A century of uniting churches in Australia part 3

Andrew Dutney teaching

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…”


A century of uniting churches in Australia part 1


The Uniting Church in Australia was inaugurated on 22 June 1977.

That event was the culmination of a process that began in 1901, the year of the Federation of Australia. With Federation in the air, some of the leaders of the Congregational, Presbyterian and Methodist Churches thought it would be a good idea if their churches caught the mood. That, however, was not their main motivation.

The story had already been a long time in the making – from the 1850s, when the various Methodist and Presbyterian Churches began the processes of reuniting their divided denominations. That is, not the divisions between Methodism and Presbyterianism, but – as noted below – the divisions within the denominations that bore those names. The polity of the Congregational Church was – and is – one that saw the local church as an independent entity. And it did not go through the experiences of division to the extent that the other two churches experienced.

1901 was also the year when the Presbyterian Church of Australia federated its state churches into a national Assembly, with an agreed Basis of Union.

 But it was not as simple as that. Detailed information about the background of the Presbyterian Church – and the others – can be found in Frank Engel’s Australian Christians in Conflict and Unity. Much of the content here owes a lot to Engel’s book.

Christianity came to Australia as separated – and often hostile – denominations, each very certain of its own uniqueness and theological correctness.

Presbyterianism and Methodism came, not as two denominations, but as a total of eight: three Presbyterian and five Methodist churches. Congregationalism came as one body, each congregation in that polity seeing itself as the Church in its fullness. 

The Presbyterian denominations were:

  • The Church of Scotland;
  • The Free Church of Scotland; and
  • The United Presbyterian Church.

By the 1850s, further divisions within the Presbyterian Churches led to there being a total of six different Presbyterian Churches in Victoria – and a similar picture emerged in the other colonies.

At that time, there were five varieties of Methodism in Australia:

  • The Wesleyan Methodist Church;
  • The Primitive Methodist Church;
  • The United Methodist Free Church;
  • The Bible Christian Church; and a very small contingent of
  • The Methodist New Connexion.

A gradual process of reuniting began for the Methodist churches in 1888 and by 1901 it had been largely accomplished. In May 1904 the First General Conference of the Methodist Church of Australasia was held in Melbourne.

Congregationalism came to Australia by way of missionary work. Missionaries from the London Missionary Society came to Sydney at the end of the eighteenth century, after an unsuccessful experience in Tahiti. Congregationalism was main­tained by lay members and missionaries until the arrival of several ordained min­isters in the 1830s. The first church was established by a Congregational minister in Hobart in 1830. By 1840, Congregational work had been established in Victoria and South  Australia, and by 1853 in Queensland. Congregationalism grew mainly by immigration from England.

During the second half of the nineteenth century various State unions were formed, but given the independent nature of Congregationalism it was quite a while before the Federal Union was formed. In 1904 a follow-up conference of the Queensland Congregational Union’s Jubilee (1903) established the Congregational Union of Australasia. New Zealand was included until 1960

In the Presbyterian Churches, moves got under way in 1859 that led to one Presbyterian Church in Victoria by 1870. A similar set of union negotiations in New South Wales had seen the three Presbyterian Churches there unite in 1865.

Presbyterian unions had been achieved in Queensland in 1863, in South Australia in 1865 and Western Australia in 1901.

Along with all this, there was some discussion among the Presbyterian churches in the states to have ‘inter-Colonial conferences of delegates from the Presbyterian Churches’.

They achieved a scheme of federation and decided to meet in 1886 as a Federal Assembly. The ‘scheme of federation’ did not create a federal body – the Assembly was a gathering of autonomous state-based Presbyterian churches.

In July 1886, the meeting of Presbyterians was chaired by Rev John Meiklejohn of South Melbourne, by “…whose energy, wisdom, tact, patience and unfailing courtesy…” during his nearly nine years as Convener of the Committee on Church Union the result had been largely achieved.

Delegates were present and spoke from the Wesleyan Methodist Church and the Congregational and Baptist Unions. The Anglican Primate of Australia sent a warm message of congratulation.

The Assembly appointed a strong committee to explore the possibility of a larger union that would be called a ‘United Evangelical Christian Church of Australia’.

At the 1902 Presbyterian Assembly, there was much debate on a paper on ‘The Articles of Doctrine and the Church’ that the Committee had prepared to ‘…help prepare the way for the formation of a Basis of Union and as a guide for the Presbyterian negotiators in the discussions with other churches.’

This was then sent to the Anglican Primate and the Bishops of all the dioceses, the President of the Methodist Conference, the Chairpersons of the Congregational Unions in each State, the Presidents of the Baptist Union, and of the Churches of Christ in each State.

The invitation to them to consider a wider union was seen by the Presbyterian Assembly as a natural outcome of the achieved union of the Presbyterian Churches.

In his Moderatorial address to the Presbyterian Assembly, the Rt Revd John Meiklejohn stated that

“…in seeking to strengthen our Church we are not seeking to weaken any other …”

Acknowledging that in the political life of Australia, Federation into a Commonwealth was still a new thing for Australians, he said:

“Union is not only in the air, and in public prints, and in church Assemblies: it is in the heart of every Church that has any claim to be a Church of Christ: for in so far as that claim is well founded, His Spirit dwells in the Church, and His Spirit is a spirit of Union, for it is the spirit of Love…”

It seems that the Churches of Christ never joined in the discussions.

There was a conference of Baptists and Presbyterians in Melbourne in 1905, but by 1910 discussions ceased.

There were very positive responses from the Anglican dioceses [The Anglican Church at that time was The Church of England in Australia]. For example, the Bishop of Gippsland made it the focal point of his address to his Church Assembly in 1903. He described it as: 

“…the first official overture to any part of the Anglican communion made by any other Church…”

 While recognising that it was only the General Synod that could deal authoritatively with it, he was sure of widespread Anglican interest and support because 

“…our efforts to provide for the spiritual needs of our scattered population are considerably weakened by much wasteful overlapping and unseemly competition [applause] …that the religious rivalry which exists is a scandal that the effect produced upon our people is oftentimes disastrous in the extreme.”

But the Church of England in Australia was limited by its constitutional tie to the Church of England – which, although characterised by an ecumenical spirit – could not enable the Church of England in Australia to pursue the matter. There was also the matter of episcopal succession, which was a problem for the Presbyterian Church.

What had impressed the Anglican Primate and Bishops was not just the possibility of a union with the Presbyterian Church to rationalise ministry in Australia. More than that, they warmed to the theological and missional imperatives expressed in the Presbyterian Basis of Union.

But because of their constitutional restraints, the Anglicans were unable to proceed to formal discussions. The talks that had been going on ceased in 1912. It was not until 1962 that the Anglican Church of Australia gained the independence of its own Constitution. Until recently, it was hard to find any evidence of Anglican interest in negotiations for union with other churches.

However, in 2009, a new beginning was made and produced a working paper on ministry, which is available on the Queensland Synod’s website’s Ecumenical Relations page to be circulated to the two churches for discussion and response. The name of the Working Paper is A Covenant of Association.

Yet one good thing was achieved out of the ten-year discussions between the Anglican and Presbyterian Churches at the beginning of the twentieth century. One of the concerns expressed in the discussions was that of the number of theological colleges operated by the various churches throughout Australia. A Scheme for Conferring Degrees by an inter-denominational Board was developed and led to the creation of the Melbourne College of Divinity in 1908. It still functions.

Also, the process had been good in getting the two churches to look at issues of faith and mission together. A Sydney Archdeacon commented in 1922 that:

“…the discussions reached down to the fundamentals of our faith and respective systems of church government and, to my mind, the differences disclosed were not very vital.”

So … all that stuff is by way of commenting that the part of the Church to which we belong has had a long history of union negotiations, reaching back into the 19th century in Australia. And to indicate that very early in the 20th century, there were some very active attempts to take union discussions to as many Protestant churches as possible. The arrival the Roman Catholic Church on the scene of ecumenical dialogue had to wait until the second half of the 20th century – Vatican 2 and its subsequent Decree on Ecumenism in 1964.

And I have given you just one little snippet of the moves towards church union that ultimately led to the inauguration of the Uniting Church. I’ve given you a bit of a sketch of the Presbyterian bit, which saw the achievement of its own formation out of several differing and competing factions, to become the Presbyterian Church of Australia and then make overtures to other churches to join with them in further unions.

Introducing my course on the Basis of Union


In 2005, the Uniting Church’s Trinity Theological College in Brisbane invited me to teach a short course program of Introduction to The Basis of Union. It was conducted on Monday afternoons in the first semester each year until 2015.

Students for specified ministries were required to complete the Course as part of their requirements. It was also available to any who would like to gain some fresh understanding of the status, role and authority of the Basis in the worship, witness and service of The Uniting Church. It was also intended to be a helpful ‘refresher’ for people who have been in ministry for some time.

The course was also offered to Presbyteries wishing to invite people to engage in its content. The Presbyteries of South Moreton and Mary Burnett took up this offer.

The expectation of the Course was that participants would become familiar with the Basis, its background, theology and role in the life of the Uniting Church as we live and work within the faith and unity of the one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.

The Course covered key areas in the Basis, including:

  • The historical background of the Basis,
  • the Scriptures as the unique prophetic and apostolic testimony to Jesus Christ,
  • Jesus Christ, the Word of God’s grace,
  • the Sacraments as visible acts through which the Church proclaims the Gospel,
  • Ministry and oversight,
  • the ecumenical imperative of the Basis,
  • the polity of the UCA as described in the Basis,
  • the Basis of Union as a source of prayer – and more.

Time has moved on – and it has brought changes to the teaching program at Trinity Theological College and the Course is no longer taught as it had been. The Basis of Union is now appropriately integrated into other subjects.

Browsing through the material that I had used in the Introduction to the Basis of Union Course, it occurred to me that I am now among the few people remaining from the time when the Uniting Church was inaugurated. I was among the people who taught programs that were designed to help people to prepare for the advent of the Uniting Church. Much of the material that I wrote and other resources that I used from the writings of other people still have strong relevance for the Uniting Church today.

I got to thinking that there might be useful resources in all that material and someone might assemble some of it and make it available to the church. And I thought that I might have the kinds of material and experience that could still be useful for the church. Some of it would come from the work of others and some of it from my own experience and work as a Minister of the Word, Presbytery Minister, Moderator and Christian Educator.

In each session in the Course, I gave out a paper I had prepared for the students to read and discuss as we went along. Some of these were my own writings, others were adapted from the work of others, eg, Andrew Dutney’s Where did the Joy come From?, Davis McCaughey’s Commentary on the Basis of Union, Lynden Broadstock’s piece, ‘Praying the Basis of Union’ in Robin Pryor’s Open to God and the Introduction to D’Arcy Wood’s Building on a Solid Basis. I also used a piece about the Uniting Church I had written for Queensland Churches Together. Based on a study booklet , Committed-to Worship, Witness and Service, prepared by Ian Gillman for the 1981 Synod, I adapted it for a wider audience than the Synod.

Welcome to this website! I trust that you find the material to be informative, helpful and enriching. Personally, I enjoyed the experience of travelling through the lectures I prepared for the course, and trust that you will enjoy the experience of travelling through them.

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.


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.