Baptist theologians in Australia participated in an interchurch dialogue that resulted in the publication of a report that draws attention to the challenges surrounding the notion of church membership.
The authors represented theologians from Australian Baptist Ministries and the Uniting Church in Australia. The Uniting Church was formed in 1977 as a union of the Congregational Union of Australia, the Methodist Church of Australasia and the Presbyterian Church of Australia. The teams met between 2006 and 2011.
The influence of culture on church membership was identified as a challenge. There are “strong cultural pressures against traditional forms of organized church life,” the authors wrote. Individual identity has “replaced earlier forms of shared identity and a weakening of the willingness to commit beyond culturally defined limits.” There is therefore a need to ground the life of the church “in the call of Christ and the coming together of those called for mutual challenge and assistance in following the way of Jesus.”
Theologians from both church bodies drew from the understanding that each of the two Christian traditions has on church membership. Each tradition offered a concise statement of its understanding of church membership followed by a response to the other group’s statement. This resulted in a common statement that covered five broad areas: discerning readiness for baptism and church membership; the relation of membership in a local congregation to membership within the universal church; the concept of covenant and how this helps in deepening the understanding and practice of church membership; infant baptism; and how the dialogue between Baptists and the Uniting Church may contribute to the understanding of common membership in the universal church.
During the dialogue, participants increasingly recognized the need “to hold together the messy and limited human reality of the churches with the spiritual basis of church life that is discerned by the eyes of faith.”
Baptist World Alliance® General Secretary Neville Callam, who spoke at the launch that was held in Melbourne in October, commended the dialogue partners for their work. He, however, expressed disappointment that, during the dialogue, there was no access to the 2011 Faith and Order text, One Baptism: Towards Mutual Recognition. Callam said that the Faith and Order text, which was published by the World Council of Churches, probes, in a multilateral way, some of the issues that are behind the discussion on church membership. He asked that the report be widely disseminated and encouraged the churches to promote the report internationally.
Dennis Stanley of the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne offered praise during the launch. He commended the dialogue for being consistent with “receptive ecumenism,” stating that the work of the Holy Spirit was reflected throughout the report. The Spirit, he said, “graces us with the courage to encounter each other, to listen and dialogue.”
Participating in the dialogue were Gwyn Milne (co-chair), Ken Manley and Tony Cupit from Australian Baptist Ministries. Cupit is a former director of the BWA, Manley a former BWA vice president, and Milne a former member of the BWA General Council. The Uniting Church team members were Garry Deverell (co-chair), Sandy Yule, Ruth Hoadley and Sharon Hollis.
Baptist World Alliance®
© November 2, 2012