It was with great delight that the Christian Unity Working Group (CUWG) received the news in March 2013, that the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches (WCC) received the document The Church: Towards a Common Vision (The Church), a convergence text from the Council’s Faith and Order Commission. It was then received by the whole Council at its 10th Assembly in Busan, in November 2013.
This is the second convergence text to come from the Commission. The first was the highly influential Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (BEM, 1982). As a convergence text about the Church, this is not simply another step on the way to a common understanding of the Church, and there have been many steps in the last thirty years. This convergence text identifies what Christians can say together about the Church in order to grow in communion, to struggle together for justice and peace and to overcome together their past and present divisions.
Since the launch by the WCC’s Central Committee in 2013, the CUWG has been working to study the text, and to encourage Presbyteries, Synods and our Theological Centres around the country also to engage with this text. The text itself is available for purchase in hard copy by contacting email@example.com ($10 plus P&H, discounts for multiple copies), or for download as a pdf from: http://www.oikoumene.org/en/resources/documents/commissions/faith-and-order/i-unity-the-church-and-its-mission/the-church-towards-a-common-vision
To help individuals or groups to study the text together, the CUWG has produced a study guide, which is available at: https://assembly.uca.org.au/cudw/resources/item/1539-study-guide-the-church-towards-a-common-vision
As with BEM, churches around the world have been invited to submit formal responses to The Church. These responses need to be with the World Council of Churches Faith and Order Commission by 31 December, 2015. As the collected responses to BEM have shown, the formal responses by the churches and the reception of such a document are of vital importance. The Assembly meeting in July presents the chance for us, gathered nationally as a church, firstly to engage with this significant Faith and Order Commission document itself, and secondly to reflect together on our official response to it. The response which follows is offered for consideration and discussion as our formal response to The Church. This response reflects the work of the CUWG, in collaboration with the Doctrine Working Group.
The document The Church itself is structured in four chapters, a structure which is based on the understanding of the ecclesiological issues addressed:
1. God’s Mission and the Unity of the Church
2. The Church of the Triune God
3. The Church: Growing in Communion
4. The Church: In and For the World
The response that we discussing at this meeting is structured around the invitation for responses in the text:
• To what extent does this text reflect the ecclesiological understanding of your church?
• To what extent does this text offer a basis for growth in unity among the churches?
• What adaptations or renewal in the life of your church does this statement challenge your church to work for?
• How far is your church able to form closer relationships in life and mission with those churches which can acknowledge in a positive way the account of the Church described in this statement?
• What aspects of the life of the Church could call for further discussion and what advice could your church offer for the ongoing work by Faith and Order in the area of ecclesiology?
In addition to these questions for structuring a formal response, there are paragraphs interspersed in the text (in italics). These paragraphs are about specific issues where divisions remain – and they also pose questions. These questions are intended to stimulate reflection and discussion within and between Churches, but we will not be specifically responding to these questions in our formal response to the World Council of Churches.
The CUWG is not expecting that this time of discussion, reflection and prayer will result in the Assembly resolving on a final form of our response. Certainly, we are not looking for the gathered Assembly to engage in editing work on a document. This is, rather, a chance for discussion as a national gathering. It is a chance to engage together with material presented for a formal response from the UCA, for identification of areas where further work should be done, and finally for the CUWG to hear the reflection from the Assembly of any matters which should also be considered and included.
That the Assembly
1. receive and celebrate the achievement of the World Council of Churches Faith and Order Commission with the production of The Church – Towards A Common Vision;
2. commend it to all Councils of the Church for further study and reflection;
3. affirm the response document as presented at the Assembly;
4. (a) request the Christian Unity Working Group to incorporate the reflections arising from the Assembly into the next draft of the UCA’s response; and
(b) authorize Standing Committee to approve the final response of the Church.
Ms Maureen Postma for the Christian Unity Working Group
Response to The Church Towards a Common Vision from The Uniting Church in Australia
The Uniting Church in Australia rejoices with the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches for this great achievement of the convergence text, The Church: Towards a Common Vision. We give thanks for the long and faithful process of study, reflection, prayer and writing that reached this convergence text, and for the worldwide community that has taken part in the work of the Commission. It is the labour of many years, and the Uniting Church celebrates this work, and the immensely valuable growth in convergence it represents.
The Uniting Church appreciated the concluding Historical Note which outlined the detailed process and thorough discussion leading to The Church: Towards a Common Vision. It provided an important framing of the text. We are, as a church, very much an outcome of the ecumenical movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The ecumenical movement of this time deeply shaped our Basis of Union. This 1971 document has been a document which has guided the Uniting Church since our formation in 1977, and it is one to which we turn in part as we respond to the questions the Faith and Order Commission has invited churches to consider in our official response.
To what extent does this text reflect the ecclesiological understanding of your church?
As indicated above, the Uniting Church in Australia arose out of the post WW2 ecumenical movement and we continue to be in touch with and informed by ecumenical discussions. There is a great deal of resonance between this text and the ecclesiological understanding of the Uniting Church.
The text speaks of God’s mission and the unity of the Church. In the expression of the mission of the Church in History (§6) we find much that resonates with our more recent thinking, explorations and learning from the covenant formed between the Uniting Church and the United Aboriginal and Islander Christian Council (UIACC) Particularly, the challenges of respecting the cultural and religious heritage of those to whom the gospel was proclaimed has been an important part of our more recent reflections as a church, as expressed in our recent revision to the preamble to our Constitution. This revised preamble recognises that the first peoples of Australia, the traditional owners and custodians, had encountered the Creator God before the arrival of the colonisers. It also acknowledges the complicity of the churches which came into union in the construction of the dominant Australian culture, and the propagation of a distorted view of history so that, “As a result of this denial, relationships were broken and the very integrity of the Gospel proclaimed by the church was diminished.” The councils of the Uniting Church adopted this revised preamble by 2010.
We affirm that the Church and its mission are rooted in God’s vision for all creation, namely the kingdom of God promised and embodied in Jesus Christ. The Basis of Union of the Uniting church speaks in terms of “that coming reconciliation and renewal which is the end in view for the whole creation” (BU par3). What Jesus wanted in relation to the Church carrying out his mission was that it be a community of witness, a community of worship, and a community of discipleship. The Uniting Church strongly agrees with this.
The text speaks of the Church as an eschatological reality, already anticipating the kingdom while awaiting its full realization. We find this understanding fundamental. In the Basis of Union we describe the church as “a pilgrim people.” This has become an oft-repeated affirmation in the Uniting Church, one which is an understanding reflected also in the text (§35). It is important for us to be reminded of the deep eschatological sense of this, that we are “a pilgrim people, always on the way towards a promised goal” (BU par 3). The unity, the holiness, the catholicity, and the apostolicity we claim as marks of the church are convincing only if understood in terms both of a real “already” and a significant “not yet”
The Uniting Church strongly affirms that the whole people of God are called to be a prophetic, priestly and royal people “serving as instruments for the establishment of God’s reign.” The text is helpful in reaffirming both lay and ordained in saying, “the royal priesthood of the whole people of God (cf. 1 Peter 2:9) and a special ordained ministry are both important aspects of the church.” The Uniting Church holds that “all ministries have a part in the ministry of Christ” (BU par 13). The Uniting Church endorses lay people as having an equal role in making the decisions of the church by virtue of our baptism into the one Body of Christ. Lay people can be elected to any leadership role in the Uniting Church.
The Uniting Church agrees that the Church was called into being by God, not to serve itself, but to seek God’s will for the transformation of the world. While the Basis of Union does not take up this issue apart from some theological affirmations relating to reconciliation and service, the 1977 Statement to the Nation is another significant document of the Uniting Church which continues to inform its involvement in social issues. It states, “A Christian responsibility to society has always been regarded as fundamental to the mission of the Church. In the Uniting Church our response to the Christian gospel will continue to involve us in social and national affairs.”
To what extent does this text offer a basis for growth in unity among the churches?
The text is appropriately aspirational in its presentation of the Church. It encourages Churches to see themselves in what is presented. Much of what is said can be readily affirmed. In doing so it invites Churches to grow towards the unity described or sought. The title itself is deliberately The Church: “Towards a Common Vision.” So at the same time it does recognise the difficulties of moving towards unity.
All Churches affirm the need to proclaim the faith and to remain true to the apostolic witness. We see significant agreement concerning the two sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist. This broad agreement can be a basis for growth in unity, although the questions of who can preside at the Church’s sacraments remains a significant barrier to greater unity between churches. We recognise that our practice of allowing for lay presidency at the church’s sacraments, however well intentioned, presents an obstacle to other churches with whom we would seek to be in closer communion.
The question of religious pluralism is an important one we are dealing with as a church, and it is a matter in common to many churches in our context. Particularly, the discussion in the text of the difference between Christian witness and proselytism provides a helpful basis for explorations of greater unity. Moral issues are another contentious area – for us and for other churches. There is a diversity of judgments within our church as to how to respond to some issues such as in relation to sexuality and leadership. Such matters have put our internal unity to great tests – and it has taken much careful and respectful listening to recognise each other’s point of view and to struggle together as a church. We believe that reflecting and praying together as churches about these complex issues is important work towards unity.
It is possible for the Churches to agree on many basic approaches, which is important to recognise, affirm, rejoice in and continue to explore. We find this to be true of such matters as God’s concern for the poor and marginalised, God’s will for justice and peace, God’s concern for those who suffer due to disease and natural disasters. It is significant, in these areas of agreement, that Churches can together express their concerns, and act together for God’s reign to become more of a reality on earth. Unity is both a gift of God and something to be worked towards. The Uniting Church seeks to be an active participant in growth towards greater unity among the Churches and sees this text as a valuable tool in the process.
What adaptations or renewal in the life of your church does this statement challenge your church to work for?
The text challenges the Uniting Church to focus on God’s mission. While this is recognised, in practice there is the tendency to be diverted by worry about finances, church property and personnel issues which take up a great deal of time and energy. Keeping God’s kingdom inaugurated by Jesus Christ in the forefront of our church life is required and this text does that and challenges to us to do the same. The Uniting Church in Australia is conscious of the importance of Christian unity to the mission and nature of the Church. It often takes the lead in ecumenical matters in Australia.
Proclaiming the gospel of Christ in ways that awaken a response is a particular challenge for the Uniting Church. We recognise much of our context, particularly in Chapter IV, and we appreciate the challenge to be joining together with other churches to search to find ways to carry out our evangelical task better, using approaches that are appropriate to us as a Uniting Church. There is the need for responsible evangelization in the face of these challenges – those we share with others around the world, and those particular to our own context – that are respectful of the integrity of all, yet which seek for people to be open to the fullness of life in Christ, become his disciples and serve God’s reign.
There are some sections of the text that present us with challenges to our understanding, presenting us with unity challenges both within and beyond ourselves. In the Uniting Church context some people are influenced by the “Progressive Christian” movement which in its extreme form would eschew orthodox convictions concerning the Trinity and Jesus Christ. The text is strong in its affirmation of the triune God and Jesus Christ as the incarnate Word, and will be a helpful challenge us to reflect on what is needed to stay true to central Christian doctrine.
While the text says there is widespread agreement among Churches of different traditions about the place of ordained ministers, this is an issue for us, both internally and in our relationship with others. Our emphasis on lay leadership and the reality of lay led congregations means that we have those who do not recognise the importance of having ordained ministry. Those who are ordained are trained and set aside for leadership in ministry in a way that is not exactly the same as lay people, even though some lay leaders exercise a ministry that includes word, sacrament and oversight. There are those who are working through the Uniting Church understanding of ordained and lay ministry and may have some insights to share with the wider Church in due course.
The ministry of oversight is an area where we could be deeply challenged by the understandings of the text. We have an understanding of the ministry of oversight which we seek to find in personal, collegial and communal ways, but without an episcopate. This is an understanding inherited from our parent churches and, although it has been part of ongoing church wide discussion a number of times in our brief life, it would require a radical departure from our historical precedents for us to change significantly in this area.
These questions around the place and understanding of ordained ministry and oversight are closely connected to questions of authority in the Church, as discussed in §47 – §53, and part of our concerns about oversight are related to our understanding and concerns about authority and power. The text rightly says, “All authority in the Church comes from her Lord and head, Jesus Christ.” Authority in the Church can be understood and exercised correctly only in the light of Christ and his self-giving leadership, and is and must be seen as different from that of the world (§49). The distinction, rightly made in the text, between authority in the church and “mere power,” (§50) however is one that we struggle with, and find a complex and problematic issue. This contributes to our deep unease about the exercise of authority, and the related questions of oversight.
The threefold ministry may be considered as normative by many churches (§46) but this is an understanding that will continue to present us with deep challenges. We see faithfulness to the apostolic witness as essential. We have a diaconal ministry (Ministry of Deacon), and a presbyteral ministry (Minister of the Word), with some distinctiveness to our understanding of both. These do not represent a hierarchy of ministries, for example. Although we do not have a Ministry of Bishop, we see our expression of episkopé, with its personal, collegial and conciliar nature as having to do with “maintaining continuity in apostolic faith and unity of life,” and this could be the basis of future discussions. We would benefit from ongoing fresh theological articulation of the benefits of an episcopal ministry. We would also, however, have to find in ourselves the willingness to set aside what might be our inherited prejudices to be able to ask what our church can receive from others in the spirit of ‘Receptive Ecumenism’. On the question of wider ministries of oversight including a universal primacy, we currently find ourselves a long way from an examination of its benefits.
The Uniting Church is challenged to practice this kind of servant leadership in all its councils and ministries. Unfortunately there are those who are reluctant to accept the oversight of the councils of the Church, either through a particular strength of understanding of the local nature and authority of the congregation, or local church or through secular understanding of disputes leading to litigious approaches. In parts of our church there are congregations with a strong understanding of the church at a local level, with a great emphasis on congregational autonomy. The text’s discussion of local, regional and universal levels of the ecclesial life is an important reminder to us. We have been from the outset an inter-conciliar church, but we need to constantly enrich and strengthen our sense of being a communion of councils, and in communion worldwide with the universal Church.
The Uniting Church seeks to be a Church that is in and for the world. It is known for its advocacy and community service activities. In an increasingly multifaith environment, it has fostered positive relationships with those of other religions. It readily affirms the place of other religions in Australian society and stands against those who would discriminate against others on the basis of religion. The Uniting Church is seeking to find appropriate ways to witness to Jesus Christ as well as value people of other faiths. Moral questions, especially in regard to human sexuality, have been divisive in the Uniting Church. It continues to struggle with holding together in the Church people who have different convictions on these matters. Nevertheless, many in the Uniting Church value the fact that this issue can be raised and discussed even if agreement is not achievable at this time. The Uniting Church is challenged not to overemphasise one issue and neglect other social issues on which it could have a positive influence. The call to holiness in the text is a challenge to the Uniting Church. It could explore the fuller meaning of holiness rather than be uncomfortable with limited meanings.
How far is your church able to form closer relationships in life and mission with those churches which can acknowledge in a positive way the account of the Church described in this statement?
The Uniting Church is seeking to form closer relationships with other Churches that can acknowledge the description of the Church described in this document. The Uniting church is currently engaged in dialogues with the Anglican, Lutheran, Salvation Army and the Roman Catholic Church. It is endeavouring to renew a dialogue with the Greek Orthodox Church. There are formally recognised relationships at the local level with the Anglican Church, the Lutheran Church and the Churches of Christ. There are several bilateral partnerships with churches in the Pacific, Africa and Asia including the China Christian Council.
The Uniting Church provides strong support to the National Council of Churches which puts it in touch with 18 Churches across Australia. Similarly the Uniting Church is involved in state councils of churches. The Uniting Church has membership with the Christian Conference of Asia and the Pacific Conference of Churches as well as the World Methodist Council and the World Communion of Reformed Churches. It also belongs to a fellowship of United and Uniting Churches. These organisations link it with many Churches in our region and around the world. The text will provide a common statement that will assist with these connections.
What aspects of the life of the Church could call for further discussion and what advice could your church offer for the ongoing work by Faith and Order in the area of ecclesiology.
There is a range of matters that the text raises which call for further discussion. We have noted the italicised paragraphs that already call for further consideration by the churches, but believe there are matters Faith and Order could consider further.
1. The notion of visible unity could be developed more. Visible unity could involve organic union or joint arrangements based on the recognition of being part of the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.” Further reflections on the achievements and limitations of past and present attempts to express visible unity will be helpful.
2. The Uniting Church has ordained women to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament since Union in 1977, following the examples of the three uniting churches, which all ordained women. Explaining this, the Assembly of the Uniting Church said:
We therefore declare, without reservation, our belief that the practice of the Uniting Church in Australia in ordaining both women and men to the ministry of the Word is fully in accordance with the gospel of Jesus Christ, and we beseech those members of other Churches, or even of our own Church, who have not yet reached this conclusion to think again.
The Uniting Church strongly encourages Faith and Order to continue to work towards the acceptance of the ordination of women in all its member churches.
3. The role of ordained ministry is given prominence in the text. More could be said about the role of lay people especially their vocation to be Christ’s witnesses and representatives in the world.
4. In regard to continuity and change, the text raises the ways that some churches emphasise commitment to continuity while others commitment to change. We find the discussion of the separation of legitimate and divisive diversity to be a significant challenge, which raises questions particularly as to as what criteria might be articulated. We would find it helpful if the Faith and Order Commission was able to develop some common criteria, or some discussion of common means of discernment to aid Churches in their reflections on these questions.
5. The relationship between the local worshipping congregation and the universal Church is touched upon in the text. It would be desirable to state ways that the local church can be linked to the universal church.
6. There is a great deal of common understanding in regard to the two sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist. Within the Uniting Church, we only regard Baptism and the Eucharist within our sacramental understanding, but further work on the place of other rites within the churches could be helpful in leading to a fuller level of mutual recognition. In our particular context, we have Ministers act as agents of the State for Marriages. We are aware that other churches live in very different contexts, with very different understandings of the place of various rites in the church and of church-state relationships. We would find a fuller elaboration by the Faith and Order Commission on common understandings of other Christian rites valuable.
7. Discussion as to how episkopé is best exercised could be significant and useful. This would involve the threefold interplay between the personal, collegial and conciliar. As we have noted, we emphasise collegial and conciliar aspects of episkopé more than the personal component and so do not have bishops, but further elaboration of different aspects of episkopé and their inter-relationship, together with more discussion on authority and its relationship to power could be valuable.
8. While the Uniting Church does not give the Pope primacy, Faith and Order could explore how the Churches might have closer links with the papacy. This discussion of the place of the papacy is of particular significance in the discussion of the Church being in and for the World. The Pope because of his position is able to speak out and does so. If there were closer connections with the Pope, it might be possible for greater unity in the declarations we already attempt to make where there is much common ground. While some social issues are divisive, there are others that do have something of a consensus so common that common witness is possible and desirable. For us, the WCC already functions in this way – a role of making a witness common to all of the churches which make up the Council. An extension of the unity and strength of such a voice would be valuable.
The Uniting Church values this text and hopes that it will foster increased dialogue and unity among the churches. We recognise, in receiving this text that, as with Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, the process of reception of the text can be as important as the process which led to its production, and we commit ourselves to continue to reflect on the material presented and how it might lead us further on a journey to greater unity.
With thanks to: the Rev. Dr. Christopher Walker, National Consultant Christian Unity, Doctrine and Worship, the first writer of this response, and the Rev. Dr. Sandy Yule for his comments on several versions; the Rev Dr Morag Logan for her work on the final document and other Members and Associated Members of the Christian Unity Working Group and Doctrine Working Group for their suggestions throughout the process.