A PERSONAL STORY OF THE UNITING CHURCH
Others have encouraged me to put these experiences down on paper. At the time of union, we were strongly encouraged not to talk about our past but to look to our future together. Our past was seen somehow as a hindrance to our joining together. I believe that, as a result, we have not appreciated sufficiently the heritage and the gifts each of us has brought into the Uniting Church. Also, this putting of our past to one side has meant that we have not grieved the loss of some of the features of our uniting churches. It may be that as I tell my story, you receive permission to tell yours. I thank God for my heritage in the Presbyterian Church and for all the richness that belonging to the Uniting Church has offered!
"It was like missing my own induction service."
It was the inauguration of the Uniting Church in Australia on June 22, 1977. The following Sunday, each new Parish of the new church was having its own celebration. I was to be one of the Ministers of the Chermside Uniting Parish. I had been the Minister of the West Chermside Presbyterian Congregation for nearly four years, and I had chosen to become a Minister of the Word of this new denomination rather than remain a Minister of the Presbyterian Church of Australia. That same congregation where my wife and I had worshipped since my ordination in 1973 was also going to be part of the new Parish. We were joining with people who were from the Methodist and Congregational Churches. We had already met them and sat through lots and lots of planning meetings with them. In those few years leading up to union, our children were born, and that congregation was part of our extended family.
Our son was only two months old and my wife was breastfeeding him. That special Sunday morning when everyone was gathering to celebrate the beginning of a new Australian church, she had serious vomiting and diarrhoea. The doctor came to the house and gave her an injection. I took our two-year-old daughter and went to the chemist to get a script. My wife was not well enough for me to leave her with a baby. There were no babysitters available since they were all going to our special service. I had written a prayer for others – and it was printed on the order of service anyway. So I stayed home with my family. I was never formally recognized as a Minister of this new Parish!
Leaving Familiar Faces Behind
The formation of the Uniting Church meant leaving behind some familiar Presbyterian ‘things’ but it meant much more than that. In Queensland (and across Australia), about one-third of Presbyterians and one-third of the Presbyterian Ministers chose to continue in the Presbyterian Church. On 21 June, I had friends and fellow-ministers in the Presbyterian Church in which I had been involved for all thirty years of my life. On 22 June, one-third of them were now members of a different denomination from me. I would no longer be seeing them in Presbytery and State Assembly meetings. There had been some painful times leading up to our ‘separation’. Mercifully, I was overseas for a couple of years and missed out on much of the bitterness of those years. Sadly, the church had polarized, and it made something of a mockery of our act of uniting when there was also a dividing! The loss of relationships of that time has not been properly acknowledged!
My First Synod
This was a difficult experience. I walked into Suncorp Theatre where about 500 excited First Synod representatives were gathering. Most of the faces I could see were strange – and we were all trying to find our way as a new church. I thought I would sit with a colleague as we walked in together. He said, "You’ll find someone else to sit with, won’t you?" Presumably, as a senior minister, he didn’t want to sit with one very much his junior. I searched for a spare seat near someone I knew. I felt lost. Thankfully, the man next to me was happy to talk with me!
Members Of My Family All Went Their Different Ways
Wynnum Central Presbyterian Church in Brisbane was where my family worshipped during my childhood. When I was in my last year in High School, the Minister there used the evening service to study the document The Church, Its Nature, Function and Ordering in preparation for the possible union of the three churches. However, when the vote was taken, the congregation decided to remain a congregation of the Presbyterian Church and the Minister stayed with them.
My Dad believed strongly in the principle of the churches coming together. He was less particular about issues of doctrine. My Mum said that she would stay with Dad whatever decision he made about union. They had worshipped together at this church since before their marriage in 1938. With about fifteen others from that congregation, they chose to belong to what had been a Methodist congregation. I admired my Dad for the courage it took to leave the congregation where they had many close friends.
Dad was aware that some people chose not to join the Uniting Church because they felt its doctrine was not spelt out clearly enough. We had a couple of conversations about the desire that early in its life the new Church would formulate its own statement of faith for use in worship (beyond the Basis of Union). Dad had a small hope that if such a statement were produced, he may be able to persuade the people of Wynnum Central Presbyterian Church to become part of the Uniting Church. Clearly, Dad felt some sadness at that time.
When my Dad died in 1985, the Presbyterian Minister who served at Wynnum church for 35 years gave the eulogy at a service in a Uniting Church. He knew Dad very well. Dad’s Minister at the time led the rest of the service.
My Older Sister
My older sister as a teacher had been appointed to a country town. There she became a Sunday School teacher in the Presbyterian Church – which itself had started as a breakaway from the Methodist Church. Some keen Christians in the town began an interchurch youth program. There my sister met her future husband, a farmer and a Methodist. She began worshipping with him. Prior to union, they were part of a group in that congregation who had reservations about the coming Uniting Church. They decided to separate and become a congregation of Wesleyan Methodists. Soon they had a Minister to lead them, and he lived in a worker’s cottage on their farm.
At that time, just prior to union, we went to visit my sister and her family, staying a night or two. I remember seeing in their home a booklet raising questions about the Uniting Church – and beginning to feel somewhat awkward about our different perspectives. I also made a point of going to talk with their new Minister who was at pains to tell me that he came only after this congregation had left the Methodist Church. We had a cordial conversation. Thankfully, that awkwardness has gone. The fact that we have worshipped in each other’s congregations and that I was invited to pray for my niece at her 21st birthday were clear signs to me that our loyalty to Christ came ahead of our denominational loyalty. It was good to have my brother-in-law conduct our mother’s funeral service last year. These days, I can share with my sister and her husband about our common struggles with the institution of the church.
My Other Sister
My other sister remained a member of the Presbyterian Church where we grew up. Increasingly, she and her husband spent weekends on the Sunshine Coast. There my sister began worshipping in a congregation of the Uniting Church. Later she accepted her turn on the organ roster every month. She has wanted to be part of the body of Christ, whatever the sign out front says!
My brother also remained a member of the Wynnum Presbyterian Church. My memory is that I baptized his daughter by courtesy of the local Minister and Session. However, by the time their son was born, the Uniting Church had come, and it was not appropriate for me to be involved. My brother did tell me that in the early days after union took place, the Minister there preached some sermons which had some anti-Uniting Church sentiments. He told the Minister that he came to worship to hear the gospel. He gave me to understand that if the Minister was not going to preach the gospel, he would be forced to go elsewhere. (I have had cordial contact with that Minister a number of times over the years since, including at his retirement dinner.) My brother and I did a lot together and were quite close, so it was a source of sadness for me that we were now active in different denominations. He did come as a speaker at a weekend youth camp I organized from one congregation where I ministered. We have also worshipped in each other’s churches. I had the privilege of praying for his daughter and her husband at their wedding. I am aware that we express our faith differently, but I respect my brother as a man of strong Christian conviction.
I remember once going to worship with my brother one Sunday night in the church where we grew up. He approached the Presbyterian Minister to see if it was OK for me, a Uniting Church Minister, to join them in prayer in the vestry before the service. A lovely gesture! We did so. After the service, that Minister took me aside and asked me if I had ever considered coming back into the ministry of the Presbyterian Church. I said, "No," and told him that I had come specifically to worship with my brother. Maybe he had misunderstood my intentions.
With all of these family members, the time of union was not easy. The Presbyterian Church had been our spiritual home. We had lots of treasured relationships there. So when our paths diverged somewhat, there were both discomfort and sadness. By the grace of God in Christ, our relationships have more than survived those times and grown in strength. Four years ago, all these family members were present at the induction service for my current placement.
A Baptism Request
There was a family which had some links with our Presbyterian Church at West Chermside. I did at least one baptism of one of the children. Once the Uniting Church was formed, I received a call from the mother who had had another child. She wanted to have the child baptized ‘Presbyterian’. I explained that baptism is into Christ. We were now a Uniting Church – and this meant that the child’s name would go into a Uniting Church Baptismal Register. She found it difficult to understand that I could no longer ‘baptize her child Presbyterian’ when I had done it before.
Camps Farthest Out
Not long after union, we went as a young family to this camp, not knowing really what to expect. We were warmly received. The fellowship was strong, and this was a blessing given that the main participants came from Wesleyan Methodist, Presbyterian and Uniting Churches. At the end of the camp we sat in a circle and there was a reflection time on the impact of the days together. One of the participants was a Presbyterian minister who had been quite vocal against the Uniting Church believing that its statements about the scriptures were inadequate. His teenage son took time to say how wonderful it was to see his Dad and me sharing together in the spirit of Christ. I found myself crying – and realized some of the grief I was carrying inside me.
Wanting Better Relationships With Presbyterians
It is not surprising that after union, the Uniting and Presbyterian Churches had little to do with each other. The Presbyterians, I imagine, were re-establishing their identity while the Uniting Church was trying to discover its identity. In those early days, perhaps acting out of my grief, I made a couple of attempts to make it clear that I desired a closer relationship with this denomination which had nurtured me.
In Cairns, I attended the ordination of a Presbyterian Minister about seven years after union. The clergy were dressed in black when we had begun to dress in white albs. The language of the order of service was not as contemporary as the orders of the Uniting Church. Still, the dignity of the occasion was respected in contrast with what is sometimes the casual and informal approach of the Uniting Church.
Another Presbyterian Minister there asked me to conduct a wedding he had arranged, but then could not celebrate. I did so. He had also arranged to host a visit to Cairns of J. Oswald Sanders. He asked our church to host it when he was accepting a call elsewhere. On the night that Sanders spoke, the Presbyterian Moderator was in town and attended. While we had known each other quite well, I felt he avoided me that night. I didn’t want to leave it like that, so I made a point of phoning him and talking with him the next day. Part of me was hurt – and another part of me didn’t want to let him ‘get away with it’. I wanted to own what relationship we had!
Those years around the formation of the Uniting Church were not easy. Along with the grief and hurt, there were new structures and new ways of doing things as well as new people to get to know and understand. If they were not easy for me when I had only been a Minister of the Presbyterian Church for 3 or 4 years, what were they like for Ministers who faced all this in the middle of their ministries? And what were they like for Ministers who were almost due to retire, and perhaps would have preferred not to go through all that change? What were they like for lay members of the church who perhaps left friends and properties and familiar ways of doing things – and had less say in all the change that was taking place? What was the vision that God gave us then? Has that vision been achieved or is it on the way to achievement? Or have we lost our way? Are we still going forward "in sole loyalty to Christ", a pilgrim people "on the way to the promised end"? Praise God for calling the church into being as a sign of God’s rule!
Neil E. Sims