Reflecting back: what are we hearing?
Act2 Project Lead Andrew Johnson shares this Update on the consultation of the Act2 project
April 26, 2023
By Andrew Johnson, Act2 Project Lead
These reflections flow out of significant consultation undertaken by the Act2 Project Unit from February-April, which has included inviting written responses from church councils across the country, making contact with every presbytery, and meeting personally with leaders in every Synod. Learn more about the common themes, strengths, challenges and experiences being felt across the Uniting Church as we continue to intentionally discern our future.
"As we have listened carefully, we have found a Church which in far too many cases is life-sapping rather than life-giving. "
On 22 June 1977 we consummated a remarkable enterprise in hope in which three denominations entered into a union. Fuelled by an optimism of the mid-20th century movement of ecumenical fervour, it sought not to engage simply in ecclesiastical carpentry but to re-examine and re-articulate in fresh words the foundations of our faith as the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. It was an audacious undertaking.
Other forces were also at play. In Australia, as in many parts of the world, the church was in decline. Coming off the peaks in Christian observance in the 1950s, by 1977 the downward trends which have continued throughout the subsequent five decades were well underway. Did we think by uniting we could reverse those trends? Or did we think through consolidation we could at least find strength in numbers that might at least limit the consequences of that decline? As with most histories, it was a mix of motivations and forces.
In the consultation and conversations we have undertaken, we have heard common experiences across our Church. Shrinking, aging and tired local communities of faith, large and growing community services, fuelled by government funding.
We have few congregations left which fit into the simple formula of: one congregation, one minister, one church council, funded by the giving of members of the congregation.
Property is now a significant source of revenue for local congregations. While this has relieved some pressures it has created others. The ability of congregations to meet the local costs of their life - ministry, administration, insurance, property maintenance - limit the ability to contribute to the wider ministry, mission or administration of the Church.
Despite the decisions in 1997 to move away from parishes, clustered, linked, connected, related communities of faith (parishes by any other name) sharing resources is in fact widespread. Congregational closure or amalgamation and property sale has become a core part of the work of most presbyteries and synods.
Alongside this, church planting, fresh expressions and experimentation has also become more widespread. However, beyond some notable exceptions, this has tended to be relatively small communities. It is certainly not significantly counteracting the overall trend of Uniting Church decline.
This is impacting on the ability of local communities of faith to fulfill the significant responsibilities of congregations. Capacity and capability has declined at the same time ethical, legal and social obligations have increased. The wider church works to scaffold and manage the risk of this mismatch.
Our current capacity and capability has an impact on a wider church conciliar and committee structure which relies significantly on volunteers. Filling boards of agencies and schools with suitably qualified members of the Uniting Church has become increasingly difficult. Filling voluntary office bearer roles within presbytery or synod committees has become difficult. This has led to remunerated leaders and staff finding themselves filling the gaps that arise.
This leads to tensions between personal and corporate leadership and between those we employ for their professional skills and those within our Church with a deep sense of our ministry and mission.
As we have listened carefully, we have found a Church which in far too many cases is life-sapping rather than life-giving. We have encountered a disconnected Church, where stereotypes define those we do not connect with rather than seeing all within our Church as made in the image of God. We have encountered a Church where accountability is strained, confused or non-existent. If our images of the Church offered us are a pilgrim people, we are tired pilgrims carrying a lot of baggage. If we are a fellowship of reconciliation, we are probably spending more time in rooms with our doors closed than around the table breaking bread together. If we are a body of diverse gifts used for the building up of the whole, then many of us sound more like an eye talking to hand saying 'I don't need you!'
However, within all this messiness of our challenging life together, there is deep love for the Uniting Church. People right across the Church can articulate what they love about the Uniting Church and the resonance is remarkably similar. They love that the Uniting Church is an inclusive church, a Church that despite its difference does seek to hold together a very broad range of beliefs and practices.
People point to the vision of the Church as described in the Basis of Union - while most believe it is not widely known - it is remarkable how often it is referenced and quoted.
Our commitments to the Covenant, a multicultural church and seeking justice also feature prominently.
People appreciate principles that shape how we make decisions - in community with all people, lay and ordained, regardless of gender, gathering together to seek consensus. While people are sometimes frustrated by the practice of our decision making - some wishing people could exercise more personal authority, others suspicious of individual authority - they acknowledge the principles are sound, if not always outworked well.
There is also an instinctive commitment to the wider community. The instinct to serve our communities is strong. It is unsurprising that a Church marked by that commitment has birthed such a significant collection of community service agencies.
People also lament the challenges the Uniting Church has faced in mission, evangelism and discipleship. This transcends traditional theological divides. The inability of the Uniting Church to make and grow disciples in a widespread way has been deeply felt. There is little appetite for what many perceive to be outdated and coercive evangelistic techniques or the application of modern marketing culture, however, there is a deep heart for seeing a Church that is more able to invite people into life-giving communities of faith and deepen people in the way of Jesus.
In meeting with leaders within the wider councils of the Church, while there was a widespread recognition that the current model was not working, the changes people suggested tended to relate to a council with which they were not directly involved.
As we move to think about the future shape of the Church, we continue to ground our thinking in our faith, in prayer and in the theological inheritance that has and will continue to form our life.
Between Pentecost and the Uniting Church Anniversary (28 May-22 June) we will share in a national time of prayer across the Uniting Church, when we will give thanks to God for the Uniting Church and for our history and unique identity and hold before God the many challenges we face.
After this we will turn to the second phase of the Project, bringing together all we have heard as we develop options and directions for the future that will then be tested across the Church. Please continue to pray for the Act2 Project, for our Church and for the Spirit’s leading in this moment of our life.