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The Uniting Church - forty years in retrospect

There are several possible verdicts on the Uniting Church in Australia as it marks its first forty years. One is that another forty years is unlikely; numbers are falling steadily and worshipers are growing older. But institutions like churches do not slip easily into obscurity. Thankfully, the UCA will not soon disappear.  

Another verdict is to celebrate, to take pride in our ecumenical ties, our cultural diversity, indigenous credentials and social justice record, our helping agencies that extend nationwide, though new marketing labels conceal their Christian derivation. But celebration suggests a lack of candour.

Preliminary census figures for 2016, published in June, show that 3.7 per cent of respondents listed the Uniting Church as their religious affiliation. The number of individuals, 870,000, is 195,611 fewer than at the 2011 census and for the first time since 1977 stands below one million. The facts suggest our joy should not be unconfined. 

South Australian Moderator, Rev. Sue Ellis, rightly explained that the census reflects ongoing general decline in church attendance by Australians, but this does not "take into account the breadth of spirituality still present in Australia."  She noted that "within the Uniting Church there are growing faith communities and alternative styles of worship emerging".

True, numbers are not the whole story. The UCA's purpose is not to be bigger but to embody a message. Strangely, the celebratory guidelines said little on that subject. More honestly, the 40th birthday should have included a lamentation; a form of confession.  The church born on June 22, 1977 died the next day, because it assumed an identity unrelated to the promise of pre-union rhetoric.

At the risk of simplification, the theologians steered the ship of union into harbour and handed it over to the politicians, who exchanged the Bible for the secular society's manual of  management. Is it better to build a new church by enlisting bureaucrats versed in the disciplines of management, than depend on Scripture and Christianity's historic ethos?

So the new church embraced winds of social change that stirred in the 60s and brought the moral revolution of the 70s. Nothing that has happened since has troubled its conscience.

In the 70s, the uniting denominations offered no response to the new era of easy divorce, which had deep and lasting consequences for the nation. Three decades later the UCA had surrendered any defence against the tsunami of sexual anarchy, and all credibility in the face of gender fluidity and the state-condoned child abuse of compulsory Safe Schools programs.

Remorselessly the church defends abortion but treats marriage as a quirk of personal opinion.  With boundless compassion it embraces the canard of 'equal marriage' and the sovereignty of self-directed romanticised love.

If a Christian denomination had set out to conduct an experiment in theological sophistry, to test the credulity of the public and the patient gullibility of the faithful, it could have done no better than create the Uniting Church.

Leaders are neither perverse nor ignorant. But many bureaucrats and parish clergy have lost both their nerve and their faith in the Biblical Word; they huddle out of public sight or applaud the insane illusions of 'new world order' theorists hailing the hegemony of Humanity.

The UCA lost its faith in a desperate early struggle for relevance, which moved its solemn assemblies to endorse the stratagems of progressive activists bent on ruining historic traditions in favour of lethal programs of social fairness and equality.  

The UCA's biggest error was to appeal to disaffected religion-less secularists, who  might warm to a gospel of undiscriminating divine love, easy conscience, ready forgiveness, moral relativity, and the dubious distinction of being all-inclusive. They did not. Yet we brandish non-discrimination as a badge of honour to become a church that, like so many others, stands increasingly for less and less.  

Of all the UCA's errors, though, the worst is its redefinition of the gospel. Without any message of judgment or personal responsibility (except to the poor and marginalised;  society; not individuals, is to be blamed for every ill) the Uniting Church is an exemplar of value-free religiosity where "every man does what is right in his own eyes" and the house of faith, vacated of holiness, echoes with spiritual pride and moral vanity.

Forty years on there is no cause for celebration. Only a chorus of mea culpa will do.

Rev. Warren Clarnette was the editor of Church and Nation (Victorian Synod) from the start of the Uniting Church to 1987, and helped establish ACCatalyst in 2007.