Sermon: The Uniting Church ‘radicals in politics’

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Celebrating the 45th Anniversary of Union, Sunday the 26th of June, 2022

John 15:1-8

Happy Birthday! Today we celebrate forty-five years of the Uniting Church. Forty-five years later it might not seem important to celebrate something which we now take for granted, but we need to remember that Union did not happen easily. If the reuniting of three previously-severed branches of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church had been easy, we would today be celebrating our one hundred and twentieth anniversary, because the question of Church Union was first raised by the Presbyterians in 1902. In subsequent decades a Joint Board of Christian Education was created; a United Church of Northern Australia was established in Darwin; and theological students from the three uniting denominations began to study together.[1] But it took another seventy-five years from the time the Presbyterians first suggested it for the Congregationalist, Methodist and Presbyterian churches to unite. This was partly because of the ecclesial and theological concerns, such as whether a Uniting Church should have bishops,[2] and partly because there were huge problems and in fact legal cases about money and property, particularly the division of church schools and colleges between the Presbyterian and Uniting churches.[3] With Joan Montgomery as a member of this congregation we are aware of how nasty those cases became.[4]

Black and white photo from 1977 of eight men and two women in clerical garb with Uniting Church Scarfs, holding service booklets and singing.

Back row: Ian Tanner (SA), Chris Mostert (TAS), Ron Allardice (VIC), Ron Wilson (WA); Middle Row: Lilian Wells (NSW), Graeme Bucknell (Northern), Rollie Busch (Qld), Front Row: Rupert Grove, Christine Gapes (Bible Reader), Phillip Potter (WCC)

Even before the Uniting Church came into existence our particular understanding of God’s mission as inseparably connected to love and justice for everyone saw the Uniting Church labelled a ‘pagan institution’.[5] Protesters proclaimed that the Uniting Church was ‘Satan’s Synagogue’, that ‘Unity at the Expense of Truth is Treason’, and that the leaders of the Church were ‘False Prophets’.[6] Others claimed, slightly less colourfully, that the Uniting Church lacked evangelical impetus, that it placed too much emphasis on socio-political issues.[7] The continuing Presbyterian Church took the opportunity of Union to review its political activities, and the Presbyterian Moderator-General claimed that the Presbyterians who had joined the Uniting Church were ‘the radicals in politics’.[8] So if, like me, you were Presbyterian before Union, congratulations on being a political radical.

The Uniting Church’s concern with such so-called ‘radical’ socio-political issues was obvious in the 1977 Statement to the Nation made by the First Assembly. In it, the members of that First Assembly said firmly that: ‘A Christian responsibility to society has always been regarded as fundamental to the mission of the church. In the Uniting Church our response to the Christian gospel will continue to involve us in social and national affairs.’ In that message forty-five years ago the Uniting Church pledged itself to the correction of injustices, to working for the eradication of poverty and racism, and to the opposition of all forms of discrimination and the ‘values which emphasise acquisitiveness and greed’. At its inauguration the Uniting Church was already concerned about the protection of the environment and the wise use of energy. The Statement said, in words that now seem deeply prophetic: ‘We are concerned with the basic human rights of future generations and will urge the wise use of energy, the protection of the environment and the replenishment of the earth’s resources for their use and enjoyment.’

Our commitment to justice continued to be a cause of controversy after Union. In 1983 the Uniting Church was labelled one of the ‘Radical Left’s New Power Bases’ by the Bulletin magazine.[9] Together with the ABC, the Uniting Church was accused of being in the hands of ‘a new breed of middle-class, university radicals’.[10] Among the evidence given by the Bulletin for this left-wing takeover was the Church’s divestment of its uranium shares, its refusal to support companies that did business in apartheid South Africa, and the Church’s acceptance of ‘multiculturalism’ – which was apparently a dirty word to the Bulletin.[11]

Uniting Church Bulletin

The header of an article from the Bulletin titled 'Uniting Church Under Threat from the Left'.

The Bulletin article prompted letters defending or condemning the Uniting Church and the topic continued to be debated over its next five issues. As a media beat-up, it was an outstanding success, although the Press Council found that the headline was unjustified and that ‘nothing in the text of a story headed “Uniting Church under threat from the Left” justified a front-page introductory title, “The radical Left’s new power bases”.’[12] But of course in at least one way the writers of the Bulletin article were right. I personally would not describe the Uniting Church as being the victim of a ‘left-wing takeover,’ I would say that we are trying our best to follow Jesus, but as a Church we have always been concerned with the issues the Bulletin authors scorned.

We are involved in these apparently political issues because we believe that this is what the Gospel demands of us. Today we ordain women, we marry gay people, we are in covenant with the First Nations of this land, we celebrate our cultural and linguistic diversity, and we do all this because we are seeking to abide in Jesus and bear fruit.

The gospel reading we are offered for our birthday comes from the Farewell Discourse in the Gospel according to John. We have been reading a lot of that Discourse recently, and it has been helpful to hear Jesus’ words of comfort to his disciples as he leaves them while this community has been mourning the deaths of significant members. But the part we hear today is not the comfort that Jesus will go to prepare a place for us, or the reassurance that we will not be left alone because the Holy Spirit will come to us. Today’s passage is about how we are to live in between the time of Jesus’ leaving us and the time when we will see him again. In today’s reading we hear the last of Jesus’ ‘I AM’ statements in the Gospel: ‘I am the true vine’. Jesus is the vine, his Father is the gardener, we are branches that will bear fruit if we remain part of the vine.

The results of not abiding in Jesus sound quite terrifying: ‘Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.’ However, the fire in this sentence is not ‘the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels’ described in the story of the sheep and the goats in the Gospel according to Matthew. It is simply the literal fire that burns up literally dry branches, the dry branches that disciples will resemble if they do not abide in Jesus.

What is the fruit that disciples united to Christ will bear? It will not at all surprise you that it is love. Early in the evening, Jesus had told his disciples, ‘I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’ (John 13:34-35) Today’s passage continues:

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. … I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.’ (John 15:9-12.17)

Abiding in Jesus means abiding in the love shared between Jesus and his Father. It does not simply mean rejoicing in knowing that we are loved by God, although Jesus makes it clear that he is telling us that we are so loved so that our joy may be complete. It also means imitating the love we have received; loving one another and the whole world that God so loved that God gave his only Son. We are commissioned to demonstrate that love in our own lives, so that the world may see it and believe in our proclamation of the God who is love. Living out love in action as well as in word may mean that we are sometimes misunderstood as ‘radicals in politics,’ but it is at the heart of who we are as Christians. The words that ended the Statement to the Nation forty-five years ago remain relevant:

We pledge ourselves to hope and work for a nation whose goals are not guided by self-interest alone, but by concern for the welfare of all persons everywhere — the family of the One God — the God made known in Jesus of Nazareth, the One who gave His life for others. In the spirit of His self-giving love we seek to go forward.

This is who we are as the Uniting Church. This is who we will remain. Amen.

[1] Alan Gill, ‘More than 100 years to achieve Church Union’, Sydney Morning Herald, 22 June 1977.

[2] ibid.

[3] Only two-thirds of the churches of the Presbyterian Church joined the Uniting Church. One-third remained Presbyterian, which entailed the division of Presbyterian property between the Uniting Church and the continuing Presbyterian Church. Mark Baker, ‘Church union leads to $500 mil. split’, Age (Melbourne), 17 June 1977.

[4] Kim Rubenstein, The Vetting of Wisdom: Joan Montgomery and the fight for PLC, Franklin Street Press, 2021.

[5] Alan Gill, ‘More than 100 years to achieve Church Union’.

[6] Alan Gill, ‘Union sealed in Town Hall Service’, Sydney Morning Herald, 23 June 1977.

[7] Editorial, ‘Christian Unity’, Sydney Morning Herald, 23 June 1977.

[8] Mark Baker, ‘Church severs links’, Age (Melbourne), 24 June 1977.

[9] Tim Duncan, ‘Uniting Church under threat from the left’, Bulletin (Sydney), 25 January 1983, pp. 20-3.

[10] ibid., p. 20.

[11] ibid., p. 23.

[12] The Press Council, ‘No specific case’ for headline’ (1983, December 1). The Canberra Times (ACT: 1926 – 1995), p. 8.

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