Belonging, first and foremost: the message of “the alien” (Deut 26; Lent 1C)

There is much debate amongst Christian thinkers, these days, about what comes first as we invite people to be a part of the church. Do we say, “this is what we believe, expressing our fundamental understanding of life; do you want to sign up to show you have the same beliefs?” Or do we say, “this is how we behave, guided by our fundamental ethical principles; would you like to act the same way and join us?” Or perhaps the invitation is simply, “come along, join in with us, see what we believe, what we are on about, and soon you’ll feel like you belong”?

Is it believe first? Or behave? Or simply, belong? The tendency to put a creed at the forefront of our invitations—to show that we are a people who believe, first and foremost—is widespread and deeply ingrained. Whether it be affirming The Apostles Creed in baptism, or saying The Believer’s Prayer at conversion, or working out a new Mission Statement for the Congregation, giving priority to belief is a very familiar pattern for us. We tend to think that, whatever formula we are repeating, that is exactly what declares and confirms our identity as people of faith.

So it’s no surprise that when we read Deuteronomy 26 (the Hebrew Scripture passage in next Sunday’s lectionary), we gravitate to the middle part of the passage, and lay claim to what looks to be an early affirmation of faith that sets out the identity of the people of Israel: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous” (Deut 26:5). This affirmation seems to go right back to the start, affirming what sets the people of Israel apart as a distinctive entity.

This way of reading this passage gained influence from the analysis of Gerhard von Rad, a German scholar of the 20th century. Von Rad claimed that the credal statement in verses 5 following was most likely a formula much older than the era when the book of Deuteronomy was written. And the origins of this creed, he claims, most likely lay in ancient cultic remembrances of the origins of the people. The wandering Aramean (Jacob, grandson of Abraham of Aramn) and the time in Egypt (leading up to Moses) reflect those times of origin.

*****

But the whole of this “creed” is not actually a “statement of faith”. It is more a narrative that tells a story. Such was the way of the ancient world; central beliefs were not articulated in crisp propositional statements (for this is the way of the post-Enlightenment western world); rather, a story was told, in the course of which key events pointed to central affirmations for the people. The ancients were story-tellers, more concerned to tell the story than state the faith. This is the story of the people; it is their saga.

God is important in the story that is told, nevertheless. God is the one who “heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression … who brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders” (26:7–8). The rescue of the people by their powerful God is central to the story. This, of course, if the story of the Exodus, which stands at the heart of Israelite identity and later Jewish identity. It is the central story of the people of Israel.

More than this, God is the one who “brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (26:9). The land of Israel is the second aspect of ancient Israelite life that is central and fundamental; and so it continues to be, in the 20th and 21st centuries, in which the land of Israel has been one of the most contested pieces of land in the world.

The story is told, however, for a purpose. Not just to remember—although remembering is important, for it recurs as a regular refrain in the book of Deuteronomy (7:18: 8:2, 18: 9:7, 27; 11:2; 15:15; 16:12; 24:9, 18, 22; 25:17; 32:7). The story is told, also, to inculcate the ethos, the values, the very identity of the people. And central to that ethos, taking prime place amongst the things that were seen to be important to affirm about who the people of Israel were, is this: giving back to God the first fruits produced by the land.

“So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me”, are the words that the people are to say, each time a harvest is produced. “You shall set it down before the LORD your God and bow down before the LORD your God”, the instruction declares (26:10). Gratitude is to the fore; gifting back the beginnings of “the fruit of the ground” to the God who gave the people the land to grow this fruit.

*****

Of course, there is a dark story submerged, for the most part, underneath that celebratory action. The land was “given” by God over the resistance of the people who were already IN the land, producing fruit, settled and content with their lot in life. The battles recounted in the book of Joshua—most likely not actual historical events, but reflecting a reality of submission to the Hebrews who took control of the land—reflect this dark story.

This dark story does not figure in the “received tradition” and “authorised affirmation” that we read in Deut 26. Nor do we find this in the affirmation of Deut 6:20–24, which begins “we were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out …”. Mention of the Exodus jumps straight across to life in the land—no mention of the conquest that (in other biblical texts) is reported in detail.

This conquest is part, by contrast, of the larger recitation of Josh 24:2–13, “I brought you out of Egypt … and I handed the Amorites over to you, and you took possession of their land, and I destroyed them before you … and also the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; and I handed them over to you … I gave you a land on which you had not labored, and towns that you had not built, and you live in them; you eat the fruit of vineyards and oliveyards that you did not plant.” At least this version of the affirmation is honest about the cost to the earlier inhabitants, and the benefits enjoyed with relative ease by the invading Hebrews.

*****

Yet the affirmation of Deut 26 highlights the central importance of gratitude for the gift of the land; and not only that, for it especially indicates the importance of making this celebration inclusive: “you, together with the Levites and the aliens [or, sojourners] who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house” (26:11). So the instructions for the annual festival of the first fruits provide.

The inclusion of the aliens in this annual festival reflected a gracious openness to others in the developing people of Israel. These texts differ from the xenophobic antagonism of earlier texts, recounting the conquest of Israel. They reflect a later understanding of the identity of the people, as they were collated during and after the Exile, centuries after the formation of Israel. People designated as aliens (non-Israelites), sojourners in the land, were welcome to bring offerings to the Lord (Lev 22:18), to adhere to Israelite food prescriptions (Lev 17:12), to keep the Sabbath (Exod 20:8–11; 23:12), to have gleaning rights (Lev 23:22), and to join in the annual process of atonement (Lev 16:29–31; Num 15:29).

The foundational Passover narrative indicates that aliens, or sojourners, were able to join (under certain conditions) in the Passover celebrations (Exod 12:47–49); a second narrative (Num 9:14) is much less restrictive. Aliens were to be subject to the same laws regarding murder (Lev 24:17–22), able to have right of access to cities of refuge (Num 35:13–15), and indeed to enter into the covenant at the annual covenant renewal ceremony (Deut 29:10–13; see also 31:10–13). The voice of the alien even sounds appreciation for the Law: “I live as an alien in the land; do not hide your commandments from me” (Ps 119:19).

Because Israelites were once “an alien residing in the land” of Egypt, the people were instructed, “you shall not abhor any of the Edomites, for they are your kin; you shall not abhor any of the Egyptians” (Deut 23:7); by the third generation, the children of aliens “may be admitted to the assembly of the Lord” (Deut 23:8).

This meant that “the alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God” (Lev 19:34; a similar affirmation is made at Num 15:14–16).

The principle of equality is clear: “you shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge” (Deut 24:17; see also Jer 7:5–7; 23:5–7; Zech 7:9–10; Mal 3:5). The alien, or sojourner, deserves the same measure of justice as all residents of Israel.

Accordingly, amongst the curses at the end of Deuteronomy, we read, “cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice. All the people shall say, ‘Amen!'” (Deut 27:19). The curse outlines the negative consequences from not adhering to the positive principle of welcoming and including those sojourning for a time innIsrael, the “alien”. That is integral to the celebrations each year, when the harvest produces its fruit from the land.

Gratitude. Belonging. Celebration. Inclusion. All of this is embedded in the story; and all of this comes before believing, repeating doctrinal claims, affirming credal statements. We are a people of welcome, including, belonging. This much is embedded in the ancient Hebrew tradition. This much should be living, still, in Christianity today.

See also

New outcomes, never imagined at the start (Ruth 3–4; Pentecost 24B)

A sermon preached by the Rev. Elizabeth Raine at Tuggeranong Uniting Church on Sunday 7 November 2021

*****

We rejoin Ruth and Naomi in chapter 3, where Naomi takes the initiative to securethe future for herself and Ruth, a future that centres around Boaz as a potential husband for Ruth. Naomi issues detailed instructions to Ruth in regard to staging an encounter with Boaz at the threshing floor, a place with a poor reputation in Hebrew scritpure, where Boaz is working late.

Ruth is instructed to bathe, put onher best clothes, and apply perfume, all which signifies romantic intent. Despite the risk, Ruth dutifully obeys, informing Boaz when she accosts him on the threshing floor that she is “Ruth, your servant; spread your cloak over your servant, for you are next-of-kin.” ‘Spread your cloak’ is a Hebrew euhphenism for sexual intercourse, and Ruth is not only signifying her availability for marriage but her desire that Boaz carry out his duty as next of kin according to the Levirite law.

This law required the next of kin of a deceased husband to father a child for the deadman so that his lineage could continue. Boaz takes the hint, and tells Ruth that though there is a nearer next of kin, he will sort this out tomorrow with that closer family member.

In chapter 2 we noted a number of contrasts: male and female, foreigner and Israelite rich and poor, etc. In this chapter we also find contrasts. Boaz and Ruth had met during the day, in a public place, where the social custom for such encounters were maintained. Here they meet in private under the cover of darkness, and unrestrained by custom, their interaction is quite different. We are now in the private domain of women, signified by the night. Boaz’s prominence, riches and public profile are not as important here. It is both a time of danger and a time of potential promise and blessing.

Despite Ruth’s bold initiative, she and Naomi still live in a world that does not value its widowed women, and their fate rests in the hands of a man with wealth and status. Boaz needs now to fulfill his part of the plan in the public, male sphere of lifein chapter 4.

We now return to daylight and the male) domain. The focus shifts from Ruth to Boaz, and from the private to public sphere. Boaz is here to wait for the nearer next of kin, or goel. It is Boaz’s interests that dictate how the exchange between the two men will go, and we can tell this because the Hebrew passage here begins and ends with Boaz’s name. Further, despite the bible translation of ‘friend’, the other goel is called peloni almoni, Hebrew rhyming slang that basically means “old what’s his name”, or “Mr such and such”. Again we see the sense of humour of the author of this book at work.

Boaz is shown to have authority in this society as “Mr what’s his name” and the ten elders do what he tells them to. None of the men he addresses challenges his authority or his right to order them around.

In the ancient Hebrew world, decisions about law, property and finances were made at the town gates, where the men and elders would gather to discuss aspects of law and to enact judgment.

Boaz constructs an elaborate legal argument around an alleged piece of land we haven’t heard of before that Naomi apparently wants to sell. Her nearest kinsman has first right of refusal under Hebrew law. This begs the question: why did Naomi need Ruth to glean if she had land to redeem? Is Boaz resorting to an imaginery piece of land to cover his real aim – which is to acquire Ruth as a wife? It would certainly give him the legal cover he needs for such a proceeding – for even in this rather enlightened book, for someone of Boaz’s social standing to enter into marriage with a Moabite, a foreigner, would be risky if no legal duty is involved.

So while Boaz is apparently concerned with the noble duty of redeeming his kinswoman Naomi’s land, he can just slip in that Ruth is part of the deal as well. Mr “what’s his name” decide that the risk of redeeming the alleged land is too great to him, as if Ruth were to have a child that child could legally claim the land in the future, even if he had paid for it now. So he refuses, and Boaz is free to marry Ruth.

The outcome of this chapter presents a very different family picture from that in the first chapter. Life has replaced death, abundance has replaced famine, fullness of life and fertility has replaced emptiness and barrenness. Amidst the rejoicing of the community, God finally appears as an active character, causing Ruth to conceive a son to Boaz.

Despite this intervention of God, the story is not about divine manipulation or a system where God directly rewards and punishes. The important thing in this story is the role of human action and intervention. God’s grace is bestowed only when such action is taken by the people concerned, and when it concerns all people.

Ruth’s story ultimately has a happy ending because the community decide to accept and welcome her despite being a foreigner.

The book of Ruth challenges us to look more closely at our own cultural context, and how the poor and the foreigner are welcomed and provided for in our community. Even in a world where prosperity has become available for some on a ridiculous scale, many still die of starvation. Many flee countries where food supplies are insufficient, and where opression is rife.

It is clear that true community in our world is broken. Gleaning has been replaced by our welfare system, which is often inadequate to address the real issues facing the poor. If nothing else, the story of Ruth here should challenge us to work for cultural change, to transform the brokeness into a society where all are equally valued.

The little genealogy at the end probably strikes the modern reader as a rather oddaddition, but it has a special function. If further proof is needed by the reader of Ruth that God favours the inclusion of the foreigner, this is it. The gift of children was regarded as a sure sign that God’s blessing was resting upon a person. Ruth is the great grandmother of King David, the most famous of Israel’s kings in the biblical record. The genealogy shows that by accepting the foreigner, Israel goes on to beextraordinarily blessed.

Many generations later, some people in Israel became followers of the one whom they believed had been chosen by God to be the Messiah. They claimed that this man from Nazareth was a descendant of the great King David; this claim would be crucial to establishing his credentials amongst his Jewish contemporaries. And since the man from Nazareth was descended from David, he was also descended from Ruth, the Moabite and foreigner. Without this story of the refugee and the foreigner, who married across ethnic boundaries and became part of a new family, there would be no David – and thus, no Jesus.

From the simple act of welcoming and giving hospitality to the stranger and foreigner, and building a new life with new relationships and new hopes, new outcomes and consequences can happen that were never imagined at the outset.

 

 

Lead us, O God, 
in the way of Christ, the servant,
who opened his arms to the poor and the foreigner.

Lead us, O God, in the way of welcoming the stranger
caring for the neglected, feeding the hungry,
housing the homeless, and challenging the powerful,

Lead us, O God, 
in the foolish way of the Gospel,
which turns the world upside down to bring salvation to all.

Amen.

An island of peace and goodwill in the middle of a sea of wars, treachery, unfaithfulness and violence (Ruth 1–2; Pentecost 23B)

A sermon by the Rev. Elizabeth Raine, preached at Tuggeranong Uniting Church on Sunday 31 October 2021.

*****

The book of Ruth stands as an island of peace and goodwill in the middle of a sea of wars, treachery, unfaithfulness and violence, as characterised by the preceeding book of Judges, and the following books of Kings and Samuel which follow.

The central characters appear to care for each other, the community generally acts well towards each other, and God’s providence is made available to the most vulnerable in society. It tells the story of a remarkable woman, a foreigner who gave up everything to devote herself to her Israelite mother-in-law Naomi.

The author also has a good sense of humour. The names of Mahlon and Chilion, the two sons that die, which in the Hebrew mean “sickness” and “consumption” respectively. Naomi’s home city, Bethlehem, literally means “house of bread”. So we find at the start that Bethlehem, the “house of bread” was in the grip of a famine, and that Naomi’s husband has to go to Moab, a land where the people are specifically excluded from the congregation of Israel because they refused to give bread to the Israelites fleeing Egpyt.

So Bethlehem, the house of bread, is starving its people, and the land of Moab where food was withheld from the Israelites, now has plenty to share with them. This reversal of the expected puts the reader on notice that this is no ordinary book and no straightforward story.

Although the story is set “in the days when the judges ruled” (ca. 1200-1025 BCE), the date of Ruth’s composition is probably much later. The story’s frequent reminders that its heroine is not an Israelite provides the best clue, and the storyteller is suggesting that Boaz’s gracious treatment of a Moabite woman in this way is unusual. This insistence on an inclusive attitude toward foreigners suggests a composition date in the fifth century BCE, when the issue of intermarriage between the Israelites and non-Israelites had become extremely controversial.

This short story therefore is composed to remind a nationalistic and post-exilic people who are keen on eliminating “foreigners” and people of mixed heritage that their most fondly remembered king, David, was the great-grandson of a Moabite woman.

Ruth 1

In the first speech of the book, Naomi counts herself as among the dead – her husband and sons are dead and she may as well be dead herself. She now sees her worth measured solely by the ability to produce sons. With some irony on the part of the author, Naomi recommends that her 2 daughters in law find security in a husband’s house, apparently forgetting that the house of a husband to date has provided neither safety or security for any of them.

Ruth counters with a speech that is brief and to the point, and pledges a commitment and loyalty far beyond what is required. Few of us today can really appreciate how great this commitment really is. To abandon one’s ancestral homeland, family and gods in favour of those of a foreigner was an enormous risk, and acceptance by the new community was by no means assured. It meant learning new customs, preparing new foods, a new language and a new folklore. That Ruth is constantly referred to as a ‘Moabite’ suggests that she (and the narrator)  are aware that her ethnicity is an immense barrier to her full inclusion in the new community.

When we read this story, we forget that racism and nationalism were as rampant in ancient times as they are now. We may unconsciously view Judaism as the ‘right’ religion, and thus a natural and desirable course of action for Ruth. The truth is that inter-ethnic relationships were complex and often viewed very unfavourably by the ruling elite of Israel, as the books of Ezra and Nehemiah make very clear. For example, in chapter 9 of Ezra, the officials refer to the “abomination” of inter marriage with Moabites and other races, and state that this “pollutes” the holy seed of Israel. Integration was not easy; acceptance not guaranteed.

Naomi does not seem convinced by Ruth’s speech, but allows her to continue with her whilst the more obedient Orpah returns to her homeland. For Naomi to be burdened with even one Moabite woman in her homeland of Israel may have lowered her status as a poor widow further and stretched her already meagre means. In other words, where we are easily impressed with Ruth’s speech of devotion, it is questionable if Naomi was. The narrator merely states that seeing “how determined” Ruth was, Naomi “stopped speaking to her”. The rest of the journey is not mentioned, and no further conversation recorded.

Naomi’s final lament that she wants to be known as “Mara”, meaning bitterness, rather than Naomi, meaning sweetness, suggests that she is not yet grateful for Ruth’s exceptional gesture of solidarity and loyalty with her. She laments that she returns empty, her daughter in law’s devotion is ignored. 

It is also worthy of note that while Naomi is recognised by the women of Bethlehem, Ruth has been rendered invisible. Neither the townsfolk nor Naomi refer to her presence. The narrator alone makes reference to her, reminding us that not only is she Ruth the Moabite, but also Naomi’s daughter in law. 

Ruth 2

The first chapter of Ruth was intended to challenge the reader’s or hearer’s stereotypes about women, loyalties, and national origin by the use of humour and irony. The relationship of Naomi and Ruth is meant confront hearers about what they thought they knew and invites them to ask new questions that help them begin to rethink their view of “the world as it should be.” 

By this strategy and others that keep the hearer/reader guessing throughout the chapter, the book of Ruth has begun by turning expectations upside down and subverting the dominant world vision. 

Chapter 2 picks up the story of Ruth and Naomi as they settle into life at Bethlehem. Though the famine which drove Naomi and her family from Israel has ended, action is required so that food might be put on the table. Ruth therefore proposes that she go and glean in the fields. As a poor foreign widow, this is Ruth’s only means of survival, as gleaning was the main means of support for the poor in Israelite law. Up to this point, the story has been about two widowed women supporting each other.

Ruth’s industrious activities draw the attention of Boaz, the owner of the field in which she gleans. Despite being poor, female and a Moabite, Ruth finds favour in the eyes of Boaz, rich, male and Jewish. By strange coincidence, Boaz is the kinsman of Naomi. A good translation of his Hebrew name is ‘pillar of the community’.

On Boaz’ appearance, the Hebrew reader is likely to be asking some serious questions. Why isn’t he helping Naomi as Israelite familial duty would dictatehe should – especially seeing he is so upright in the community and so obviously rich? Why has she been left to fend for herself, facing deprivation and possible starvation? Why does Boaz only take an interest in Naomi’s fate after he sightedRuth?

The chapter has a lot of complex interplays going on, between foreigner and Israelite, male and female; old and young; rich and poor; powerful and powerless. The author subverts most of the prevailing stereotypes as the story progresses.

Ruth stated at the beginning of the chapter to Naomi that she hoped to ‘find favour’in someone’s eyes. “Finding favour” in the Hebrew Bible generally means that a woman is desirable in the eyes of men. Coupled with the pervasive Israelite belief that Moabite women were sexually immoral (Gen 19 and Numbers 25 allude to this), the author is stressing both Ruth’s vulnerability – and her desirability.

We turn now to Boaz. His first question is “To whom does this young woman belong?”, a most irrelevant question as far as his interests as a landowner are concerned. The author is communicating Boaz’s very keen interest in Ruth.

The foreman identifies Ruth as the young Moabite woman who returned with Naomi. There is a conversation between Ruth, and Boaz. She has fallen prostrate at his feet. Such deference is usually reserved for God. Ruth twice uses the phrase “found favour in your sight”, the phrase that indicates a love interest. Boaz evokes the name of the Lord. Apart from her speech in chapter one, Ruth shows no interest in the Lord, the God of Israel. Instead she makes it clear her fate is going to lie with Boaz, not the God of Israel.

This is emphasised by her saying that Boaz has ‘spoken to her heart’ (mistranslated as ‘spoken kindly’ by the NRSV), another phrase frequently used in the Hebrew bible to indicate a love interest. Ruth is signalling her availability and interest in Boaz, but she has also shown she will not be bullied into an inequitable relationship.

Back at home, Naomi undergoes quite a transformation in relation to Ruth when she sees the amount of grain Ruth has gleaned. Naomi is no fool either, andknows by the cooked food Ruth has given her, and by the huge amount of barley, that something unusual is afoot and that there is a man involved. Hence her first questions “Where did you glean today?” Where did you work?” are quickly followed by “Blessed be the man who took notice of you”. One does not come across large portions of cooked food or ephahs of grain in the normal course of gleaning.

Naomi’s response is to initially call down a blessing on Boaz, in a reference to herself and her late husband. Again, the discerning Hebrew reader must be wondering here why Boaz has failed to act for Naomi before this time. For the first time Naomi reveals the familial connection to Boaz, and calls him goel, or redeemer. This term indicates a close family member with an assigned role in family legal matters, usually financial. To date Boaz has proved a rather unreliable goel, and Naomi is quick to capitalise on his apparent interest in Ruth by warning her against gleaning in another field “lest she be bothered”. 

Despite being poor, female and a Moabite, Ruth has reversed the normal social order to find favour in the eyes of Boaz, rich, male and Israelite. The harvest scenes evoke themes of life and fertility that point towards blessings to come. But for the moment, life is still difficult, and the women’s future needs to be secured.

Despite Ruth’s resourcefulness, she and Naomi are still in a category of people whose well-being depends on the actions of others. The shortcomings of Israelite society that the book highlights challenge us to look more closely at our own cultural context, and how the poor and the foreigner are welcomed and provided for in our community.

Even in a world where prosperity has become available for some on a ridiculous scale, many still die of starvation. Many flee countries where food supplies are insufficient, and where opression is rife. It is clear that true community in our world is broken. While gleaning may be unknown to us, it has been replaced by our welfare system, which is often inadequate to address the real issues facing the poor.

If nothing else, the story of Ruth here should challenge us to work for cultural change, to a society where all are equally valued.

The author of Ruth is a political commentator of the times. He or she disagrees with the extreme nationalistic sentiments of Ezra and Nehemiah, and wants to offer another point of view, a point of view where personal qualities of faith, love and loyalty are placed ahead of race and country of origin. So be with us next week, as we see how this unfolds in the remaining two chapters.

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