Reflection 1: Rev Dr Sally Douglas
November 9, 2022
This reflection is part of a series offered by the Assembly's Growing in Faith Circle to continue reflection and engagement on the Uniting Church's founding document, the Basis of Union, 50 years after it was first published.
The series was inspired by and is a response to "The Basis of Union at 50 - It's Present and Future" - an online conference hosted late in 2021 by Pilgrim Theological College, which brought together more than 70 people nationally across the Church.
The intention in sharing these reflections is to continue and expand the conversation. These responses are looking for threads, themes, questions, and possibilities weaving between, hiding amidst, and hoping across several of the initial reflections offered at the Conference.
Reflection 1: Rev Dr Sally Douglas - The Basis of Union: its Present and its Future - A Brief Written Reflection
At the Basis of Union conference held in November 2021, alongside colleagues Rev Radhika Sukumar White, Rev Stu Cameron, Rev Deacon Sandy Boyce and Dr Janice McRandal, I was asked to offer a brief response about the question: ‘How does the Basis enable and/or limit the UCA’s capacity to develop forms of church, ministry and mission which engage the contemporary context?’ The following reflection is a summary of what I shared on the day, attending to key points.
The Basis of Union is a short document. Sentences are dense and rich, holding both import and nuance. I am struck as I read and re-read the Basis by the way in which core convictions of Christian faith are carefully tethered while, at the same time, the Basis creates space for wide and new horizons. Refreshingly, the Basis of Union assumes, as a matter of course, that the church will get things wrong, that new perspectives will emerge and the Spirit Holy will continue to refine us (paragraph 18). This embedded humility and preparedness to acknowledge error is striking in a foundational church document.
The Biblical Text
As a biblical scholar I am naturally drawn to what the Basis of Union states about the Old and New Testaments (paragraph 5). Here the words of the Basis are sculpted with the upmost care. The unique place that the bible holds for Christians is underscored; the biblical text cannot be replaced. The biblical text is received as prophetic and apostolic testimony. However, in the Basis the Bible is not the ‘word of God’. Rather, in line with the ancient church, including the convictions of the author of John’s Prologue, it is Jesus who is the Word of God, the Holy One, ‘on whom salvation depends’.
The notion that the biblical text is the literal word of God is quite a new heresy. However, the damage caused by this heresy – to minds, bodies and to spirits – is significant. The Basis’ commitment to safeguarding the unique place of the bible, while at the same time underscoring the centrality of the incarnate, crucified and risen Christ Jesus (paragraph 4), the living Word of God, enables the UCA’s capacity to develop forms of church, ministry and mission in critical ways in contemporary context.
This nuanced paragraph about the biblical text guards against the temptation to hack the bible into a series of simplistic proof texts that justify our own views. In contrast, the Basis calls all Uniting Church people to the feet of Jesus Emmanuel – God with us – in worship and witness, so that we may together listen to, be nourished by and formed in, the Holy One.
In making clear what the bible is and is not, the Basis creates the expectation that rigorous engagement with the biblical text is integral to the journey of faith. Within the Australian context in which many people are deeply suspicious of what religious people will tell them to think or believe, the Uniting Church offers a deeply faithful and invitational approach to scripture. Contrary to those who, at times, claim that the UCA does not take the bible seriously, it is because we take the bible so seriously that we refuse to treat it like an instruction manual made up of simplistic answers.
Just as in the early church, in wrestling with the bible, praying with this text, acknowledging this text’s complexities and contradictions, and the various ways in which biblical passages can be understood, the full richness of the bible is honoured and so too is our own humanity. As the Basis emphasises, it is in the practice of cultivating communities of worship and witness in which this can happen, that we hear the voice of Jesus – the living Word.
Not only does the Basis guard against the heresy of biblical literalism, the Basis also guards against making Jesus into whatever we want Jesus to be. That is, if we take the biblical text seriously, as the unique text that points to the Word, Jesus Christ, we need to keep coming back to this challenging, inconvenient text as communities. When we do, we will hear Jesus’ repeated calls to love our enemies and to give our wealth away and to stop worrying and judging. We will be challenged out of our tribal thinking and prosperity gospels, and called more and more deeply into the wild compassion of God for the whole world.
Building upon the understanding of the biblical text, and of Jesus Christ as the living Word of God in paragraphs 4 and 5, the Basis goes on to emphasise the importance of ongoing faithful and scholarly interpreters of scripture (paragraph 11). In a world in which misunderstandings and simplistic notions about religion flourish, the Basis’ commitment to scholarly engagement is welcome, not just for the church, but for society at large.
The Basis commitment to wide ranging intellectual engagement is to be commended. That this scholarship is to be anchored in Jesus Christ is a particularly important reminder for UCA people working in the academy. In attending to this paragraph’s emphasis upon scholarly engagement and its reminder that this engagement emerges in ‘obedience’ (deep listening) to God’s living Word, the Basis empowers the UCA to cultivate communities of curiosity and contemplation in our theological colleges, as well as across our Assembly, Synods, Presbyteries and in Congregations.
Within this paragraph we are also reminded that this work of being church is not ours. It is God who continues to provide evangelist, scholar, prophet, and martyr. This emphasis within the Basis enables the UCA’s capacity to develop forms of church, ministry and mission in contemporary context, because it reminds us again that being the church is not up to us.
Amidst the vast changes in society over the last 50 years, and within our current global pandemic, we are reminded that God’s grace is sufficient for us. Even when we are seduced by scarcity narratives, thanks be to God, we are not responsible for making it all happen. She is.
Ministers, Elders, Deacons, Lay Preachers
Within the Basis’ paragraph about leadership within the church (paragraph 14), a crucial point is made. It is again underscored that God has never failed us, and through the power of Holy Spirit leaders will continue to be called and set apart. Then, in breathtaking brevity, ministers are reminded of the core focus of pastoral care. The Basis states that ministers ‘exercise pastoral care so that all may be equipped for their particular ministries’. Here the Basis makes clear that pastoral care is not primarily therapeutic. Pastoral care is not about
fixing people or cheering them up. To put it bluntly, pastoral care is not about being mini- messiahs within faith communities. Instead, the Basis makes plain that pastoral care is about accompanying and supporting people as they discern their own ministry – their calling from God.
The Basis rightly emphasises that we all have a role in God’s dreaming, and that, at its core, pastoral care is about honouring others as fellow ministry agents and being attentive to how Holy Spirit might be calling them to live out their gifts at this time. If we in the UCA were to take the Basis’ understanding of pastoral care seriously, our messiah complexes, our scarcity narratives, our ministry as ‘therapy’ modalities, and all the ego driven agendas that are attached to these mindsets, would be dismantled.
This understanding within the Basis, enables the UCA’s capacity to develop new forms of church, ministry and mission in our current contexts, because as we contend with questions such as how we might support congregations where there is no minister in placement, or as we wonder how we might keep running a particular church ‘mission’, the Basis reminds us that it is not all up to us, as individual ministers, or as individual congregations. Instead, the Basis invites us into the reality that being the church is not only about the minister, or about church run programs. In contrast, we are all invited into what God is already doing and to let our gifts, and ordinary (sacred) lives, be creatively involved in God’s unfolding compassion.
In highlighting what I value about the Basis it is not being pretended that this document speaks to every topic, or in ways that are always helpful. From my perspective, the Basis is limited by the reality that at times it appears to be ‘binitarian’ rather than trinitarian. I wish that Holy Spirit was spoken about more explicitly and more often in the Basis.
Others may claim that the Basis is limited in its capacity to develop new forms of church, ministry and mission, because it does not address critical contemporary issues, such as the climate emergency or questions of inequality in our world. If we were to approach this document with the primary lens of what it is lacking, we could find topics to fill page upon page. I am not convinced that this approach is helpful. While the Basis does not explicitly address important issues in contemporary context, the Basis does not hinder the church’s ongoing work in these crucial fields. Indeed, because the Basis embeds continuous critical and prayerful engagement with the biblical text – and with the world - in its understanding of being the church, fresh words and deeds are not only encouraged but expected (paragraph 11).
Thankfully the Basis of Union does not attempt to address all aspects of theology. If this had been the case at the time of composition, it would be woefully outdated already. In contrast, the Basis seeks to carve out touchstones for us in the UCA as we continue in the journey of being a people on the way. The precision and openness of the Basis are its strength, for in this each of us is invited to participate in the ongoing conversation.
Rev Dr Sally Douglas
Associate Lecturer and Honorary Research Associate
Pilgrim Theological College, University of Divinity, Melbourne Minister: Richmond Uniting Church