I grew up in Canberra. I wasn’t born there, but my family ended up there when I was in late primary school. Not so long ago, my last primary school celebrated its 50th anniversary. Someone decided to write a book and asked for reminiscences. So, recently, I have been remembering what it was like to live in a “new” suburb on the growing edge of Canberra. Things like … hunting for yabbies in the creek – without too much luck, and the occasional bite. Ouch! Or hiking across paddocks, dodging sheep and barbed wire fences. Nowadays there are over 60,000 people living in those paddocks, and the creek is all concrete with two four lane arterial roads and an aged care facility adjacent to our hunting spot. No self-respecting yabby would be seen dead there!
We are in a season of anniversaries. The Uniting Church turned 40 in June. Scots has its 166th anniversary in July. I wonder what it was like when these institutions were founded. Of course, none of us were around when Scots was built, but I imagine my young memories of Canberra might echo the feeling of sparseness about the site of Adelaide city. What were the expectations and dreams of those who decided to build a Free Church on a small corner block in the city? What would they say now, with six lanes of traffic on the roads at our corner and high rise accommodation dwarfing our tower?
The formation of the Uniting Church is much closer in memory. Many of us can remember the times and the landscape – the wild free spirit of ecumenism, the careful negotiations over just what words to use, what theological treasures to preserve, the wounds of division (Ouch!), the celebrations with those who were now family. What were the expectations and dreams of those who entered into this union?
What do we see now? Society on eight lanes rushing past us, without noticing? Culture building high rises that dwarf our traditions? That is a quick, slick and cynical riposte. And far too superficial. It misses the depth and height and breadth of what we have and who we are. It is not the contrast between then and now that is important. Rather it is our response to the changing world that counts, the trajectory on which we move, the path we walk.
That trajectory was set long ago, when Jesus spoke of God’s love that overcame divisions and divisiveness to create a community of caring. The Free Church followed that path, reacting in its day and in its own way to inequities and divisions in the context of Scotland. The Uniting Church too, as its name implies, was founded to bring people together in one community, uniting the precision, idealism and pietism of the three denominations. Yet, as I write these words, I realise that the word uniting also expresses the problem of the Uniting Church. We take this word to mean internal union – as uniting those of different beliefs and traditions into one. One of the foundation scriptures of the Uniting Church is John 17:20-26, where Jesus prays that those who believe “may all be one.” Should the “uniting” in Uniting Church refer to our internal functioning? The UCA has negotiated some pretty difficult challenges to its unity, such as the baptism debate and the ongoing fog surrounding sexuality. Yet, at least in South Australia, I think we are far from “united.”
What is the alternative? I wonder if our path, our place on the trajectory of God’s love, is not so much to unite ourselves, but to unite those outside of our faith, not by making them believe as we do but by working to bring down the things that divide our society. If we think our UCA is divided, just look at the rifts and rivalries in the society around us – housing, income, employment, beliefs, health, access to services – and those splits are getting worse. We spend a lot of time worrying about the state of the church with diminishing membership and finances. What if we were to spend more time and effort on the state of our world, our nation, our city? In general terms, that would mean promoting an attitude of acceptance and contributing materially to situations of division and imbalance without expecting those people to become one with us. What might that look like in the context of Scots Church to be a uniting church uniting our city?
It is not our job or concern to worry about the internal unity of the UCA. Jesus handed that job to God. Our task is to living God’s love for the world.
Rev Dr Peter Trudinger
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