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Homily by Rev. Dorothy McRae-McMahon

The Anniversary of
The Uniting Church In Australia
South Sydney Uniting Church
June 22, 2014

Hebrews 13: 1-8; John 17: 20-26

‘Becoming one’

Today is the 37 Anniversary of the inauguration of the Uniting Church in Australia. I will never forget the celebration of that inauguration in the Sydney Town Hall the fruits of 51 years of negotiation between the three churches the Presbyterian Church, the Methodist Church and the Congregational Church. I was honoured to take part in some of the final negotiations.

The three churches had much in common as non-conformist Protestant Churches, but due to their beginnings had different strengths to offer to the union. Presbyterians, mostly originating in Scotland, had a strong commitment to the good order of the church and encouraging theological study. I always feel sorry that I don’t think that the Uniting Church is quite so committed to the good order as it could be. Good order makes for a creative safety in the community of the church, in my view. Because of the way the Australian law was set up, Presbyterian parishes had the right to stay out of the union if they so desired and a few of them did that.

Methodists were a wide-ranging church, making their choices between strong features in the life and witness of their founder, John Wesley. Some were strongly evangelical and others more devoted to the social justice commitments through which the Methodist Church originally set up the Labour Party and the Union Movement in England. When Rev. Ben Gilmour of Paddington Uniting Church was speaking at our Daring Conference recently, we found it fascinating to discover how varied had been our upbringings.
His father was an evangelical Methodist Minister and mine was from the other end of the spectrum a strong theologian, but also a socialist. Because of the law, all or none of the Methodist Church had to come into the union and we achieved the joining by every parish or circuit as we called them.

Almost all of the Congregational Church also came in. Congregational churches were very strongly focussed on local governance. Although the parishes met with each other regularly, their primary decisions lay within the authority of each parish. Of the three churches, the Congregational Church was the first to ordain women, in 1926. By the time of the union, all three were ordaining women and the participation of women in all governing bodies was included in the regulations. Both the Presbyterian and Methodist Churches were already working for the decriminalisation of homosexuality too.

We called ourselves the “Uniting” Church, rather than “United” to bear witness to our hope that we were just the beginning of the unity of the church in this country. I will always remember the efforts to form a united church in New Zealand at around the same time. Those involved in the negotiations were the Anglican Church, the Presbyterian Church, the Methodist Church, the Congregational Church and the Churches of Christ. When it came to the vote, the formation of the union was lost by the vote of one Bishop!

The Basis of Union of the Uniting Church the document which is the foundation of the union is well worth reading. It is quite short but profound. In 1992 a new version was produced which made the language more inclusive.

As we look at the various faiths of the world, it is hard to imagine any one of them being “as one”, in the way God hoped we would be. Especially each of the Abrahamic - Jewish, Muslim and Christian faiths are strongly divided within themselves, let alone between them.
In my experience, it is sometimes easier to work together across the radical interfaith boundaries than across the conservative vs. radical boundaries in one faith.

I suspect that being one in faith carries with it many difficulties, precisely because we are religious we often believe that we are representing God and take upon ourselves the authority which that view brings. We live by our faith, which makes it hard to compromise what we believe.

In the Gospel reading, Jesus is making the point that, if people see us as “one”, then they are more likely to believe in the God who sent the Christ into the world. Sometimes it is so hard to imagine us all being one that it seems an impossible goal or dream. And yet, if we could even model that in small ways, it could change the world.

So what would a community of faith look like if the people were “one”? I don’t think we would be those who never argue with each other and who agree about everything in life and faith, even in our own parish. On the contrary, I think that people who are “one” have a wonderful freedom to honestly debate the issues before them.

We do that in our Church Council in the nicest possible way, but sometimes with quite an intensity. Sometimes we end in agreement and sometimes we leave things for further reflection. People who are one are not worried about that, because we trust each other and experience an underlying love and respect, no matter what the issues before us.

I think that people who are “one” can be very diverse in every respect in gifts and talents, in health or ill-health, in status or not, in variations of education, good fortune, or prosperity. Even if many of those differences are present, you know you can walk safely into the community of faith and be received with love and respect.
You can share any sort of vulnerability and be confident that people will hold you and support you through your struggles.

Of course, no group of human beings, whether they are people of faith, or not, will be perfect in oneness, but it can have that as its goal and trust in the loving grace of God as it owns its fallible humanness. When we live together like this, we can have glimpses of the life of God in Christ.

We can see the vision of what a people of God, of any faith, could be like. I have seen this when working with people of other faiths, races and cultures when we have been working together in international aid all focused on bring love and justice to the poor and oppressed.

I have sometimes felt the oneness when I have been standing in a Buddhist Temple, a Jewish Synagogue or a Muslim Mosque. In the place where people have prayed for centuries, you can often feel the love of God like breath around you, even if it has been expressed in a different language and faith. I remember standing in the home of Mahatma Gandhi and simply knowing that I was in the presence of the life of a Godly person.

If we expect to find the love which lies at the centre of everything, in all sorts of unexpected places and people then not only will our lives be lifted up but we will be inspired to add to that love in all around us. Our love and respect for the creation itself is, of course, part of that oneness.

We will grieve the meanness of our country in our response to refugees and world poverty in general. How can we look towards our God and yet not hear the cries of these desperate people. We will never be one with them until we share what we have in care for them.

I don’t believe that we will ever find or achieve perfection in this, but the wonder and beauty is that each one of us can offer something towards the glory of God, the oneness of all that is, which is the dream of our God. That is the hope of our church.

As we complete the homily together today I invite us to reflect on a moment of oneness which we would want to celebrate in our life and to come forward in silence, or to share as we place a red flower of celebration before the cross.

Rev. Dorothy McRae-McMahon