues to be, in the present and on into the future.