Forum Summary

This is a summary of the Act2 National Forum on Our National Theological Culture held on 10 October 2023 featuring the following panellists:

  • Rev Dr Geoff Thompson (Coordinator of Studies – Systematic Theology, Pilgrim Theological College)
  • Rev Dr Tim Hein (Executive Officer of Mission & Leadership Development, Synod of South Australia)
  • Rev Dr Michelle Cook (Uniting Church Minister, in placement at Nungalinya College)
  • Rev Rev Maratja Dhamarrandji (Northern Regional Council of Congress)

The National Forums are a key engagement within 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?”

For this national forum, we gathered a panel of theologians to consider the current shape and future of the Uniting Church’s theological culture. What is the role of the national Church in shaping and responding to our theological culture? How does this connect with the Assembly’s explicit responsibilities in relation to doctrine, worship, theological education and ministry formation? What institutions, practices and texts are needed to cultivate a vibrant theological culture?

The panellists named some of the key things at stake in this conversation:

  • In the rich diversity of the Uniting Church’s theological culture it is important to encourage deep mixing of our different perspectives
  • Broadening our conversation about theological culture beyond theological education and ministry formation
  • How theological conversations are made accessible to and enhance the discipleship of people in local communities
  • Addressing the gaps between the lived experience of local communities and ‘scholarly’ theological work
  • Deep discernment about the connection between faith and culture, arising from our Covenant with Congress and culturally diverse Church

The panel worked with a broad understanding of theology and its purpose. Theology is the shared imagination which discerns our vision of God, Christ, the world, salvation and the church. It is not a body of knowledge or a tool for the vocation of ministry but a wisdom into which the whole people of God can live and out of which emerges our liturgy, proclamation, discipleship and ethics. Theological work is spiritual and prayerful.

Our capacity to grow into this broad vision has to some extent been impeded or limited by a legacy of tightly tying theological work to theological education and ministry formation. Although this connection is necessary, it has sometimes narrowed the scope and type of our theology and the communities taking part.

Further, deeper conversations about our theological culture have often remained underground until we have needed to state our theology in the context of a polarising issue. This is not fruitful ground for extended theological reflection and can take us away from a broader vision of theological work and its purpose.

One of the challenges or weaknesses in our theological culture is a perceived gap between ‘formal’ or scholarly theological work and the lived experience of people in local communities and congregations. There is a real question about whether people in these communities find broader theological conversations relevant and how they are able to connect them with their own faith formation and discipleship practice. Although they may receive the ‘positions’ of the Church, these positions are often the tip of the iceberg with highly developed bodies of theological work lying beneath. 

How can we pass on the statements, commitments and decisions of the Church in a way that their vision can also be received and cultivated? How can we invest in the cultural work that allows these commitments to penetrate the heart, mind and soul of our communities? How do we direct our energies into the resources congregations need? How do we allow theology that arises from the grassroots to shape the broader theological conversation?

As well as sharpening our understanding of what resources are needed, we may need new ways of communicating. Rather than overproduce resources, we need strategies and partnerships with other councils to cultivate meaningfully theological conversations across the Church. 

Some other contours of this conversation

  • There are some in the Uniting Church who feel marginalised from our theological culture. This may be more than differences in theological position but also because of differences in theological language, focus or style. Other criticisms are that it can be too parochial, and that it tends to function in a certain academic register that can exclude other forms of deep thinking (such as storytelling).
  • Are we equipping ministers to work in the different ‘registers’ of theology? How do we assist ministers and our other leaders to navigate communally agreed, scholarly and ordinary theology. This relates to ministry formation and the particular role of ministers in articulating the faith and identity of the Church.
  • Fostering theologically generative communities, beyond the theological colleges, who work in the register of ordinary theology could be part of the future of our theological culture.

The role of the national church

The role of the national Church, and particularly the Assembly, is distinctive and inter-connected with the role of other parts of the Church. A few key emerging themes about its role:

  • Keep us connected theologically to the church catholic through ecumenical work and international partnerships. These relationships can involve both theological accountability and challenge which grows, sharpens and requires us to draw on a theological culture. This is a guard against a theological parochialism and maintains our essential character as an ecumenical church.
  • Offer clear and useful theological signposts and categories through its responsibility for doctrine, worship and national policy. Rather than being a limiting thing, the purpose of these is to ensure we remain as broad a church as we can be. Where we do lay down doctrinal signposts we should continue to live into and explore their implications for our life.
  • Equip congregations with relevant resources in diverse forms and styles for faith formation and discipleship that have theological depth, articulated in an accessible register and form that speak to the distinctive theological culture of the Uniting Church.
  • Use its convening role to create opportunities for shared theological work and discernment where the different registers of theology can meet and mix and keep aware of each other. Encouraging conversations across our diverse contexts which reflect common theological questions.
  • Foster an inspiring theological vision across the life of the Church which is grounded in our unity in Jesus Christ and which will be compelling in a world of competing visions. This vision should be unafraid to engage with culture and context including the contemporary and the popular.
  • Making sure that ministry formation including standards for ministry is about the wholistic craft of ministry and relevant to the context of ministry today. Also, while there was a diversity of perspectives on how to best provide theological education nationally, there is a role for the national Church to foster new approaches to education that cross traditional geographic and theological boundaries.