What is the status, role and authority of the Basis of Union in the church today?

That question had been in front of me for some time for at least three reasons:

  1. There was a time when, as a Christian Education and Youth Worker, I had responsibility for a program of education for the participating denominations in North Queensland. Having been involved in studies in the first Basis [and disappointed at its rejection by the Presbyterian Church] my task was to try to help people to understand it in ways that would make sense to them in their journeys.

I was frequently disappointed at what I saw to be the superficial responses a lot of people were making to the whole issue and a general unwillingness to grapple with the theological basis of what it means to be the Church.

Most seemed to be just wanting some ‘ecclesiastical carpentry’ to glue the three denominations’ organisations together – or wanting a Church under another name that was vey similar to what they already had.

The theological work done by the Joint Commission was offered as an opportunity for people to re-discover the roots of their faith in the Triune God. But I found that many people were having a struggle with that process, looking rather for organisational/ institutional/ programmatic ideas and plans.

It was little wonder then, then, that the outstanding result of my efforts among Presbyterians in North Queensland was that most of the Congregations opted out of the union and left the Methodists to it. In turn, many of them implemented ‘radical changes’ – like changing the notice boards outside their churches. Inside, it was usually business as usual.

  1. In my roles as a Presbytery Minister and as Moderator, I was frequently confronted by the same sort of thing in the 80s and 90s that I had encountered in the 70s.

Many people were often just not willing – or motivated – or able – to do the theological work, wanting a simple way of being the Church that made few demands on their thinking, believing and acting.

In many an Elders’ Workshop, Presbytery Retreats and meetings of Council of Synod and Presbyteries, it was often difficult to just get some real reference to and exploration of the Basis in our times together.

I recall several times at Parish Retreats, Elders’ Workshops and Presbytery Retreats when people would just throw out any reference to the Basis, labelling it as ‘too difficult,’ ‘unbiblical,’ ‘too theological’ or ‘over-idealistic’: “Why don’t we just study the Bible?”

The Joint Commission on Church Union had chosen a difficult path to take: to invite people to do what they had done: go back to the roots of the Christian faith and start afresh to state the Christian faith, rather than plan for a merger of three organisations, taking bits from each to build a new structure. The Joint Commission presented its Reports as statements firmly grounded in the Biblical witness to Jesus Christ.

In the Preface to the Joint Commission’s First Report, The Faith of the Church’ Davis McCaughey expressed this very well:

“…[The Joint Commission] 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 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.”

 Concerned that the Basis of Union was not being given its intended role, status and authority in the Uniting Church, the Council of Synod asked Duncan Harrison and I to write some studies on the Basis for people in Congregations, to mark the 20th anniversary of the Inauguration of the Uniting Church. And to encourage people to re-engage in a search through the Basis and rediscover the sources of their faith. It’s called A Hitchhiker’s Trip through the Basis of Union.

  1. The third area of my concern was aroused – say the least – when, at a Presbytery Ministers’ Conference a many years ago, The General Secretary of the Assembly announced that there was a growing problem with the place of the Basis in the UCA.

He said something like:

 “There is an emerging viewpoint among some that holds that The Basis of Union does not have the relevance for the Uniting Church that it had for the three denominations that were negotiating the Church Union proposals that led to the inauguration of the Uniting Church in 1977.”

That is to say that The Basis of Union belongs to the pre-union denominations, and is no longer relevant to the Uniting Church. A historical archive, that served its purpose in the forming of the UCA, but of no real continuing significance.

This is no new issue.

In his book Back to Basics, Michael Owen indicates that it was a problem that emerged after union, when the Joint Commission on Church Union had finished its work of writing the Basis on which the thee churches had agreed to unite.

To help the Church resolve the question of the role and status of The Basis of Union, the Assembly Standing Committee in 1995 asked the Advisory Group on Church Polity to prepare a discussion paper. It is titled: The Status, Authority and Role of the Basis of Union within the Uniting Church in Australia

 The paper had seven sections, each addressing a question for people to consider:

  1. What was the intention of those people who framed The Basis of Union?
  2. What is the legal significance of The Basis of Union? Does its standing in civil courts affect its role and authority for the Church in its own councils?
  3. How has the Church developed or moved from the understandings in The Basis of Union?
  4. How does current liturgical practice help us to understand the role of The Basis of Union?
  5. In what way might The Basis of Union help the Uniting Church find both relevance and identity? What does The Basis of Union mean by “a pilgrim people?”
  6. How does The Basis of Union hold the Uniting Church in Australia within the one holy catholic and apostolic church?
  7. What is the continuing authority of The Basis of Union?

 Some of those questions will be touched on in other papers. For now, we are concerned with Questions 1 and 7.

The Advisory Group asked members of the Joint Commission on Church Union – the people who framed The Basis of Union – to write about what they thought they were asked to do by the churches as they worked on it:

  • What did they think about the nature of The Basis of Union and the role it would play in the life of the church that was to come into being on that Basis?
  • It is also important to establish the understanding of the three denominations as they voted on the

Their responses:

The late Revd Dr Davis McCaughey was Convener of the Presbyterian members of the Joint Commission. In 1984, he wrote:

“…Those of us who were on the Joint Commission on Church Union never had any doubt that we were drafting a Basis of Union which would be an undergirding authority, of a permanent character in the Uniting Church. It could be supplemented or amplified by other statements, and could be superseded in any act of union with other churches, but it was to stand as the basic document defining the attitude of the Uniting Church to doctrinal statements and matters of order…”       

“There can be no question but that the members of the Churches entering into union voted on that understanding …had I or many other Presbyterians thought that The Basis of Union was not to have      this standing we would not have voted for union.”

The late Revd Henry Wells was a member of the Joint Commission on Church Union and Secretary of the Congregational Union in Australia at union. In 1984, he wrote:

“As I have understood it …The Basis of Union was designed to be much more than a document which had relevance at the time of union in 1977. It was designed to be, and I believe was accepted by the three churches which came into union as being definitive as the basis on which the life of the Uniting Church would stand.

“When the Constitution Commission was set up, its task was to prepare a constitution in accord with The Basis of Union. That was not essayed, and a constitution commission was not appointed until the churches had voted on the question of union according The Basis of Union. The Basis was the document on which such a vote was taken, and I believe there was the understanding and implication that the Basis as then accepted was a document with continuing validity.”

The late Revd Dr Geoffrey Barnes was Convener of the Congregational members of the Joint Commission on Church Union. He was also President of the Congregational Union of Australia at the time of union. He wrote to the Advisory Group:

“The Basis is a historical document. It came into being at a particular point in time to enable three institutions to create a new entity. I do not believe it can be changed. It will always stand as the document to which the three churches gave allegiance and which continues to give substance to that allegiance …”     

“The Basis of Union is not a constitution and therefore the Constitution Commission followed on from the work of the Joint Commission on Church Union. I believe the Constitution must always be in conformity to the Basis.”

The Revd Professor Norman Young was Convener of the Methodist members of the Joint Commission on Church Union. At union, he was also the President of the Methodist Conference of Victoria and Tasmania. He wrote to Advisory Group:

I am able to say with no hesitation whatsoever, that our intention was that The Basis of Union should be not just the document on which the vote was taken, but the statement of Faith and Order which would guide the ongoing life of the Uniting Church.

“On no occasion do I remember any of my colleagues on those Commissions taking another view. On the contrary, we were often called upon to affirm that perspective when people asked how they could vote when they did not know what the Uniting Church would be like.

“That my recollection is not faulty can be substantiated not only from notes of various speeches I made around the country, but also from a publication ofwhich I was one of the authors, The Church Union Study Kit [Joint Board of Christian Education, 1971.]”

Professor Young then quoted from the study kit:

“People are being asked to vote on the Basis and not the Constitution because the Basis, which provides the guiding principles for the life of the Uniting Church, will not change. The Constitution, which must remain in accordance with the Basis, will be open to amendment.”

He went on to write:

Notice the very important phrase, ‘remain in accordance with the Basis…’ … Had I not been certain that the constitution would have to continue to be in accord with the Basis, not only in fact but as a legal requirement, I would not have given the assurance there, and on countless other occasions, that the Basis would be the charter for the ongoing life of the Uniting Church.” 

As I said earlier, at that time, I was responsible for the Church Union Education Program in North Queensland. The kit that Norman speaks about was one of the resources we were using.

In one part of it, there is some information about the proposed Constitution Commission. Some people had been doubtful about voting for a union of churches when constitutionally, there was no real idea of how that church’s life would actually  be structured.

The vote was to be on theological issues, not questions about how much the new church would resemble the old ones.

Norman Young’s comment in the kit is:

“There are built-in safeguards to ensure that voting without the constitution is not ‘buying a pig in a poke.’”

 He then listed those safeguards by pointing out that

  • the Constitution was representative of the three churches;
  • it could be amended by the Assembly after Union;

making those points after he had made his key point: 

  • that the Constitution must accord with The Basis of Union.

So … when we were informing the people of the three churches about the union they were to vote on, we were expected to assure them that the Uniting Church’s Constitution would be written to accord with the Basis of Union. 

The Revd Dr Michael Owen was a member of the Joint Commission on Church Union. To the Advisory Group he wrote:

 “To my mind, there is absolutely no doubt that the uniting churches intended the Basis as the absolutely stable foundation for the Uniting Church. There was no point   in the long process of preparing the Basis, if that was not going to be the case. From the Presbyterian side, the existing Australian Presbyterian Basis of Union, which formed a schedule to the relevant acts of   Parliament, would only allow us to go into a union, if the new basis of union had been approved by the procedure required for the most significant ‘constitutional’ changes. That implies that new basis had to have the same constitutional character as the existing Presbyterian one.”

These members of the Joint Commission on Church Union, who were also leaders in their respective denominations, shared a common view. They understood that the Basis of Union was to have a continuing authority within the ongoing life of the Uniting Church. They also believed that people voting for or against the Basis of Union within the three denominations had that same understanding.

The interim Constitution for the Uniting Church was not drawn up until after voting on the Basis of Union had been completed, confirms this understanding.

Otherwise, those voting would never have had any assurances about the nature of the church they were voting to enter.

Here is how the Second Report of the Joint Commission described the situation:

“The two parts of the Report: “The Faith of the Church”, and “The Church: Its Nature, Function and Ordering”, are purely reports of the Commission’s            thinking. They are published as explanations for the conclusions given in “The Basis of Union”. The Report is, therefore, not subject to amendment,
nor is it to be voted upon, although our hope is that it will be widely             discussed. “The Basis of Union”, however, on which the Churches will be             asked to vote, is subject to amendment. It is to go to the churches for           discussion.

“The amendments then proposed by the responsible church bodies, will be    considered by the Commission, and a final revision of “The Basis of Union” will be made before the vote is finally taken. This vote on the “Basis of Union” alone will be the decisive act determining whether or not the churches will enter into union with each other.

“It will be noted that this Report (like “The Basis of Union”) does not enter into detail concerning the constitutional arrangements which will be necessary when the Uniting Church begins its new life. There is a reason for this. The Commission is convinced that the vote should be taken on the basic theological decisions which determine the Church’s faith and order. The Constitution must simply spell out in detail the implications of those decisions; and to present a Constitution for voting could easily result in confusing the voter by a maze of detail in which the essential issues would be lost…”

Davis McCaughey’s Paper ‘The Formation of the Basis of Union’ is illuminating reading on all this, in Fresh Words and Deeds: The McCaughey Papers, Edited by Peter Metheson and Christiaan Mostert (Melbourne: David Lovell Publishing, 2004) pp.11-21.

Rob Bos wrote a paper that highlights some of the issues that emerged in the Church re the place of its Basis of Union. It’s in Uniting Church Studies, Vol 9, No. 1 (2003), pp.49-64, and is called ‘Revolting Fathers – The 1998 protest by the Basis of Union’s framers.’  It’s a good story well told, and I recommend it.

It’s also interesting to note that the Qld State Government’s Uniting Church in Australia Act 1977 refers to the fact the UCA was brought into being by an agreed Basis of Union and that the Constitution  must be consistent with it.