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Saturday, April 23, 2005

The Uniting Church and the Australian Democrats

From: Anonymous contributor

Date: Wednesday, 23 August 1995 12:36 pm

Subject: The Uniting Church and the Democrats

I found the following on a file amidst many notes I'd been writing and thought that it might be of some interest to all peoples of sincere faith who belong to the great living world religions, as well as to those (male and female, Jew and Gentile) who are interested in thinking theologically.

Under no circumstances should this be construed as an attack on the Uniting Church, although by all means view it as a sideswipe against the insufferable Chippocrats.

"Uncanny similarities between the Australian Democrats and the Uniting Church in Australia"

In Britain, the Church of England used to be nicknamed (in the old days before various trendy vicars took up attacking Mrs Thatcher) "the Conservative Party at prayer". If you cast a similar look around the Australian politico-ecclesiastical landscape, you might call the Australian Democrats "the Uniting Church when not at prayer".

Here in Queensland, both the Democrat Senators (Cheryl Kernot and John Woodley) are Uniting Church members; indeed, Woodley is no mere backbencher (or back-pew-er) but a frontbencher, an ordained clergyperson. I'm not sure about the situation in other States, though I did once see a letter by Karin Sowada in the St Matthias Briefing, so she might be a Sydney Anglican; however, her letter was critical of the Briefing's criticisms of Hugh Mackay so then again she might not.

The social position of the Uniting Church is similar to the Democrats': liberal/ permissive on the vexed issues (abortion, homosexuality) where the larger, more "entrenched" parties fear or refuse to tread. The epistemological method of the two organisations is also similar. Both work on a participatory, democratic system, with proliferating synods, assemblies, committees, elections and ballots. Contrast their older rivals, with more top-down systems (bishops in the Anglican and Catholic churches; Richo and Crichton-Browne in the Labor and Liberal Parties).

However, such open and democratic mechanisms are in danger of commanding little authority; both the Democrats and the Uniting Church have a very "soft" constituency of support, of members and supporters who easily drift away to other rival groups on the Left or Right of the political or theological spectrum. (Eg, a late 1980s survey showed that something like 25% of nominal Uniting Church members attended churches of other denominations more regularly).

Their ideology, and the history of their founding, were similar. Both saw the "old battles of the past" as destructive and outmoded. 16th-century disputes between Catholicism and Calvinism, between theological liberalism and theological conservatism, were as much of a drag as the tired old battles between capital and labour, free enterprise and socialism. If only right-thinking people would sit down together around a table and re-consider all these issues through afresh, all would work itself out.

Both groups have begun at one end of the spectrum but moved steadily to the other end. The Democrats were formed by disillusioned ex-Liberals, refugees from the Right wing of politics, but in later years they have positioned themselves to the Left even of the ALP. Likewise, the Uniting Church was formed by former Methodists, Congregationalists and Presbyterians - descendants of the Calvinists, Separatists, Non-Conformists and Puritans who rejected the Elizabethan settlement and found the state church too Romanist - but its current generation has positioned itself at the extreme ecumenical end of the spectrum. The heirs of Wesley and Calvin are now more liberal and universalist (and more amenable to dialogue and cooperation with the Church of Rome, the old foe) than the average Anglican or Lutheran.

Both groups contain a surprisingly wide array of opinions. The Democrats' members range from radical greenie socialists like Richard Jones to conservative bank-bashers and CIR supporters like Paul MacLean. Similarly, the Uniting Church theological spectrum ranges from extreme liberals who'd be happy praying to Sophia as the feminine hypostasis of the Divine wisdom, to crusty old evangelicals who'd be happy delivering three-hour sermons denouncing popery every Sunday.

The Democrats have not specified precisely how they would forge a third way that would satisfy the adherents of both socialism and capitalism, of both left and right. Likewise, I've not yet heard the Uniting Church explain how their official church doctrine reconciles Calvinist predestination with Wesleyan works-plus-free-will.

There are some areas where both groups have "moved faster" than their "dinosaur-like, entrenched" larger rivals. Just as the Democrats were the first Australian political party to have female leaders, the Uniting Church (preceded by the three churches that formed it) were the first Australian churches to ordain women to their clergy. The Democrats are the only party to vote against uranium mining; likewise, the Uniting Church is the only church (other than Eastern Orthodox) to remove the Filioque from its version of the Apostles' Creed, so that now the Holy Spirit proceeds "from the Father" alone and not "from the Father and the Son".

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