Reflection on the Theological Culture of the Uniting Church in Australia


Rev Dr Christopher C. Walker

About the Author

Rev Dr Chris Walker is a theology lecturer and an ordained minister of the Uniting Church who has served in a range of positions and places across the whole life of the Uniting Church, nationally, regionally and locally, including as Assembly National Consultant: Christian Unity, Doctrine and Worship, as Principal of the Uniting Church theological college in South Australia and in a number of Presbytery and Congregational roles. He has written or edited a dozen books, most recently Being and Doing Church, A Uniting Church Perspective (2015), Thinking the Faith, Living the Faith: An Introduction to Christian Theology (2017) and Jesus Still The One, the Christian message for a postmodern world (2019).



The Uniting Church in Australia grew out of the 20th century ecumenical movement. Formed in 1977 after decades of preliminary work, the Uniting Church was the coming together of Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregational Churches. Except that many Presbyterian churches and some Congregational churches stayed out of the union. Nevertheless, the Uniting Church in Australia was an achievement for the ecumenical vision of Churches cooperating and hopefully merging. The hope for such coming together was that the witness of the Church would be enhanced.

The Uniting Church from its inception has given priority to ecumenical relationships and in Australia often takes a leading role. Hence it is involved in the World Council of Churches, the World Communion of Reformed Churches, the World Methodist Council, the Christian Conference of Asia, the Pacific Conference of Churches, and in Australia the National Council of Churches.

This willing engagement in ecumenical relationships also means that the Uniting Church participates in interfaith dialogue and activities. Its broad theology is open to conversations and cooperation with other Churches and other faith communities.

The Basis of Union and the Reformed and Methodist Heritage

The Uniting Church was not simply the organisational merging of three Churches, or denominations, but came together on the foundation of an agreed theological statement, the Basis of Union. This is a very significant document which continues to inform the Uniting Church as it develops. Its theology is not strictly Calvinist or Wesleyan but Reformed in a broad sense with strong resonances with the theology of Karl Barth the Swiss Reformed theologian, the most prominent Protestant theologian of the 20th century.

The Uniting Church acknowledges that it is part of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church and is built on the one Lord Jesus Christ. The Church is a fellowship of the Holy Spirit which confesses Jesus not only as Lord over its life but as head over all things, the beginning of a new creation. This is expressed in paragraph three of the Basis of Union which is the most important paragraph theologically. The Uniting Church preaches Christ the risen crucified One and confesses him as Lord to the glory of God the Father. The Uniting Church acknowledges the Old and New Testaments as unique prophetic and apostolic testimony through which it hears the Word of God. As part of the universal Church the Uniting Church affirms the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds.

The Basis of Union itself speaks of continuing to learn from historic documents that were important to the Churches that came into the union. These include Reformed confessions and the standard sermons of John Wesley. The Presbyterian and Congregational Churches were both Reformed with the major difference being the emphasis the Congregational Church gave to each congregation. This influence has been felt in the Uniting Church. Recently the need for local churches to cooperate more with one another and to share ordained leadership has meant something like the circuits of the Methodist Church in a number of situations. Further reflection on the way circuits used to function would be helpful for the Uniting Church as it moves into the future.

Theologically the Uniting Church often speaks of its Reformed and Evangelical heritage, as these are the two primary theological influences stemming from the Reformation and the Evangelical Revival of the 18th century. Given that the word ‘evangelical’ has particular connotations such as to the Sydney Anglican diocese and conservative Evangelical churches in the USA, I now prefer to refer to the Uniting Church’s ‘Reformed and Methodist’ heritage. We are after all members of the World Communion of Reformed Churches and the World Methodist Council, but not the World Evangelical Alliance.

A Church in and for Australians

As the title of the Uniting Church in Australia suggests, the Uniting Church aspires to be a Church ‘in’ but not ‘of’ Australia, meaning that it is conscious of its context but not bound to it. It is not an established church closely aligned to the State, such as the Church of England. Being in Australia means wanting to relate to its people and context in positive ways. The Uniting Church intends to be a genuinely Australian Church. But it is not bound to Australia, its government and its culture, and is free to critique these from its Christian perspective. Being connected with Churches beyond Australia assists with this.

The Uniting Church is conscious of its call to have a prophetic voice at times. It issued general Statements to the Nation in 1977 and again in 1988. It has become known for its willingness to be involved in social justice issues. These can be contentious and there have been those who have left the Uniting Church due to its stance on particular social issues. Nevertheless, unity is important and the Uniting Church seeks to explain the reasons for its positions on different issues and bring people along, or at least to agree to differ. The Uniting Church’s willingness to take positions on social issues often gains respect from those outside the Church even to the point of people saying that if they were to connect with a church it would be the Uniting Church. Nevertheless, few actually do join though some have.

The concern for the well-being of all Australians and especially the most disadvantaged, has led to many social services being conducted. This is consistent with Jesus’ concern especially for ‘the least’. Significant initiatives brought into the Uniting Church from the previous Churches include Frontier Services and Lifeline. Aged care, childcare, disability services and provision for homeless people have been developed extensively. Many of these were local initiatives but with increasing governmental regulations required most have come under synod oversight and the brand ‘Uniting’. The affiliation with the Uniting Church varies in strength. While most of those who work in these agencies are not Uniting Church members, helping them to appreciate and affirm the Uniting Church ethos is important. More can be done to foster this so that employees understand the theological culture of the Uniting Church.

The Basis of Union speaks of the value of scholarly interpreters and the need to be in touch with contemporary thought in order to engage with it from a Christian perspective. The Uniting Church is therefore not a Church closed to modern thought and scientific development but actively seeks to relate appropriately with it. It values its academics and encourages people to reflect upon their faith in their context. While there is some anti-intellectual sentiment in Australian society including in the Church, this is not the approach the Uniting Church endorses. It aspires to have well trained leadership able to think critically about Church and Society and make a contribution to both. The theological culture of the Uniting Church is to be a thoughtful involved church.

The Uniting Church has been in numerical decline since its inception. There are exceptions with some congregations having experienced significant growth. However, for the most part small churches have become older and smaller. Many have ceased to function or have amalgamated with other nearby congregations. Many congregations which had a full time Minister of the Word in the past can no longer afford to do so. Lay led congregations have developed and part time Ministerial placements have increased. This is not all negative as it has led people to take greater responsibility for their community life and not be so dependent on the Minister. Nevertheless, appropriate resourcing is an issue to enable people and congregations to continue and hopefully flourish. Theologically this relates to the emphasis in the Uniting Church on every member ministry, people confessing their faith and exercising ministry according to their gifts.

Changes in Australian social culture is largely responsible for this decline, such as secularisation and our Western consumer culture. Sunday is no longer seen as a day of worship but rather for sport, recreation and shopping. The Church has always meant to be somewhat countercultural. There is the need to both connect with the culture and contrast with it. The Uniting Church has not been effective or even interested in evangelism for the most part. Those who were more evangelical tended to be more conservative and were among those who left the Uniting Church over particular issues, especially ones concerning sexuality. Most did not like the way evangelism was conducted by Evangelical and Pentecostal churches but did not have an alternative approach. National Church Life Surveys showed Uniting Church people were reluctant to share faith and invite others to church. As indicated, there are exceptions but they are relatively few. Those congregations that are flourishing tend to have a mildly charismatic quality using more contemporary music and confident preaching. The hope is that decline will end and the Uniting Church will grow. There are necessarily changes taking place but there is the conviction that God will uphold the Church and lead it into a new future.

Affirmation of First Nations People and a Multicultural Church

The Uniting Church has affirmed Aboriginal and Islander people and those from non-Anglo cultures. As early as 1985 the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress was established within the Uniting Church by the national Assembly. In 2009 a new Preamble to the Constitution was agreed to by the Assembly. It acknowledged the mixed relations the former Churches had with Aboriginal and Islander people. It affirmed that God was with the people in particular ways prior to colonisation. In 1985 the Uniting Church also affirmed itself as a multicultural Church and has since made efforts to practice this which is ongoing.

The Uniting Church is blessed by those who are connected to it whether First Nations or people from other cultures. People from Asia and the Pacific now have large communities in Australia. Over a dozen ethnic or language specific national conferences now meet within the Uniting Church, the largest being Tongan and Korean. From being somewhat on the edge of the Uniting Church, more recently there have been those from these communities, men and women, who have been elected Moderators of Synods and President of the Assembly. There is a richness that comes when non-Anglo people offer leadership bringing their particular culture and manner to bear to their role. The Uniting Church recognises that the fulfilled reign of God will be multicultural and the Church is called to prefigure this.

Women in Leadership

Another feature of the Uniting Church which goes back to the Basis of Union, is the affirmation of women in leadership. The Uniting Church ordains women with the skills, gifts and graces for leadership in the Church. No position is barred and as indicated above people, women as well as men, have become Moderators and President. This is accepted practice in the Uniting Church. Other Churches have been slow to endorse women in leadership except in specified roles. Theologically it comes down to the Uniting Church recognising all people as made ‘in the image of God’ and that leadership is dependent on people having the skills, gifts and graces required whatever their gender.

Consensus Decision Making

A distinctive practice that has developed in the Uniting Church is that of ‘consensus decision making’. The process was carefully worked out and has since been refined. First used at the 1997 Assembly, it has become the usual practice across the councils of the Uniting Church and has been picked up by other Ecumenical councils and Churches. The intention is to ensure that minority voices are heard that that decisions are not forced through with winners and losers. While majority voting can be resorted to if needed due to the urgency of the issue, for the most part sufficient time is taken to hear from different voices and consensus sought. Again, this arises out of the theological culture of the Uniting Church which desires to hear from minority voices and to seek God’s will not simply a majority.


The theological culture of the Uniting Church is then ecumenical, conscious of being part of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church with a Reformed and Methodist heritage, seeks to be a genuinely Australian Church built on the one Lord Jesus Christ, thoughtful in its approach to the Bible and contemporary issues, is concerned about social justice, cares about ‘the least’ in society, affirming of First Nations and multicultural people, women in leadership and adopts consensus decision making processes.