This is a summary of the Act2 National Forum on “Our international partnerships and ecumenical relationships” held on 25 July 2023 featuring the following panelists:  

  • Dr Sureka Goringe (National Director, UnitingWorld) 
  • Rev Dr Apwee Ting (International Partnerships Manager, UnitingWorld) 
  • Rev Sharon Hollis (President, Uniting Church in Australia)
  • Rev Dr Seforosa Carroll (Lecturer – Cross Cultural Ministry and Theology, United Theological College Sydney)
  • Rev Dr Cliff Bird (Pacific academic, theologian and community leader, United Church of the Solomon Islands) 

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 2

Rev Erik Lennestål
Act2 Project & Research Officer 

One important marker of our Uniting Church in Australia is that we have always recognised that we are not all that there is to the church, rather, we affirm our place as part of the one holy catholic and apostolic church. There is also an inherent sense of incompleteness to a Church like ours. Just like our logo, the work of union is ongoing and incomplete. All of these realities are expressed in and through relationships and partnerships which go far beyond our own context and borders. We invited a panel of voices from across our Church, and one voice from an international partner church, to consider the shape, impact and future of our international partnerships and ecumenical relationships.   

“We have always recognised that we are not all that there is to the church, rather, we affirm our place as part of the one holy catholic and apostolic church.”

What international partnerships are we involved in?  

The Uniting Church in Australia is a relational Church, both internally in its interconciliarity as well as externally. The Basis of Union (Paragraph 2) also reaffirms our commitment to the World Council of Churches as well as to seek special relationships with Churches in Asia and the Pacific. UnitingWorld holds responsibility for 40 international partnerships with churches and councils of churches in Africa, Asia and the Pacific. These can involve sharing of resources and joint development projects or be oriented towards mutual recognition and exchange, or some combination of the two. In addition, the Uniting Church in Australia, more broadly, has formal partnership agreements with 24 global church denominations.

How do our international partnerships and relationships change us as a Church? 

The panel reflected on how these relationships help us realise our identity and stay connected to a broader vision beyond ourselves of what God is doing in the world. The relationships are part of a two-way exchange. For the Uniting Church in Australia, they:

  • bring the prophetic voice of our partners into our own work
  • allow us to be held accountable by our international partners (for instance, for how we live out our Covenant with First Nations people or for how we approach the challenges of climate change in our region)
  • teach us a great deal on many issues we too encounter (for instance, about how to be Christians in multicultural and multifaith environments
  • help us outwork what it means to be a multicultural Church. (On this, Rev Dr Apwee Ting emphasised how the Assembly decision of 1985 to affirm that we are a multicultural Church could be seen as a direct way in which our partners and diaspora communities have impacted our national identity).

Looking to the impact of the relationship upon a partner church, Rev Dr Cliff Bird spoke of the value of the relationship itself and, specifically what it has meant for gender equality theology and climate justice in the region, as well as the more practical sharing of policies and procedures, governance advice and child safety protocols.

Rev Dr Seforosa Carroll traced some of our partnerships in the Pacific as being characterised by movements of decolonising, deconstructing and reconstructing: raising up voices from the margins, challenging existing systems and structures and rebuilding a more just, equal and inclusive church. She highlighted the significant contributions our Church has made especially in the area of the ordination of women in the region.

What does it mean to be a part of the Uniting ‘family’ of churches and how do we cultivate our relationships with other such churches around the world? 

The President acknowledged that we have not always been able to make the most of our historic connections with the Western Church and our northern hemisphere counterparts. Drawing on the ‘parent traditions’ of those churches that came into union, the Uniting Church continues to maintain membership of multiple confessional bodies in the broad Reformed and Methodist traditions, such as the World Methodist Council (WMC) and the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC). In addition, in more recent years, some momentum has been building to come together in a variety of settings with other churches that are also United or Uniting as ourselves. Time and resourcing constraints, as well as our geographical location, make the practical outworking of these multiple relationships somewhat challenging. There is also at times a degree of tension between our location within those, still ongoing, historical traditions, while still exploring our new and emerging, uniting identity. In all of this, it is clear that we do need the perspectives of other United and Uniting church partners who can help us see ourselves differently. Dr Sureka Goringe, drawing upon insights from an Asian partner church, contributed a partner perspective of the significance of being a Uniting Church: ‘What ties us to you is that you value Christian unity above a perception of doctrinal purity’.

“[Entering into a relationship with you as a Uniting Church], what ties us to you is that you value Christian unity above a perception of doctrinal purity.”

What do our international ties to ecumenical bodies like the World Council of Churches mean to us?  

Dr Seforosa Carroll reflected on the two-way exchange that is enabled through an international ecumenical body like the World Council of Churches (WCC). Through this vehicle, our Church is able to make a meaningful contribution to world Christianity and amplify the voices of the global south to the global north. In doing so, we can also, give expression to our ongoing commitment to the faith and unity of the one holy catholic and apostolic church as the binding marks of the Christian tradition and our rich ecumenical history. It also allows us to contribute to the visible unity of Christians everywhere. This, in and of itself, also becomes a valuable safeguard against myopia and anchors us in a much broader tradition of ‘a church reformed, always reforming’, constantly encouraging us to re-evaluate in dialogue and exchange with other Christians. This exchange also has the potential to enable collective, transformative action. In addition to the WCC, other bodies such as the Council for World Mission and the emerging Global Christian Forum (GCF) were also mentioned as useful and productive relationships for our Church and our partners.

What are the future opportunities and potential for our international partnerships and ecumenical relationships?  

“Only do apart that which you cannot do together.”

The President emphasised the centrality and necessity of collaboration, drawing upon the Lund principle of ‘only do apart that which you cannot do together’. This is one way the church can free up resources, be more interconnected, freer and more transformative into the future. UnitingWorld representatives appealed for us to be brave enough to embrace difference and to let the diversity of our international partnerships enrich us, and with that, dare to trust our partners to an even greater extent. Rev Dr Bird, adding the perspective of the United Church of the Solomon Islands, dared to dream of a future where ecumenism was no longer just driven by the leaders of churches and denominations, but by the grassroots of our churches, dreaming specifically that our Pacific partnerships might also lead to direct action in support of Pacific workers in Australia under the PALM scheme. Both Dr Sureka Goringe and Rev Dr Seforosa Carroll concluded the session with an impassioned plea to raise up and develop the next generation of ecumenical leaders who, like those at Union, will be daring enough to believe that Christian unity and collaboration across borders can continue to be a force field that can make a difference in the future of the Uniting Church.