Speaking personally; my journey with church union and the Basis of Union

Don ordained at Charleville 1968

I guess the best way into this is to speak personally – from my own experience, and what I learned from it along the way.

My spiritual formation took place in the then Presbyterian Church in the 1950s and 60s. That was the time when union negotiations between that church and the Congregational and Methodist Churches were seriously under way.

My theological education and formation as a candidate for Ordination exposed me to the ecumenical vision of the Church. Two of our lecturers – Rollie Busch and Ian Gillman – were actively involved in the negotiations. They expressed great ecumenical vision. Ian was a member of the Joint Commission on Church Union that wrote the Basis on which the three churches agreed to unite in 1977.

Rollie was our New Testament Professor and although not actually on the Joint Commission for Church Union, was a great support to its work. He preached at the Brisbane Inauguration Service that was held at the Milton Tennis Centre in June 1977. He was the first Moderator of the Synod and was elected to serve a second term.

Rollie later served a term as President of the Assembly and that too was very strenuous. He died suddenly not long after the 1985 Assembly.

It was a difficult time for the new Church, with a lot of social justice stuff going[1] on as well as the work needed to get the new church moving into its patterns of working. Rollie did a magnificent job – hence his election to serve a second term as Moderator and then as President of the Assembly.

In the background for us Presbyterians, there was the pain of the debate that left us with 35% of our people opting out of the union.

Ian Gillman was our Professor of Theology and Lecturer in Church History. He was a member of the Joint Commission that drafted the 1970 and 1971 editions of the Basis of Union. Ian’s wit and depth of teaching made a deep impression on my own theological and spiritual formation.

His theological orientation was very strongly in the mode of the ‘neo-orthodox’ school, with a great understanding of Karl Barth’s work. He died on 3rd July 2006.

Davis McCaughey, who was Professor of New Testament Studies at the Presbyterian Church’s Ormond Theological College in Victoria, was the first President of the Assembly, [and later, Governor of Victoria]. He had made a powerful contribution to the formation of the first Basis of Union in the 1950s and 60s. Davis died on Good Friday 2006.

Alison Head wrote an article that gives some good insights into the contribution by Davis to the early life of The Uniting Church. It was published in Uniting Church Studies in March 2006. It is one of the documents in this website.

 Up until the late 1960s, the Congregational, Methodist and Presbyterian Churches maintained separate Theological Colleges: Cromwell [Congregational], Kings [Methodist] and Emmanuel [Presbyterian].While we Presbyterians were travelling through Karl Barth’s Dogmatics, the Methodists next door were learning about Paul Tillich and the Congregationalists about Robert Browne. As Union drew nearer, the three Colleges merged to become the United Faculty, which at Union became, with the inclusion of the Methodist Alcorn College [a lay education facility], Trinity Theological College. The teaching staffs of the three pre-union Colleges were all very active in the Union negotiations.

Within the Presbyterian Church, the debate on Church Union was very painful, and was focused on the view of the Scriptures expressed in the proposed Basis of Union, along with questions of a proposal for episcopacy, church order, and the move to maintain traditions we had inherited from Scotland – or at least a former generation had! There was also a debate in some places about Baptism.

For me, the pain of the debate never shook my basic commitment to what I saw as the theological imperative for unity grounded in the High Priestly Prayer of Jesus in John 17 and the writings of St Paul.

I was ordained at Charleville in 1968. I saw part of the purpose of my role being to prepare people for the forthcoming union. Prior to that, my final two years at College were as student Minister placed at Auchenflower in Brisbane. The participation with the people there was as important as the study program at College. It remains for me one of the most enriching experiences of my formation for ministry. Many of us remain firm friends to this day. Although I doubt of they will recall the stunning excellence of the series of sermons I preached on the ‘Proposed Basis of Union’!

The Uniting Church in Australia was inaugurated in 1977 when three traditions came together after more than 70 years of on-again, off-again then on-again negotiations. Whenever there seemed to be a danger of a decision being made, the Presbyterians raised some objection! We didn’t exactly rush into union!

From 1954 to 1971, the Congregational, Methodist and Presbyterian Churches had hammered out an agreed basis of union.

It had been a long and difficult road. We will travel some of it in a later paper that will look at the history of the UCA and its Basis.

Here, I want to address the question that has arisen in more recent times:

[1] See John Harrison: Baptism of Fire – the first ten years of the Uniting Church in Australia for an account of the social justice issues that the UCA dealt with in the early years of its life.


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