William Emilsen (ed).

An Informed Faith. The Uniting Church at the Beginning of the 21st Century.

(ed.) William Emilsen. Melbourne: Mosaic Press, 2014. P/Back, Index, 378 pages.

When this book arrived for me to read and review I had just finished reading again Charles Strong’s 1894 sermon, ‘Christianity Re-interpreted’. The irony has not escaped me!

Charles Strong was a forceful voice of liberal Christianity in Melbourne, especially between 1875 and 1882 when he was minister at The Scots Church in Collins Street – the most important Presbyterian church in Victoria. Charged with heresy in 1883 by powerful conservative antagonists in the Presbytery of Melbourne, Strong resigned and went on to help found The Australian Church in 1885, where his long ministry bridged both the end of the 19th century and nearly half of the 20th century.

One hundred years after his arrival, his former church, The Scots Church, did not vote to go into union to help form the new Uniting Church in Australia in 1977. And it continues to remain separate, even in some degree separate from the Presbyterian Church of Australia as it is also in direct relationship with the Church of Scotland.

It has now been 37 years since that act of union between Methodists, Congregationalists and the majority of Presbyterians – Church of Christ jumped out of conversations near the end - and this publication is the third collection from William Emilsen covering the brief history of the UCA. So to this book…

It is a collection of 13 chapters by “both lay and ordained” contributors representing “a broad range of disciplines… bringing both scholarship and passion to their writing”. Chapter headings include ‘Spirituality’, ‘Ministry’, ‘Scholarship’, ‘Schools’, ‘Management’, ‘Politics’, ‘Relations with Other Faiths’ and ‘Ecological Engagement’ to name just a few.

Some of the stories told are seriously depressing. They show a church stuck in a debilitating conservatism. Others not only call for change but paint a picture of a hoped-for life-giving future. Emilsen remains somewhat upbeat: “the themes discussed… describe a church which despite its very real tensions remains resilient… There is no room for complacency but neither is there room for despair” (Pg:335).

A church shaped by-and-large by the ecumenical movements of the early 20th century and a 1940s Barthian theology, it probably won’t surprise any reader to learn the Basis of Union has the second most number of Index references to, or quotes from (14.5cm), only to be beaten by entries under the heading Ecumenism (22cm).

What I found interesting, after all the debates and wasted ink in printed reports and discussion papers, is the level of disagreement, even ‘heat’, that still surrounds the status of The Basis, especially by those of a more orthodox/conservative or evangelical theology. Emilsen suggests such commentary has “almost become a growth industry” (Pg:12).

Generally speaking there are those who hold it with the status of a confessional document, while others claim it was the instrument which brought together three separate churches. And from the tone and assumptions of some of the book’s chapters, especially by Thompson (Scholarship) and Owen (Reception of The Basis), and the gaggle of Neo-Barthians in many of the Synods and theological colleges, this difference is unlikely to subside in the very near future.

The only problem is: while Nero theologically fiddles, UCA burns! And words by progressive theologian Val Webb (Progressive Christianity), that the UCA theological activity “has become less diverse, with fewer theologians on college faculties and most of these trained within the interpretative grid of Barth and ecumenical theology” (Pg:331), are either ignored or dismissed as “relativist” or arrogant.

The Basis also gets a key mention in the chapter on ‘Spirituality’ by Victorian professor of Church History, Katharine Massam. She highlights a trinity of ‘key texts’ which, perhaps paradoxically, shape the UCAs identity and spirituality: The Basis, the Manual for Meetings, and Uniting in Worship2. That is, the interconnectedness of a pilgrim people on the way and a journey of risk, of order and liberty/freedom, or dialogue within diversity. To sum up: a spirituality of diversity.

The chapter ends with mention of Melbourne UCA minister, Francis Macnab - a potential ‘heretic’ in the eyes of some – and his exploration of a ‘New Faith’ launched in 2008, as an example of ‘dialogue within diversity’. Her comments do not cover Macnab’s theology only the dialogue between Synod representatives and Macnab, even canvassing the matter of “potential schism and apostasy” (Pg:35) – shades of Charles Strong and Samuel Angus all over again!

Massam concludes: “The matter was not settled doctrinally but in a decision that gave priority to maintaining conversation across diversity” (Pg:35) and again “A church that knows how to negotiate, how to speak the truth in love, how to hold community together in the light of deep division: surely this is a spiritual agenda for the twenty-first century” (Pg:36).

There is much more in this collection. Too much for a Review of this length. And too much to read in one continuous sitting. The book is about an “informed faith” even though some question just how informed that faith has been. And while the UCA has developed a name for being a church that takes social justice seriously, the actually membership of the church is more conservative – both politically and theologically.

To a certain extend the book covers both the successes and the warts of the UCA, a church still struggling to overcome the differences – major differences never confronted at the time of union – between the culture and theologies of the three uniting churches coupled with life in a changing post-Christian 21st century. These differences will remain while remnants of those denominations remain active, and while boundary markers between orthodox/evangelical and progressive “are drawn tighter” (Pg:335). Which is why retirement is always a positive thing, and the writing of books a serious engagement! And why the pub saying: ‘She’s a bitch but she is my mother’ seems so appropriate when the subject is the UCA and being discussed in similar locations by frustrated members.

But I will leave the final words about the book to editor William Emilsen with an invitation to others to ponder them some more: “In following its call to be a pilgrim people, the Uniting Church in Australia courageously continues to hold to the challenges of striving to embody an informed faith wherever that may take it in the twenty-first century” (Pg:335).

May it be so!