Andrew Dutney gave a lively summary of the situation in his Norman and Mary Miller Lecture at Synod 2001 in Rockhampton. Below is an extract from his lecture. I put his extract here because Andrew has a great way of telling the story. And he has more detail than I have given you.
The Quest for Church Union in Australia
“By 1905 formal union negotiations were underway between the Congregational, Methodist and Presbyterian churches. They would continue until 1924, produce four bases of union and involve a series of votes at every level of the participating churches’ lives.
In every case the vote would favour union, but the reservations of the minority – especially in the Congregational and Presbyterian churches – would make it impossible to complete the union for fear of creating a new and more bitter division in the Australian church. It had taken more than a generation to reunite the Presbyterian churches. It was not something they were willing to risk – even for the sake of the wider union that most members wanted…
…In 1922 and 1923 the Anglican Church sponsored a series of ‘reunion conferences’ with the Congregational, Methodist and Presbyterian churches – responding to Lambeth’s ‘Appeal to all Christian People’. The work of these reunion conferences continued until about 1932, but well before that it had become clear that a reunion of episcopal and non-episcopal churches was beyond them. That particular miracle would have to await the formation of the Church of South India, in 1947.
Realising that the Presbyterian Church was not in a position to participate for the time being, in 1933 the Congregational and Methodist churches began negotiations for a two-way federal union as a preliminary step towards a wider, organic union. (A federal union didn’t imply the end of the uniting denominations, but was about uniting the national offices and functions of the churches while allowing a degree of continuing autonomy at state and local levels.)
These negotiations were interrupted at the very last minute when, in 1938, the Presbyterian Church asked to be included. The three-way negotiations produced a scheme for federal union that was put to a series of votes at the national and state levels of the three churches between 1945 and 1948. Again it was the Presbyterian Church that stalled – this time with some embarrassment. Not all the state Assemblies approved the scheme and so it was decided to conduct a referendum of members before the 1951 national Assembly.
But the referendum never took place. While the relevant officers were trying to work out how to put the question to members, the church’s Law Agent unexpectedly died and, in the process of trying to recover the knowledge about the church’s affairs that died with him, the referendum was missed. So the 1951 Assembly had to report that its indecision over the scheme of federal union had not been resolved and, in view of everything else, the Presbyterian Church would withdraw from the plan.
A different set of negotiations had been pursued between 1937 and 1943 by the Anglican, Congregational, Methodist and Presbyterian churches. These didn’t aim at uniting the denominations in the ‘normal’ situation ‘at home’ but sought a method of intercommunion that would allow a united approach to church life in the mission field.
The proposals included the idea of a form of commissioning for missionaries that would allow them to be received by congregations of any of the participating denominations. In the end they failed, once again because the only form of commissioning that would satisfy the Anglican Church looked like re-ordination to the other, non-episcopal churches involved. But the Congregational, Methodist and Presbyterian churches did manage to build an understanding that allowed the United Church of North Australia to be formed in 1956 and the United Church in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands in 1962.
In 1951 the Presbyterian Church had shut down the talk of union saying that ‘there is an urgent need for the Presbyterian Church of Australia to close its ranks’. But at the very next Assembly, in 1954, it was decided to finally complete the task of testing the church’s view of union with a vote. The result was overwhelmingly in favour of seeking union. So, in 1957, a new Basis of Union was ready to be presented to the Assembly.
It was not accepted. Only, this time, it was not because it went too far for a nervous Assembly. It was not accepted because it didn’t go far enough…”