A century of uniting churches in Australia part 2

In the 1950s, things got going in earnest.

The World Council of Churches had been inaugurated in 1948. There had been significant unions of churches in Canada [1926] and South India [1947].. United churches had been formed in Papua New Guinea, The Solomon Islands, and in Northern Australia.

The ecumenical movement was being described as “one of the great new facts of our time.”

Vatican 2 was just around the corner. And Pope John 23 was winning universal respect. For the first time, Protestants were being called ‘separated brethren’. Protestant attitudes to Rome determined on which of those two words you put the emphasis ‘separated’, or ‘brethren,’ but overall, the response was positive.

By the 1960s, several Congregational congregations Methodist Circuits and Presbyterian Charges around Australia were working in co-operation with each other, in anticipation of the union of the Congregational, Methodist and Presbyterian Churches.

When the Congregational, Methodist and Presbyterian Churches agreed to setting up a Joint Commission on Church Union in 1957, they appointed seven members each to it.

But what was to be their starting-point?

There was quite some opinion around that said that all that was needed was to find the ‘best bits’ in Congregationalism, Methodism and Presbyterianism and tack them to each other and hope it will hold together. Davis McCaughey dismissively described that approach as ‘ecclesiastical carpentry.’

There was a fair bit of popular opinion around that looked for ‘the shape of the new church’; that is:

  • How was it to be structured?
  • What will its polity be like?
  • How much power/authority will ministers have?
  • Will we still have Elders? Deacons? Circuit Stewards? Local preachers?
  • Will we have Circuits, Conferences Synods and Assemblies?
  • How much of our traditions will we keep?

The sort of questions that looked for organisational stuff.

The members of the Joint Commission on Church Union believed strongly that what was needed was a fresh start in understanding what it means to be the Church.

It had to be more than an exercise in ecclesiology – it had to be grounded in Christology.

That meant a fresh beginning of a journey into the heart and soul of the Christian faith and to explore what that faith means for people who are to be the Church. A Paper by Davis McCaughey: The Formation of the Basis of Union is a separate document in this website.

Otherwise, they believed, the new Church for which they had been given a great responsibility to guide its formation would be caught up with debating church law and structures rather than responding to the grace of the Gospel.

The new church, the Commission believed, had to be – like the ecumenical movement itself – a movement for renewal of Christian faith and not just a merger of organisations.

So they prepared their first Report: The Faith of the Church.

As Davis McCaughey [the Convener] put it in the Preface to the 1978 Edition, the document:

“…was concerned about how we in our day could find words appropriate to the confession of our faith.

It was hoped that the publication of this report would prepare the way for union by taking members of the church to the sources of our faith.

Faith comes by hearing, and we asked men and women to listen again.”

So if this ‘new’ church was to have a theological foundation,  what kind of theology would it embrace and express?

You don’t need me to tell you that there are more theologies in the world than there are denominations!

And we have heard how, when Christians came to Australia, they brought with them their inherited theologies that often divided them within their churches – and we are not strangers to that view!

In the situation that they faced, the Joint Commissioners had an enormous responsibility: to frame a basis on which a new expression of the Christian Church would take shape in Australia.

They faced that responsibility, not by asking what would be the least troublesome way to bring the three structures together into some new body, but asking rather,

‘What is the Church’s faith? Where is it to be found?’

Those questions became the subject of their First Report: The Faith of the Church.

 They pointed to four sources of faith in response to those questions. As you read extracts from The Faith of the Church, you will recognise in them earlier expressions of statements used in the Basis of Union as we know it today.

The fours sources to which they pointed were:

  1. Jesus Christ as the Word of God;
  2. The Creeds of the Ancient Church;
  3. The Confessions of the Churches of the Reformation;
  4. The Affirmations of the Evangelical Revival.

At the national level, a Joint Commission on Church Union was established, and the serious business was under way – to draft a statement on which the three denominations could agree as a basis on which to unite.

They set about writing two major theological papers that explored the faith the three churches had in common. These papers were called The Faith of the Church [1959] and The Church: its Nature, Function and Ordering [1963]. To that second document was attached a Proposed Basis of Union.

These two documents remain still for us very useful and relevant statements of the theology and ordering of the churches that finally entered into this union.

They were approved by the relevant national bodies of the three denominations, and the Joint Commission for Church Union set about the task of submitting them to the memberships for discussion and voting.

The two documents placed the Church’s attitude to ecumenism firmly within its understanding of the Trinity, and the consequent affirmation of the unity of the one holy, catholic and apostolic church. So the second Report [The Church – its Nature, Function and Ordering] refers to the first Report:

“The first Report of the Joint Commission on ‘The Faith of the Church’ spoke at a number of points of the faith of the Church in the Church. When the Church confirms her faith in Jesus Christ she is affirming her faith in the fellowship He called into being: ‘We confess one God, Father, Son and Holy Ghost’ and therefore ‘We confess one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church’.”

The Proposed Basis of Union which was attached to the Joint Commission’s second Report expressed the ecumenical imperative for a divided Church in its paragraphs [ii] and [iii]:

“We do not come into union expressing the Church’s faith or reproducing its life in its fullness, but confessing to God and one another the partial character of our vision; the poverty of our worship, the weakness of our fellowship. There is a given message but we have not spoken of it as we ought. There is a given fellowship, a Catholic Church, but our representation of her has been fragmentary and faulty. In particular, on the one hand we have been weak in the faith because divided in fellowship, on the other we have been divided because we are weak in the faith.”

It also makes a still-relevant telling point about the divided state of the Church:

“None of our denominations is justified by its right doctrine, any more than any individual is justified by works of the law. Yet God in His mercy has acknowledged the words spoken in His name. The Church’s witness and worship have been declared righteous by grace through faith. Men have heard God’s Word through the words spoken in our Churches, they have received His Son in the sacraments of a divided Church, they have discerned the lineaments of the Holy Catholic Church within the limitations of our denominations. In so far as this has happened, it is the work of the Holy Spirit.” 

The two documents, The Faith of the Church and The Church – its Nature, Function and Ordering were, of course, the theological basis on which the Joint Commission drafted a Proposed Basis of Union for submission to the three churches for discussion and debate in the 1960s.

The Proposed Basis was widely debated, but not accepted in full, and returned to the Joint Commission for revision in the light of the feedback received.

Two of the contentious issues in the Proposed Basis of Union were proposals for a ‘reformed episcopate’ [‘bishops-in-presbytery’] and a Concordat with the Church of South India. Other expressed concerns were about what some perceived as a doctrine of ‘baptismal regeneration’ and others felt that the statements about the Scriptures were deficient in that they did not define the Bible as ‘the Word of God’ in a sense that described the Scriptures as verbally inerrant.

By 1971, a second draft of The Basis of Union was submitted to the three churches by the Joint Commission. It was further amended – in the area where its revised statement on Scripture was still thought by some to be deficient.

The final edition was again before the churches for voting a couple of years later. After some confusion about ambiguous questions put to the Presbyterian Church’s membership, which required a second round of voting, The Basis of Union was finally adopted by the three national councils of the negotiating churches in 1976.

A minority [about 30%] of Presbyterian charges chose not to join the Uniting Church, but to continue as a separate entity. Some Congregationalist churches retained a separate identity and the Methodist Church came into the union as a whole body.

But out of it all, we were able to celebrate the inauguration of the Uniting Church in June 1977.

The new church was able to present itself to the world with the name

Uniting – to indicate a commitment to further ecumenical endeavour, in spite of all that we had gone through to reach that point.

We had a new logo, which spoke of the cross of Christ standing in stark contrast against the black background, which spoke of the sin of the world.

UCA Logo

There is the dove of the Spirit, with wings of flame, and beneath it all the semi-circle: not just a ‘U’ (Uniting’), but an incomplete circle, speaking of the yet-to-be-completed quest for Christian unity.

The new church set about the task of preparing liturgies for its life and it was a happy coincidence that An Australian Hymn Book appeared at the same time. It included hymns from the three traditions’ hymn books, plus many that had emerged out of the church ecumenical in the 20th century.

For the first time, ministers wore the ecumenical alb and liturgical colours – a significant departure from the traditions of wearing academic gowns and hoods and preaching bands. The end came for the tradition of ministers who had served in the armed forces wearing campaign ribbons that indicated their military service. The attire of the Church catholic now replaced academic dress. But with a genuflection in the direction of Aussie individualism: wear whatever you like.

Since then, the liturgical life of the Uniting Church has become more in tune with the whole Church. The publication of Uniting in Worship in 1988 was a significant step, and provided our people with liturgical resources that affirm us as part of the one holy, catholic and apostolic Church, as well as up-dating many of the resources from our own three traditions.

Prior to that, in the initial phase of the Uniting Church’s life, the worship books of the three churches continued to be used. The Commission on Liturgy [now the Working Group on Worship] then produced booklets, each containing Services for Holy Communion, Baptism, Marriage, Funeral, Ordination and Induction, and Commissioning of Elders. In many places too, worship in Uniting Church congregations owed much to the tradition of the Pentecostal churches. This reflected the influence of the Charismatic Movement, which had been a part of the life of several Congregational, Presbyterian and especially Methodist congregations since the 1960s.

With all that history behind them – and us – it’s worth listening to the opening paragraph of The Basis of Union, with its notes of God’s call to unity, a missional call that speaks of union being for obedience to Christ’s call and prayer to affirm loyalty to Christ and love for one another, a humility in confessing failures of obedience to Christ in the past and a forward –looking vision of God’s call into the future:


The Congregational Union of Australia, the Methodist Church of Australasia and the Presbyterian Church of Australia, in fellowship with the whole Church Catholic, and seeking to bear witness to that unity which is both Christ’s gift and will for the Church, hereby enter into union under the name of the Uniting Church in Australia. They pray that this act may be to the glory of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. They give praise for God’s gifts of grace to each of them in years past; they acknowledge that none of them has responded to God’s love with a full obedience; they look for a continuing renewal in which God will use their common worship, witness and service to set forth the word of salvation for all people. To this end they declare their readiness to go forward together in sole loyalty to Christ the living Head of the Church; they remain open to constant reform under his Word; and they seek a wider unity in the power of the Holy Spirit. In this union these Churches commit their members to acknowledge one another in love and joy as believers in our Lord Jesus Christ, to hear anew the commission of the Risen Lord to make disciples of all nations, and daily to seek to obey his will. In entering into this union the Churches concerned are mindful that the Church of God is committed to serve the world for which Christ died, and that it awaits with hope the day of the Lord Jesus Christ on which it will be clear that the kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of the Christ, who shall reign for ever and ever.


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