Reflection 4: Rev Radhika Sukumar-White
November 23, 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 4: Rev Radhika Sukumar-White, Ministry Team Leader, Leichhardt Uniting Church, Sydney.
Radhika lives on the land of the Gadigal/Wangal peoples of the Eora Nation.
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?
Leichhardt Uniting Church (LUC) is often seen and referred to in my Synod as an anomaly. It is young (our average age is 25) but surprisingly traditional in liturgy; it’s growing a lot (even through the last couple of years of pandemic disruptions); people are experiencing growth, conversion and transformation, and they are committing themselves to lives of discipleship through baptism, confirmation, church participation and wider church engagement. We are also engaged in tertiary ministry at universities which includes offering affordable accommodation in an intentional Christian community with our 25-bed student house next to the church. Our members are passionately engaged and active in areas of justice – climate action has the most energy at the moment, but also LGBTIQA+ rights (we are an openly affirming church), First Nations justice, refugee and asylum seeker policy, and more.
And so there may be an assumption that naturally I’ll talk about paragraph 11 as a natural favourite paragraph, and how it enables us to be a more “woke” church, grounded in scientific inquiry and logic, about the place of, say, LGBTIQA+ people in God’s creation. And that may have been true a few years ago. LUC was birthed out of a university bible study that became a faith community. The leadership and teachings of Rev. Dr. John Hirt were certainly focused on a respectful rigour when engaging with Scripture, with liberation and other ‘radical’ theologies. So paragraph 11 was a sort of natural fit for that work.
But there’s an unhelpful assumption there that says our church is affirming because it deprioritises scripture in favour of something called “science” or “history” or “culture”. Prompted by Dr Geoff Thompson and his writings around the relationship between paragraphs 11 and 5 of the Basis (particularly in relation to the marriage conversation in the UCA), we say that we are affirming because we take this to be the appropriate response to a scientifically and historically and culturally informed reading of Scripture.
When we talk about Scripture, we use the definition offered by Migliore in Faith Seeking Understanding, where he says “the Bible is a unique witness to the sovereign grace of God at work in the history of Israel and above all in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.” Or, as stated in the report on same-gender marriage by the Working Group on Doctrine “as prophetic and apostolic testimony the Scriptures set forth the gospel; it is not a flat text; it is presented as a collection of literature, the reading of which is controlled by the dynamic of the gospel.”
So there is a sense of liberation in that understanding of Scripture, but also a call to humility. We are called, through paragraph 5, to listen for the Word of God in the midst of our worshipping and witnessing life; not make assumptions about it, not to read into it what we want. Rather we are called to listen for it, humbly, wisely, and with strong overarching convictions about who and whose we are, about who Jesus is, and about who God calls us to be. We listen in order to learn; we read as disciples, we learn HOW to read with our and different lenses, and our hearts are inevitably set on fire every time.
So, I have found the Basis, particularly those paragraphs, to be hugely enabling for the miraculous work happening at LUC over the last few years. We are absolutely a Bible-based church (we’re claiming that language for ourselves). We are absolutely evangelical. We give the Bible the respect it deserves. Everything we say and do is grounded in our love for Scripture, our humble reading of Scripture, and modern, scholarly interpretation of Scripture. Because of these foundational ideas set forth in the Basis, LUC can be the miraculous anomaly it is. I hope that we will continue to be so – not arrogantly, but like John the Baptist in the Isenheim altarpiece, always pointing to Jesus, and always reminding ourselves that we are a pilgrim people, always on the way, and fed on our journey.
Daniel Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: an introduction to Christian Theology 3rd ed (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014) p52.
Working Group on Doctrine, “Report on Marriage and Same-gender Relationships” in B23 Assembly Standing Committee Report on Marriage and Same Gender Relationships, p.22.
Rev Radhika Sukumar-White is Ministry Team Leader, Leichhardt Uniting Church, Sydney. Radhika lives on the land of the Gadigal/Wangal peoples of the Eora Nation.