Charisms and Theological Culture within the Uniting Church in Australia: An Assembly Act2 Reflection


Rev Ben Gilmour

About the Author

Rev Ben Gilmour is the Director Vital Ledership in the Synod of NSW and the ACT.


‘Charisms’ refer to distinct gifts or missions that Christian communities embrace and organise their life around. Could we, as a church, identify and embrace our unique charisms in this Act2 project? The origin of Charism is God, as God’s animating gifting in and through us. Ideally, the Uniting Church’s theological culture should represent these charisms. And I am keen to include this framework in our thinking alongside theological culture in this paper, and the ongoing consultations of the Act2 project.

The question I have is whether the Uniting Church in Australia even has a theological culture in any way that is uniform or can be articulated so clearly. It reflects many theologically informed positions among its ministers, not only from Union Churches but from the large number of ministers of other Christian traditions amongst us and as a consequence of our ecumenical posture and inclusivity of various traditions. Is it even possible to discern a collective theological culture, a collective charism? If it is possible, such potential charism may emerge in the Assembly’s gathering in council and discernment, which, though occasionally contested by other councils of the church, is a place dedicated to discerning God’s way together as an Australian Church.

To understand theological culture (and our Charisms), one needs to probe certain artifacts: the depths of biblical and theological wisdom within our tradition. In this case, then, it could be reflected in the Uniting Church Symbol, the Basis of Union, Statement to the Nation, consensus decision-making and inter-conciliar discernment. Further to this, the decisions of the Assembly then do speak into this named wisdom, with our covenant with the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress (UAICC), our acknowledgment of First Nations’ sovereignty, our embrace of women in ministry, or our stances on leadership, sexuality, and marriage. Our commitment to social justice, our dedication to multiculturalism and cross-cultural engagement with a view to becoming more intercultural, and our ecumenical generous approach are also reflections of our theologically informed culture. These are reflections of the intertwined dialogue and discernment that informs our theological culture, grounded in Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience, and may speak of our unique Charisms as a national church.

A special focus is needed, however, on Congregational life (and local ministry practice) and what that says about our Charisms as a “tribe of tribes”. In comparison, the theological voice of the ordained has a significant place in their commitment to the whole of life and the whole of church ministry in and with local contexts, informing discipleship, ministry, and mission. Alongside this are the empowered lay members of the Uniting Church actively engaged in discipleship, ministry, and mission, shaping theological leadership within their cultures and practices in their contexts.

Data from the National Church Life Survey suggests that in the Uniting Church, sermons, preaching, and teachings are highly valued. Worship services, community growth, practical actions of care, and spiritual development are also valued highly. We can’t ignore that this also speaks to not only what is valued, but something of what is animated in our Congregational life. These things are not just the domain of the ordained, but of the whole people of God, and as such are collaborative and discerning places of theological culture expressing unique charisms.

As a “tribe of tribes,” our diverse expressions reveal a rich tapestry of cultures of theological reflection and practice. Some examples of these charisms at work can be seen through pioneering ministries like Lifeline, community gardens, refugee advocacy, pastoral care networks, afterschool kids’ programs, men’s sheds, small discussion groups, creative liturgies and songs, and the list goes on and on.

While the Uniting Church stood as a new entity in 1977, the echoes of its forming traditions continue to inform its Charisms – the Methodist and Reformed (including Congregational) – still resonate vibrantly within its theological cultures. These traditions, each with its distinct theological posture, have indelibly influenced the Uniting Church’s theological discourse to this day.

Methodist Influence: The Methodist tradition, known for its emphasis on personal faith, evangelism, and social action, often promotes the idea of “fresh words and deeds.” This suggests a continuous revitalisation of the faith, ensuring it remains contextual and dynamic with fresh and new awareness and bold transformational action for the common good of God’s mission. Within the Uniting Church, we can see this Methodist posture in the emphasis on grassroots and practical sharing and witnessing of the faith, social action, lay leadership, and the importance placed on personal spiritual growth.

Reformed Influence: On the other hand, the Reformed tradition often stresses the understanding of human fallibility and the transformative grace of God in Christ. This perspective often has a prophetic voice to it, challenging both the church and society to recognise their brokenness and injustices and lean into the grace of God in Christ. Within the Uniting Church, this voice encourages introspection, theological depth, and a commitment to justice, reflecting the Reformed emphasis on God’s sovereignty and human responsibility.

Furthermore, the non-conformist streak is also reflected in the strands of Union, which is evident in the Uniting Church’s approach to power and shared life and discernment in all matters. This is particularly noticeable in the Uniting Church’s often independent affirming stance, emphasising liberty of conscience before God to not be crushed by institutional power or groupthink (the power of the blue card) but to be heard with the whole. I wonder if this is one reason why there are always creative tensions within and between the councils of the church. I also think this is a charism, a way of being that reflects something of Christ’s love and God’s mercy for all.

While some say that the Uniting Church was an ecumenical experiment that has had its season, I view that our movement is not just a social movement but a tribe that is of God’s work. Though I was born in the post-union era in 1977, spent my early years in the Uniting Church, had a season with the Anglicans, I came back to the Uniting Church in ministry. I appreciate both the inclusive and open posture to learn and grow into whatever God is calling us to. This is a theological posture and culture informed by eschatological hope.

I have great hope for the Uniting Church; while we are facing a demographic hump in that the builders and boomers generations are aging, we do have a solid next-generational stream following, all be it much more intercultural, and we won’t be the size we were. I take some comfort that our sister traditions, the United Church of Canada, the largest Christian tradition in Canada, and the United Methodists representing the second biggest denomination in the USA, both reflect a high commitment to contextual ministry practice, which we share. The Charisms that God has gifted in the Uniting Church in Australia, I believe still have a long way to go, for generations and generations to come in our Australian context. I am deeply encouraged by the next generations and the gift of God in them.

Amidst these legacies and complexities, another distinct Charism of the Uniting Church I see in action and as an aspiration may be its unyielding commitment to a resilient relationality in and with Christ, each other, and all creation. There is a strong sense of connectedness in our tribe despite our differences. Even when we are less than kind to each other or have miss understandings of each other. This commitment is not just a theological stance but a lived practice, possibly evident in why the consensus model of decision-making works for us. This approach, though challenging at times, represents the Uniting Church’s dedication to journeying together, navigating disagreements, and seeking God’s way as good news for the community and all creation in Christ, as a pilgrim people. This can only be a gift of God, a Charism that is also reflected in our name as the Uniting Church.