Reflections on the theological culture of the Uniting Church in Australia


Rev Prof Vicky Balabansk

About the Author

Reverend Professor Vicky Balabanski is a New Testament scholar at the University of Divinity, serving as the Principal of Uniting College for Leadership and Theology in Adelaide. Vicky is an ordained Minister of the Word. She’s an accomplished academic, with expertise in the Synoptic Gospels, John’s Gospel, Colossians, Receptive Ecumenism, and particularly, Ecological Hermeneutics. She is the General Editor of the Earth Bible series, collaborating with Gerald West in South Africa; the series emphasizes interpreting Scripture in harmony with the Earth, the interconnected web of life. Her Earth Bible commentary, “Colossians: An Eco-Stoic reading” (Bloomsbury T & T Clark 2020), draws on Stoic philosophy to enrich ecological interpretations.


The context and ethos of Uniting College for Leadership and Theology

Uniting College for Leadership and Theology (UCLT) in the Synod of SA is focused on educating and forming people in the service of God’s mission, understood broadly. The ethos of the College emphasises the integration of theology, discipleship and culture, with a commitment to contemporary contexts. UCLT offers a wide range of educational programs, from certificates to doctoral levels.

In 2023, UCLT transitioned to teaching through the University of Divinity. Students can opt to study fully online, as well as face to face or in a blended mode. The College has an ecumenical student body, which includes some students who are candidates for ordination in the Uniting Church.

UCLT seeks to be a wise and prophetic space, engaging in deeper questions about discipleship, culture, and societal trends. Responding to theological and cultural challenges, and with a diverse faculty, the College strives to build respect and understanding among its students and beyond. The faculty of UCLT are committed to fostering a research community that engages theological heritage with contemporary challenges.

Ultimately, UCLT’s mission is to participate in the missio dei, with a focus on relevance and integration.

Theological culture of the Uniting Church in Australia

From the vantage point set out above, I will briefly address the questions posed by Act2.

“The theological culture of the Uniting Church is that network of practices, institutions and texts which resource, sustain and extend the Uniting Church’s particular conversations, doctrinal decisions and prophetic speech about God, Christ and the world.”

1. What is the theological culture of the Uniting Church in Australia?

the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) sees itself as a part of the faith and unity of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church and values relationships with other Churches.

The UCA is a church committed to justice, diversity and inclusion, and this undergirds its theological culture. It is committed to building just relationships with First Peoples and people of Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) backgrounds, supporting self-determination both inside and outside the Church. These things are foundational, even though the expressed commitment and the lived reality in these things do not always align.

The UCA is committed to engaging with the political and cultural challenges that face Australia and the world, as expressed in the Statement to the Nation. As a church shaped by social liberalism, it seeks to offer perspectives to government and to its membership rather than to prescribe or require a particular position. It seeks to respect the right of individuals to make their own informed decisions.

The Bible, understood as ‘unique prophetic and apostolic testimony’ (Basis of Union, paragraph 5), holds a central place in the church. It is a church that rejects proof-texting and literalism. At the same time there is no prescribed definition as to where and how the boundary between the literal and the figurative should be drawn. As a church it looks to faithful and scholarly interpreters for interpretive guidance, but the congregational interpretive cultures are equally important in how the UCA makes meaning from the Bible.

Drawing on the approach articulated in the Basis of Union, it receives and commits to study the historical creeds and confessions of the church rather than wielding them as proofs of apostolicity or orthodoxy. It seeks to be a confessing rather than a confessional church.

It aspires to be a church in which the confession of Christ is done in fresh words and deeds. The church therefore seeks to take its place within contemporary culture and to address contemporary culture authentically. The reality however is that the ‘contemporary’ may mirror the average age of the church.

The UCA is a church that values its structure of interrelated councils and consensus decision making. It values ministry of both lay and ordained.

As stated above, we are a church shaped by social liberalism, yet in various contexts across Australia there also exists the cultural and social shaping of conservative evangelicalism. This is also part of the heritage of the UCA, a heritage which brings not only energy, but also clarity as to the centrality of the Gospel.

As a College, we seek to resist polarisation. Our hope is to foster an informed faith, in which the commitment to the Gospel is integrated into a vision of God’s reconciling grace for the whole cosmos, and to make these differing impulses into a strength.

2. What is the theological culture to which we should aspire as the Uniting Church?

As articulated in the Basis of Union paragraph 3, our theology is grounded on the person and work of Jesus Christ. We should aspire to this as our central affirmation and constantly allow ourselves to be renewed by this vision. This is core to our baptismal identity, and our entry point into the unfolding life of the triune God.

The Basis of Union continues to inspire new generations to catch the vision of the church as a missional movement of God.

3. What is distinctive about the theological culture of the Uniting Church?

Our foundational and explicit commitment to having an ‘informed faith’, through entering into ‘the inheritance of literary, historical and scientific enquiry’ (Basis of Union, paragraph 11) is distinctive. This is not to say that other Churches do not do so, but rather that this is not guaranteed by their foundational documents.

We value the concept of being an ‘ecclesia reformata semper reformanda’. The Act2 project is perhaps an expression of this value. The imperative to ongoing reformation – to being a people on the way towards a promised goal – is distinctive.

Interrelated councils, the full inclusion of lay people at every level, and consensus decision making are all distinctive about the UCA’s theological culture.

The prominence of women in leadership, the decision around marriage equality and optional liturgical services are also distinctive, and are indicative of a maturity within decision making.

The Preamble, with its confession of injustice and complicity, as well as its affirmation that the First Peoples had already encountered the Creator God before the arrival of the colonisers, is distinctive. In particular, its statement that the Spirit was revealing God to the people through law, custom and ceremony and that the same love and grace as those we know in Jesus had given First Peoples particular insights into God’s ways – these affirmations are distinctive.

4. What are the practices, institutions and texts which have been most significant in shaping the Uniting Church’s theological culture?

Gathering for worship on Sundays in dedicated buildings, singing together, hearing Scripture read and expounded by an educated interpreter, and enjoying fellowship together afterwards have been foundational in the theological culture of the UCA.

The interrelated councils of the Church, with their respective jurisdictions, have also been foundational to the theological culture, with their combination of inclusion of lay and ordained, young and older, and the oversight they provide for different parts of the Church’s life.

A key text is 2 Corinthians 5:18-21, as it articulates a theology, Christology, anthropology, soteriology and ecclesiology that are foundational to the UCA.

Another key text for the UCA is John 17:20-21. The prayer that ‘they may all be one’, ‘that the world may believe that you have sent me’ is foundational to being a ‘uniting’ Church.

The song ‘For you, deep stillness of the silent inland’ (1997, Mann & Perrin) has become a kind of anthem, perhaps due to the heightened longing for country modelled on Indigenous wisdom, or perhaps because the church longs to impart blessing, while the fact that it’s done in the name of Christ is expressed quietly.

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

The UCA is a church that continues to be influenced by the heritage of the churches that came into union, though this varies according to context. For example, the UCA in the Synod of Victoria and Tasmania shows a stronger leaning towards its Presbyterian roots, while the UCA Synod of South Australia leans more towards its Methodist roots. This means that the UCA is quite a diverse church. Even so, theological diversity can be overstated. We are recognisably the Uniting Church in very different contexts across Australia.

Our church was founded on an ecumenical vision. Not quite five decades later, that vision is not as explicitly compelling to a younger generation as it was in the mid-20th century. We are more denominational than our founders would have hope for or envisaged. Nevertheless, we take a place alongside other denominations as a Church with a distinctive sense of call and being, irrespective of theological or liturgical differences.

6. What are the practices, institutions and texts we will need into the future to resource, sustain and extend the theological culture to which we aspire?

In order to (continue to) prepare ourselves for wise engagement with an increasingly complex world and for the crises that will challenge the world with ever-increasing intensity, we need a Church educated in biblical, theological, pastoral and missional fields. Theological education with a formative intent is more important now than it ever was. There are myriad resources available on the internet, but we need to help Church leaders to know and understand the tradition, in order to use them wisely and imaginatively.

I hope that we will continue to have a national oversight of theological education, so that the UCA across Australia can have confidence in its ministries, and ministers can move across states without impediment. The delivery of theological education at regional level is beneficial to the regions and to the congregations in those regions. Cooperation in theological education is increasingly possible, through shared Higher Education Providers like the University of Divinity, online education and through the greater use of intensives. But formation is not always well served by distance education, and it’s a challenge to replicate the close personal friendships formed with class mates over time.

In paragraph 11 of the Basis, it names the continuing witness of evangelist, scholar, prophet and martyr. We have leaders, ministry agents, practitioners and the occasional scholar, but we are not strong on producing evangelists. Perhaps we can’t plan for the advent of prophets and martyrs, but we can shape ourselves to rise to the challenges and risks that they represent.

The resourcing, sustaining and extending that arise through attentiveness to the Holy Spirit, through biblical study and through prayer are needed. Further development of mentors equipped in Professional Pastoral Supervision and Spiritual Direction will be valuable, indeed crucial for a healthy, robust, self-reflective church. Further deep listening to our Indigenous leaders is needed. If the Church is not to become an interest group alongside secular organisations, ‘counter-cultural’ spiritual practices will become increasingly important.

What texts may be important for us to shape our theological culture into the future?

Genesis 12:1-3 ‘In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’

Matthew 9:10-13 “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy not sacrifice’.” We need to situate ourselves on the margins.

Romans 8:18-27 The suffering and groaning of creation resonate with our own groaning, but in hope.

Philippians 3:7-14 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death … because Christ Jesus has made me his own.

John 15:5 ‘I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.’ This is pertinent not only to the individual and to the Church, but also to theological education going forward.