Synopsis: Presbyteral Services of Ordination, 1977-1995: The Uniting Church in Australia ‘within the faith and unity of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church’

In Genesis 18, Abraham haggles with God with the result that if there were ten righteous people in Sodom, it would be spared. When I mused about putting the synopsis of my PhD thesis on the blog I had decided that if there were not ten but one who asked I’d do it. Thanks, Nicole!

This thesis examines whether the presbyteral ordination rite of the Uniting Church conforms to acceptable ecumenical practice in the western Christian tradition and thereby supports the claim that its presbyters are ordained as ministers in the Church catholic. It looks at the period 1977-1995, a particularly active time for the Commission on Liturgy in the writing of services of ordination. Appendix C outlines developments since that time.

The Uniting Church in Australia, formed from the union of Congregational, Methodist and Presbyterian Churches in 1977, declares that it ‘lives and works within the faith and unity of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church’ (Basis of Union, para. 2; the Basis is the Uniting Church’s foundational document).

One consequence of this declaration is its claim to ordain its ministers of the Word (presbyters) as ministers in the Church catholic. This thesis examines whether the course that the Uniting Church has taken in its liturgical practices of ordination of ministers of the Word has been consistent with its own assertions; or whether, while still continuing to make the same claims, the Uniting Church has paid insufficient attention to the witness of the Church catholic.

The Uniting Church was formed as a Church that found the Faith in the sources received from the Church catholic—in Christ the Word, in the scriptures, in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, and in its foundational documents from the Protestant Reformation and the Wesleyan revival. Consistent with this, the members of the Joint Commission on Church Union sought to establish a ministry accepted by all, with a threefold ordering of bishops, presbyters and deacons. This goal proved elusive. The full working out of this vision involved a proposed Concordat with the Church of South India. That Church would be invited to send bishops to ordain bishops in the Uniting Church, so that the sign of apostolic succession would be both given and received by the new Church. The Joint Committee on Church Union was unable to agree on this proposal, and so it was stillborn.

The Joint Committee could then have aimed lower, for a form of ordained ministry that was more narrowly-rooted in the traditions stemming from the Reformation and the Wesleyan revival. However, the ordination rite of the Uniting Church from 1977 onwards has seen ordination as conferred in the name of Christ through the authority of the presbytery ‘by prayer and the laying on of hands in the presence of a worshipping congregation’, as mandated by the Basis of Union (para. 14(a)). It has also located ordination within the context of the eucharist; neither practice was inevitable, given that neither is practised by all Reformed churches.

In examining the question of whether the presbyteral ordination rite of the Uniting Church in the period 1977-1995 supports the claim that its presbyters are ordained as ministers in the Church of God, attention has been paid to the framework of James Puglisi. Puglisi’s schema of the process of admission to ordained ministry provides a lingua franca for this process from different traditions, and the thesis will show that the various revisions of the Uniting Church’s rite of ordination follow this framework.

The principle of lex orandi, lex credendi is worked out in the Uniting Church predominantly by the conforming of liturgy to doctrinal statement. In the 1992 service this relationship of doctrine and liturgy was stretched almost to breaking point, though the Commission on Liturgy sought to mitigate the effects of the decision of the Sixth Assembly in 1991 (summarised as ‘one ordination, two accreditations’) that marked a distancing from the practice of the Church catholic. The Uniting Church’s commitment to having as ecumenically recognisable a ministry as possible is shown in the correction of this anomaly at the very first opportunity, at the Seventh Assembly in 1994. As part of the background to the analysis of the Uniting Church’s claims to the ordination of its presbyters as part of the Church catholic, the forms that ministry took in the New Testament and early Church period are sketched, along with a discussion of ministry in various streams of the Protestant Reformation. Liturgies from the Apostolic Tradition attributed to Hippolytus, dating from perhaps the third-century, through the Reformation to the present day are also examined, particularly those that influenced the writing of Uniting Church liturgies.

The various versions of the Uniting Church rite of ordination are commented upon, interspersed with a discussion of the debate that was occurring at the time in the Uniting Church Assembly, and—in the case of Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry—ecumenically.

The Basis of Union clearly states ‘the Presbytery will ordain by prayer and the laying on of hands in the presence of a worshipping congregation’ (para. 14(a)), and leaves room open for a renewal of the diaconate (para. 14(c)) and for an episcopal office (para. 16). The diaconate was renewed by the Sixth Assembly in 1991, which was implemented in an idiosyncratic way, by ordaining to ‘ministry in Christ’s church’ and then ‘accrediting’ to the ministry of the Word or the diaconate. Had this form of commissioning for ministry become entrenched in the Uniting Church, this thesis argues that the Uniting Church would not be able to sustain the claim that it ordained ministers of the Word into the ministry of the Church catholic. However, the Seventh Assembly in 1994 overturned this decision, and re-established the ministry of the Word as a separate ordination.

This thesis concludes that because the form of the rite conforms to acceptable ecumenical practice in the western Christian tradition, and because the decision of the Seventh Assembly in 1994 enabled a restoration of ordination by prayer and the imposition of hands, the Uniting Church can indeed make the claim that it ordains its ministers of the Word as ministers of the Church catholic.

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Filed under ministry, Ordination, Personal, Uniting Church in Australia, Working Group on Worship

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