To what extent is there continuity and discontinuity within our Church of the traditions of those churches that came into Union?


Meredith Yabsley

About the Author

Meredith Yabsley is a member of the Kiama Jamberoo Uniting Church, a member of the Illawarra Presbytery, and a Lay Preacher and authorised Lay Presider. She has held several volunteer leadership roles in Synod and Uniting Boards. Several years ago, she retired from a 40 year career in teaching, first with primary school children and then in vocational education to adults. Currently, she is pursuing a PhD research project into interconciliarity in the Uniting Church in Australia, with particular focus on rural congregations within rural presbyteries. She lives in Kiama with her husband, Ian, and has three grown children and seven grandchildren.



The observations referred to in this reflective paper come from a current PhD thesis research project; “Interconciliarity in the Uniting Church in Australia: perceptions, expectations and implications for leadership, governance and sustainability in the rural church”.

The project is qualitative research using ethnographic methodology. It is both inductive and interpretive, listening to the stories of how church leaders, in rural congregations, within rural and regional presbyteries, govern within their respective congregations and presbyteries. This project was approved by the Faculty of Science at Charles Sturt University in May 2021 and received Ethics approval from the CSU Human Research Ethics Committee (HREC), in May 2022.

At this stage of the project, initial interviews and observations from a number of congregations and presbyteries has been conducted. As well, a two-question written survey has been offered in various councils within the Synod of NSW/ACT. This information, together with transcripts from interviews, is being collated for analysis.


This reflection comes from a current research PhD thesis on interconciliarity, through the lens of rural churches in rural or regional presbyteries of the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA, Uniting Church) within the Synod of NSW/ACT. As part of this ongoing research, I continue to attend many council meetings, particularly congregation and presbytery councils, as well as associated worship services. My foremost conclusion is that, across those councils, there is diversity in leadership and governance practices, there is diversity in worship and service styles, and there is diversity in leadership capacity across congregations and presbyteries. While comparing one council to another, this diversity is obvious, but within the confines of what was observed within each council, each demonstrated that it holds itself willingly, accountable and faithful1 to the work for which it assumes responsibility i.e. the role of congregation or presbyter councils as outlined in the UCA regulations.

While there are multiple impacts from heightened accountabilities and legislative and regulatory responsibilities applied by governing bodies within the church and government, what is clear is that poor resourcing over time, loss of access to specified ministries and declining capability amongst members, are the most striking. Gradual withdrawal of paid workers in specified ministry and a waning UCA presence across those mostly rural areas seems directly related to the income of ageing and declining congregations. This is occurring at the same time as these same congregations face increased local demand for social and community services and partnerships within communities, together with increased running costs, often associated with ageing building stock that is not always fit for purpose.

Rural churches have been struggling with these impacts for many years, as well as with the increasing dependence on voluntary or unpaid roles in ministry and office bearers. Local presbyteries have done much the same. Those who have been willing, in the past, may no longer be capable of continuing in leadership roles. Those currently serving in this way have realised this may become true for them as well (Merrifield, 2019; Suter, 2014). Neither of these points is original or unknown within the life of the Uniting Church, and especially rural and remote churches. However, it is doubtful that the significant loss of specified ministry together with ageing volunteer leaders was foreseen, or planned for, at the time of union. This represents a clear discontinuity of the tradition of one minister in each placement, for those churches which came into union (Emilsens, 1997; “Marking Twenty Years,” 1997; McCaughey, 1997; Pitman, 2017; Thompson, 2008).


During this project, nearly forty church leaders in rural churches within rural presbyteries, in the Synod of NSW/ACT, agreed to an individual interview. It has been a pleasure and a privilege to observe, listen, question and converse with each participant, in their own church setting. Offering findings or suggesting possible outcomes is premature at this stage of the research, but what is clear from initial impressions is that church leaders with a strong background a/nd long history in the antecedent churches hold on to a sense of who they are because of what they were. These reminders of the past history include the names of churches e.g. St Andrew’s or Wesley Centre, as well as internal church layouts and fittings, (including still hanging national flags near the sanctuary), and even the names of activities within congregations like Ladies Fellowship or Guild. Other observed examples include communion practices, hymn tune choices or even the advertised times for worship services (9 am in regional city locations and 11am in rural centres, where ministers often travelled significant distances to get to church), hinted that the congregations held onto remnants of what was.

There is an obvious contrast in that newer church leaders—drawn into the Uniting Church through its local presence and activities, advocacy, social justice or genuine hospitality—often have little or no understanding of what came before the Uniting Church. This was particularly so if those members have had little or no training as Uniting Church leaders, as had around 70% of respondents. With no knowledge of what came before, these leaders and the congregations themselves seemed freer to promote or accept changes in liturgical practices. They seemed less anxious about changes in physical layouts, (e.g., furniture and fittings), or even to changed locations (worshipping in a hall with air-conditioning rather than a cold church or chapel), or being more dynamic about moving into the community, (e.g., conducting Christmas Eve services in the town park).

A recent interview revealed that one small, rural congregation had seen a significant increase in membership in the past twelve months. Many of those new members were from other denominations, primarily due to closures of the local Church of Christ, Assemblies of God/Australian Christian Churches and Roman Catholic congregations. One new member was offered and accepted communion for the first time, having previously been involved with the Salvation Army. Where new members come to the Uniting Church, it was clear that they have brought canon, worship practices and styles with them. For several there was an assumption that all Christian denominations always do the same thing in the same way.

Worship practices: a case study for continuity and discontinuity in the Uniting Church.

Communion and Baptism

In my time presiding and participating in communion, I have observed the Uniting Church serving communion to members in a variety of ways, including those examples listed below:

  • small cubes or chunks of bread with cups of juice
  • torn chunks of bread dipped in juice
  • gluten free crackers with juice or wine
  • bread with a communal cup (pre-Covid)
  • communion being served in the pews
  • coming forward to receive the elements
  • Clergy presider
  • Lay presider

Across all observed Uniting Churches, only two communion services were observed. Each seemed to use familiar local practice. These practices are probably used regularly and accepted by the congregation, as there were no instructions offered by the presider. And while everyone appeared to know what to do and was comfortable with how communion was offered, it was not helpful to any visitors. This, however, allowed congregations to continue with a communion style, with only minor variations to local customs. There was no use of a single loaf and communal cup, and while it may well be a hangover from the recent Covid pandemic, communion preparation included small cubes of bread on a plate, with small glasses of juice in racks.

It was also observed that some observed former Methodist churches had removed kneeling steps and rails from the sanctuary, perhaps to allow for a larger worship space for a band or choir. As a result, communion practices may have been altered, almost by necessity. However, a small number of participating rural Uniting Churches were seeing people come to them from other traditions, where practices of receiving communion were also different. This would be especially so for those who experienced communion more or less frequently than monthly, which seems to be a widely accepted Uniting Church practice (Worship, 2005).

Communion is a church practice without community parity, especially for those attending church with no background in any church at all. While frequency or methods of practice may or may not be an issue, newer members who then found themselves as church leaders, particularly in lay led congregations, were not always clear as to why the Uniting Church does what it does. No one spoke of attending any confirmation or membership training.

Through the research, it was clear that habit-driven practices meant that many practices remained relatively stationary, particularly where congregations are lay led and there had been limited or no training available for leaders. For some, there is a risk that these practices may become routine or even meaningless. While in others it was mentioned that some members stay away on communion Sundays, especially in winter, because it’s always a longer service. Most congregations had moved their baptismal fonts to the rear of the sanctuary or out of sight completely.

Sacred spaces

The use of decoration, liturgical colours, banners, or candles in worship services appears to be a growing trend across the UCA. This is interesting as none of the churches which came into union regularly used colours or candles as part of their liturgy. Over time I have seen candles used as prayer liturgy during Advent, Tenebrae services, for remembrance during a healing or Blue Christmas service, or when celebrating a baptism. Use of liturgical colours on tables or draped over a cross in the sanctuary and banners hung in prominence are used in many Uniting Churches,3 but not as frequently in the observed churches, particularly in lay led congregations.4

Wider church experience or influence from trained ministry leaders may have given congregation members confidence to explore new liturgical practices, that is exploring new ways of drawing people into the sacred spaces, including worship. Congregations which remain deeply rooted in their antecedent denomination and are largely lay led, seemed to lack encouragement and support to vary their sacred spaces5. Use of candles, liturgical colours, banners and thematic artwork were especially visible in congregations which had access to ordained or trained leadership, including visiting, supply or retired ministers and pastors, presbytery ministers and educators from Uniting Mission and Education (UME). It felt like those congregations with a broader range of leadership experience had ‘permission’ to step out and try something new, to experiment and accentuate their sacred spaces, while it felt that the others were not that comfortable to try something different.

Sacred sounds

Hymns, choruses, songs and sacred music all add atmosphere and engagement for congregations and yet in many of the observed services, music proved to be somewhat underwhelming, even disappointing. While not judging the music itself, the manner of presentation or preparation, and lack of capacity to engage the congregation, was evident in several services. Simple things like no song leader, musicians and congregation out of time with each other, songs or hymns no one knew, and the frequent use of new or unknown music used in a single service, and out-of-date or inappropriate music or videos, were all observed during data collection.

All three antecedent denominations had and maintained a strong use of music, as part of worship (Clancy, 1993; R.T., 1977; Wood, 1998). Wesley, Whitfield and Watts, among others, once used hymn singing as a way of imprinting scripture, attitude and habit into disciples who couldn’t read the scriptures for themselves (Burton, 2001). Music remains a central part of worship and an expression of theology (Dutney, 2001), and arguably continues to play a pivotal role in Uniting Church worship (Worship, 2005).

In rural congregations, however, musicians and music leaders are becoming scarce, and the licence requirements for the use of printed music, audio files or music videos, adds greater complexity for those volunteers preparing worship, whether led by ordained or lay people. Across observed services, music from a variety of sources was used, either live or pre-recorded. Examples including YouTube, Songs of Praise, Hillsong, Seasons of the Spirit, As One Voice, and even Uniting Church ministers like Revs Mary Pearson, Michael Earl and Phil Newton.6

On more than one occasion, the music was unknown to the congregation. It was often hard to sing, sometimes lay outside traditional timing and intonation, and often bore little or no reference to the scripture readings or sermon. Use of liturgical musical traditions like communion songs leading into communion, or praise songs to open or close a worship services, were uncommon, especially in congregations with lay worship leaders. A lack of participation and engagement by congregations was observed when ambiguous music styles and less familiar or more complicated music was part of the worship service.7

However, where congregations had access to musicians who managed music well and provided well-chosen selections, participation by congregation members was more active. On occasions there were songs used which had new words set to traditional, or well-known tunes each was well placed and well received. In contrast, awkward situations were observed when music was selected without any consultation, or played without working with the congregation or worship leader, and yet another when no one, even the worship leader, knew the music. The most disappointing example was the choice of a music which was both dated and sexist. It appeared to hark back to a familiar chorus from Crusader camps (Clancy, 1993), however it was used in public worship, on a community Sunday, with outside visitors present in the service.

Service of the Lord’s Day

When asked about worship resources, leaders’ replies varied greatly. In some lay-led congregations, there was a discontinuity between the inherent and inherited traditions of scholarship, among worship leaders. It was clear from many conversations with worship leaders, that while most had little or no training as lay preachers and presiders, they had entered into that role with a sense of purpose and faithfulness. When asked how they held a Uniting Church perspective, or theology, most agreed that they had to search to find appropriate worship materials and settle for what they could find.

Some leaders had access to materials or resources like Seasons of the Spirit.8 One admitted their copies were older but kept using them in a three-year cycle, regardless of being outdated. Most of the observed sermons were personally written and had faith sharing and good news stories, however, often without any critical theological underpinning and frequently without reference to biblical commentary or other sources.

Of all the observed worship services, only two were conducted by ministers in placement, while the others were conducted by lay members of the congregation. When asked, very few lay leaders had any worship leader training and only one was fully accredited as lay preacher or presider. Having said that, one presbytery was very thorough in providing a list of available resources for lay worship leaders and available training opportunities as part of their monthly presbytery newsletter. Unknown is how many of those resources were accessed across the presbytery. On only one occasion was a liturgy from Saltbush9 cited as a source of material. When asked, few worship leaders had used any Saltbush materials. There was no explanation for this.

One of the worship leaders included in their story that she thought the Uniting Church appeared to be wishy-washy in what they do and say about themselves. The participant did acknowledge that it took time for them to see through this and see that it was really a church which is both open to new ideas and to everyone. The participant’s background was churched but not within the antecedent denominations. This participant was part of a small and faithful congregation, where the post-Covid use of a wide variety of music videos had been a blessing to the congregation. However, the participant agreed that it has been hard work to find music and worship material which reflects the inclusive and open nature of the Uniting Church, and to then ensure that licence requirements were met in using that material. These added complications were never anticipated at the time of union and reflects some of the significant changes brought into the church through the use of technology and a more ecumenical view of worship.

A long-held tradition of organists and ministers selecting music and the use of a traditional hymn books seems to have fallen away everywhere, partly with the loss of ministers and musicians in most of the observed congregations, and in response to the Covid pandemic. This change has proven to be a discontinuity of long held influence on music praxis in congregations. In all observed worship services, where congregations had musicians, the instrument, or instruments, seemed to determine what music was used. Where a congregation still had an organist (four congregations), the music in those services was predominantly traditional hymn music. However, where there was use of other instruments—piano, guitar, drums, or woodwind, plus or minus the organ—other music was also included. Where congregations had no musicians (three congregations), music videos were used. Two of the three congregations had technical problems with the music videos.

Use of technology, together with the variety of music sources, has created different opportunities for worship. In all observed worship services, data projectors or televisions projected the words of the songs, hymns or chorus onto screens or walls, with varying degrees of success.10 In lay-led congregations the use of technology and pre-produced music varied widely, as did the selection of suitable11 and appropriate music, understanding that the nature of appropriate music12 is subjective.

The use of current and emerging technology, where only the words are projected, has meant that people no longer follow the musical score. Those who could read music, or at least follow along the notes on the score, no longer have access to music or melody line. This and the use of increasingly difficult or popularist music are examples of change in the culture of music inherited from the antecedent denominations.

Education and training

Some time after visiting congregations, I asked several council chairs a question about training for new church leaders. Only one congregation (out of nine), with a part time ordained leader, admitted they offered any training to new members, and especially church council members. Only two congregations (out of nine) offered printed material about who and what is the Uniting Church in Australia. They both offered a very different document, one gave a printed version of the Basis of Union, available online from Assembly, while the other gave out a copy of “Introducing the Uniting Church,” by Rev Prof Andrew Dutney, former President of the UCA (Dutney, 2008).

While many of the church and worship leaders spoke of having lay preacher training in their interviews, it was clear that almost none had completed many, if any, units as required for Lay Preacher accreditation. It was also apparent that with limited trained or ordained ministry staff available to assist with ongoing training requirements, training opportunities were very limited or, sadly, not possible.

Reflection—What is Plan B?

While it was possible to observe positives impacts of various participating councils in presbyteries and congregations, it is clear there is something missing, something which connects these leaders to the wider Uniting Church.

Rural congregations with access to ordained leadership have struggled to support their own ministries and don’t, by their own admission, engage with other congregations. Lay-led congregations have struggled just maintaining worship and some mission activities. Even in Synod of NSW/ACT’s own Pathways Project of 2019 (Merrifield, 2019), Synod knew it needed to develop and encourage leadership across all presbyteries, and I would suggest significantly more urgently in rural and regional presbyteries. Presbyteries still have limited or no staff to support and assist congregations across large geographical areas. If Plan A meant leaving congregations and presbyteries to their own devices, over many years, then it is clear from my research, observations and interviews, it’s time for plan B.

Examples of the results of plan A include presbyteries being under resourced for many years, unable to either attract or afford staff, while congregations have been largely left to make themselves relevant within their own communities, with limited contact from those with oversight responsibility. On more than one occasion representatives of other councils of the church, Synod and Assembly have come, celebrated, thanked everyone but left those councils empty handed. On more than one occasion Synod representatives told the stories of presbyteries needing partial funding for leadership positions. At this stage and, over a year after hearing the story for the first, second and third times, there is still no good news. What is plan B?

It was clear from research interviews that not one ministry agent or lay leader is connected to any external church mentoring or support program. While ordained leaders are supposed to have professional supervision to support their ministry, there is no similar support for lay church and presbytery leaders—including Chairpersons, Council Secretaries and Treasurers. Sometime ago there were rumours of connecting rural and regional councils with other congregation and presbytery councils to support and mentor each other. They remain only rumours.

If these were small businesses in rural centres, the summary of what was observed would have to include a lack of risk assessment on the capacity of the council to conduct its business (education and training), a lack of directional focus (discipleship), a lack of quality control on what it is to be a member of the Uniting Church (theology and missiology), a lack of mentoring and support for lay led congregations (epistemology, the theory of knowledge, what they know and how they know it), a lack of acknowledgement of the ordained bias within the wider church (a clergy club) (Crothers, 2018), and the implications of limited or inconsistent access to ordained or trained leadership, which, in turn, leads to severe disadvantage for those observed rural congregations and presbyteries.

Rural congregations meet, worship, struggle and rejoice together. They gather and they scatter, celebrate those rare baptisms and weddings, share the sacraments, and they bury the dead. Surely there is more for them than this? Surely those denominations who came into union wanted more than this?


Repeatedly, during recent interviews, there were comments that the Uniting Church either stands for everything or nothing. Many participants wanted the church to focus on one thing, but no one could agree on the one thing. Forgotten by some, and unknown by others, was the Uniting Church’s connection, in and of itself as well as through its antecedent denominations, to a long and continuous history of being present in community, whatever shape that takes. What draws rural people to the Uniting Church is its kindness and generosity, its multigenerational history, its openness and activity, hospitality, and community engagement. What keeps them there must be a growing sense of discipleship, which is a legacy of the antecedent denominations, as well as the ecumenical nature of the Uniting Church.

From all the observations, conversations, listening and questioning, it seems that the Uniting Church needs to remind itself, and the wider church, of its purpose, its mission (Dutney, 2008) and what the antecedent denominations gifted to the Uniting Church:

  • scholarship and a deep understanding of the church (from the Presbyterians)
  • commitment to social justice and enthusiasm in communicating the gospel (from the Methodists)
  • commitment to freedom and to the power of the priesthood of all believers (from the Congregationalists); and
  • celebrating those ecumenical traditions that have come to the Uniting Church from the wider church.13

May God add His blessing to these words. Amen



  • Meredith Anne Yabsley M.A., B.Ed., Dip Teaching
    CSU PhD Candidate

Research Supervisory Team:

  • Dr Judith Crockett
  • Rev Dr Matthew Wilson
  • Dr Merilyn Crichton

Proof Readers:

  • Prof Bruce Ryan (Rtd)
  • Dr Phillipa Southwell PhD


A full bibliography can be provided upon request.


  1. Use of the word faithful here indicates steadfast, devoted and constant in their approach to attending and participating in church leadership roles. ↩︎
  2. Participating congregations and presbyteries gave consent for observations where field notes were taken, and data collected. Where an item is observed, it falls within the parameters of the approved research project. ↩︎
  3. As seen in Uniting Church and especially congregation websites are part of the collection of data and background information in participating congregations and presbyteries. ↩︎
  4. Photographs of the sanctuary in those participating churches reflects this observation. ↩︎
  5. Photographs of the sanctuary in those participating churches reflects this observation. ↩︎
  6. Music and lyrics offered in worship services. ↩︎
  7. Observation notes and reflexivity journals from each of the participating congregations during the research project. ↩︎
  8. Seasons of the Spirit Lectionary based worship resources; ↩︎
  9. Saltbush Ministries—Synod of NSW/ACT funded ministry for small, rural, remote and scattered communities; ↩︎
  10. Varying degrees of success relates to the observer’s subjective bias as to the viewability of the projection. ↩︎
  11. Suitability of music in observed worship services relates to the musical range and complexity, tune, speed and familiarity of music selection. ↩︎
  12. Appropriate music relates to the style and theology of the selected music and reflects bias based on my experience as both a worship leader and singer. ↩︎
  13. Taken from the Candle Liturgy used in UCA anniversary services. ↩︎