Ramping up the rhetoric, generating guilt and provoking panic: the failed strategy of conservatives in the UCA (part II)

Continuing my explorations of reactionary conservatism throughout the 42 years of the Uniting Church. In part one, I looked at the formation of the church in 1977, and EMU (the Evangelical Ministers of the Uniting Church, later renamed to the Evangelical Members of the Uniting Church (EMU).

In this part, we look at the Reforming Alliance (RA) and the Assembly of Confessing Congregations (ACC), through to the present, with the formation of Propel.

III. The Reforming Alliance, sexuality and leadership

Evangelical Members of the Uniting Church (EMU) had become active in prosecuting the view that the Uniting Church did not have an adequate view of scripture and did not hold strongly enough to the classic understandings of faith from the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.

The doctrinal stance of EMU is set out at

http://www.confessingcongregations.com/emusite/All%20About%20emu/Doctrinal%20Statement.pdf

After some individuals who identified as same-gender attracted offered themselves for consideration as candidates for ordained ministry, the focus of the conservatives turned more intensely onto the matter of sexuality.

Already in the 1980s the Assembly had established a Task Group on Sexuality, exploring the issues raised by EMU and then RA. There is a good summary of the work of this group, and the ensuing two decades of discussion of sexuality, at https://assembly.uca.org.au/images/PDF/SexualityandLeadership_DocumentingtheHistory.pdf

The Reforming Alliance was established in response to the 10th Assembly’s decision in 2003, not to make a statement opposing the ordination of people who are in a same-gender relationship. RA had fought against the reasoned articulation of “an informed faith” in relation to scripture and sexuality. It advocated a conservative, perhaps even fundamentalist, approach to scripture, which was the dominant paradigm in some denominations, but had never been the way that the UCA had approached biblical interpretation.

For a summary of the doctrinal position taken by the Reforming Alliance, see http://www.confessingcongregations.com/resources/reforming-alliance/

After the decision of the Assembly in 2003, there was a resurgence in rhetoric warning that the church would die, that this latest decision would mark the end of the Uniting Church. The rhetoric was steadily inflated. The strategy seemed to be to induce guilt about the future of the church, with the hope that this would result in an overturning of the decision. It did not. Some people left the UCA. Some congregations split. Ministry and Mission continued apace. The UCA continued on.

IV. The ACC and marriage of same-gender attracted people

Persistent debate has continued since that time, with conservative evangelical advocates across the Synods arguing against the agreed UCA position. There have been particularly strong groups in Qld and SA.

After the 11th Assembly in 2006, a special summit of the remnants of EMU and the relatively new Reforming Alliance established a new organisation, the Assembly of Confessing Congregations (ACC) within the Uniting Church. The battle continued into the present time. The rhetoric continued, and intensified, as the obvious lack of impact in the strategy became more evident. The generation of guilt was magnified, but to no avail. The church has continued.

So, what we see today is playing out the four decades of the UCA where disenchanted conservative evangelical pietists have resisted the moves towards “an informed faith” which thinking Methodists, Congregationalists and Presbyterians all saw as a key commitment within the Uniting Church. The ACC has been waging an ongoing battle against this position for 15 years, but the majority of the UCA has always been engaged with the processes of critical thinking and fresh words and deeds which the Basis of Union holds as a key value.

In recent years, the ACC has swerved even more to the hard right; it speaks in tones even harsher and unflinching, compared to RA and EMU. The extremes of the theological position of the ACC can be seen on their webpage at

http://www.confessingcongregations.com/uploads/acc027_confess_a5_ncov_imp_hr.pdf

and its most recent statement, expressing its hard line about sexuality, is accessible at

http://www.confessingcongregations.com/uploads/acc027_sexuality_a5_new_cov_lr.pdf

The rhetoric of the ACC has become increasingly inflamed. Accusing the UCA Assembly of being “apostate” is excessive and ill-judged. Claiming that the ACC itself is “the true Assembly” is hyperbolic overreach. The ACC is becoming smaller and less effective. It has employed tactics which are nasty and ugly. Its leadership, and membership, are increasingly drawn from specific sections of the Pacific Island and Korean communities, not from the wider church. Other CALD leadership across the board differentiates itself very clearly from the ACC rhetoric and tactics.

The recent foray by ACC leadership into Tonga, to convince the Free Wesleyan. Church of Tonga to break off relationships with the UCA Assembly, is a case in point. Publicity shared by the ACC since that conference has been completely inaccurate, deliberately inflaming.

(see https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/30/dividing-the-unity-splintering-the-connections-more-acc-agitation/)

I will explore in more details the issues involved with CALD communities and conservative theology in a third part to this blog.

 

V. A new conservative voice: Propel

And now, there is a new movement within the Uniting Church: Propel. It describes itself as “a new national network of evangelical leaders, congregations and agencies in the Uniting Church in Australia” and promises that its members will “seek to be a positive renewal movement within, and for the life and mission of the church.”

Propel declares that it has been formed because of “the significant pastoral and mission disruptions experienced in many places leading up to and since the decisions of the 15th Assembly of the Uniting Church”, and affirms that it will offer leadership related to “the historic, orthodox faith and mission” of the church. (See https://www.propelnetwork.org.au/)

Propel is the latest manifestation of a minority conservative protest thread which has run through the life of the Uniting Church, all the way from the time of church union in 1977 (and before).

I think Propel wants to position itself differently from the ACC and its precursors. (And rightly so!) Propel claims that it wants to “positively network together for mutual encouragement and resourcing – prayerfully, strategically and passionately pursuing the great commission.” Those are fine sentiments, and if the movement is able to hold to these positives, that would be good.

I am not entirely convinced that this new movement within the Uniting Church is actually needed. What is to stop the aims of Propel being achieved within the current structures of the church? And the clear naming of the recent decision about marriage as an issue of differentiation, ignores the fact that the Assembly did not insist on any one minister or congregation holding to a particular view. The Assembly recognised the integrity of two different views, and affirmed each as equally valid within the Uniting Church.

However, one of the NSW leaders promoting Propel writes, “We will stand firm in the faith, stand aside from that which is not, and move forward in mission with limitless power and resources in the Holy Spirit.” The phrases “stand firm, stand aside” contain code words which have been used often throughout 2018, to indicate a stance of rejecting the decision of the 15th Assembly regarding marriage. They have been spoken and written often by ACC leaders and members over the last year. To differentiate from these extremists, surely other language needs to be used?

Propel looks to me like an attempt by more moderate conservatives to distance themselves from these ugly reactionary tactics. But it is still at odds with the fundamental convictions of the UCA. The Basis of Union affirms that we hold to an informed faith. It values critical and contextual engagement with scripture. It values the recent insights of science, literature, history, psychology, medicine, and other modern disciplines. The ACC runs far from all of these foundational affirmations of the UCA. They are fast running out of options for being faithful members of the Uniting Church.

And let’s hope that Propel does not catapult itself headlong into the same dead end.

For part I, see

https://johntsquires.com/2019/07/25/ramping-up-the-rhetoric-generating-guilt-and-provoking-panic-the-failed-strategy-of-conservatives-in-the-uca-part-i/

For my musings on the DNA of the UCA, see

https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/18/the-dna-of-the-uca-part-i/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/18/the-dna-of-the-uca-part-ii/

In addition to resources noted above, there is an excellent overview of what has been produced on the matter of sexuality within the Uniting Church over four decades, at https://www.southmoreton.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/Same-gender-marriage-the-UCA-journey-rev1018.pptx

Author: John T Squires

My name is John Squires. I live in the Australian Capital Territory. I have been an active participant in the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) since it was formed in 1977, and was ordained as a Minister of the Word in this church in 1980. I have served in rural, regional, and urban congregations and as a Presbytery Resource Minister and Intentional Interim Minister. For two decades I taught Biblical Studies at a theological college and most recently I was Director of Education and Formation and Principal of the Perth Theological Hall. I've studied the scriptures in depth; I hold a number of degrees, including a PhD in early Christian literature. I am committed to providing the best opportunities for education within the church, so that people can hold to an informed faith, which is how the UCA Basis of Union describes it. This blog is one contribution to that ongoing task.

4 thoughts on “Ramping up the rhetoric, generating guilt and provoking panic: the failed strategy of conservatives in the UCA (part II)”

  1. John. With all these ramblings against conservatives how do you explain the rapid exodus of members within the church, whole congregations have left the church. The official decline since 1991 is 41% this doesn’t account for attendees who were not members as has been in some of my congregations who also left. We have know we are the fastest declining denomination for many years. There are a number of evangel ministers like myself who have virtually been forced out of the UCA. So as for the the rhetoric of the church still going on and the inference of strength is a joke. One comment at a fraternal meeting was, “The UCA has been great at growing other denominations,” in others words they are picking up those who are leaving.
    We have sold off more and more property, as we close churches all over the country, to have the finances to prop up the Synod structures. Yet the denomination control by liberals still follows the same path which will lead to ultimate destruction

    1. Thanks for your observations, Grahame. You cite one statistic; can you tell me the source for that statistic? I wonder how it correlates with the decline in numbers attending the Anglican, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Baptist, and other mainstream churches? And the inference in what you write is that the position on matters of sexuality explains this decline. Is that what you mean? And if so, can you point me to the studies that demonstrate the correlation between theological position and numerical membership? Thanks, John

  2. How does “NCLS” provide a comprehensive response to all my Questions? Some more explanation, please. Especially on the link between liberal theology and sexuality and decline in numbers?

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