This is a summary of the Act2 National Forum on “Our national voice in the public square” held on 19 July 2023 featuring the following panelists:  

  • Claerwen Little (National Director, UnitingCare Australia) 
  • Rev Sharon Hollis (President, Uniting Church in Australia) 
  • Rev Alex Sangster (Advocate, Assembly Working for Justice Circle)
  • Mark Zirnsak (Senior Social Justice Advocate, Synod of Victoria and Tasmania) 

The National Forums are a key engagement as part of Workstream 2: National Identity of the Act2 Project. The key question we are seeking to answer in this workstream is “What is most valuable about being a national church and how do we resource it?”

Reflection on Forum 1

Rev Erik Lennestål
Act2 Project & Research Officer 

As Act2 has engaged widely across the breadth of the Church, it is clear that the Uniting Church values justice and recognises it as an integral part of Christian discipleship. Many of our people value the church’s courage to advocate for justice and raise a Christian voice with a difference in the public arena. Our voice as a Church is not best thought of as a soloist performance but rather as a choir of many voices from across the whole Uniting Church. We brought together four voices drawn from across the Church to reflect further on our church’s national voice in the public square.  

“Our voice as a Church is not best thought of as a soloist performance but rather as a choir of many voices from across the whole Uniting Church.”

What is the role of the national voice of the Uniting Church in Australia today?  

The panel affirmed our Church’s long-standing commitment to being in the public square, which includes engaging in matters of civil society, advocacy, stimulating theological reflection on contemporary issues and speaking out on issues of importance to our Church and the world.  

Decisions and commitments of our councils, including the Assembly, have set the tone for our involvement in this space, including:   

Every council of the Church is authorised to speak out concerning issues related to their context and responsibilities. Mark Zirnsak pointed out that each Synod, for instance, may adopt its own contextual resolutions, while also recognising the decisions of the Assembly. He also emphasised the need for intentional and strategic priorities driving this work for it to be most effective, or as Claerwen Little contributed: “grounded locally but poised nationally.” Rev Alex Sangster added that, although such strategic coordination is important, this does not absolve congregations and individuals from their own responsibilities. Every Christian disciple is called to be a storyteller, a true neighbour, and an advocate on behalf of the voiceless and conveniently silenced. 

“Every Christian disciple is called to be a storyteller and an advocate!”

Alongside the role of the President giving voice to the decisions of the Assembly, advocacy is a particular focus – and natural extension – of the work of our national agencies. Claerwen Little reflected that it is through the work of our agencies that we as a Church can truly bring the lived experience to the public debate. When we add to this relevant expertise, a body of evidence and quality research outputs, we can be equipped to speak up and make a difference. It is also our large service delivery footprint which grounds and lends legitimacy to our voice. The President highlighted the role of other Assembly agencies, including UnitingWorld, particularly in the area of international aid and development, and Frontier Services, in the issues facing rural and remote Australia. In many cases it is our network of relationships and our connection to lived experience of injustice which shape our national voice in the public square.  

“It is through the work of our agencies that we can bring the lived experience to the public debate.”

The President challenged us to think about spaces where our public voice is needed in a particular way. It was widely acknowledged by participants this work will take societal and political expression. In a quote borrowed from the Moderator of the World Council of Churches, the President affirmed: “How can we not become political if political decisions are the only way to overcome suffering?” This is also what it means to be true to our prophetic calling to speak truth to power, even when at times we are not quite sure if anyone is listening or if circumstances will ever change. 

“How can we not become political if political decisions are the only way to overcome suffering?”

How has the public voice of the Uniting Church in Australia changed over time? 

Reflecting on this question, much of the discussion highlighted the changing and more marginal place of the Church and Christianity within broader society. The church universal has long believed it has had a legitimate calling and mandate to speak in the public square. In our day and age, however, the church can no longer take this opportunity for granted. Additionally, various public inquiries have legitimately demonstrated the failings of the church. All of this contributes to a new reality where the church needs to earn its space and right to speak when engaging in public dialogue.  

At the same time, the Church’s own internal environment has changed.  There has been tremendous growth in the work done by church agencies. Claerwen Little described the evolution of the Church’s agencies as “a thousand flowers blooming”, offering a plea not to shrink back but to remember who we all can be together.  

What are the future opportunities and possibilities for our Church to continue to have a voice in the public square?  

All agreed that greater coordination was needed to enhance the Church’s voice and role in the public square. Recognition of work across the life of the Church could help reduce duplication and strengthen our voice in an increasingly saturated external environment. Claerwen Little said that the Uniting Church could indeed have a strong voice nationally in the public square, but only if we remained committed to strategically resource this nationally through advocacy, research, policy development and theological reflection. 

Other future opportunities discussed were: 

  • Working more with networks such as other Christian groups, faith-based organisations, international partners and wider civil society to have our voice heard.  
  • Cultivating intentional centres of public theology to encourage theological reflection and action.  
  • Foster more seamless sharing of information and relevant opportunities for involvement across the whole Church.   
  • Develop tools and resources to educate and equip our people to engage in public debate and person-to-person advocacy on issues of particular importance to the Church and their own contexts. 

Rev Alex Sangster concluded the evening with a question to every community of faith: Why do we need to be here? Responding creatively to that call will strengthen our voice in the public square and could take very concrete and sometimes unexpected expression through our Christian discipleship locally. You may find your church’s public square could be your own front yard!