The identity of the Uniting Church

The Uniting Church is part of the one holy catholic and apostolic church – we see ourselves as just one part of a much larger whole. We do the things that other denominations within the church do: we gather for worship, preach the Gospel, care for the needy, witness to our faith, and connect with communities.

We have many organisations that cater specifically for pre-schoolers, school students, people with disabilities, theological students, adult learners, Indigenous people and aged and infirm people. We have chaplains in hospitals, schools, industry, and the defence forces. And we have congregations in many places across the continent.

When we worship, we feel connected with the people of God of all denominations across the globe. When we witness, we bear testimony to the faith shared by Christians of many varieties. When we reach out in service, we act in solidarity with people of Christian faith, people of other faiths, and people of goodwill of any stripe, in our communities and across the globe.

We share in the call to be missional, universal, set apart, and unified, as God’s people together. Or in more traditional theological language, we are part of the ‘one, holy, catholic and apostolic’ church.

But we believe that we have some distinctive elements to contribute to that larger whole. Our identity as the Uniting Church in Australia is marked by ten distinctive features.

I In Ecumenical Relationship

When the Congregational, Methodist and Presbyterian churches joined together in 1977 to form the Uniting Church in Australia, they declared that this union was both in accord with the will of God, and that it was a gift of God to the people of God in Australia.

Since then, the Uniting Church has been a church which is committed to working ecumenically with other Christian denominations. That commitment is one very important aspect of our identity as a Uniting Church. We belong to the National Council of Churches in Australia and the World Council of Churches, where we co-operate with many denominations.

Nationally, we have participated in ongoing conversations with other denominations (Anglican, Lutheran, Greek Orthodox, and Roman Catholic). At the grassroots level, our ministers participate in local ministers’ associations in hundreds of towns and cities across the nation. Some Congregations share buildings with other denominations; some worship and serve together, especially in rural towns.

We are an ecumenical church.

II In Covenant with First Peoples

A very important dimension to being the church in this country is that we are a church in Covenant with the First Peoples of Australia. From its earliest years, the Uniting Church has been involved in actions which express our solidarity with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Older members will recall events at Noonkanbah Station in the Kimberley in 1980, when Uniting Church members stood in solidarity with the traditional owners, the Yungngora people, against the mining of their land.

The Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress (UAICC) was established in 1985, and a Covenant between the UAICC and the UCA was implemented in 1994. This Covenant recognises that working for reconciliation amongst people is central to the Gospel. This gives expression to our commitment to shape a destiny together.

In 2009, the Preamble to the UCA Constitution was revised to recognise the difficult history of relationships between the First Peoples and the later arrivals, as Second Peoples. In 2018, we agreed to support a Makarrata process to give a clear national voice to First Peoples, and to support a national Treaty. Our present relationship is one which seeks to ensure that we commit to the destiny together which we share as Australians. The Assembly fosters ongoing work in this area through the Walking Together as First and Second Peoples Circle.

We stand in covenant relationship with the First Peoples.

III A Multicultural Church 

In the same year that the Congress was formed, the Uniting Church declared that it is a multicultural church, which rejoices in the diversity of cultures and languages which are found across Australia. The Basis of Union recognises that we share much, as Australians, with people of Asia and the Pacific. The Uniting Church has maintained strong relationships with churches from these regions, as well forging new links with churches in Africa and the Middle East.

The Statement to the Nation, issued in 1977, acknowledged that the Uniting Church seeks a unity that transcends cultural, economic and racial distinctions. Within Australia, there are at least 12 national conferences based on regional groupings and people from 193 language groups who belong to the Uniting Church.

Each Sunday, worship takes place in Uniting Churches in 26 languages from cultures beyond Australia, as well as many indigenous languages used in worship by first peoples across our church. We have learnt the importance of moving from “enjoying each other’s foods”, to conversing at a deep level about the hopes and expectations we bring from different cultural experiences. We have learnt that we need to be intercultural in our relationships.

Through UnitingWorld, we maintain partnerships with churches in Asia, the Pacific, Africa and the Middle East. We are truly a multicultural church. Through the Relations with Other Faiths Working Group and the Seeking Common Ground Circle, the Uniting Church has been active in developing relationships with other faith communities. We have had a long and fruitful Dialogue with the Jewish Community, and participate in a number of other interfaith Dialogue conversations. We are firmly committed to constructive interfaith relations.

We continue to develop as a church in deepening relationships with many cultures and faiths.

IV  All the people of God

The Uniting Church is a church which values the ministry of all the people of God and seeks to order itself in accordance with the will of God. Our Basis of Union affirms that every member of the church is engaged to confess Christ crucified, and every person is gifted by the Spirit to engage in ministry in their own particular way. We are a church that values the ministry of each and every person.

Throughout the life of the Uniting Church, we have held our structures and forms of ministry accountable to ongoing scrutiny. Alongside the Ministry of the Word, to nurture and guide Congregations, we have introduced the Ministry of Deacon, to focus attention on people living on the margins. We have introduced the Ministry of Pastor to recognise the giftedness of lay people, and that sits alongside the Ministry of Lay Preacher (which we have had since 1977), and the more recent accreditation of Lay Presiders in many locations.

We have also undertaken important conversations about membership and the relationship of Baptism to Holy Communion. We now have a clear commitment to an open table when we gather for The Lord’s Supper: all who are baptised (whether adult or child, whether confirmed or not) are welcome to share at this table.

We are a church which values the ministry of all the people of God.

V  Women and Men

The Basis of Union makes it very clear that we are a church which is committed to equality and mutuality of women and men in ministry. Even before 1977, the three previous denominations had ordained women to ministry. This is a very strong distinctive, especially in the Australian scene.

Since 1977, many women have stood on an equal basis alongside men, as Ministers of the Word, Deacons, Elders, Church Councillors, Lay Preachers, Lay Presiders, Chaplains, and Pastoral Carers. We value the insights and experience of women in each and every way that we seek to “be church”—as we gather to worship, as we witness to our faith, as we serve the wider community.

Women in leadership: Presidents Jill Tabart (1994–1997) and Deidre Palmer (2018–2021); Deidre Palmer and President-Elect Sharon Hollis (2021–2024);
Assembly General Secretary Colleen Geyer (2016– );
and Moderators Sue Ellis (SA), Sharon Hollis (VicTas),
Myung Hwa Park (NSW.ACT) and Thresi Mauboy (Northern Synod).

Both lay and ordained women have served in leadership positions across all councils of the Uniting Church, from Church Council Chairpersons to Presbytery Chairpersons, to Synod Moderators and Secretaries, to the Assembly General Secretary and President. Many couples minister together as husband and wife. Gender equality is most certainly part of our identity.

We are committed to mutuality and gender equality in every part of the church.

VI Discernment

Another contribution that the UCA has made has been to highlight the importance, when we gather in council, of being open to the Spirit, and seeking to discern the will of God. We live this out in our councils by practising a process of consensus decision-making. The Manual for Meetings sets out the various elements that are involved in making decisions by discernment: a time of information, a time of deliberation, and a time of decision-making.

The infamous “coloured cards” are only one small part of the whole. The focus is on listening to the Spirit before we speak, and striving to find a way forward that most, if not all, people can see as the will of God for the church. This way of decision-making, which originated in the UCA, has now been adopted by the World Council of Churches and a number of its member Churches.

We are a church which deliberately seeks to discern the movement of the Spirit in our midst.

VII Professional Standards

Over the last 20 years, the Uniting Church has developed a firm commitment to strong professional standards, for Ministers as well as for lay people who exercise leadership in the church. Our commitment to professional standards emerged initially in response to the problems of sexual misconduct within the church. A whole section of the Regulations is now devoted to this.

Since 1999, all Ministers have been expected to adhere to a Code of Ethics, and this has most recently been revised to provide a Code of Ethics Ministry Practice for Ministers and a Code of Conduct for Lay Leaders. Ministers and Pastors undertake regular training in aspects of this code, in ethical ministry workshops.

Since the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, we have intensified our efforts to ensure that our churches are Safe Places, valuing everybody, honouring integrity, avoiding negative and hurtful behaviours.

We are a church which values integrity and clarity about our ethical standards.

VIII  Open to explore difficult issues

Over 40 years, the Uniting Church has shown that it is a church which is prepared to engage in difficult discussions about contentious issues. Our Basis of Union commits us to learn from the insights of contemporary scientific and historical studies, and affirms that we remain open to correction by God in the way we order our life together.

In the early years of the Uniting Church, debates about Baptism were the focus of great controversy. Infant baptism had been an integral part of the worship practices of each denomination which joined the Uniting Church, but Ministers and Elders Councils were receiving regular requests for baptism by adults who had been baptised as infants but had come to a personal faith later in their lives. After debates stretching through the 1980s and 1990s, the Uniting Church has developed a clear set of protocols to cover such requests.

Another area of enduring controversy has been that of human sexuality. There is a wide diversity of opinion within society relating to such matters, and this diversity is present within the Uniting Church. Once again, from the 1980s though into the present era, lively debates regarding human sexuality have taken place in the various councils of the church. We have worked through difficult decisions about sexuality and leadership, and then about sexuality, gender, and marriage. We continue to learn, explore, and adapt.

In dealing with such issues, we have learned how to debate with respect and integrity with ongoing conversations looking to employ a “Space for Grace” process to encourage respectful, empowering, and inclusive decision-making.

We seek to be a church that engages in the difficult discussions with honesty, transparency, and hopefulness.

IX  Advocating for Justice

The Uniting Church inherited from its predecessor Churches a strong commitment to advocating for justice for all. Many Uniting Church congregations and members are actively committed to serving those people who find themselves on the margins of society. This commitment was clearly articulated in the 1977 Statement to the Nation and it has been evident in many actions undertaken by Uniting Church members over the decades.

The Uniting Church has joined in common cause with other groups and organisations in society, in advocating for a welcoming attitude towards refugees; in lobbying for a fair and just system of caring for people who are experiencing poverty and homelessness; in seeking equity for workers in their workplace; and in many other issues. The Assembly Working for Justice Circle, brings together people who are strongly committed to this avenue of ministry.

A regular stream of policy documents and public resolutions point to a clear and unbroken commitment to seeking justice for all. Each federal election, we are provided with resources that encourage us, as people of faith, to consider the implications of our votes in the life of the nation.

We are a church which is strongly committed to justice for all.

Environmental Sustainability

In like manner, the Uniting Church has always been a church which honours the environment and supports a sustainable lifestyle. Although such matters are firmly on the radar of the public now, they have long been integral to the identity of the UCA. Once again, the 1977 Statement to the Nation flagged such commitment. A series of subsequent documents attest to the ongoing determination of the church to live responsibly, in such a way that we minimise the damage we cause to the environment in which we live.

Our partnerships with Churches in the Pacific have intensified our awareness of the negative impacts that are resulting from climate change. We know that we need to act now, to reduce the threat. Each year, we experience catastrophic consequences from more regular and more intensified “natural disasters”—fires, floods, drought, cyclones. Just as we provide pastoral support in these situations through Disaster Response Chaplains, so too we maintain advocacy with governments, urging them to set policies which will turn us away from the trajectory of yet more environmental disasters.

Locally, many Congregations and individual members of the UCA are seeking to implement practices that will reduce their carbon footprint on the planet. We know that we owe it to future generations, to live responsibly in the present.

We are a church that lives, acts, and advocates for a sustainable environmental future.

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You may have some thoughts about what I have articulated above. You may have thought, “what about …?” – something that I have overlooked, that you see as important. You may have some questions about how I have described some of these elements. I encourage you to talk with others about how you respond. Together, we are the Uniting Church!

This discussion of identity is the first in a series of articles on this question on the Assembly website, at DNA of the UCA – Uniting Church Australia

Earth Day 2021

In 2009, the United Nations designated 22 April as “Mother Earth Day”, and encouraged all member nations to observe this and advocate for sustainable ways of living, to show our care and respect for the earth on which we live.

The term “Mother Earth” was adopted, recognising that this was a common expression for the planet earth in a number of countries and regions. The term intends to reflect the interdependence that exists among human beings, other living species and the planet we all inhabit.

Over the years, the day has become better known by the shorter title, “Earth Day”. This year, the theme for Earth Day 2021 is Restore Our Earth™. The theme focuses our attention on natural processes, emerging green technologies, and innovative thinking that can restore the world’s ecosystems.

The theme rejects the notion that mitigation or adaptation are the only ways to address climate change. It is up to each and every one of us to Restore Our Earth, not just because we care about the natural world, but because we live on it. We all need a healthy Earth to support our jobs, livelihoods, health and survival, and happiness. A healthy planet is not an option — it is a necessity.

More than 1 billion people in 192 countries now participate in Earth Day activities each year, making it the largest civic observance in the world. So this week, why not be a part of Earth Day and help further climate action across the globe? There are plenty of suggestions at https://www.earthday.org/toolkit-earth-day-2021-restore-our-earth/

The Uniting Church has had a long commitment to living in a way that is sustainable, respectful to the environment, minimising our carbon footprint on the earth. More than forty years ago, a Statement to the Nation was promulgated by the first National Assembly of the Uniting Church. This statement recognised the importance of the kind of lifestyles that we lead, and the impact that they are having on the environment of which we are an integral part.

With growing awareness of this matter over the ensuing decades, we can clearly recognise, today, the imperative of the words from 1977, urging us to ensure the wise use of energy, the protection of the environment and the replenishment of the earth’s resources. These matters were evident then; they are pressing and urgent today.

Environmental responsibility sits at the heart of the story of God’s dealings with people, as it is recounted in the biblical texts. From the myth of origins of the creation, as recounted in Genesis, to the vision of a renewed heaven and earth, as portrayed in Revelation, the concern of the divine is for the goodness of creation.

Human beings of faith have an integral and important role to play in seeing that this remains a reality for people in our own time. The Statement was provocative and prescient in this short paragraph. I have reflected more broadly on this Statement at https://johntsquires.com/2018/08/20/alongside-the-basis-of-union-there-was-the-statement-to-the-nation/

Since then, a whole series of statements and policies relating to the environment have been produced by the Uniting Church, at national, regional, and local levels. The national statements and policies are collected at https://www.unitingjustice.org.au/environment. Many local churches have participated in projects promoted by the Five Leaf Eco-Awards, which has its own website at https://fiveleafecoawards.org

These churches have taken all sorts of actions for the environment, including crosses made of solar panels, restoring and replanting watercourses next to their church, leading mud brick shed building workshops, setting up community gardens, installing water tanks, developing a peace garden of native plants. Others have collected signatures for petitions, planted trees, rung their church bells for climate change, held talks and discussions of environmental issues, and held worship around environmental themes.

So recognising and participating in Earth Day is an important part of our faithful discipleship—and living each and every day in accord with these principles is even more important.

See https://uniting.church/earth-day-2021-restoreourearth/

See also https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/09/faith-in-action-a-religious-response-to-the-climate-emergency-part-one/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/09/faith-in-action-a-religious-response-to-the-climate-emergency-part-two/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/09/faith-in-action-a-religious-response-to-the-climate-emergency-part-three/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/25/873/

#SwitchForNature: Earth Hour 2021

Every year hundreds of millions of people around the world in more than 7,000 cities in over 190 countries take part by switching off power for 60 minutes as a symbolic gesture of solidarity to show they care about our planet’s future.

This year, Earth Hour is at 8.30pm local time Saturday 27 March. Around the continent, Australians will gather without electricity, to make the #SwitchforNature. Thousands of people will demonstrate their support for the switch to a renewables-based economy for Australia.

Individual actions can benefit our planet, while symbolically demonstrating support for a renewable future for our country, and for the world.

See https://www.earthhour.org

Earth Hour started in Sydney in 2007, and has since spread around the globe. Central to Earth Hour is advocacy for increasing renewable sources of energy. There are many advantages to using renewable energy sources.

Renewables (solar, wind and hydro) now comprise a quarter of the mix in the National Electricity Market. In 2023, it is likely that renewables will pass black coal to become the largest electricity source.

Solar and wind energy are already huge industries globally, and employ 27,000 people in Australia. This reflects a doubling in just three years. And solar and wind electricity in Australia already costs less than electricity from new coal and gas plants.

A recent study has demonstrated that solar and wind plants built between 2018 and 2025 would add 70,000 gigawatt hours of new electricity supply – equivalent to more than a third of what is currently used across the national grid each year.

This would mean that five of Australia’s remaining 16 coal power plants could be financially unviable by 2025. The study estimates that renewable energy could make up 40% to 50% of electricity by 2025. It would force output from coal and gas-fired power stations to fall by an amount between 28% and 78% respectively over the seven years.

Closing these plants would make a good contribution to reducing Australia’s greenhouse emissions. It would also be likely to push down the average wholesale electricity price to 2015 levels. Revenue at coal and gas-fired plants would be hit on two fronts: they would not be able to sell as much electricity, and the price of the electricity would be lower.

The raw materials needed for renewable energy are abundant and won’t run out. A solar panel needs silicon, a glass cover, plastic, an aluminium panel frame, copper and aluminium electrical conductors and small amounts of other common materials. These materials are what our world is made of. Recycling panel materials at the end of their life adds only slightly to larger existing recycling streams.

And nearly three-quarters of the global population lives in the planet’s sunbelt (lower than 35 degrees of latitude). This includes most developing countries, where most of the growth in energy consumption and greenhouse emissions is located.

Finally, renewables are much safer. Solar panel accidents pale in comparison to spilled radioactive material (like Fukushima or Chernobyl), an oil disaster (like BP’s Deepwater Horizon), or a coal mine fire (like Hazelwood in Victoria). Wind and solar electricity eliminates oil imports, oil-related warfare, fracking for gas, strip mining for coal, smokestacks, car exhausts and smog.

So let’s make the #SwitchForNature, and let’s make it start now!

See https://www.google.com.au/amp/s/amp.theguardian.com/australia-news/2021/feb/24/renewable-energy-could-render-five-of-australias-remaining-coal-plants-unviable-by-2025

and https://www.google.com.au/amp/s/theconversation.com/amp/really-australia-its-not-that-hard-10-reasons-why-renewable-energy-is-the-future-130459