Avril at Romsey

… and Lancefield and Riddells Creek and Mount Macedon

The Messy Middle that is the Uniting Church

(A longer version of the letter that appears in the August Crosslight.)

I have been reading the debate on hope and the essentials of the faith in Crosslight with interest, and I am starting to worry that some lines are being drawn too rigidly. There is a danger that in this debate false dichotomies are being created. Christians are being asked to choose between being either progressive or fundamentalist; between reading the Bible literally or seeing it as no more significant to faith than modern poetry; between accepting the scientific worldview without criticism or retreating from science into creationism or a belief in intelligent design. Most worrying, we are being asked to choose between being inclusive and welcoming to all, and the orthodox faith.

These choices are unnecessary. Luckily for us, there is a messy middle between these extremes. We in the Uniting Church call it ‘the Uniting Church ethos’ or ‘the faith and unity of the holy catholic and apostolic Church as described in the Basis of Union’.

The Basis of Union, that wonderfully prescient document, saves us from all sorts of extremes. It tells us that ‘the Church has received the books of the Old and New Testaments as unique prophetic and apostolic testimony, in which it hears the Word of God and by which its faith and obedience are nourished and regulated.’ (Paragraph 3) It also tells us that ‘God has never left the Church without faithful and scholarly interpreters of Scripture’. (Paragraph 11) There is no room in the Uniting Church for a biblical literalism that ignores ‘the inheritance of literary, historical and scientific enquiry which has characterised recent centuries’; the Basis of Union rejoices in an informed faith.

Paragraph eleven goes further in welcoming what we can learn from contemporary thought. The Church is able to learn from contemporary societies in ways which will help us to understand our own nature and mission. We, together with all society, are open to learning new things and we are then able to use those new things to confess God in fresh words and deeds. There may be some churches and societies who see a conflict between revelation and science, and either dismiss revelation or retreat from science. The Uniting Church is not among them. This, of course, does not mean that we are compelled to agree with the limited scientific worldview of the New Atheists. We know that God always has more light and truth to share with us, and that light and truth breaks forth in a variety of different ways from many different sources.

It has apparently become common for people to confess, ashamedly or proudly, that they cannot say the creeds. That is not surprising. The Basis of Union describes them as ‘framed in the language of their day’ – no one who comes to them with a twenty-first century mindset is expected to be able to say them without thought and explanation. Instead, ‘the Uniting Church commits its ministers and instructors to careful study of these creeds and to the discipline of interpreting their teaching in a later age’. (Paragraph 9) The choice is not between taking on the mindset of the fourth century without thought, or dismissing the creeds altogether.

The openness of the Uniting Church ethos is not unlimited. The Uniting Church in Australia lives and works within the faith and unity of the one holy catholic and apostolic church (Paragraph 2) and there are two doctrines that that church holds to as the very core of the faith: that Christ was both fully human and fully divine; and that God is Triune.

It is the Incarnation that, together with counselling, medication and the amazing support of family and friends, enables me to survive depression. When I am engulfed by grey fog, thrown into the dark pit, imprisoned in a frosted glass cage and able to see people only dimly as they pass by without ever being able to touch them, neither a merely human Jesus nor a God who has never experienced suffering can help me. When I feel abandoned and deserted by the God in whom I believe and to whom I have given my life, I am able to cry out with God, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ and know that on the cross God has experienced the worst that humanity can experience, including God-forsakeness.

I do not want to suggest that my experience of mental illness is comparable to either the crucifixion or Nazi persecution, but I do want to say with Dietrich Bonhoeffer that ‘only the suffering God can help’.

In the Trinity any idea of God as an individualistic, monarchical King and Judge who wishes to exercise power over us is destroyed. God is in God’s very self a community of equals who exist in an eternal relationship of love. We, who are made in God’s image, are created to live in imitation of the Triune God, in relationships of mutuality and equality. As a feminist I can only worship a Triune God, a God who in God’s self reveals that equality and love are at the heart of the creation. And the community of the Triune God is not a closed one. God’s intervention into the world in the life, ministry, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ invites us to join that community of love, to draw our chairs up to the empty fourth side of the table in Rublev’s Icon of the Trinity.

These two doctrines are why there is no contradiction between orthodoxy and inclusion. In Jesus we see God, and the God we see is one who welcomes everyone. Those who attempt to divide humanity into groups based on sex and race and sexuality and age, and value one group over another, are thwarted by the fact that these divisions are contrary to the nature of the Triune God in whose image we are all made. The orthodox faith demands that we imitate Jesus and welcome everyone into the community of love that is both intended by God and is God.

The first Christian confession, the one from which the later formulations of these doctrines developed, was that Jesus is Lord. If Jesus is Lord, nothing and no one else is. For the first Christians, that meant most emphatically and dangerously that Caesar was not. For us today, it means that we ourselves are not Lord; that the nation-state is not our Lord; that the consumerist society that tries to demand our loyalty is most definitely not the Lord of our lives. This is good news. It is as fresh and relevant today as it was two thousand years ago.

There are some things that living in the messy middle, holding to the faith and unity of the holy catholic and apostolic Church as described in the Basis of Union, demands that we proclaim. To my joy and delight proclaiming this good news is my vocation, and I am eternally grateful to the Uniting Church for calling me to do it.


August 4, 2011 - Posted by | Ministry, Slightly Higher Culture | , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. […] wrote a post last week called I am/not a Progressive Christian. Avril’s recent post on The Messy Middle that is the Uniting Church covers similar territory. Again, it will repay you to read […]

    Pingback by Sunday 19, 7 August 2011: c/- Avril at Romsey | Getting There… 2 steps forward, 1 back | August 7, 2011 | Reply

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