Some personal reflections on the proposed Preamble to the UCA Constitution
The preamble – synod 2010
Before the Assembly in 2009 I had some acquaintance with the proposed preamble.
1. I attended a consultation held in North Essendon by the Commission for Mission and the Victorian Congress.
2. I had a conversation with Chris Budden, convenor of the Assembly Standing Committee appointed working group, about beginning an Assembly working group with the two statements: Jesus Christ who has called us here is the Lord of the church and asks our sole loyalty; we acknowledge that the land we meet on has been cared for by traditional custodians for millennia.
In those conversations I became acutely aware that I was bringing my own personal history into this discussion; I recalled my boyhood friendships with Aboriginal boys and girls (Reg and Gloria, to name but two) in a WA country town, with its 1950s informal ways of dividing us. In the cinema I knew, without being told, that Aboriginal children sat at the front, and we at the rear. I also recall going with my Methodist parents to visit nearby church missions; we worshipped there with Aboriginal children, but it did not occur to me to ask why these missions existed. That came much later.
As we come to the Preamble, we bring our own experiences. That is why I believe the paragraphs 4 and onwards are essential for us because they describe our history in this land. It is a reminder that whenever we seek to understand Christian faith, we are always in a specific time and place. When we speak about God, and pray, our speaking is never abstract or disembodied; always embodied.
That is why I have spent most of my time since the Assembly pondering paragraphs 1 to 3. It unnerves me somewhat to find that some other Uniting Church theologians, friends whom I respect, are saying that the theology of the preamble is flawed, clumsy or, just plain wrong.
Some say that adopting these words will put us outside the one holy catholic and apostolic church.
My own reading is this:
I read the first two paragraphs as a reminder that when European colonists came to this land, they came with Christian faith in the Triune God.
I understand paragraph 3 as telling us that Aboriginal brothers and sisters, who are now Christian, look back into the past, before their people knew the name Jesus Christ, and recognise the God they now know, as the God who was for millennia present to their people in the land.
When they say the Creator God was active in this land, that echoes for me the Creator God of Genesis, and the psalms. The mysterious Presence, who was known in ancient times, is the God the church confesses – the one God, who acted in three persons as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, to create, nurture and sustain life.
When paragraph 3 says the Spirit was active in law, custom and ceremony, I understand that here our Christian sisters and brothers are telling us that he Spirit of God who breathed life into clay (as in Genesis 2) continued to breathe life into the people of this land. And, what is more, this is the Spirit who was active in revealing Jesus Christ to the church. Some fear that these words are trying to replace the story of Abraham and Israel with the First Peoples. I’d suggest it is rather that we are being asked to hear that the God known in that salvation history was active here. (And we may be reminded that Abram was himself a member of the nations, and the names for God he knew differ from the NAME revealed to Moses.)
Some judge that these words make the same mistake as the Germans Christians made in the 1930s when they developed a theology of blood, race and soil.
I believe we are dealing with a different issue here: we are being asked to listen to a people whose language, culture and spiritualty was stripped from them, often in the name of Christian mission, asking us to hear that they have known God from ancient times.
Is this a perfect set of words? Probably not. Was it a flawless process? It has its limits. Yet, we have had the benefit of commentaries and forums that have met since the Assembly, as we have here.
It probably is a shame that we are pressed into a Yes or No. Yet, there is a biblical injunction that we should let our yes be yes, and our no, no.
One other thing.
At the Assembly, when we moved to debate these words and engaged in our usual whitefella business of amending and altering words, a point was reached when members of the Congress said they did not feel safe in such an environment – and removed themselves. That left us with a quandary – how to proceed. I have come to understand this sharp absence in this way: when the Congress absented left, the Aboriginal and Islander voice was now silent in the Assembly debate, as so often in our past debates. We had to grapple with a silence, an absence, which then will lead us to a shared confession.
I now approach these words as testimony of Christian indigenous sisters and brothers who are asking us to listen to their testimony concerning the God they know now, and concerning the same God their people knew in the past.
The words do matter. I believe they belong within an orthodox expression of Christian faith. And, strangely, that is requiring a new thing of us: to trust that God, known in Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today and forever, who encounters us here and now, is the same God known in ancient times in this land.