Rev. Prof. Andrew Dutney
On this 38th anniversary of the inauguration of the Uniting Church in Australia, I greet you in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. I want to take this opportunity to thank you for the extraordinary privilege you’ve given me as President of the Assembly for the last three years. The people and communities I’ve met, the experiences I’ve had, the places I’ve been, the challenges that have been put before me, have all come together as a unique opportunity to know you – the Uniting Church in Australia – in all your depth and diversity. In this role I’ve regarded it as one of my responsibilities and privileges to seek out the signs of the Holy Spirit at work amongst us, continually asking myself on your behalf, “What kind of church is God calling us to be?” And now, after three extraordinary years, I’ve something to tell you about that.
First, God is calling us to be a church which being shaped and reshaped in the covenant between the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress and the Uniting Church. The church is called “to be a fellowship of reconciliation” (The Basis of Union, paragraph 3) and nowhere is reconciliation more needed in this nation than between First and Second peoples. Congress, the covenant, sharing property and paying the rent, our new preamble, the week of prayer and fasting, About FACE – we’ve made a start but still have far to go to achieve that reconciliation and deep fellowship in Christ which is “our destiny together”. It’s hard and it’s taking a long time, but it is the kind of church God is calling us to be.
Secondly, God is calling us to be a church which is culturally and linguistically diverse at its core – not essentially British with add-ons from other cultures. The church is called to be “a body within which the diverse gifts of its members are used for the building up of the whole” (The Basis of Union, paragraph 3) and that includes the “diverse gifts” showered upon us through being a multicultural church.
To release this diversity of gifts we’ll need to grow the UCA “ethos” to reflect the wisdom of our whole fellowship – giving prominence to faith sharing and outreach, to prayer and Bible study, to the dynamic of church planting and church growth – the stuff that our members and congregations from the Pacific, Asia and Africa know is at the heart of Christian identity. We’ll need to address the Euro-centric assumptions we bring to matters like recognising new congregations, receiving ministersfrom other denominations, and educating our leaders both lay and ordained. We’ll need to address the accident of history that almost all the material resources that the Uniting Church has inherited is in the hands of one cultural-linguistic group, the English-speaking community. There’s nothing easy about this, but it is the kind of church God is calling us to be.
Thirdly, God is calling us to be a church which is oriented towards the growing, flourishing, suffering church of the global south. The church is called to be “an instrument through which Christ may work and bear witness to himself” (The Basis of Union, paragraph 3) like that vital, inspirational church of the global south where most of the world’s Christians now live. Our deepest personal relationships are there already – with our partner churches in the Pacific, Asia and Africa. But our imagination is still captive to the global north – causing us to constantly defer to the insights and agendas that come from Britain and North America. Personally, I’m going to “fast” from the theological books from the global North to allow my imagination to be nourished instead by the theology drawn from the life of the church in the global south. It’ll probably be uncomfortable, but it is the kind of church that God is calling us to be.
Fourthly, God is calling us to be a church which receives its diversity as the precious gift of the Holy Spirit that it is; a foretaste, sign and instrument of “that reconciliation and renewal which is the end in view for the whole creation.” (The Basis of Union, paragraph 3) Reconciliation doesn’t mean everyone being the same. It doesn’t mean one version of being human or being Christian replacing all the others. It means people and groups that are different and divided from each other being brought together in Christ to respect, value, trust and serve one another – in all our annoying, embarrassing, frustrating, sometimes frightening diversity. That’s profoundly challenging. It’s sharply counter-cultural. But it is the kind of church God is calling us to be.
Thank you for the privilege of seeing for myself that the Holy Spirit is already making us into the church God calls us to be.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.