A migrant musing on the Basis
August 3, 2022
Rev Heewon Chang was recently ordained and placed as a congregational minister at Hope Uniting Church in Maroubra in Sydney. She wrote this piece as an invitation to the Uniting Church to think deeply about who we are and where we come from. Reflecting as a non-white migrant on the Basis of Union 50 years after it was first written, Heewon says despite its flaws, the founding document still has much to say about who we are and our calling.
No person is the same. No Uniting Church is the same. Like all of us are uniquely different, so is the Uniting Church. Theologically, culturally, racially, and politically many of our congregations are vastly different. We are deeply divided on some issues but remain under the same roof as the Uniting Church. So then, who are we? What holds us together?
As a non-white migrant, I am often asked, “where are you from?” And I find myself explaining who I am, trying to resist being pigeonholed and stereotyped while still being me. The Uniting Church is often stereotyped and pigeonholed and at times we have failed to communicate fully who we are as a church. To be frank, I have never really thought about what it means to be a Korean until I began my journey here in this land now called Australia. And it has taken a while for me to articulate what that means. It is a tiring process, but it allows me to develop a language about myself, who I am and what my story is.
As Christians, we are also part of the story, the story of the One crucified and risen. This story shapes and nurture us. It gives us identity, a distinctive mark, that sets us apart from the world. In the Uniting Church there is a story of how we came together. There is a founding document, the Basis of Union, that sets forth our call to be a uniquely Australian church. But, at 45 years old, as if we are going through a mid-life crisis, our conversations seem to be consumed with decline, survival, and a need for a change.
Now with the pandemic and the new normal upon us, challenged with internal and external issues, “as we look to the future and consider afresh our life together” we are told that “it is obvious we cannot stay the way we are.” And we ask again ‘who are we’, “as we look to the future, what is God saying to us as the Uniting Church about how we order our life…”
And I suggest we remember our call set clear in the Basis.
…to serve the world for which Christ died
The Basis was written for a particular time and place, yet it can “speak into other times and places.” It invites me - a non-white migrant woman living through a pandemic - to read it in this context.
The world turned upside down. Our way of living shattered, and all the problems of our world exposed. The way we live, work and play all came to a stop. The way we gather and do church stopped. The world we know has changed and people say there is no going back. When the Uniting Church was inaugurated on 22 June 1977, a journey into the unknown began, so yes, as a church, there is no going back.
However, when we say there is no going back, what are we saying we will not return to? Surely, it must mean not going back to the world of inequality, patriarchy, poverty, climate change, racism (and the list goes on) that is so prevalent in the world. What is the UCA committing to leave behind, or has left behind, and is now committing to bring forth? Have we left at all? As a church how are we to journey in this new world? Will our future directions guide us? Will a new vision and strategy save us? How is our identity formed in this new normal?
The Basis makes it quite clear who we belong to. Our identity comes from the One crucified and risen. Our identity comes from being present to the world, here and now. As a church we are “an instrument through which Christ may work and bear witness to himself.” We are “built upon the one Lord Jesus Christ. The Church preaches Christ the risen crucified One and confesses him as Lord to the glory of God.” And it continues, “in love for the world, God gave the Son to take away the world’s sin.” And we are to be “committed to serve the world for which Christ died.”
In Christ, the church is to be rooted right here and now. We are to be deeply present to the realities and the struggles in the now. We are not to avoid the present reality and look up for hope. Rather, because we are deeply rooted here and now, we can be hopeful that one day we can say “the kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of the Christ.”
In other words, let us deal with our baggage now instead of looking elsewhere. Let us stop giving lip service to our First Peoples and truly engrain the Covenant we have made. Let us stop celebrating being a multicultural church and truly become one. Let us act on climate urgency before blood is on our hands. We are called to form a special relationship with Churches in Asia and the Pacific, and to have a relationship is to be accountable to each other. Where is our responsibility for our siblings in the Pacific who are screaming, “we will not drown”?
Living in-between, walking towards an end?
As we commit ourselves to serve the world, the Basis expresses some specific images on what that might look like: the church as the pilgrim people of God, and walking towards an end. In my migrant eyes, the church is called to live in-between spaces.
I caution you from idealising any of these images. They are not to be understood lightly because there is nothing romantic about ‘living in between’, being a ‘pilgrim’ and ‘walking towards an end’. If you ask any migrant, they will tell you about the pains of journeying in a new land often loaded with frustration, anger, deep sadness, and confusion. This is not an easy path, but we do not go alone.
In our journey, it is Christ who “feeds the Church” so that “we may not lose the way.” We are not called to be a “wandering or meandering people.” Our final goal is set, and we know where we are heading. An end that brings new life, a new beginning, a new heaven and earth. According to the Basis, “the Uniting Church affirms that it belongs to the people of God on the way to the promised end.” And maybe we should travel lightly so that we may move easily without being burdened by possessions.
We are a church on a journey towards an end. This is something we do not control nor foresee, where we live “between the time of Christ’s death and resurrection and the final consummation of all things which Christ will bring.” We journey together totally dependent on the Triune God to go with us because without God our journey is worthless. We are to follow the One crucified and risen, and our destination is towards an end where the kin(g)dom of God will reign. Our walk is to be different, going forward but towards an end!
We are asked to live in-between the world and the world to come. And for a non-white migrant like me, to live in between is to shuffle along the margins, away from the centre. Moving away from the ways of the world - hierarchy, patriarchy, racism, ageism, violence, colonisation - things that divide and take hold of us. When we leave the centre, we have a better perspective and offer a different view. A different way of living. In this marginal space we can offer a different language from what is proclaimed from the centre of the world.
Our call is not to be at the centre but at the end, at the margins. Not to dominate and build an empire but to be a foretaste of that coming reconciliation and renewal for the whole creation, and to point to Jesus, “the beginning of a new creation, of a new humanity”. As a church we are called “to serve that end… always on the way towards a promised goal.” To become part of the kin(g)dom to come. We are to become the Church perched on the margins “to be the disciples of a crucified Lord” and in his strange way Christ constitutes, rules and renews us as his Church.
This is who we are.
This paper was first presented at the Basis of Union at 50: Its Present and Future Conference hosted by Pilgrim Theological College, 27 November 2021 via zoom. This is an edited version of the presentation.
 This is a deliberate term I use for myself because I refuse to be called “coloured” or “culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD)” which mask whiteness as the norm.
 If I am vocal, I am too western and if I am silent, I am the passive oppressed Asian woman. Uniting Church on the other hand is sometimes seen as too justice oriented or not biblical enough.
 How would you unpack what ‘Australian’ means? What does it mean to be an ‘Australian’ church?
 Recent report by the Assembly Standing Committee, Act 2: Considering Afresh Our Life Together highlights some of the challenges faced by the Uniting Church. To have a look at the report and the Act2 project go to: https://uniting.church/act2/
 Colleen Geyer, Introduction from the General Secretary to Act 2: Considering Afresh Our Life Together, by Uniting Church in Australia. https://uniting.church/consideringafresh/
 Geyer, Introduction.
 This are the introducing words of the Act 2 project which echo the words of Andrew Dutney in an article written in 2017. Andrew Dutney, “Flexible and Free: An Ecclesiology of Change,” Uniting Church Studies, Vol.21, No.1 June (2017): 9.
 BoU, para.1.
 Geoff Thompson, In his Strange Way: A Post-Christendom Sort of Commentary on the Basis of Union (Unley: MediaCom Education, 2018) , 5.
 In a 2021 Synod meeting, NSW-ACT Synod passed a proposal called Future Directions for the People of God that highlights and affirms following future directions around several areas.
 For a more detailed discussion look at Chapter 2. In Geoff Thompson, Disturbing Much, Disturbing Many: Theology Provoked by the Basis of Union, (Northcote, Uniting Academic Press, 2016).
 BoU, para. 3.
 BoU, para. 3.
 BoU, para.3.
 BoU, para.1.
 BoU, para.1.
 BoU, para. 2.
 Maratja Dhamarrandi, “The first Peoples and the Basis: The Basis into Yolŋu”(presentation, The Basis of Union at 50: Its Present and Future, Pilgrim Theological College, Melbourne, 27 November 2021).
 BoU, para.3. For a
 BoU, para. 18.
 BoU, para.3
 BoU, para.3.
 Uniting Church in Australia, The status, authority and role of the Basis of Union within the Uniting Church in Australia (A discussion paper issued be the Assembly, 1996), 12
 BoU, para. 18.
 Andrew Dutney, “A Fellowship of Reconciliation: A Pilgrim People” (Speech, Opening Worship of 2013 Synod of NSW-ACT, Sydney, 2013). Available online at: https://andrewfdutney.com/2013/04/16/a-fellowship-of-reconciliation-a-pilgrim-people/
 BoU, para. 3.
 BoU, para.3.
 BoU, para.4.
 BoU, para.4