Theological Culture: Seeking an Intersection between the Four Voices of Theology


Rev Dr Catherine Lambert

About the Author

Rev Dr Cathie Lambert is currently the Education Co-ordinator (Ordained Ministries and Perth Theological Hall Principal) with the Uniting Church in Western Australia. She also works with the Dayspring Community in training spiritual directors. Dayspring’s coursework is accredited through Uniting College in Adelaide where Cathie is an adjunct lecturer. She recently completed her PhD through Pilgrim Theological College in Melbourne.


This reflection has emerged from a recent conversation with a family member, a long-term Uniting Church member. The context was a collaborative discussion to choose the music for a worship service. It became a dialogue about theology and the importance of the words we sing. As we struggled with choosing appropriate songs that complemented the message from the lectionary readings for the day, it became obvious that we were arguing from different theological voices. In reflection, I was drawn to one of the characteristic features of Theological Action Research: the four theological voices. My observations from this encounter led me to question how well we integrate and interrelate the four theological voices within the Uniting Church in Australia.

Theological Action Research is a relatively new research methodology which arose from the ARCS (Action Research Church and Society) Project in the United Kingdom from 2006 until 2010.1 The process is designed to be participative, attentive, action orientated, iterative and a spiritual practice. It involves not only academics, but those most intimately involved in the faith communities being researched. The aim is to open a conversation between the four voices of theology. The four theological voices are used as a hermeneutic framework that locates Theological Action Research at the intersection of these overlapping voices within communities.2 In this paper I will explore the four voices as I see them in my own context in the Uniting Church in Western Australia and express my hopes for how we might better bring them together.

The normative voice of theology relates to the place of Scripture and the teachings of the church or faith tradition. These may be in the form of doctrines, liturgies, creeds or foundational documents. The normative voice also includes how the Bible is used within a tradition or how it is interpreted and who has permission to do so. My observation is that very few people in the Uniting Church engage critically with this voice. Often this voice, in its many forms, is met either with complacency or resistance. The Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds are good examples. Some congregations use the creeds assuming everyone present will be comfortable reciting them without question. Other congregations do not use them at all in an act of resistance to the theological language written many centuries ago. To treat the normative voice with alterity, an out-of-date document with no relevance, denies us what our rich tradition has to offer. On the other hand, to rattle off the creeds, liturgies and documents with no critical engagement also dishonours their power and relevance for today. As the Uniting Church, what is our normative voice? Is there only one or perhaps there are many? How would holding more than a single normative voice affect our identity as a Church?

The formal voice of theology is that of academic theologians and their work in engaging with other disciplines. This is a broad field spanning biblical studies, history of the church, systematic theology and practical theology. Those in this field have observed the changing landscape over time as theology intersects with other fields giving rise to areas such as Feminist Theology, Ecotheology, Liberation Theology, Trauma Informed Theology and Theologies of Disability. This voice has often been confined to the walls of theological colleges and universities. In recent years, however, I have observed an increase in faith communities engaging in book groups and other forms of listening to the formal voice of theology. Unfortunately, in the past, this voice has been limited to the clergy of the church and lay people in the pews have been “protected” from the field of formal theology. As more lay people engage with the formal voice of theology, it is not unusual to hear the question, “Why have I not heard about this before?” This clearly indicates a lack of intersection between the formal voice of theology with grassroots theology of lay people. How can we create more opportunities for those in our Church who want to engage the formal voice of theology without entering a degree program?

The operant voice of theology is that which is embedded in the practices of a community. If unquestioned, this voice can often emerge unconsciously. The way we position the chairs in our worship space, the chosen method of serving Holy Communion, the processes of decision making and how we treat young people in our midst are all actions which say something about our understandings of God and how we relate to God. This voice of theology may not seem obvious to those embedded within it, however, for those who visit from outside it may speak very loudly. The catch phrase, “We’ve always done it this way” holds no sway when a visitor or seeker feels excluded or distant from God because of the operant voice of theology embedded in our practices. This voice calls for a renewed awareness about what we do and why we do it. Are we willing to ask these questions honestly and boldly within our faith communities?

The espoused voice of theology refers to that which is embedded in the articulated beliefs of a faith community. At times this may be expressed with clarity, such as a statement of belief on a church’s website. Within some communities this voice of theology is reinforced by ensuring all leaders are faithful to and convey the core beliefs consistently. In other circumstances the espoused voice of theology may be more ambiguous. If a congregation has a different guest preacher each week or holds a diversity of views, the espoused voice heard by a visitor may be determined by who they encounter on a given week. In the Uniting Church it is common for a community to hold a diversity of theological views and to rely on a variety of leaders. How then do we critically engage the espoused voice of theology in our communities to avoid ambivalence and the need for strict conformity? In our desire to be inclusive of different theologies and ideas do we create confusion or uncertainty in our espoused voice?

A strong theological culture within our Church needs to make space for each of the four voices of theology to be heard. Each has its place and informs the other voices. However, the founders of Theological Action Research point out, “We must be clear that these four voices are not discrete, separate from one another; each voice is never simple. We can never hear one voice without there being echoes of the other three.”3 The question I pose, therefore, is how the Uniting Church can best encourage the listening to these four voices and stimulate the conversation between them. These dialogues need to occur in many different contexts throughout the Church.

As many theological colleges are already attempting, our formal voices of theology within university settings need to ask the questions of relevance and practical application. I am aware that Uniting College in Adelaide has a compulsory assessment in all post-graduate courses which requires the development of a learning resource. After the essays and critical reviews have been written, this assessment tool requires the students to seek practical implications relevant to their ministry context. A commitment to including such policies within academic studies bridges the perceived gap between the formal voice and the operant voice of theology. Can we find other creative ways to allow this conversation to continue and flourish?

There is also a challenge to our ministry leaders, both lay and ordained, to challenge people’s understandings of their espoused and operant voices. Inviting members of faith communities to question and analyse their actions and articulated beliefs in light of the normative and formal theological voices is essential. An informed congregation who holds their own theological voices under the spotlight will find more clarity, intentionality and purpose in the life of their community. They will not hold so fervently to the ways things have been done in the past but will be open to “confess her Lord in fresh words and deeds”.4

In Western Australia, the Uniting Church has come to the realisation that we no longer have the resources to provide education in a siloed fashion. We do not have the luxury to have staff solely responsible for formation of candidates for ordained ministry or lay preachers or continuing education. Our newly formed roles that will commence in 2024 will be responsible for the education of all Uniting Church people. This brings immense challenges, but also great opportunities. Education and, therefore, the theological culture within the Uniting Church in Western Australia will need to be a conversation between the four voices of theology. We have been forced into this position due to scarcity and necessity, but I believe it may become a blessing for our Church as we begin to better hear and integrate the four voices in all aspects of education and formation.

Normative Voice

Official church teachings as presented in Scriptures, Creeds, Doctrines and Liturgies.

Operant Voice

The theology embedded within the actual practices of a group.

Theological Culture

Formal Voice

The voice of academic theologians and their intersection with other disciplines.

Espoused Voice

The theology embedded within the group’s articulation of their beliefs.

The Four Voices and Theological Culture5


  1. For more information about Theological Action Research see the website ↩︎
  2. Helen Cameron et al., Talking about God in Practice: theological action research and practical theology (London: SCM Press, 2010), 53. ↩︎
  3. Cameron, Talking about God, 54. ↩︎
  4. Basis of Union, Paragraph 11. ↩︎
  5. Adapted from Cameron, Talking about God, 54. ↩︎