Yesterday we celebrated the birthday of the Uniting Church. 37 years old and still learning together what it means to be part of the Body of Christ in Australia here and now.
Lately, I have a been thinking a lot about who we are as a Uniting Church. I have been thinking about what it means to be a inclusive church. Here’s some of my thoughts. I’d love to hear some of yours!
I remember the first time I saw someone refused communion.
I was a university student, very involved in my local (not Uniting) church.
I was a member of the church council of this particular parish.
I was aghast.
The minister had decided that one woman from all the parish was outside of God’s grace. Something she had done was so terrible that as he shared the bread and juice with members of the congregation, he passed her by. Rather than an encounter of God’s generous hospitality, communion became a barrier to keep out ‘bad seeds’. Rather than a remembrance of our shared human-ness, communion was used to shame one woman before the whole congregation. Her sin was made to weigh so much more heavily than the sin of the rest of us. This was a poignant incident for me of seeing a person placed outside. A few years later I found myself at a Bible study run by the Uniting Church through its tertiary ministry at Sydney University. Full of all sorts of questions about faith and life, for the first time in my involvement with Church, none of my questions were taboo. I experienced a moment of conversion. Rather than being placed outside, here was community even for me.
The National Church Life Survey data suggests there is something which members of the Uniting Church value above all others. This is that we are an inclusive church. Have you ever seen someone excluded from participating in communion within a Uniting Church? I would be surprised by anyone answering yes to that question. For our theology of inclusion is found in our strange practice of the open table. We say that the communion table does not belong to a particular church or minister, but to Christ. We say that it is Christ who invites us and meets us in this meal. We expect that eating a piece of ripped up bread and tasting wine on our tongue will be a tangible encounter with God. (Perhaps we are crazy people!)
I wonder, though, if we know what this really means for us as congregations, presbyteries and as a Synod? I wonder if we will live by the challenge the open table brings? For an open table says that the Christ we say we follow is a Christ whose arms are open to all. And an open table says that God does not hold the world at arm’s length. Sometimes we can’t seem to find a way forward among ourselves, among those of us who come to the Lord’s Table already committed to live as disciples and to seek to follow after Christ’s way. How then can we believe we have any welcome left for those who would encounter the radical and generous hospitality that the table represents for us? I am not willing to relinquish worship in which everyone, no matter who they are or what they believe, is free to be receive God’s gifts of bread and wine. I will celebrate a theology which says God’s great ‘yes’ is for all people and all things.
BUT, the open table and the inclusion it draws us into does not mean that ‘anything goes.’ Our theology of inclusion doesn’t mean I am free to simply pick and choose the content of my faith. For this theology is centred around being welcomed to Christ’s table, and this table is formed by a very particular story. It is the story in which God steps inside vulnerable skin and bone. It is the story of God choosing to live alongside all the wrong sorts of people. It is the story of God holding firm to love even until death. And it is the story of God making all things new in the image of the way Christ walked. In coming to this table I submit myself to the discipline of this story, the strange transformation that says that together we become Christ’s body in and for the world.