Rev Dr Sarah Agnew

About the Author

Living on Kaurna Land, Sarah is Minister in placement with Christ Church Uniting, Wayville, in the Presbytery of Southern SA, and is Adjunct Faculty, teaching Biblical Studies, at Uniting College for Leadership and Theology. Sarah has previously served in placement in Adelaide and Canberra, and lived in Scotland for three years while undertaking a PhD from the University of Edinburgh. Sarah has published her doctoral work, liturgy, and many volumes of poetry, which you can find out about


A thread runs through the Church, through the theological culture of the Uniting Church, that is assumed but rarely discussed. We assume the Uniting Church in Australia will have ordained Ministers of the Word and Deacons, but how many members of our Church can articulate why we have ordained Ministers of the Word and Deacons?

And yet.

We—the Church and its members—look to our clergy.

We look to our clergy to turn up to events, validating the importance of this cause, that group, a new endeavour. Why? What does an ordained person bring that others do not?

We look to our clergy to turn up to our hospital bedside when serious illness strikes, or death is upon us. Why? When friends, elders, pastoral carers, volunteer visitors are present, is the ordained presence so sought?

We look to our clergy to guide us in our important moments, the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist; weddings and funerals, beginnings and endings. Why? When anyone can conduct a funeral, and in some traditions anyone can baptise or preside at communion—why do we in the Uniting Church give those roles to a set apart few?

We look to our clergy.

And there, perhaps, is the clue to why we have ordained Ministers and Deacons. We are here to be seen. To be present. As much as a thread running through, another image might be that we are here to hold a frame for the church. To hold a frame that contains part window, part mirror, through which we, the body of Christ, see the Sacred, and how we are living into the Sacred’s calling together.

Let me break that down to frame, window, mirror, and body.

The frame is like the chords of a jazz piece, setting the tempo, the rhythm, the key, the central melody around which the band and its members play their interpretation, offer their gifts, keep the Song dynamically alive and evolving. The frame for the Body of Christ is the Sacred Story held in Old Testament/Hebrew Bible and New Testament, creeds, writings, rituals, practices, shared across the Christian Church (and some of the Story with other faiths). This frame is dynamically reshaped by continuing reflection; and it has nuanced expression in our particular embodiment as the Uniting Church, and within it in each community of faith.

The window is like any window, not there to be seen for itself, but for what it invites and enables the viewer to see. This window, in this frame, invites us to behold the Divine, with whose Story, whose Way, whose Love we the Body and its members choose to align ourselves for thriving, healthy life. Through this window we seek to behold God, Source of all life, to whom our living as the Body, or Church, bears witness.

The mirror is like any mirror, not there to be seen for itself, but for what it invites and enables the viewer to see: ourselves. We look in this mirror to reflect on how we are in Body; to see areas of strength and celebrate them; to acknowledge areas needing healing and holding potential for growth, and to nurture it. We look in this mirror hoping to see reflected back the Divine we behold through the mirror-window, and to whom we are called to point with our living.

The Body. We celebrate as the Uniting Church that the Body of Christ in our particular embodiment is a pilgrim people always on the way; is a priesthood of all believers. We celebrate that a body, an ecosystem, is stronger and healthier when it contains diversity, difference, distinctions between its members.

We are the Body: not I am the Body, each one. We are the Body of Christ: through the frame and the window we attend to the Wisdom-Word in whom we find our identity; in the mirror, we attend to our collective enacting of a Christ-like Way, faithful and flawed.

We are the Body of Christ: it is important to our collective being that we are, together, turning and returning to his teaching, in order to bear faithful, courageous witness to Jesus’ counter-cultural Way of hope, justice, peace. It is a Body, a Church, called to enact and bear witness to, through our collective actions in the world, God’s Dream for all life to be whole, healed, thriving.

We take this calling seriously enough that we set aside a few members to specifically pay attention to the frame, the window, the mirror, and keep them upright for the sake of a healthy, thriving Body. From time to time, others join in the holding of the frame, the window, the mirror. In nuanced hard-to-describe ways, we all hold the frame, the window, the mirror, laity differently to, and together with, the ordained.

And we, the church, do ask a few to dedicate their lives and their beings to this role among us; for life. It is a different calling; it is a distinct posture. In some barely understood or articulated way, this is why we look to our clergy—because we need to know we have such a thread, such a stabilising, enabling, presence.

Do we avoid talking about why we have ordained ones among us because we are uncomfortable with how close we skate to setting some above all others with this ‘setting apart’? In Australia, we do resist ‘tall poppies’, don’t we? Perhaps more influential, the understanding of a priesthood of all believers, of lay service and leadership, is core to the Uniting Church way of being (as in other traditions, such as the Mennonite Church—see this article, for example).

Clergy ourselves may be so influenced by the importance of lay leadership that we rarely wear an alb or stole, let alone a collar, not wanting to accentuate the distinction of clergy and seem to be dismissing the laity. We do not want to be seen to be putting ourselves above; we do not want to be seen to be ‘different’; we do not want to be seen. But that is to risk undermining our very reason for being ordained, as I have identified it: to be seen.

Not to be seen as being above, or as better, or even as exemplars of the disciples we’re all called to be. But seen, like the window and the mirror, who show the viewer something else more clearly. To be, then, not so much seen, but looked to for what does need to be seen: the Holy, and the Holy embodied.

And when you look at any one clergy person, you are not only looking to that one person: you are looking to the whole clergy strand within the priesthood of all believers. And this strand exists in order that the other strands, and the Body as a whole, may be seen, for self-reflection and nurture as a Body bearing witness to the God in whom we have our life and identity as God’s church.

While most members of the church community are sent into the world and various callings, occupations, and vocations, to bear witness to the Divine where they are, someone needs to remain behind to care for the Body and its members. To ensure care and nurture of the Body happens—so, also drawing in members from their other occupations for different times and seasons—but a dedicated order committed to holding the frame with and for the Body, so that it will always be held.

The window will always be open onto the Divine and the Sacred Story; the mirror will always be cleaned for clear and honest self-reflection; the Body will always be supported in its faithful, courageous, embodying and enacting of the God’s Dream in the world.

There is a thread that runs through our church and its culture. It is a thread of presence, a dedicated order of two ordained ministries, called to pay attention, to stand together and with the whole body, nurturing our wellbeing as a Body.

Why do we have clergy in the Uniting Church in Australia? As an order, to be an enduring presence holding the frame, the window, the mirror, with comfort, challenge, and encouragement, in support of thriving life for our particular embodiment of the Body of Christ.