John T Squires
The Church in which I minister, the Uniting Church in Australia, is a church which values the development of "an informed faith". It's something that is absolutely central in my own understanding of discipleship, ministry, and mission (which might explain why I have called this blog An Informed Faith!)
The Uniting Church was formed in 1977 by a union of three protestant denominations (Congregational, Methodist, and Presbyterian), which came together through a commitment to a Basis of Union which had been written, circulated, and voted on by members of those three churches earlier in the 1970s.
This Basis of Union envisages that the Uniting Church would be a thoughtfully educated church. It commits all its members and ministers to “the knowledge of God’s ways with humanity that are open to an informed faith”—a faith that is contextualised, critically developed, alert to contemporary understandings, and engaged with contemporary society.
This “informed faith” has clear foundations. It is to be based on the serious study of Scriptures; the Basis says that the Uniting Church “lays upon its members the serious duty of reading the Scriptures [and] commits its ministers to preach from these” (para 5).
It is to be further guided by our theological heritage from the early church, in the early ecumenical creeds, and the Reformation and Evangelical traditions, through later confessional documents. Uniting Church ministers are particularly exhorted to apply themselves “to careful study of these creeds and to the discipline of interpreting their teaching in a later age” (para 9), as well as to “to study these statements” which are identified as critical confessions (para 10).
In paragraph 11, the Basis offers an expression of thanks to God “for the continuing witness and service of evangelist, of scholar, of prophet and of martyr”. All four of these figures are important. We have been invited into the faith by evangelists, enriched by scholars, challenged by prophets; and the motivation and fate of martyrs must surely give us food for consideration, even if we do not deliberately choose to follow their exact pathway!
As the Basis acknowledges the importance of scholarly interpreters of Scripture, it goes on to affirm insights that we can take from literary, historical and scientific enquiry and contemporary thought. These insights nourish our faith and develop our discipleship. Whatever source they come from—from across the spread of disciplines developed by careful human exploration and thoughtful human experimentation—they can inform and shape our lives of faith in the 21st century.
The Basis also affirms that all members are gifted and called to ministry, that all ministries are part of the ministry of Christ, and that all members need to be equipped for their ministries. So providing lay people, commissioned pastors, and ordained deacons and ministers with opportunities for training and learning which foster these commitments is an important aspect of our church life.
There is no doubt that commitment to "an informed faith" is at the heart of the culture of the Uniting Church. Such a commitment shapes our approach to worship and preaching, pastoral care and mission, governance and organisation. It permeates every aspect of our life together as church.
The claim that our faith and life is grounded in scripture is one that is shared with all Protestant and many other denominations, albeit with different emphases amongst that cohort. For the Uniting Church, the foundations of our approach to scripture is outlined in paragraph 5 of the Basis of Union.
Paragraph 5 of the Basis of Union
This paragraph affirms the central importance of scripture. However, it does so in a way which clearly shows that scripture requires interpretation. Merely repeating the precise words of the Bible does not guarantee understanding, or even acceptance, of those words. So, in worship, we not only read scripture passages, but we reflect on them, guided usually by a sermon, and then we are invited to respond to those words, in song, in prayer, and in our own lives.
All of this is acknowledged in paragraph 5, when it declares that “The Word of God on whom salvation depends is to be heard and known from Scripture appropriated in the worshipping and witnessing life of the Church.” The process of appropriation is critical. When we read, or hear, scripture, we need to appropriate it — we need to find ways to make it appropriate in our own context, in our own communities, in our own lives. As we do so, we hear and know the Word of God—identified in paragraph 4 as “Christ who is present when he is preached among people”—the one “who acquits the guilty, who gives life to the dead and who brings into being what otherwise could not exist”.
That process of interpretation is important, and can’t be short-circuited. Trying to make an argument that there is a “plain reading” or “unequivocal support” for a position, is simplistic. It is a matter of interpretation, exploration, testing and exploring—not just a mater of stating “unequivocal” truths.
So paragraph 11 of the Basis sets out some of the processes by which this appropriation might take place: "contact with contemporary thought", the inheritance of "literary, historical and scientific enquiry", engagement with others within "the worldwide fellowship of churches" as well as with "contemporary society" ... all of which stands in the service of developing "an informed faith".
So the Basis of Union commits us to a process of discovery. Paragraph 11 exhorts us to remain open to new insights which emerge from scientific thinkers, historical researchers, our encounter with other cultural customs, our engagement with people from societies different from our own.
Paragraph 11 of the Basis of Union
In this regard, the Basis stands in the tradition of what is often today called the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. That schema (attributed to Wesley, but never actually articulated by him) relates scripture, the primary source of Christian faith, to three other factors, each of which inform and shape the way we deal with scripture: the tradition of the church, the faculty of reason, and our human experience. Those related factors are reflected in the Basis of Union in other ways, although primarily (in my mind) through what is found in paragraph 11.
So in giving thanks “for the continuing witness and service of evangelist, of scholar, of prophet and of martyr”, and in articulating the various factors which have nourished these figures, the Basis offers some important interpretive insights. It is the way that we interpret scripture and our received traditions, guided by these factors, that shapes our theological culture.
Valuing our inheritance
So we are grounded in scripture; we value experience; and we appreciate tradition. In addition, it is important that we engage our faith with the human faculties of reason and empathy, drawing upon critical investigation and creative imagining, as we seek to live as Christians.
Valuing "the inheritance of literary, historical and scientific enquiries” is one such pathway. By now, we know very clearly that the sun does not revolve around the earth; that the earth is not simply some 4,000 odd years old; that disease is spread by germs. This new scientific knowledge is able to reshape how we read and understand scripture, and how we plan to express faith in our communities.
We know that Moses did not write the first five books of the Tanakh, nor did any of the first apostles pen the Gospels included in our scriptures. Again, this evolving literary and historical understanding orients and shapes our approach to scripture and the way we apply and live.
And we know, now, that people do not choose their sexual identity, but rather who we are, in all our diversity, is a reflection of the creative relational love that comes to us from God. The contemporary insights of science and medicine, psychology and sociology—as well as the important processes of reading and seeking to understand biblical texts in their literary, historical, cultural, and political contexts—informs how we understand, value, and relate to this significant portion of our society.
All of this requires us to live differently, to relate to one another differently, to make laws differently, to be Church differently—all because we value “the inheritance of literary, historical and scientific enquiries” and work hard to engage that inheritance in the ways we interpret scripture, worship and serve, and bear witness to our faith.
Engaging with contemporary societies
Beyond this, the Basis encourages us to engage with contemporary societies and participate in them such that we better come to understand our own nature and mission. Every day, in the modern world, questions are raised, discoveries are made, experiments are undertaken, hypotheses are probed, discarded, or confirmed, policies are proposed and legislated, changes are implemented. That is the very nature of our situation in life for the present age.
And a central theological affirmation, which sweeps up all of these processes of exploration and discovery, is that we hold to an ongoing and ever-present role for the Holy Spirit: the giver of life moves in our midst to encourage us to share together and make new discoveries. So paragraph 11 of the Basis offers a prayer that, as a church, we “may be ready when occasion demands to confess the Lord in fresh words and deeds.”
That prayer invites us to make it our business to know what discoveries are being made by scientists, psychologists, and sociologists, through exploration of the whole cosmos as well as investigation of ecologies and systems close at hand. It invites us to bring our knowledge of those discoveries into conversation with our faith and the developments that have occurred in our theological understandings through the faithful work of exegetes, theologians, missiologists, educators, activists, writers, and preachers. We are also invited to attend to the creative offerings of poets, novelists, composers and artists, helping to shape our understanding of God and of one another.
In our exegesis of biblical texts and our articulation of theological insights, in our decision-making about church polity and our implementation of missional projects, we are always to be informed by these matters. Our expressions of faith always come to birth in the context in which we find ourselves, and always engage our whole being.
Multicultural societies, such as Australia, offer many opportunities for such engagement and learning. Seeking to understand the cultural practices and commitments of friends and neighbours in our midst, means that we will better understand who we are as Church: what it means to be in relationship with one another, to serve one another, to proclaim the living Word afresh. We made a commitment to this way of life in 1985, and we continue to explore what that means in the life of our church, and our society.
And in this country, we are privileged to be able to speak and work and pray with people from the oldest continuous society still existing on earth. The First Peoples of this continent, a collection of many Peoples marked by their own richness of culture and diversity of languages and customs, offer us unending scope to deepen our awareness of God’s ways with human beings. We do have “a destiny together”. We sealed a Covenant with the UAICC in 1994, and reworked the Preamble to our own Constitution in 2009, to indicate how strongly we hold to walking that pathway together.
Right at the start of the Uniting Church, in 1977, the First Assembly issued the grand-sounding Statement to the Nation, in which the realities of the society of the day were named, and the principles which it was intended would guide the new church as it sought to bear witness to our faith and, more significantly, seek to serve the people of that society. This brilliant statement still holds good today, as it articulated key issues which still blight our common life.
And the glaring omission in that Statement—the lack of any reference to the First Peoples of this continent and its surrounding islands—was addressed in a second Statement to the Nation, issued in 1988, when the nation was immersed in celebrations of the 200th anniversary of the arrival of the British invaders who colonised, massacred, and marginalised those First Peoples.
Engaging with the worldwide fellowship of churches
Long before the Uniting Church came into being, faithful people in the three predecessor denominations had expressed a passionate desire to seek unity with people of faith in other denominations. The birth of the ecumenical movement in Australia is often traced to the formation of the Australian Student Christian Movement (1896). Early moves towards forming a union of Protestant denominations was taking place in Australia at this time. But no union resulted.
The momentum continued in other ways. A National Missionary Council was formed in 1926, and in 1946 the Australian Committee for the World Council of Churches was formed. This would subsequently develop into the Australian Council of Churches and then the National Council of Churches in Australia. The moves towards the formation of the Uniting Church—slow and tedious as they may now appear to us to have been—took place within this larger movement seeking unity across the whole people of God.
When the Congregational, Methodist and Presbyterian churches joined together in 1977 to form the Uniting Church in Australia, they declared that this union was both in accord with the will of God, and that it was a gift of God to the people of God in Australia (Basis of Union, para 1). Since then, the Uniting Church has been a church which is committed to working ecumenically with other Christian denominations.
We belong to the National Council of Churches in Australia (NCCA) and the World Council of Churches (WCC), where we co-operate with many denominations. We also belong to the World Methodist Council (WMC) and the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC), in recognitions of those two lines of heritage in our history. We send delegates to these international bodies whenever they meet and take part in the discussions and decisions of plenary sessions and working committees.
Nationally, we have participated in ongoing conversations with other denominations (Anglican, Lutheran, Greek Orthodox, and Roman Catholic). At the grassroots level, our ministers participate in local ministers’ associations in hundreds of towns and cities across the nation. We are an ecumenical church.
I know from the ministries that I have offered in various locations—urban, regional, and rural—that there are places for people who value Pentecostal worship, Anglican ritual, Baptist freedom, evangelical activism, ethno-cultural orthodoxy, fundamentalist biblicism, Roman-guided Catholicism, and other forms of Christian expression, in other denominations. These are our sisters and brothers in Christ. I also know that the Uniting Church occupies a distinctive place within that universal fellowship.
We need to own that space, maintain mature and fruitful relationships with the people of these other forms of faith expression, and be resolutely clear about who we are and what we stand for. We advocate for an informed faith, we stand with the marginalised and disenfranchised, we welcome people who have had difficult times in life and people who identify with diverse expressions of sexuality and gender, and we are proud to serve these communities in accord with the Gospel we know. That is the gift that God offers the people of Australia through the church that we are.
Contact with contemporary thought
The final element noted in paragraph 11 is to the intention for us to seek out “contact with contemporary thought”, such that it will shape in us “an informed faith”. As individuals, or as a culture, we do not hold all the keys to meaning, all the clues to reality, within our grasp. We do not believe that “the world” is a place of menace, filled with evil and permeated with injustice. There is much we can learn from contemporary thought and contemporary societies.
We do well to learn from one another, to seek out different understandings and variant expressions, so that our faith may be deepened and our knowledge may be expanded. We do well to engage with others, different from us, for the sake of our common life together. Such is the call from our foundational document, the Basis of Union.
In recent years, I have become aware of a process known as Appreciative Inquiry. This offers a helpful way to learn from one another, to explore the human resources at our disposal in a consultative way, to engage constructively across differences. I have learnt the value of offering an invitation to another person by saying, “I am curious as to why you say that”, or a similar approach—much better than a direct, confrontational, “what do you mean?” Our faith can be enriched and expanded—and better informed—by such an approach to the world we live in and the people we encounter.
A few years ago, I served in an educational role which had in its job description an explicit charge to contribute to the creation of "a culture in which faith formation for discipleship and leadership is prized, appreciated and accessible and seeks to build an informed and integrated learning community directed to the mission of God”.
I still hold to that succinct articulation of a wide-ranging set of responsibilities as a fine overarching explanation of what all educators—and, indeed, all who serve in pastoral leadership within the Uniting Church—are called to be doing. As one of my colleagues in ministry in the UCA over the decades, Craig Mitchell, has said, “at the core of being the church is being a learning community of disciples” (Facebook post, 7 May 2022).
All communities of faith should have the formation of faith at their heart, teaching the elements of discipleship, seeking opportunities to develop missional connections with their local communities, and offering multiple opportunities for people to share and learn together, reflecting on their experiences as they live out their faith in daily life.
Creating a culture which prizes faith formation means honouring scripture, valuing our inheritance, engaging proactively and constructively in contemporary society, taking our place within the worldwide fellowship of churches, and living attuned to the rich realities of diversity within contemporary societies. All of this contributes to the development of “an informed faith”. And that, most surely, is a central marker of the culture of this church, the Uniting Church in Australia.
The Basis of Union can be read at https://uniting.church/basisofunion/