Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Church and State in the Uniting Church's Statements to the Nation

This post was co-written with Berlin Guerrero as part of a Uniting Church Studies Intensive in which we both participated in July 2012.

What relationship should the Christian church have with the State? The earliest Christians had no formal relationship with the Roman Empire and the church was often persecuted. With the conversion of Constantine in 312CE a process of change was initiated which led eventually to the Church being co-opted by the state and placed at the centre of European society and culture as well as the cultures and peoples that Europeans colonised. It is a very real question whether the church best fulfils its mission by ‘calling the shots’ for the wider society, or whether it functions better as a radical alternative community. There are many examples of how badly the church behaved when it dominated society.  On the other hand, the Church has insights as a prophetic community that need to be heard by the wider society.  How do we find the right balance?   

There is a formal separation of church and state in Australia, in the sense that no religion shall be the test of any political office and any established religion is ruled out. There has been a relatively harmonious relationship between church and state in the sharing of such functions as education and welfare. The Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) has issued two Statements to the Nation (1977 and 1988).  They were deemed significant enough to be included along with the Basis of Union and other formative documents in the 2008 collection, Theology for Pilgrims.[1]  This paper will examine these Statements to see what they reveal of the way the UCA sees itself in relation to the state.

It should be remembered that the Statement to the Nation is not a statement to the government as such but to ‘the nation’ including but not limited to ‘the state.’  It is addressed collectively to ‘the people of Australia.’ Nonetheless it reveals a certain stance toward the ‘powers that be’ that helps us to understand the Uniting Church’s relationship to secular governments.

There is an acknowledgment in paragraph 2 that the Congregationalist, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches had each in its own way ‘contributed in various ways to the life and development’ of the nation.  Furthermore, it is affirmed that ‘a Christian responsibility to society has always been regarded as fundamental to the mission of the Church’ and that the new Uniting Church will see continued involvement in ‘social and national affairs’ as part of its response to the Christian Gospel. In its thirty-five year history the Uniting Church has not been afraid to ‘mix religion with politics or, as Rollie Busch (Moderator of the Queensland Synod in 1977-78) put it, challenge governments with the brilliant insights of the Bible and the radicalism of Calvin, Knox, and Wesley.’[3]

This makes it clear that the Uniting Church does not take a stance of withdrawal from ‘the world,’ such as is found for example in some expressions of the Anabaptist tradition which see the church as an alternative society called to withdraw from the polluting influences of the ungodly. Rather believers are to be ‘citizens of two worlds.’ The fact that the Uniting Church’s first President, J. Davis McCaughey also served as Governor of Victoria indicates that there is no necessary incompatibility between ecclesial and civil loyalties.[4] 

It is clear however, that the Uniting Church does not align itself exclusively with one particular national government, nor with one particular side of politics. Paragraph 3 speaks of the Church’s ‘responsibilities within and beyond this country.’[5] It has particular responsibilities as ‘but one branch of the Christian church within the region of South-East Asia and the Pacific.’ This means that the Church’s witness in the political exigencies of neighbouring nation states is also the concern of the UCA. For example the UCA has recently expressed its deep concern over the military control of the Methodist Church of Fiji and stood in solidarity with its fellow Christians there. 

Paragraph 4 speaks of ‘the need for integrity in public life, the proclamation of truth and justice’ and ‘the rights for each citizen to participate in decision-making in the community.’  Again this shows that the Uniting Church declares itself more than ready to participate in the political process and to bring distinctively Christian insights into public discourse. 

Of great significance for the focus of this paper is the affirmation in paragraph 7 that ‘the first allegiance of Christians is God, under whose judgment the policies and actions of all nations must pass. We realise that sometimes this allegiance may bring us into conflict with the rulers of our day.’ This means that the Uniting Church recognises that its members may at times be called to acts of civil disobedience when Gospel priorities conflict with government policies. Provision for such civil disobedience is explicitly made in the UCA’s present Code of Ethics.[6]

The Uniting Church’s partnership with State and Federal governments in the provision of welfare, health care and education through its various agencies might be seen by some as a ‘cosy one’ that reflects a Constantinian relationship between church and state.  However it is clear in the 1977 Statement to the Nation that this is not the case. The Christian’s first allegiance is to God ‘under whose judgment the policies and actions of all nations must pass.’ This opens up the very real possibility of conflict between the Church and the powers that be. This may be illustrated in the Church voicing concern, for example, at the Federal Government’s treatment of asylum seekers or the current attempt to continue the Intervention into Indigenous communities by enshrining new and potentially destructive legislation.

The Uniting Church describes itself in its 1977 Statement to the Nation not as a state church but as ‘an institution within the nation’ called to ‘stress the universal values which must find expression in national policies if humanity is to survive.’ Its stance therefore is a prophetic one, but prophetic within rather than separated from national life.  There may the need to adjust our perspective even further.  We tend to think of the state as a ‘given’ – something to which the church must respond or in relation to which it must define itself. But what if we were to think of the Reign of God as the ‘given’ reality to which both church and state are called to respond?[7] 
President Rev Prof Andrew Dutney and Rev Rronang Garrawurra lead the prayer vigil on the steps of South Australian Parliament, Wednesday 18 July 2012

The second Statement to the Nation was issued eleven years after the first, during the Bicentenary of European settlement (1788-1988). It is not incidental that in such a year there would be a focus on Indigenous Australians (whose presence is recognised as existing ‘40,000 years’ before Europeans) and the need for Reconciliation. Three years prior, another statement, The Uniting Church is a Multi-cultural Church was adopted by the 2005 General Assembly.

Like the 1977 Statement the second is again addressed not to the government alone but ‘to our fellow Australian citizens.’ It expresses thankfulness for ‘those times when the Australian society has established justice, equality, and mutual respect among people;…placed care for the people who have least…welcomed new migrants and refugees; exercised solidarity and friendship …and has engaged constructively with the peoples of Asia, the Pacific and the rest of the world as peacemaker.’[9] It does not describe how ‘society established justice, equality etc.’ but it is of significance that the Uniting Church recognises, if not asserts, that it is the Australian society, not the state by itself, which establishes what is considered valuable and beneficial to the people.

The fourth paragraph needs to be studied critically especially the phrase ‘all of us are beneficiaries of the injustices that have been inflicted…’[10] What are the benefits of injustice to which it refers other than the land and material bounty derived from colonization? It is like saying we benefited from the ‘first sin’ and the ‘fall.’ Should the end justify the means, so to speak? However, for the church to say ‘we all contribute to, and perpetuate those injustices’ is a mark of a confessing church.

Indirectly, the 1988 Statement calls on the state and social institutions such as the educational system, legislature and media to strive for ‘the integrity of our nation’ (mentioned three times) and the requirements and actions necessary to achieve it.

In declaring solidarity with the Aborigines and in cooperation with ‘Australians of goodwill’ the Uniting Church commits itself to the work of justice…etc. and ‘in obedience to God’ to ‘struggle against all systems and attitudes which set person against person, group against group, or nation against nation.’ This commitment is repeated and made even stronger in subsequent paragraphs which pledge to ‘seek to identify and challenge all social and political structures and all human attitudes which perpetuate and compound poverty,’ and ‘seek to identify and challenge all structures and attitudes which perpetuate and compound the destruction of creation.’ 

The UCA Statements to the nation reflect the church’s view and attitude towards the nation and the world, present the various issues and concerns of the nation and the world, and affirm obedience to God.  They do not address any particular government administration either in the past or in power at the time the Statements were adopted.

The UCA has strong commitment to the plight of the poor, Indigenous peoples, victims of injustices, refugees, etc. and on the basis of this commitment recognises that at times it can be in conflict with the state’s policies. The Constantinian ‘marriage’ between church and state is no longer in effect in Australia, though on the whole, the UCA’s relationship with the state can be said to be one of ‘critical collaboration.’ The church must always remain aware, however, that its loyalty is first to Christ, and that this loyalty must always take precedence over state-like institutions or worldly authority.

[1] Robert Bos and Geoff Thompson, Theology for Pilgrims: Selected Theological Documents of the Uniting Church in Australia (Sydney: Uniting Church Press, 2008.)
[3] William Emilsen and Susan Emilsen, The Uniting Church in Australia: The First 25 Years  (Melbourne: Circa, 2003), p. 2.
[4] For a collection of J. Davis McCaughey’s writings see Peter Matheson and Christiaan Mostert, eds. Fresh Words and Deeds: The McCaughey Papers (Melbourne: David Lovell, 2004). See also J. Davis McCaughey, Commentary on the Basis of Union of the Uniting Church in Australia (Melbourne: Uniting Church Press, 1980).
[5] Emphasis ours.
[6] According to Paragraph 6.2 of The Uniting Church in Australia Code of Ethics and Ministry Practice for Ministers in the Uniting Church in Australia (Whether in Approved Placements or Not) Approved by the 12th Assembly July 2009, ‘It is unethical for Ministers deliberately to break the law or encourage another to do so.  The only exception would be in instances of political resistance or civil disobedience.’  
[7] We are indebted to Randall Prior for this insight given during feedback on our class presentation. 
[9] Italics ours.
[10] Italics ours.

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