Anniversaries, particular anniversaries ending with a zero (and most particularly those ending with multiple zeros) are often occasions both for looking back and for looking forward. With most such anniversaries, whether the looking forward is useful or not is determined by the extent to which the looking back is dominated by uncritical self-celebration, merciless self-flagellation or sober self-assessment.
In any event, it is an interesting coincidence that this year of 2017 sees both the fortieth anniversary of the inauguration of the Uniting Church in Australia on June 22 1977, and the five-hundredth anniversary of the symbolic beginning of the Protestant Reformation, Luther posting his Ninety-five Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg on October 30 1517.
For any of us in denominations that see Luther’s act as a part of our heritage, and particularly for those of us within the particular community of the UCA, this year can be a useful occasion for sober self-assessment.
The heritage of the Reformation
For all who are heirs of the Reformation there are many gifts that this 16th century movement has given to the whole Christian faith. Most prominent, in my mind, are the following affirmations.
1. Our relations with God are firmly grounded in God’s grace and mercy, not in any attempt on our own part to ‘earn’ a relationship with God.
2. The life of the Christian faith must involve an encounter and an active interaction with the scriptures, both the New Testament and the Hebrew Scriptures.
3. Solid, critical biblical, theological, historical and ethical scholarship is a healthy and essential element of the life of the Christian community.
4. Lay Christians are active participants in the ministry and mission of the Christian church, and are not the passive recipients of ministry by ordained clergy.
For 500 years following the beginning of the Reformation, these affirmations, while being characteristic of the Reformation, are not exclusively Protestant concerns. I see that they are affirmed as enthusiastically by Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglo-Catholic Christians as by Protestants, and in some cases even more so.
Nevertheless, I believe the situation is changing. Two phrases I use frequently in this context involve—the necessity of all Christians today to do their faith with “a Catholic heart and a Protestant mind”, and the need for those of us in churches which reflect the heritage of the Reformation to move into a “post-Protestant” stage in our life together.
Has Protestantism passed its use-by date?
I suspect strongly that on its own the Protestant movement within the Christian church has reached its use-by date. Just as communism had ‘Use by 1989’ on its ‘label’, and just as market capitalism had a label saying it was best by either 2008, 1987 or 1929 (depending upon the economists and historians to which one might listen), so also the Protestant movement within Christianity reached its use-by date sometime during the past few decades.
It all has to do with our cerebral style of worship. Most mainstream Protestant churches have a style of worship in which the dominant elements of the service are teaching and learning. This is the case whether the teaching and learning takes the form of a traditional sermon, or the style of music and liturgy is traditional or contemporary, or the theology expressed in the worship service is conservative evangelical, liberal progressive, neo-orthodox or something in between these extremes.
In each case there is the spoken or unspoken goal that all worshippers present will learn something about their faith as a result of attending worship.
During our lifetimes a cultural shift took place in terms of attendance at public worship. It was no longer seen as necessary for a person to attend church or synagogue to be regarded as a positive and respectable member of the community. People no longer felt a need to have an affiliation with a local congregation for a range of non-religious reasons.
When I was a theological student our lecturer in preaching reminded us never to assume that everyone in the congregation was a believing Christian, and that there would be a significant number of agnostics, particularly in the middle-class congregations most of us would be serving, who would be there for a range of cultural and non-religious reasons. That comment may have reflected the 1950s during which our lecturer had been a parish minister himself. However, even by the time he made those comments to us in 1975, let alone by the present day, most agnostics had stopped attending church services.
In all this, our teaching-learning style of worship was based on the assumption that people are attending church services, at least partly, to learn more of religion. This is no longer the case. People today have a range of ways, face-to-face and increasingly online, to learn all sorts of information about religion. The quality of what they might learn online is doubtful at times, especially in a time of ‘fake’ or ‘alternative’ news.
I believe that people today attending religious services regularly or occasionally wish to encounter the God being worshipped by the community who have gathered to worship God. This means that the service of worship that is focused on teaching-learning, in which the focus is on speaking about God rather than relating to God, may not be the community of faith that most from our wider community need.
What does that mean for the UCA?
The UCA’s decline is not a result of union
I believe that the decline in membership which many congregations have experienced in recent decades is not the result of the church union which took place in 1977. The decline is partly the result of being a teaching-learning oriented Protestant denomination at a time when this mode of ‘being church’ no longer meets the need of a community seeking contact with God.
Overseas denominations from the Protestant tradition that have not experienced a form of church union have seen membership decline similar to that of the UCA. I believe that, had union not happened, the Presbyterian, Congregational and Methodist churches that continued would have experienced a similar decline, probably a worse decline.
There is much to celebrate about the UCA
Despite the decline in membership there is much that we can celebrate about the life and ministry of the UCA.
We maintain a diverse network of services meeting human need across Australia through a variety of agencies including some that serve our country’s most remote areas.
We actively stand alongside many of our nation’s most vulnerable communities, including indigenous people, immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers.
We strongly affirm the ministry of women in every one of our church’s ministries, both lay and ordained.
An increasing number of our congregations have committed themselves to be safe places and to be places of welcome for LGBT people.
Almost every one of our church’s congregations has a policy of ‘open table’ at Holy Communion.
Across the nation, our local congregations provide effective communities of pastoral care and mutual support both to their members and to people in the congregations’ wider community networks.
There is much we can celebrate about what God is doing in our church.
Our communities need the UCA
I believe that local communities across Australia need worshipping congregations in their midst—for their pastoral good. At a time when some churches ordain only men, when some churches do not welcome members of other churches, or divorced-and-remarried members of their own church, to the Lord’s Table, and when there are churches that uncritically align themselves with the ‘prosperity gospel’ and the politically extreme conservative movements —local communities need the presence of the UCA in their midst.
But the UCA needs to look critically at its worship
We still need to look critically at what we are doing as a church on Sunday mornings. Whatever else a church may be doing well, if the worship is not well done there is real malaise in the church’s life.
The difficulty is that in almost every congregation’s worship the focus remains on the one teaching-learning style that prevailed in the 19th and 20th centuries. Variations and ‘new’ styles of worship are often minor variations on a theme, and do not provide the opportunity to encounter God or their spiritual self that I believe many people not in the UCA seek. I am not convinced that continuing to provide an almost exclusively teaching-learning style of worship will sustain the UCA into the future.
I believe that, for the future, the UCA will need to provide three additional ‘strands’ or experiences of worship in local communities which will enable people to find an avenue for that all-important contact with their spiritual life or God.
The first would be an ecumenically liturgical service of Word and Sacrament, rather similar in style to the Roman Catholic mass in the tradition of the Second Vatican Council. This would differ from the Roman Catholic mass in that the invitation to receive the sacrament would be to all present, and the person presiding could be male or female, regardless of marital status and sexuality.
The second would be a charismatic contemporary service, rather similar to the ‘praise and worship’ style of Pentecostal or charismatic churches. Again, significant differences might apply such as the leadership of worship would need to be thoroughly grounded in theological and biblical scholarship. The emphasis would be on a positive worship experience, rather than on a ‘showbiz’ presentation, and the sacrament of Holy Communion would have a more central role in worship.
The third strand would be experientially contemplative. This strand would offer diverse experiences as opportunities to deepen one’s faith—experiences such as practised by the Society of Friends (Quakers), or meditation using Eastern Orthodox icons, or the use of a labyrinth, or singing meditative worship songs such as those from the Taizé community.
The teaching-learning style of worship would continue to be an option, particularly for those who find this most helpful.
Into the future
The three additional strands of worship are necessary to carry the UCA into its future, while the teaching-learning strand is essential while we continue to minister well to the people with whom the UCA is presently in ministry. To enable the three additional strands to come into existence will depend upon the generosity of the current congregations, and I believe that this generosity will be present. Each strand would need to recognise, affirm and respect congregations in each of the other strands as being legitimately part of the whole UCA.
Published in the Proceedings of the Uniting Church Historical Society, Synod of Victoria and Tasmania, 24(1), June 2017.