“My anecdotal feedback from contact with ACC and other evangelical congregations is that at least 3000 people have left since the 15th Assembly. Sadly, many members have just drifted away in hundreds of congregations, one, two, three or four at a time, perhaps some not even noticed, or worried about by ministers and leaders.”
So writes a leader from the Assembly of Confessing Congregations in their latest magazine, ACCatalyst. It seems to me to be a massive overreach in rhetoric, an attempt to generate a feeling of guilt amongst the faithful across the Uniting Church. “Look what terrible things have resulted from your decision about marriage”, is the implied message. I don’t know how the figure of 3,000 has been calculated. Inflated overestimates, I reckon.
It is also an inaccurate representation of the current situation. Personally, I know of some people in the context where I currently minister who have been upset by the decision. They have all received follow-up from pastoral carers, or myself as minister. Some have left, others are “hanging loose”. I spoke just two weeks ago with one person who had left the UCA last year because of the decision about marriage. He and his family are happily attending a church, geographically more convenient and theologically more suited to their views. I suspect there are more such stories amongst those who have left the UCA.
I know also of a number of Congregations where people have decided to come along to the Uniting Church, to take part in worship and fellowship, to align themselves with this denomination, precisely BECAUSE the Assembly made the decision that it did! I would not say there are 3,000 such people—in fact, I have no idea how many such people there might be—but I do know that there are, most certainly, a number of such people, who have JOINED the UCA since last July!
In talking with colleagues, who have similar stories, overall, of some small number of departures, as well as some stories of people joining, my sense is that the impact on numbers in the UCA over the past 12 months is small. Very small. And for most of those, there is another church, another spiritual home, where they have been welcomed. So it is not as bad as the ACC leader makes out.
This kind of scaremongering rhetoric is familiar and well-worn. I seem to have heard something very similar after each “controversial” decision relating to sexuality that has been made within the Uniting Church. Each time a decision was made, after much care, thought, prayer, and discussion, the noises about people leaving the church in droves have been heard. Each time, it is claimed, the Uniting Church is about to divide and die. And each time, we know, the church goes on, continuing to gather for worship and fellowship, maintaining its faithful witness in society, and providing loving service to people in the community.
The thread of a disenchanted reactionary minority, puffing and panting with an increasingly excessive rhetoric about the imminent demise of the church, has run through the Uniting Church for four decades. And we are still here. And still strong. The experience of the most recent Synod meeting I attended in Sydney attests to this: There was a significant contingent of younger members; in fact, we were told that one third of the members at this Synod were attending for the first time. Not all of them were “young”—but this in itself testifies to a strong commitment to the church across the board.
Why is it that we have had this irritant reactionary stream throughout our 42-year history?
I. The formation of the Uniting Church in Australia
When the Presbyterian church decided not to adopt the “one in, all in” approach that the Methodist church was utilising, in the voting about church union, the foundation was laid. Less involvement in the new denomination from Presbyterians, with their valuing of critical thinking and academic resourcing of thoughtful preaching, meant that, in some places, there was a higher proportion of Methodists, with their emphasis more on personal piety and evangelical fervour, within the new Uniting Church.
Had the Methodist Church allowed for more conservative dissidents not to join—as the Presbyterian and much smaller Congregational Churches did—the conservative thread in UCA history would have been much smaller. And the new church could have developed an even stronger focus on contextual theology, actions for social justice, and moving into the post-Christendom era. But such was not the case.
There was, to be sure, noise back in the 1970s to the effect that the new church was a rearguard action against declining numbers. Most often this came from disenchanted conservatives, frustrated at the fledgling church’s failure to stand for an understanding of the Bible as the “inerrant, infallible Word of God”. The church was going to die, they maintained, because of this failure.
However, the new church refused to die. It has continued on throughout the ensuing four decades of the Uniting Church. It remains the third largest denomination (counting by the census numbers) in Australia. True, like all other mainstream denominations, overall numbers have been falling. There is nothing different about the Uniting Church in this regard. Yet the UCA continues apace.
In those years since 1977, we have seen, one after another, the Evangelical Ministers of the Uniting Church, which in the early 1980s was renamed to Evangelical Members of the Uniting Church (EMU); then in the early 2000s, the Reforming Alliance (RA); and, in more recent years, the Assembly of Confessing Congregations (ACC).
The family resemblance is very clear. Each of these organisations advocated for a regressive conservative position on matters of morality (largely, sexuality) and veered towards a flat, literalist reading of scripture. They each made lots of noise about these issues but made little or no headway in achieving their aims. And, over time, the reactionary rhetoric has become more defensive, more rabid, more overreaching.
II. EMU, the Bible, and women in ministry
The ACC and RA are the children of EMU. What was Evangelical Members of the Uniting Church started as Evangelical Ministers of the Uniting Church, formed in South Australia out of a concern about the so-called “liberal” tendencies dominant in the Uniting Church. Over time, the SA group grew with branches formed in other Synods, and then a national organisation emerging.
In the early years of the church, various evangelical members and ministers had opposed the church’s commitment to equality and mutuality, specifically arguing against female ministers. In my first parish, for instance, in 1981-1983, I worked hard with parishioners and members of other nearby UCA congregations who held to that view and argued that the UCA was doing the wrong thing by ordaining women.
I was a member of a Synod working group later in the 1980s that produced resources addressing the issue of mutuality in ministry, and the ordination of women, in direct response to evangelical members pushing the counter position. I know that women in ministry in the UCA continued to experience discrimination and marginalisation into the 21st century.
EMU was strongly focused on the issue of biblical authority. (This stance has been used to undergird the claim that the Bible does not support the ordination of women). The doctrinal statement crafted by EMU had strong resonances with the general conservative evangelical assertion that the Bible was inerrant, infallible, and completely authoritative, even though the founding documents of the UCA had explicitly not included such terminology.
For a summary of the doctrinal position taken by EMU, see http://www.confessingcongregations.com/emusite/All%20About%20emu/Doctrinal%20Statement.pdf
On the commitment to an informed faith in the Basis of Union, see https://johntsquires.com/2018/08/15/what-i-really-like-about-the-basis-of-union/
As is clear in its founding document, the Basis of Union, the Uniting Church was formed with a commitment to the mutuality of men and women in ministry; indeed, all three denominations had already ordained women in the years prior to church union. Dr Julia Pitman has traced the long history of ordaining women in the Congregational Church—since 1927, in fact! — see https://www.insights.uca.org.au/reviews/read-this/small-church-big-step-for-women
Dr Avril Hannah-Jones provides a fine overview of the ministries of women in the predecessor denominations. She notes that the Congregational Church ordained Rev Winifred Kiek in 1927; Rev Dr Coralie Ling, a deaconess, became the first woman to be ordained in the Methodist Church in 1969; and Rev Marlene Thalheimer was ordained as the first female minister in the Presbyterian Church in 1974. You can read about these women, and more, at https://revdocgeek.com/2013/06/22/women-in-the-uniting-church-by-a-partial-prejudiced-ignorant-historian-to-quote-the-immortal-jane/
Indeed, the issue of the ordination of women was clearly and strongly affirmed in a UCA paper produced in 1990; see https://www.unitingjustice.org.au/society-religion-and-politics/uca-statements/item/download/947_0ff250e12a2db30ecf2027d7a831e979This has been a consistent practice of the church since 1977.
I clearly recall rhetoric from the 1980s to the effect that ordaining women would see other churches stop talking to us and the life of the Uniting Church would shrivel. Those churches continued to talk to us, and the Uniting Church continued on unabated.
I remember being a member of a Presbytery which had one curmudgeonly old member who regularly voted NO whenever anything to do with women in ministry was considered. He should not have been allowed to do this, as it was inconsistent with UCA policy. Fortunately, his ilk has all but died out, at least amongst clergy and lay leadership.
(… to be continued)
For online articles which reflect on the creation of the UCA and its core commitments over the years, see:
For my musings on the DNA of the UCA, see