I. In 2007, Rev. Dr. Rob Bos wrote a paper, A Church of Passionate Disciples, which was well received.
II. In 2010 a discussion paper, Church Membership, was developed and distributed to all Presbyteries for responses.
III. The Assembly Standing Committee (ASC) felt the responses were too mixed to do more work on it and take something to the Assembly in 2012.
IV. At the 2012 Assembly, a proposal was brought to the Assembly asking that the matter of church membership be taken up. As a result the ASC appointed a Task Group to prepare a discussion paper, however the group did not meet or produce such a paper.
V. In 2014 the ASC asked the Formation Education and Discipleship (FED) Working Group to arrange for the development of a document that is a simplified summary of concerns raised by respondents to the 2010 Church Membership paper, and which identifies possible future directions arising from the Church Membership document. This document is the outcome of the FED Working Group’s work.
2. Changing Context for Membership
I. Australian society has changed dramatically since the 1960s and 1970s. The church is no longer the centre of the local community. Far fewer Australians live their whole lifetime in one locality. Loyalty to and participation in longstanding institutions such as churches, trades unions, service and sporting clubs, and political parties have significantly diminished. For younger Christians, denominational affiliation counts for little. So the notion of lifetime membership of one congregation or even of one Christian denomination is passing. The church’s concept of membership needs to be responsive to these changes.
II. The Assembly’s work in the 1990s on baptism and the catechumenate brought a recognition that our definitions, categories and procedures relating to church membership are complex. Currently we recognise baptised members, confirmed members, members-in-association, plus adherents. The church requires the keeping of baptism registers and rolls for all three categories of membership and for adherents, plus an annual review of all rolls, certificates of transfer, and even lists of absent members.
III. Many congregations find they have confirmed members who rarely participate in the life of the congregation yet retain their voting rights according to the Regulations. They can even appeal if their names are taken off the membership roll (Regulation 5.2.3). On the other hand, others come to participate in the life of the congregation and may be regarded as faithful members, but have not formally become confirmed members or members-in-association or have not transferred their membership from another congregation. Strictly speaking these active participants currently cannot vote in meetings of the congregation. Adherents may attend and speak at meetings of the congregation but also cannot vote. They can be appointed as members of committees, but are not members of the congregation (Regulation 1.1.23).
3. Core Membership Proposals from Church Membership Paper
I. The 2010 Church Membership Paper proposed moving to a new understanding of confirmed membership characterised by active discipleship and involvement in the life of a congregation. This is instead of a single Service of Confirmation which grants lifelong, confirmed membership of the Uniting Church. Confirmed membership will involve a regular and repeatable recommitment to the Christian faith and to the congregation.
II. It was proposed that the current membership categories be simplified and that the category of Member-in Association be removed.
III. These proposed changes would mean that those able to participate in the decision-making life of the congregation will be active (confirmed) baptised people. The emphasis would be on baptism and discipleship – understood as following Jesus and actively participating in the life of the local community of faith, not simply gaining voting rights or joining an institution.
4. Summary of Consultation Process
Affirmations: The consultation process affirmed the idea of limiting decision-making responsibility in local congregations to active members. In general there was support for giving attention to discipleship, recognising the importance of baptism as the sacrament signifying identifying with Jesus Christ and being incorporated into his body, the church, and fostering active involvement in the life of the congregation.
There are two areas of concern derived from the consultation:
Administration in Local Context: Concern about having to make an annual or repeated commitment in order to remain recognised as an active member of the congregation; reluctance to take people’s names off membership lists.
Inclusion: Reluctance to encourage people to become baptized if they were not already baptized; pastoral implications of people no longer being regarded as confirmed voting members if they did not participate in the annual service; did not want to exclude those that had been members even if they were no longer active; there were those who were concerned about the implications for rural and remote people who are not able to attend worship regularly but still consider themselves active members of the Uniting Church.
5. Principles for Membership
The following principles are offered so that the Assembly might consider possible ways forward. These principles attempt to capture the concerns raised during the consultation process, while also maintaining the core principles from the Church Membership paper.
I. Confirmed membership is characterised by active discipleship and involvement in the life of a congregation.
II. Decision-making in the life of the congregation will be by active confirmed baptised people.
III. Confirmed membership is symbolized by an act of commitment that is to be repeatedly affirmed.
IV. Membership categories will be simplified by removing Member-in Association.
V. Church Council’s are to administer membership in a way pastorally sensitive and inclusive according to their context, under the oversight of the Presbytery.
VI. The Assembly will develop a range of resources including many options for administering church membership in congregations according to the above five principles.
Appendix: Background Questions and Answers
The following questions and answers are offered in response to the above proposals from the 2010 Church Membership Paper.
Is baptism necessary for those who want to follow Jesus Christ and participate in the life of the congregation?
People can be followers of Jesus and share in the life of the congregation without being baptised. But a person cannot become a confirmed member of the Uniting Church without being baptised. Baptism is the recognized means of grace by which people are initiated into the life of faith in Jesus Christ and the Christian community (see Basis of Union para 12). Preparing for baptism can be an opportunity to learn more about the Christian faith and is a powerful symbol of God’s grace and our response. So, whether it is for infants or adults, baptism should be taken seriously by both those involved and the church.
How does a person become a confirmed member of a Uniting Church congregation?
There are three ways:
• By being baptised on profession of the Christian faith and being actively involved in the life of the congregation.
• By being baptised as an infant or child, personally professing the Christian faith in confirmation and being actively involved in the life of the congregation.
• Having been baptised as an infant, child or adult, having moved from another Uniting Church congregation or from a congregation of a Christian denomination recognised by the Uniting Church, and being actively involved in the life of the congregation.
In each case it is the Church Council that formally recognises a person as a confirmed member of the congregation for the next 12 months or other agreed period. And in each case the person participates in the annual commitment service or, if unable to be present, signs the annual covenant or commitment statement.
Is confirmation just about voting rights?
Confirmation is much more than simply obtaining voting rights in the church. While it should not be regarded as a sacrament, it is an opportunity to reaffirm baptism and growth in discipleship including the importance of actively participating in the life of the congregation.
Is there still a place for confirmation education?
Yes, although referring to them as discipleship training courses is preferable. All those considering becoming confirmed members of the church for the first time should participate in a discipleship training course. The annual commitment service can include the sacrament of baptism for those not previously baptised as infants or children and a confirmation service for those previously baptised. Note that participation in a discipleship training course is not a one-off experience but is expected to be a regular part of growing in faith and discipleship.
Why an annual commitment service?
Most congregations and people function on an annual basis. This would enable congregations to consciously include newer people, plan discipleship training courses, invite people to renew their commitment to Jesus Christ and the church, and be more intentional about their record-keeping. However, an annual service may not be warranted in every congregation. The Church Council will determine the period of time between the special commitment services, with 12 months regarded as the norm.
Why bother changing the Regulations concerning church membership and emphasising active participation as the basis for voting rights?
While it is difficult and time consuming to change the Uniting Church Constitution, it would be helpful to simplify the Regulations and make the changes suggested. This would reduce the rolls congregations need to keep. Under our proposals congregations will have a baptism register, a roll of confirmed members and a pastoral list. No change is proposed to the right of appeal against the removal of a name from membership (Regulation 5.2.3).
Who is recognised as a confirmed member of the congregation?
All those who are recognised by the Church Council as confirmed members, as in question 15 above, and who have signed the covenant or commitment statement. See also question 24.
Are people other than confirmed members able to participate in the life of the congregation?
Emphatically yes! While not being eligible for election as Elders or Church Councillors, people associated with the congregation who are not confirmed members are eligible to take part in the life of the congregation and to serve on committees or task groups of the congregation.
Will the proposed new arrangements apply to all confirmed members of the Uniting Church?
Yes, but with these understandings:
• under Constitution clause 6(a) the Uniting Church is committed to recognising as confirmed members all those “who were confirmed members in one of the uniting churches” – that is, a confirmed member prior to June 1977 in one of the three churches that formed the Uniting Church. If a Church Council believes it should no longer recognise a person as a confirmed member under the proposed new arrangements, and that person was a confirmed member of one of the uniting churches and wishes to continue to be recognised as a confirmed member, then the Church Council shall continue to recognise that person as a confirmed member;
• some confirmed members of congregations live in remote areas of Australia or overseas and are thus unable to be actively involved in the life of the congregation in which they hold their membership; where such persons wish to retain their confirmed membership of the church, the Church Council of their “home” congregation will continue to recognise them as confirmed members;
• some confirmed members of congregations are unable to continue with active involvement in the life of their congregation due to ongoing ill-health or advanced age; Church Councils will continue to recognise such persons as confirmed members unless a person asks not to be so recognised.
• Note, however, that the current provisions for removal of a person’s name from the congregational rolls (Regulation 1.6.2) will continue to apply to all members, including those referred to in this question.
What about those who are confirmed members in a faith community?
Under Regulation 3.9.2(b) confirmed members in a faith community may hold their membership with a congregation or with the Presbytery. The proposed new arrangements will apply in each case. Where membership is held in a congregation, the Church Council will consider active involvement in a faith community as fulfilling the requirement of active involvement in the congregation. Where membership is recorded with the Presbytery, the Presbytery will review the list of confirmed members annually, and active involvement in the faith community will be a requirement for continued recognition as a confirmed member. Faith communities will also be encouraged to hold an annual commitment service.
Formation Education and Discipleship Working Group,