11 Sep 2022 by Rev Dr Ross Kingham in: Letters, Thoughts, News


From Rev Dr Ross Kingham
Presbytery Co-Chair

It seems that one does not need to be around the Uniting Church in Australia for long before one discovers people expressing frustration, exasperation, despair, dismay, pain or hurt about the direction in which the church is going or what is happening within it. Whilst belonging to any church will mean experiencing the pain of the world for whom Christ gave his life, and into whose ministry we are joined in baptism, there seems to be something about the pain of people within the Uniting Church in Australia that is attributable to this way of being church. If this is so, then perhaps it is time to ask whether there is another less painful way of being the church.
We are here seeking to make some positive suggestions about how we might be the church more effectively.

  • It is vital to the future of our church that we affirm a process of change in the direction of personal spirituality.

Many would hear a request to participate in finding other ways of emphasizing the place of personal spirituality as something optional in the life of a Christian. In terms of the agenda of the church generally other aspects are seen as equally or more important. Even in the local congregation it appears that notions like bible study, or worship, or preaching, or evangelism have a high degree of credibility but the mention of a person's spirituality is likely not just to be met by ignorance but also anxiety that such a notion does not really belong in a Protestant church. Yet the first thing we are called to do in relation to God’s love and grace is respond. This response is what “being the church” is all about; it’s about the spirit breathing life into us; it’s about what it means to be a follower of Christ; it’s about what it means to be alive; it’s the place from which new life comes. For the church to find its future it needs to find a way of encouraging all its members to pursue their own spiritual journey without being threatened by those whose journey takes them over seemingly different paths.
There is nothing new in this vision for the church for it is the one that individual churches who came into union affirmed in the Basis of Union; that we be a pilgrim people always on the way to a promised goal. Whilst the Basis of Union was a visionary statement which paved the way for becoming a new form of church, in practice only a few have come to be the new church in the way envisioned. Indeed our experience is that most people would see the Uniting Church in Australia as simply another denomination rather than a move beyond denominationalism in the particular location of Australia.
In a denominational form of church ‘the faith’ is described in an objective set of propositions which members agree to or affirm as true. In this form of church, education and mission are paramount, as the task of the church is to make sure that people have ‘the faith’. Social responsibility and personal spirituality are just some of the things that ‘the faith’ asks us to be concerned about. To be beyond denominationalism requires a great deal more humility and repentance about where we have been and a great deal more faith in God’s ability to guide. We observe that not everyone interprets a particular set of doctrines in the same way, but we affirm that God is present and that there is meaning and purpose to life for each of us. In this form of church ‘faith’ is more important than ‘the faith’ and the foundational tasks are those things which nourish a person’s sense that God is with them and that their life has meaning and purpose (the biblical term which describes the realm in which these things happen is ‘the fellowship of the Holy Spirit’). When people own their own spirituality they are alive to the presence and purpose of God and education, mission and social responsibility are a natural by-product.
This leads us to conclude that a greater emphasis needs to be put on what it means to be part of the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. Many things have happened within the life of our church since union that enable a fuller appreciation of the work of the spirit. These include new insights into biblical studies, the writing of new theologies of liberation, the influence of the charismatic movement, the influence of feminism, consensus decision making, 'Kids in Synod', the growth of Australia as a multicultural nation, and postmodernism etc.

  • Despite all of this we desire the following:
    - a generally positive attitude about the church
    - healing of the above-mentioned pain and despair
    - people who gladly embrace the future
    - people who are clear and passionate about what the church believes
    - people who are trusting of others, expecting no hidden agendas
    - people (including ministers) finding true fellowship and  companionship within the church
    - ministers finding creative and effective ways to overcome high levels of stress   and burnout
    - a clear point of unity in the gospel, transcending the interests of one board or group within the life of the Assembly, synod and church
    - a fresh emphasis on sharing experiences, exploring possibilities, encouraging risk-taking and seeing connections in the deliberations of our councils 
    - an understanding of prayer as continually lived, rather  than  something you do in particular moments
    - a deeper appreciation of the inter-connectedness of Sunday worship with  ordinary living
    - that the ‘fellowship of the Holy Spirit’ is identified with our relationship with the whole of the world that God loves and died for, as well as the chat one had over coffee in the local congregation
    - a growth in the number of people yearning for new forms of spirituality and finding the church as a viable context for stimulating and nurturing such a variety of spiritual understandings.

Before buying a massive dose of aspirin to relieve the church of its pain we need to do more work on the place of pain in the life of God. In the human body a physician looks for the existence of pain as evidence that the body is healthy and able to function properly. Similarly there is a variety of images in the bible connecting pain with the presence and purpose of God (e.g. “the Spirit groans with all creation as it brings it to birth’ and we share the ‘broken bread’). So the existence of pain is not necessarily a bad thing but may be the way in which we are joined in solidarity to Christ and to others or it could mean that we need to change something about our way of being in the world.
We don’t suggest any easy answers or quick fixes because spiritual growth is more about process than outcome. We do however want to encourage a process that could result in major changes in the way we apprehend faith in Jesus Christ and the way we are the church.

  • What do you agree with/disagree with in this paper?
  • In what ways does this paper point to the responsibilities/ opportunities of eldership in the Uniting Church?

(Adapted from paper ‘Journeyers in the Spirit’ by the Committee on Spirituality and Pastoral Care of Ministers, NSW Synod, Uniting Church in Australia, May 2001)