Decision time for Uniting Church in Australia

As the UCA celebrates its 40th anniversary, what does its future hold?

Forty years ago this month, a brave experiment and a dream of Christian unity fuelled the launch of the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA). Three denominations (groups of churches) merged to form the UCA – the Methodist Church was joined by most of the Congregational Churches, along with two-thirds of the Presbyterians.

The hope that other Christians would join (the UCA chose to be called “Uniting,” a continuous verb, rather than “United” which is past tense) has not been met. The numbers in the graphics above indicate continuing decline.

Keith Suter does not claim to be a prophet, merely a futurist. Three years ago, this indefatigable scholar did a third doctorate in which he sketched out four scenarios – plausible futures – for the UCA.

  1. Word and Deed: A Uniting Church with a small number of large parishes, providing spiritual activities and social welfare.
  2. Secular Welfare: Uniting Church congregations fade away, but a large social welfare movement remains.
  3. Return to the Early Church: UCA re-invents itself.
  4. Recessional: UCA is wound up and its assets dispersed.

“Of the four scenarios, the ones that seem to be coming into play most predominantly [are] number two – the growth of church welfare – and number four,” Suter tells Eternity. “It is quite clear that the congregations are shrinking, and the government continues to provide money for welfare work.”

It is possible to find some of all four scenarios says Andrew Dutney,  past President of the Assembly of the Uniting Church in Australia and Principal of the Uniting College for Leadership and Theology in Adelaide. He says, “I really appreciate Keith’s work in laying out those scenarios.”

“The UCA was always intended to have a plurality of expressions.” – Andrew Dutney

The fact is that all four currently exist in the Uniting Church and have for some time. There is no particular reason to think that is going to change. Dutney sees a possible flaw in Suter’s work – an assumption that the Uniting Church is “a whole, a particular thing. It kind of is and it kind of isn’t. It was always intended to have a plurality of expressions.”

“That is what it has come to be in the context of a significant decline in organised religion in Australian Society.”

Among Suter’s “most likely” futures for the UCA is the gloomy Scenario Four – Recessional. Suter thinks the UCA already has been drifting towards it. “The scenario actually talks about two options – one is the Uniting Church does nothing and just haemorrhages. So what you’d end up with then is a flourishing welfare sector, in aged care, child care, Lifeline etc., but an increasingly reduced congregational side. So, by default, that will happen.”

Looking back at the origins of the Uniting Church may help find a future.

“The other variation in that fourth scenario is that you get people in leadership positions, working with people throughout the system saying ‘we have a crisis on our hands’ and therefore we must devise an exit strategy, so that we do not simply bleed to death; we find ways of making the most of the situation.

“That would have been my preferential variation of that fourth scenario.”

Looking back at the origins of the Uniting Church may help find a future. In 1977, those joining together wrote down their vision in the “Basis of Union.” It was too fluid for some – mostly Presbyterians who stayed out – but Dutney feels that the potential of the Basis of Union is only just being realised.

“There’s been a heightened interest in the Basis of Union from 2001 onwards. After things settled down from union, people were asking, ‘We have this vehicle; what can it do?’”

“The Basis of Union was not trying to set up a new denomination in the Uniting Church. The Uniting Church was meant to be like an interim way of being church, on the way to the end of denominationalism.

“… Our vision is to proclaim the mission of God and get involved in it.” – Andrew Dutney

“It is not the Uniting Church that is called to be a ‘pilgrim people.’ Rather it’s Christians, whether Catholics, Reformed or Pentecostal – the church of God is meant to be a pilgrim people. Always moving forward to the promise of the fulfilment of God’s kingdom.

“Around the country, there are people empowered by the Basis of Union to try new things and do new stuff. If our vision is to proclaim the mission of God and get involved in it, what does that mean in our local area?”

Dutney cites the large evangelical Newlife Church on the Gold Coast as a “tremendous example.” Newlife combines an evangelical ethos with community service. A good example of UCA’s social justice emphasis is the refugee ministry of Bankstown Uniting in South West Sydney.

“We never sit still, we move towards what God is calling us to.” – Stu Cameron

Both Newlife and Bankstown are examples of Suter’s Scenario Number Two. NewLife leads a small flotilla of similar largish “contemporary evangelical” churches in the UCA, like Seeds and Hope Valley Uniting in Adelaide, Pittwater Uniting in Sydney, and Logan Uniting just up the road on the Gold Coast.

“Here’s a radical thought,” says Stu Cameron, lead pastor of Newlife Uniting. “Let’s not just invest in missional activities of the Uniting Church, but of the kingdom. So, not just sell redundant properties, and live off the interest for our ever-diminishing future; why not give it to a church plant of another movement that has the vision, has the passion, has the people, but does not have the property? That would truly be a living out of the Basis of Union, in my view.

“The Uniting Church was born out of this pilgrimage theology – we never sit still, we move towards what God is calling us to. If we fully live out that vision, the future is full of possibilities. The Uniting Church vision is not based on perpetuating its own institution but of being an agent of change.”

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