On Sunday 25th June, when we celebrated the Uniting Church's 40th Anniversary, I was asked to speak at morning tea time about my memories of the Inauguration Day in 1977. Following requests from some of our members, I have printed here a slightly enlarged version of what I said on that occasion.
The Uniting Church in Australia came into being just after 2.30 on the afternoon of 22nd June 1977.
210 delegates - 70 Congregationalists, 70 Methodists and 70 Presbyterians - constituted the first Assembly of a new united church that had been talked about, prayed for and planned for, for about a hundred years and had been formally on the various churches' agendas since 1901.
The Rev Farquhar Gunn, Presbyterian from Melbourne and Chair of the Joint Constitution Commission, presided. When the resolution to constitute the Assembly, i.e. to bring the church into being, was put he felt that just to vote by saying 'aye' was not enough and he led the meeting in an unaccompanied singing of the Doxology, "Praise God from whom all blessings flow..." It was sung heartily, with great fervour, an unforgettable moment.
This was followed by another memorable moment, the "Prayer of thanksgiving and constitution" led by the Rev Dr Harold Wood, that grand old man, missionary and long-time head of MLC Melbourne, who had led the movement for union for many years. His prayer was unforgettable, a very moving outpouring of praise and dedication. (When an earlier vote for union had failed, he is said to have exclaimed I want to see union now, while I live, I don't want to have to celebrate it from the ramparts of heaven! Well, he lived to see it and rejoiced with us.)
That was in the afternoon, but already it had begun to feel like a long day. Most of the delegates had arrived in Sydney the day before and on the morning of 22nd June members of the three denominations met separately. For the Congregationalists and Methodists their meetings were a time of remembering, giving thanks and looking forward. For the Presbyterians there was the final meeting of the undivided General Assembly of Australia.
The full membership of the GAA was there, not just people who were to be part of the Uniting Church Assembly that afternoon. Indeed some of the younger members and most of the one third women of our seventy were not part of the full GAA. We had serious business before us, coping with the complexities of division, approving final arrangements about the daily working of the church, its institutions and property. Knowing that more challenges and legal complications lay ahead, we had to safeguard the life and work of both churches (Continuing Presbyterian and Uniting).
It was a difficult situation and we had to be very careful about what we said and the way we worded our resolutions. Most of us believed that we were the Presbyterian Church going into a union with two other churches, the Assembly having made a legally binding majority decision, in accordance with Acts of Parliament in all States. We were obedient to our Assembly. However, those opposed to union claimed that we were leaving the church, seceding, deserting our church.
Those who wanted to continue Presbyterian did so for many different reasons. Some conservatives feared that the UCA would be too liberal, not committed to Biblical truth. Some feared that the Presbyterian form of government and worship that they knew and held as true to Scripture would be lost. Some simply could not accept the loss of their Scottish Presbyterian identity. It was not a simple situation.
After a long morning we concluded by celebrating Holy Communion together. It was an emotional time. I know, because I was one of the servers. I could see as I moved amongst them how moved our people were.
Now we were ready for the next step, so that afternoon everyone concerned headed for the Lyceum Theatre (part of the Methodist Central Mission). Talking with Dean Eland and John Watt on separate occasions recently, both remembered the Congregationalists processing in a body from the Pitt Street church where they had been meeting and encountering placard-waving protesters from the AABBCC (Australian Association of Bible Believing Christian Churches) and others, extreme fundamentalists who believed that the Uniting Church would not be faithful to the Bible. The Methodists had been meeting in a hall on the Wesley property and they too, walking together in a happy procession, encountered the protests. The Rev Laurie Turner, a retired minister who was President of the Methodist Church in Victoria just before union and later was Moderator of the UCA Synod of Victoria, has written As we walked we were met, harried and verbally abused as having 'sold out on the Lord' by a large group of placard-carrying Christians led by an American flown out to orchestrate the opposition.
The Congregational and Methodist delegates had just left church buildings that were coming into the union with them. Some of us had left the Assembly Hall, the administrative heart of the Presbyterian Church of Australia, which also contained the Scots Church Sydney, knowing that it would not be ours in future, and so that walk was differently symbolic for us and we were not in a mood to be worried by a few placards. We were gradually joined by the other members of our delegation who had not been in the Assembly, but there was no triumphal procession for the protesters to confront.
Inside the Lyceum, the Uniting Church was formally constituted, the President, Rev Dr Davis McCaughey, and the General Secretary, Rev Winston O'Reilly, were elected. The Constitution of the Uniting Church was adopted. The membership of the Assembly was affirmed. Rolls of Ordained Ministers were tabled and they were recognised as Ministers of the Word in the Uniting Church, also Deaconesses, Lay Preachers and others. The Synods and Presbyteries were established and arrangements made for them to function in the interim before the first meetings of the synods could be held. Various Commissions were appointed. All necessary formal motions were passed. With a sense of relief we dispersed to prepare for the evening celebration in the Sydney Town Hall.
All over Sydney in restaurants and cafes groups of church people were eating together, most eagerly anticipating the evening ahead. There was a general feeling of excitement, although many of the former Presbyterians were quieter than the rest.
Then how our mood changed! People started arriving at the Sydney Town Hall by 7 o'clock for the 8 o'clock service. Soon the hall was crammed with over two thousand people - and there were more in other parts of the building and outside. The TV equipment was set up. The choir of several hundred singers drawn from many Sydney churches ran through some of their items while we were waiting.
Distinguished guests and leaders of other Christian Churches and other faiths arrived. The world church was there in the person of the Rev Dr Phillip Potter, the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches. Those who that morning had been President of the Methodist Church of Australasia, President of the Congregational Union of Australia and Moderator General of the Presbyterian Church of Australia were on the platform to take part, along with those nominated to be Moderators of the new UC Synods (including Ian Tanner). It was a great ceremony with fervent singing, fine speaking, praying and preaching and a consciousness that we were gathered there on behalf of about a quarter of a million members spread across our land.
When at the conclusion of the service we came out into the street we found an enormous crowd, as far as the eye could see, spread right across the road (the streets around the town hall had been closed to traffic), there were balloons and streamers and happy placards, people singing and cheering and praying. It took a long time to get back to our hotel.
Then next morning it was back to the Lyceum Theatre for the second session of the UCA Assembly. We began with Holy Communion, and once again I was a server. It was very different from the previous morning. We were one body, looking to the future together. We settled down to do the business of the Assembly before rushing to get home, despite a plane strike, in time for local celebrations on Sunday 26th June.
Some readers will remember the celebratory service in Scots Church that morning and, in the evening, a great gathering of the new Presbytery of Adelaide North West in the West Lakes Mall. It was a time of rejoicing and expectation as we began life together in our new, enlarged denomination. We believed that we had been led into union by the Holy Spirit and we were ready to move forward as pilgrim people.
The concluding paragraph in the Basis of Union:
The Uniting Church affirms that it belongs to the people of God on the way to the promised end. The Uniting Church prays that, through the gift of the Spirit, God will constantly correct that which is erroneous in its life, will bring it into deeper unity with other Churches, and will use its worship, witness and service to God's eternal glory through Jesus Christ the Lord. Amen.
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