Say What? The Ineffable within the Theological Culture of the Uniting Church: Origins, Gifts, Shadows, and the Invitation into Intentionality


Rev Dr Sally Douglas

About the Author

Sally Douglas is a biblical scholar, theologian, author, and Uniting Church minister. She is an Honorary Research Associate within the University of Divinity, an Associate Lecturer at Pilgrim Theological College, and is the Minister in placement at Richmond Uniting Church.



It is not uncommon to hear claims about the Uniting Church that go something like this: “The Uniting Church does not have a theology”, or “the Uniting Church does not take the bible seriously”, or “the Uniting Church just goes along with the latest trend or social justice agenda”. What do such claims say about the theological culture of the Uniting Church? How do such claims relate to that “network of practices, institutions, and texts” that form our DNA as a denomination?1 For the purposes of this article, I am not interested in the debates in which such assertions have been made by people within the Uniting Church, and in other denominations. Rather I am seeking to step back and notice this recurring claim and wonder why such assertions are made. Does this occur because the Uniting Church has had courage to publicly engage with the implications of the bible, theology, and the human person in relation to various social issues? Does such dismissal of the Uniting Church emerge because our church has come to different conclusions about such issues as the ordination of women, marriage equality, or the Voice to Parliament? Could it be true that the Uniting Church does not take the bible seriously or have a clear theology? Or are there other, deeper, foundational aspects at play? This paper will argue that the Uniting Church’s theological culture has an ineffable texture. The origins and gifts of this ineffability will be traced and highlighted, and the shadows and limitations of this speechlessness will be explored. The paper will then propose that there are three distinct priorities that we need attend to, if we seek to live into our particular theological charism as a denomination. Through intentionally cultivating communities of rigorous engagement, contemplation, and testimony we may yet foster authentic words, and spaces between them, in which we may hear and share about the gracious living Word.

The origins and gifts of the ineffable

1. One Lord

As we engage with questions about the theological culture of the Uniting Church the Basis of Union, the Uniting Church’s foundational document, provides excellent resources for orienting ourselves. Here, in the Basis, we are pulled back to the centre of our faith “the Uniting Church acknowledges that the faith and unity of the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church are built upon the one Lord Jesus Christ” (Para 3).2 Christ Jesus is at the centre for us. That is, we claim that in this One we encounter the fullest expression of who and how God is. Jesus is the Word—the Wisdom—of God made flesh (John 1:1; 14). To put this another way, just as it was proclaimed in the earliest church, we celebrate that divine love becomes personal in the living, teaching, nourishing, healing, resisting, non-violent dying, rising and ongoing presence of Jesus. Our denomination rests upon the scandalous conviction that this One from the beginning, who lives in radical mercy, who is murdered by the state, and who is raised to life and is with us, is the face of God among us (Col 1:15, 1 Cor 1:23–25; 2 Cor 4:6). This is our Lord, who through the power of Holy Spirit, seeks our attention and brings us home (Basis, para 4).3

To claim, as courageous Thomas does, that Jesus is Lord and God (John 20:28) is political. If Jesus is Lord, this means that no one and no other thing can be. From the granular to the expansive this has profound ramifications for how we understand divine power, how we conceive of institutional power within our church and in society, how we attend to texts, including the bible, how we relate to one another, and how we speak.4 As our church’s foundation is built upon Christ, our understandings of theology, our engagement with the bible and the world, and our practices will begin, proceed from, return to, and be in ceaseless dialogue with this One. For those who crave certainty and rule based living our call to be in organic relationship with Christ—to listen to this One and be changed through this—will be confronting. However, as a Uniting Church this is our path, and we are committed to being a “pilgrim people, always on the way” (Basis, para 3).

2. The Bible

Claiming that “Christ is Lord” may at first glance appear like an obvious claim for Christians to make. However, in the Uniting Church because this claim is taken seriously, both the bible and human power are approached through this understanding. As spelled out in the Basis, for us, the bible is “unique prophetic and apostolic testimony, in which it hears the Word of God” (Basis, para 5). However, the bible is not, itself, the “word of God”. As proclaimed in John’s prologue, and prayed and sung in earliest Christian communities, Jesus is the Word (John 1:1).5 As a consequence, we come to the biblical text, seeking to listen for the voice of the living, loving Word, Jesus.

Our understanding of Christ at the centre directly impacts upon our theological culture, even though we may not always be aware of this. It is because of the primacy of Christ, that we cannot reduce the bible to a lifestyle manual, or rule book resplendent with proof texts that can be quoted out of context in order to assert who is in, or who is wrong, on any particular issue. Similarly in the Uniting Church, we cannot pretend that any one person has the delegated authority to speak for God. Instead, we are called to listen for Christ through the Spirit in sacred text, within the context of worship and in our seeking to be church together.6 Our embodied conviction, echoed across the early church, that Jesus is the living Lord of the church (and no other), sets us apart from both later and more recent expressions of church in which human power and the bible have been constituted very differently.7

The shadows of the ineffable

As a consequence of our christological convictions, in the Uniting Church we do not have the luxury of a “bumper sticker” faith. Often we will not be able to fit our theology onto a postage stamp (except to say “one Lord Jesus Christ”). Nor will it be easy to summarise the Uniting Church’s theological position in concise media-friendly sentences in many situations. This is not because we have nothing to say. Rather this is because our conviction is that the living, loving “bright morning star” Jesus (Rev 22:16; 1 Pet 1:19), continues to meet, challenge, and transform us together through the vivifying energy of Holy Spirit, and we need to continue to listen and respond accordingly. This is important to underscore. Grounded in ongoing relationship with Christ Jesus our theology on some topics will not be fixed. That is, because we continue to be “constituted, ruled, and renewed” by Christ (Basis, para 4)—the One who, according to the testimony of the New Testament, uses power to upend expectations, heal the wounded, gather in the marginalised, nourish the hungry, and resist violence—our theology emerges and evolves within ongoing relationship with this One.

Theology that refuses to take its first and primary identity from doctrine, verses in the bible, a set of rules, or a human authority figure, but instead is forged within transformative encounter with the incarnate, executed, and risen Jesus Christ will be nuanced, growing, and at times, complex. It is also risky. As highlighted above, at times people within and beyond the Uniting Church will misconstrue our foundation in Christ as evidence of our disrespect for the bible or tradition, or as proof of an absence of theology. Conversely, there is also the risk that some within our tradition will hear our foundation in Christ as code for condoning relativistic or uncritical theology while claiming, in more, or less, sophisticated language, “Jesus told me so”. Despite these shadows, the place of Christ at the centre in our tradition is both faithful and profound.8

If the scandalous servant Christ Jesus is our Lord and is the One who continues to remake and refresh us, how are we called to discern the voice of this One? It is perhaps the lack of clarity about responses to this question, that has left us open to claims that we lack theology, or the more serious risk that this becomes so. In the pages that follow it will be proposed that there are essential qualities or practices—guard rails if you will—that need to be fostered at this time in the Uniting Church so that we may faithfully hear and respond to our Lord as we seek to walk together.

The invitation into intentionality

In returning to the foundation of the Uniting Church upon the “one Lord Jesus Christ”, the ineffable within our theological culture becomes more understandable. However, it is not sufficient for our conclusion to simply be that at times we struggle to articulate our theology. There are significant gifts in our wordlessness before the Word, yet, as we have traced, there are also limitations that need to be addressed. In recognising our foundation in Christ, we are also better able to understand why adopting the stances of other denominations, for example in the appeal to scripture or ecclesial authority, is a misalignment with who and whose we are. It is not by mirroring the practices of other denominations that we will find our centre. Rather it is in acknowledging that our theological centre is in Christ that we will find our way forward.

In the pages that follow it will be argued that if Jesus is Lord of the church, the living Word who continues to speak, there are intentional practices that need to be prioritised at this time, in order to foster a faithful and flourishing theological culture. This is not an exhaustive list. In this article I do not discuss practices of doing justice and mercy. This is not because these are unimportant. On the contrary, seeking to practice justice and mercy are essential if Jesus is Lord. However, these “doing” practices are already priorities embedded across the Uniting Church, for individuals, congregations, councils, schools, and agencies. In highlighting three more hidden markers of faithfulness, it is hoped that these may become touchstones for reflecting upon how we might foster an authentic and faithful theological culture into the future.

1. Cultivating communities of rigorous engagement

Grounded in our foundation in Christ, the Basis gives thanks for the priority and gift of ongoing learning (Basis, para 11). In careful language, again pointing to Christ as the Word, it is confidently stated that “the Uniting Church acknowledges that God has never left the Church without faithful and scholarly interpreters of Scripture, or without those who have reflected deeply upon, and acted trustingly in obedience to, God’s living Word” (Basis, para 11). Rigorous engagement with sacred text, with theology, and with the world are all underscored in the Basis and are integral to who we are as a Uniting Church.9 We are a denomination called to bring our brains to church. We are called to wrestle with the complexities and contradictions of the bible, the realities of the world around us, and the extraordinary and varied ramifications of taking seriously that God walks among us in the self-giving One Jesus.

Our theological colleges have a rich tradition of encouraging rigorous academic engagement across a range of disciplines. For this we should rejoice. However, often this kind of robust intellectual curiosity has not been cultivated in congregations’ worship, faith discussion groups, or in their service.10 Instead, it appears to have been assumed by clergy and other church leaders that people in the “pews” cannot handle more complex theology or biblical enquiry or are not interested in such things. In my experience, serving parishes in both rural and inner-city contexts, I have not found this to be the case. People from vastly different educational and social backgrounds yearn to explore the challenges and contradictions of faith, life, doubt, and sacred text. Indeed, when given opportunities, people often dive deeply into life-long exploration.

How might we resource and encourage congregations, councils, schools, and agencies to become robust questioners and thinkers about issues of faith, the bible, meaning, purpose, and the divine? How might we support people across the Uniting Church to know that such wrestling is an expression of their theology and faith and not a betrayal of these things? Can we imagine creating brave and kind spaces for those who identify as “progressive” and “conservative” to gather together, not in order to prove one another wrong, but to robustly explore theology together and to listen to one another?

In our post-Christendom context, often people outside the church assume that being a Christian means discarding reason or assenting to fixed ideas without question. What a gift we might offer, not just to the church, but to the wider community, if we live into our particular charism as a Uniting Church. If we recognise our foundation in Christ as the Word, and the subsequent need for rigorous theological and biblical wrestling, we might yet offer varied, engaging spaces for people to explore Christian faith maturely, intelligently, and with their own integrity intact. Instead of insisting upon ready-made answers, inviting people into the great feast of questions as we gather together to the bread of life, might be part of how we are called to embody the good tidings.

2. Cultivating communities of contemplation

Within the Basis claims about the centrality of Christ are not simply doctrinal assertions to be assented to, wrestled with, or rejected. Instead, the Basis makes claims about participating in the life of this One who walks among us. It is proclaimed that in this One we will be changed, because the Anointed one “reaches out to command attention and awaken faith” (Basis, para 4). In language that surprises and delights, the Basis quietly asserts that “in his own strange way Christ constitutes, rules and renews them as his Church” (Basis, para 4).11 If we take this seriously—that is, if we trust that this actually happens—what does this mean for our posture before Christ? If claims about Jesus’ transformative presence are not simply the intellectual outworkings of a christological position, there are implications for us as individuals, congregations, councils, theological colleges, and Uniting Church agencies. Among these, this surely demands of us that we cultivate practices of receptivity—being open—to this one who is present, and strangely restoring and refining us. We do not have to invent everything anew. In practices forged by the desert mothers and fathers in the early church, as well as by others throughout the centuries who have sought to listen first and foremost to Christ, we discover an array of contemplative practices. There are gifts awaiting us.

While some may warm to the invitation to focus our energy on learning to be quiet and open, the negative reactions against prioritising contemplative prayer may be loud and varied. Culturally, being quiet has not been a priority in the Uniting Church. Silence can be awkward, particularly in group settings, and we like to preach. On a personal level contemplative prayer can be deeply confronting because those things we try and avoid within ourselves, can emerge with painful abruptness. In a world saturated with notifications and instant gratification, contemplative prayer can also feel boring, at least initially, until we allow ourselves to sink more deeply into the arms of the Holy One – Sacred Three. Many in the church may insist that now having mastered PowerPoint, if anything we need to get louder in congregations, so that we might “compete” with mega churches. Others might argue that at this time of crisis in the church we must focus on “doing” not listening. Some may misconstrue the invitation to prioritise contemplative prayer, as a call into anti-intellectualism. As underscored in the first marker of faithfulness above, this is clearly not what is being advocated. Rigorous intellectual engagement and learning to be quiet and open to the divine are not mutually exclusive. In contrast, abundant fruit can grow when these priorities are held together and reflexively inform one another.

If we do trust that Christ continues to awaken faith, rule, and renew us, surely learning how to listen for the voice of this One is crucial. However, in our world that is so noisy, and with our tendency in the Uniting Church to fill silences with words in sermons, song, or liturgy, I wonder if we are brave enough to learn how to be quiet together? At this time of rapid change in the church, and in our global village, learning about, experiencing, and sharing ways that enable us to slow down and which draw us into deep listening for the divine are surely critical. While the practice of learning how to shut up and be quiet together has been much neglected in congregations and other institutions of the Uniting Church, First Nation leaders have much to teach us in this field.12 How might we be changed if we cultivate practices and opportunities to engage with various forms of prayer that help us to stop talking at God and instead become present to God, as a key priority in the Uniting Church?

Imagine for a moment if we embodied our trust that Christ continues to speak across the church. Imagine if lay and ordained leaders in congregations, in theological colleges, and in Synods modelled this kind of deep listening for the Spirit both in their own lives, in their chairing of meetings, in classes, or workshops, and when they preside in worship. Imagine if we supported ordinand candidates and lay preaching students with wide knowledge of, and experimentation with, various Christian contemplative practices. Imagine knowing that as they enter the astonishing demands of ministry, that they have varied and deep spiritual resources to draw from in their own lives, and to share confidently in congregations and other settings. Imagine if we dared to share such transformative practices in our agencies or schools, in which the yearning for deeper meaning and connection with something “greater” is often palpable but remains unnamed. Reclaiming and prioritising the ancient practice of listening for the divine together may yet vivify our beautiful, broken church.

3. Cultivating communities of testimony

In the Basis it is audaciously proclaimed that Christ, who is the Word of God, is the One “who acquits the guilty, who gives life to the dead and who brings into being what otherwise could not exist” (Basis, para 4). This is the One who “comes, addresses, and deals with people” (Basis, para 4).13 Resonating with the biblical witness, here we are confronted with a God who gets personal. Three questions unfold from this proclamation. Do we experience this freedom and new life in our journey with Christ in the church? Secondly, if not, why might this be so (what is blocking this)? Finally, if we do experience this awakening verdancy in various ways at different times, do we talk about it? As we reflect on questions about theological culture, I would like to propose that the third practice that the Uniting Church needs to prioritise at this time is the place of testimony.

While at times we struggle to articulate our theology, my sense is that we have an even more difficult time talking about our faith at a personal level in the Uniting Church. We are reticent about sharing with others about our experiences of prayer, spiritual growth or desolation, or about various aspects of our ongoing relationship with Christ. This is often the case in congregations, councils of the church, and in theological colleges, as well as in schools and agencies. Perhaps the fear of being dismissed as sentimental, or anti-intellectual contributes to this reticence. Perhaps this widespread hesitancy is fuelled by a more general suspicion of anything overtly religious that permeates non-Indigenous Australian culture. It is also possible that this reticence is galvanised by the fear of being misunderstood or of being perceived as a “religious nut”, “bible basher”, or alternatively, being accused of losing our faith.

As we grapple with the idea of reclaiming the place of testimony in the Uniting Church it is important to underscore what I am not saying. I am not suggesting that we shy away from the difficult. It is not being envisioned that we take on the kinds of speaking popular in some Christian traditions, in which versions of one story arch dominate: “I was forsaken, and now everything is awesome”. In the Uniting Church, as in the wider Australian landscape, we have a healthy disrespect for the boastful, and sharp scepticism about those who gild the lily. This demand for humility is part of our giftedness.

Cultivating communities in which we may humbly share a little about our actual experiences of Christ restoring us and setting us free, will only be authentic if they also include supportive space for us to share about our experiences of the presence of the absence of God. Can we imagine a church gathering where someone feels able to share that God feels entirely absent for them, and the people around them responding with attentive compassion, without trying to “fix” them or tell them to have more faith? Like the witness of the Psalm writers, testimony includes being able to express our joy and delight in the tender presence of the One whose wings we shelter under (see Psalm 61), alongside expressing our grief, fury, and the reality that at times the Source of all seems absent (see Psalms 6; 10; 22; 88).

In seeking to reclaim the importance of bearing witness, I am pointing towards the possibility of speaking honestly, falteringly, and in our own words about our experiences of the Most High reaching out to us personally in the middle of the mess. Could we imagine gently sharing a few sentences with others in a discussion group about how our life is different right now because of Jesus? Could we imagine sharing with a colleague or friend about a new insight that has emerged in prayer? Can we imagine creating spaces, perhaps micro-moments, for people to regularly share about their experiences of Christ challenging or renewing them in worship, perhaps as they introduce a favouring song. Could it be possible to create opportunities for talking about spiritual practices, maybe with children and those over eighty sharing with one another about where they like to pray, or how it feels when they pray?

I am aware that talk of testimony will be deeply confronting. Perhaps this will be even more so for different parts of the church. There appears, for example, to be significant concern about imposing faith upon others within many Uniting Church agencies and in some schools. The fear of imposing our faith is valid, particularly as some Christian denominations have used faith as a blunt instrument, even a weapon, in their agencies or schools. However, if we return to Christ, the living Word who is at the foundation of our faith, we discover that imposition can never be valid if we are seeking to be faithful. Across the testimony of the Gospels, we see Jesus awakening faith but not forcing or coercing anyone to follow. What is more, the call to love stranger, neighbour, and even enemy, is (frustratingly) non-negotiable for us if Jesus is our Lord. Under this law of love, coercion can have no place. Despite this, the assumption that speaking about faith must equate with the imposition of faith persists for many in the Uniting Church. This can often have the effect of leaving those around us, including staff in Uniting Church agencies and some schools, with little or no knowledge about what the Uniting Church believes apart from its affirmation of human rights.

If we, across the Uniting Church, actually trust that Jesus, the disruptive, compassionate One, is Lord, who through the Spirit awakens, refreshes, and restores us, bearing witness to this restoration is surely integral. However, if we are to testify faithfully and honestly, we need to cease looking over our shoulder at how other traditions speak. We also need to put down the (often ghastly) popular images of testimony in film and television. Instead, we need to find ways to tell our own stories in our own words, and include the heartbreak, anger, and despair, alongside the joy, sustenance, and soul rest. Learning to speak of the personal out loud will not be easy. It will take a great deal of vulnerability, courage, and creativity in congregations, councils, and colleges, as well as careful discernment in settings such as schools or agencies. We will need safe opportunities with trusted people to practice speaking about our experiences, so that we can find our cadence. We will also probably need to be assured, and continue to assure others, that as we are called to bear witness, we do not need to yell on street corners or be bombastic. Instead, simply and profoundly, just as the author of 1 Peter encourages tiny Christian communities to do, we need to be ready to respond to others when they ask about the “hope that is in you” and when we speak, we need to do so with “gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3.15–16).


In this article the ineffable texture of the Uniting Church’s theological culture has been traced. The origins of this wordlessness have been found in our commitment to the Word. Here we have celebrated the gift that we find our theology, our actions, our words, and our silences all in humble dialogue with the Word, Jesus the servant Lord, who continues to nourish, steady, and refine us. The shadows of the ineffable within our tradition have also been sketched. It has been demonstrated that because our foundation and authority rest upon Christ, and not a book, an institution, a doctrine, or a human authority figure, our theology takes time and often cannot be reduced to a soundbite. This can leave us open to accusations, or risks, of relativism. It has been proposed that three key practices are essential to prioritise at this time, as we seek to maintain our foundation in Christ. There is a need to cultivate intentional communities in which people are encouraged to wrestle with the complexities and contradictions of the bible and theology, are able to (re)engage with practices that enable slowing down, attuning to the Spirit and listening for the Word, and are given ongoing opportunities to share about faith and doubt in their own words. In fostering these practices across the Uniting Church, a humble, flourishing, and faithful theological culture may be nurtured, as we live out our charism as people of the Word. We may also discover fresh freedom and energy as we become the church we are called to be in this land, creating authentic spaces for others to join in the conversation.


  1. “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.” Act2 Call for papers: our theological culture:, accessed 3 August 2023. ↩︎
  2. Italics added. The language of “Lordship” is viewed with suspicion and disdain by many in the church. This is understandable. Through employing this language, across churches and across time, patriarchal and hierarchical constructions of Christian faith have been justified and maintained, often to the exclusion and abuse of women and other minorities. However, if the language of lordship is heard from within the testimony of the New Testament, it becomes clear that Jesus upends dominant understandings, as he embodies power in vastly different ways to human lords and empires. In Jesus we are confronted with the One who uses power to lift up the marginalised, to challenge the rich and powerful, and to reject violence. Jesus is the disruptive, servant Lord. ↩︎
  3. As Norman Young states “Paragraph 4 affirms Christ not only as the past founder of the Church but also as her present and enabling Lord”. Norman Young ‘The Theological Convictions of the Basis of Uniting Church’ Pacifica, 25 (October 2012), 292. ↩︎
  4. The Basis focuses upon christology, rather than trinitarian theology. Trinitarian convictions, including in relation to divine power, could certainly have been expanded in this document. However, as Young points out, in the Basis we see something of the “rhythm of the Gospel” in its, at least initial, emphasis upon the revelation of Christ. Young, ‘The Theological Convictions’, 294. ↩︎
  5. Geoff Thompson highlights the “christological framing” of this paragraph in the Basis, stating “the Word of God is Jesus Christ whose work of salvation and continuing presence to the church have already been described in summary form in the preceding paragraphs”. Geoff Thompson Disturbing Much, Disturbing Many: Theology Provoked by the Basis of Union (Northcote: United Academic Press, 2016), 67. Reflecting on this priority within the Basis, Young states “This emphasis on Jesus Christ as normative did not begin, of course, with the crafting of the 1971 Basis. It appears again and again in the earlier Reports…” Young, ‘The Theological Convictions of the Basis’, 293. ↩︎
  6. As the Basis states, we hear and know Jesus, the Word of God, “from Scripture appropriated in the worshipping and witnessing life of the Church” (Basis, para 5). ↩︎
  7. For discussion of the ways in which strands of the Protestant tradition elevated the bible to the place of authority in an attempt to “match the Catholic Church’s highly developed doctrine of papal authority” see Thompson, Disturbing Much, Disturbing Many, 68. ↩︎
  8. Within the First Report of the Joint Commission on Church Union, The Faith of the Church, composed in the wake of the horrors of two World Wars, and published in 1959, the centrality of Christ is poignantly underscored: “It has been a humbling thing for the churches of the twentieth century to learn that they have no message but Jesus Christ…And so the Church’s word is of Jesus Christ, who is God’s Word to the Church and to mankind. He is the centre of our worship, the content of our preaching, the beginning and end of all our theology”. ‘Faith of the Church’ in Theology for Pilgrims: Selected Theological Documents of the Uniting Church in Australia, edited and introduced Rob Bos and Geoff Thompson. (Sydney: Uniting Church Press, 2008), 36. ↩︎
  9. The Basis states: “In particular the Uniting Church enters into the inheritance of literary, historical and scientific enquiry which has characterised recent centuries, and gives thanks for the knowledge of God’s ways with humanity which are open to an informed faith” (Basis, para 11). ↩︎
  10. The irony of this is that the Basis affirms that the integral place for hearing the Word of God in the bible, is within the worshipping and witnessing community (Basis, para 5). For further discussion see Thompson, Disturbing Much, Disturbing Many, 67–68. ↩︎
  11. Italics added. ↩︎
  12. Deep listening is integral within the culture of many First Nations peoples. Elder and Indigenous leader Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr explains about deep listening, using the word “Dadirri”, a word from the Ngan’gikurunggurr and Ngen’giwumirri languages of the Aboriginal peoples of the Daly River region. Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr states “Dadirri recognises the deep spring that is inside us. We call on it and it calls to us. This is the gift that Australia is thirsting for. It is something like what you call ‘contemplation’. When I experience dadirri, I am made whole again. I can sit on the riverbank or walk through the trees; even if someone close to me has passed away, I can find my peace in this silent awareness. There is no need of words. A big part of dadirri is listening”., accessed 22 August 2023. ↩︎
  13. Italics added. ↩︎