1. Find Common Ground
The Australian Unity Agreement was designed to end a long period of division between two groups ('fellowships') in the Australian Christadelphian brotherhood. It recognised that there had been misunderstandings between the two groups for a considerable time because each group had remained relatively isolated from the other and had therefore begun to develop their own theological 'jargon', especially in relation to the atonement. Each group would use different words to explain the same concepts, so they each thought that the other group believed something different.
One of the achievements of the Unity Agreement was to produce an explanation of the atonement that both groups could agree with while either avoiding the 'loaded' terminology or explaining it in a way that enabled both groups to find common ground. Neither group was forced to renounce previously held ideas. There were no witch-hunts to find people who didn't agree. No ecclesia changed their Statement of Faith. In fact, the Unity Agreement specifically acknowledged that the various Statements of Faith which were in use at that time could continue to be used. It was acknowledged that these Statements of Faith were essentially saying the same thing, although using different wording. In fact, this situation has continued to the present day and Australian ecclesias continue to use various Statements of Faith.
This is something which is often overlooked by subsequent generations. The purpose of the Unity Agreement was to find common ground and to use language which was acceptable to all parties, rather than imposing the view of one group on another. It focused on what united, rather than on what divided. The ecclesias which refused to accept the Agreement, and thereafter separated themselves from all other Christadelphians in Australia, were those which insisted that they were right and demanded that others renounce their views. They regarded themselves as the only 'true Christadelphians' and the only ones which upheld the 'original' Christadelphian faith as it was defined by men such as Robert Roberts. They have remained isolated for fifty years, and their numbers have significantly declined.
In the fifty years since the Agreement was adopted by most Australian ecclesias there has been a tendency by some ecclesias and individuals to focus on the actual words used in the Agreement and to demand that everyone uses these words in the same way they do. They have forgotten that the Agreement was designed as a compromise, which used words with which everyone could agree, and avoided terminology which carried connotations which others would find unacceptable. They have also forgotten that with time words can change their meaning and can carry different connotations. The actual wording of the Unity Agreement may not carry the same meaning for people today as it did for Christadelphians fifty years ago.
That's why, in my opinion, the documents associated with the Unity Agreement are no longer relevant to most Christadelphians. What is important, and which should be celebrated, is that fifty years ago Christadelphians made a conscious decision and took a deliberate step to end their differences. They did this by finding common ground and finding a way to explain the important things on which they agreed, which everyone would find acceptable.
From my grandfather, who was actively involved in the work of reunion, I learned that many brethren of that time realised that the only way to end the years of mistrust was to take people at their word. If someone said they agreed with something, then they took them at their word. They didn't cross-examine them to find out if they 'really' agreed. Based on the teaching of Jesus that 'your "yes" should mean "yes"' they began with the assumption that everyone was being honest and if they said they agreed then they agreed. The Unity Agreement ultimately failed to produce sustainable unity in the Christadelphian community because brethren began to question the integrity of others. They doubted that some people were being honest when they adopted the Agreement, and began to say so. Trust rapidly broke down again and the ecclesias divided once more. Although they were often 'technically' in fellowship ecclesias soon regrouped and formed alliances and went back to behaving as two distinct sub-groups within one denomination.
There are possibly several ways in which Christadelphians in Australia today could recognise in a constructive way the work done fifty years ago, by looking again for the common ground. Here are some general principles which might be helpful:
- Recognise that there can be several ways of saying the same thing, and that your way is not the only way, and may not even be the best way.
- When listening to other people, or when reading what they have written, look for what you agree with, rather than what you disagree with. Realise that they may also be simply using different words to say something you'd agree with although you might say it differently.
- When in discussion with individuals or ecclesias about different points of view, first acknowledge as many areas as possible where you agree.
- Take people at their word. If a brother or sister says they believe something, or that they agree with you, don't ask other people for their opinion. Don't go digging for information to the contrary, and don't conduct a cross-examination. Accept what they say and don't question their integrity.
- Ecclesias which meet visitors at the door and present them with a doctrinal statement of some kind and ask for their assent before they can break bread should end this practice immediately.
- While the hard work of all the people involved with reunion should be acknowledged, the actual documents they produced are of little relevance today (except for historical purposes, and to give us an insight into how they got a result). The time has come to stop referring to the 1958 Unity Agreement as the 'basis of fellowship'.
- There has been a suggestion that the Unity Agreement should be reprinted and a copy given to every Australian Christadelphian. In my opinion this would be a waste of paper. It's unlikely to be read by most, and won't be understood by many who read it. It would be far better to encourage an exchange of ideas, some diversity of thinking, and brotherly love, rather than republish a document which belongs to another era.
To be continued.