Growing Up Uniting: a new narrative for our Church
Growing Up Uniting, Edited by William W. Emilsen & Elizabeth A. Watson
Review written by Bethany Broadstock
For many years a powerful narrative about the aging profile of congregations and the absence of younger generations has been shaping the life of the Uniting Church.
In some places, this has been a driving force to set an agenda for action focused on how our communities, structures and indeed the Gospel itself are contextualised and made accessible to each stage of faith and life.
More often than not however, it has been couched in a broader sense of scarcity and decline which has perhaps had even more influence over our collective sense of self than we realise. But it is not the whole truth, as hundreds of highly engaged Uniting Church young people will tell you.
One of the gifts of Growing Up Uniting, then, is to remind us that from the earliest days of the UCA, the Uniting Church has been home to whole new generations. Young people have chosen the UCA as the context for their life of faith: growing up quite literally in its communities, shaped by its life and values and going on to make their own contributions.
In an anthology of personal essays from people aged 18-40, Growing Up Uniting captures the voices of the first two generations to be formed personally, spiritually and theologically in the Uniting Church.
The experiences they contain are as diverse as the 20 people who wrote them and the places from which they were written. The contributors were encouraged to be honest and creative – and to be themselves. The result is a balanced collection of insights which are neither abstract nor romanticise the UCA. Instead they hold up a mirror to the church, celebrating our identity as the Uniting Church and calling us to reflect on where the Spirit is calling us today.
There is great affection for the Uniting Church in these pages and some clear common themes. The contributors speak of the sense of belonging, openness to questions, commitment to justice and Covenant with First Peoples, liberative biblical engagement and a courageous public voice. For many these are key identity markers.
Elvina Kioa Kramer writes about how the Uniting Church gave her the “freedom to explore, freedom to question, and to learn and choose God’s gift of grace.” Craig Corby writes, “I am proud to belong to the Uniting Church—an organisation that is meant to be a movement first and an institution second.”
Others noted that taking certain things for granted in the Uniting Church – like women’s leadership and an open communion table – was a gift they often only became aware of later. There is much in the UCA’s 44 years to celebrate.
The authors also offer a measured critique, naming the things that may pose a threat to the integrity of our life and witness: aversion to risk, creeping corporatisation, top-heavy bureaucracy and the loss of imagination and vision that characterised union.
Collectively they also warn about the implications of failing to invest in faith formation and mentoring, which may open a leadership and discipleship void. For some contributors this is the true source of decline. Many note the intentional spaces which have been integral to their discipleship including national events like NCYC, NYALC and AboutFace, tertiary ministries, and crucially, local congregations and faith communities.
Contributor Ben Cross speaks of this risk plainly: “If the UCA is collectively either incapable or unwilling to help form young people for Christian discipleship, we might plausibly ask whether it is a good thing for it to continue to exist.”
Others reflect on the willingness of the UCA to be forward-facing. Richard Telfer writes, "People in the Uniting Church should be proud of who we are, a church that is committed to walking into the future.”
Several contributors note their tenuous links to the founding denominations, having no lived experience from the other side of union. This raises interesting questions about how new generations carry forward the story of union and its dissent from denominationalism.
For those that have known no other tradition nor witnessed the process of ‘uniting’, the challenge is that a different kind of denominationalism can emerge.
With the Basis of Union committing us to pursue the broader wholeness of both church and world in an ongoing sense, the generations which continue to grow up Uniting must live this out in fresh ways that make sense for their time. Among other things it means holding our traditions lightly, beloved though they are.
Perhaps in the years to come our commitments to unity and ecumenism will take on a different shape that is less institutional. Instead of being primarily focussed on seeking doctrinal or theological common ground with other denominations, though that is important and will continue, it may become more about a spirit and culture of partnership with others in the pursuit of justice and wholeness for all.
This is a timely book. Right now, through the Act2 project, the Uniting Church is embarking on the biggest conversation we have had since union about the shape, identity and life of the Uniting Church. There is much within these pages that will inform the questions we will ask ourselves about moving boldly and with faith into the future.
I commend the contributors to Growing Up Uniting for their courage. To consider and critique a movement that is so entwined with personal identity asks both vulnerability and hope. It also takes trust that the church stands ready and willing to listen. I hope all UCA members get the chance to hear the voices and insights between these pages.