Some personal reflections on the role of theological libraries in supporting and cultivating the theological culture within the life of the Uniting Church


Moira Bryant

About the Author

Moira is the Library Manager of Camden Theological Library, located in the Uniting Church Centre for Ministry in North Parramatta, NSW. She attends St Matthew’s Uniting Church in Baulkham Hills.


I appreciate the invitation to share some thoughts about ‘libraries in the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) as enablers of learning, networks and communities that help us strengthen our commitment to scholarly inquiry and an informed faith’.

The Act2 Project has identified three elements that impact on the ‘theological culture’ of the UCA: ‘practices, institutions and texts’. Theological libraries are an ‘Institution’ which is closely aligned with formal theological education. ‘Texts’ are a core element in our collections and our ‘Practices’ can help or be a stumbling block for those we seek to serve.

In combination with any initiatives to meet new challenges and new developments, associated with the Act2 Project, theological libraries will continue to do what we aim to do best: to resource our institutions and our communities, to learn from the many conversations within the Christian heritage, to balance tradition with the desire to develop a theological culture which engages with contemporary society, to strengthen the commitment to undertake scholarly activity and to encourage an informed faith.

In the ensuing reflections, it would be presumptuous for me to speak in depth about other theological libraries which are associated with the UCA. Therefore, after some generalisations, I will describe in greater detail how Camden Theological Library (CTL) seeks to resource, sustain, and extend the theological life of those in the Synod of NSW/ACT.

Texts and theological libraries

Towards the end of a life during which he had preached in many places and written many parts of what would become the New Testament, Paul wrote from prison to Timothy “When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments.” (2 Timothy 4:13). Leaving aside any discussions about what these may have comprised, this request seems to imply that Paul was concerned to maintain his own reading and study and that he valued his ‘books and parchments’.

In the ensuing centuries, this integral relationship between Christianity and its texts has resulted in the central role of books, learning and eventually libraries, among Christians.

The role of theological libraries

Over the course of history, all libraries have had a common role: to support their communities of users/patrons/members through the services they provide and the activities they carry out, regardless of how this role has evolved and continues to evolve, over time.

One of the prime roles of theological libraries is to collect, preserve and make accessible collections of resources (texts) in print and, increasingly, digital formats. These collections record theological conversations which were held at different times, with differing points of view and which have resulted in varied responses, but all with the same goal for individuals and communities of faith as expressed by Anselm: Faith seeking understanding.

Therefore, theological libraries have an essential role in collecting and making accessible the theological insights of the past and supporting the conversations which lead to the development of new, contemporary insights which contribute to scholarly inquiry and an informed faith.

Communities of users

  • Theological libraries can serve various communities:
  • Faculty in their teaching and research,
  • Students in their academic goals and their discipleship growth,
  • Alumni in their continuing education,
  • Lay church members, staff employed by the church and the public in their daily lives.

Within the UCA there are several theological libraries. Each serves one or more of these communities and these communities can be influenced by other relationships, such as those with a university, which can impact on who can use the collections.

Camden Theological Library is supported by the Synod of NSW/ACT and facilitates the achievement of theological qualifications through Charles Sturt University. Because it is independent of the university it is free to provide services to people who are not enrolled in the university.

However, there are other models whereby the libraries serve their community. One theological library is part of an ecumenical consortium of theological libraries which form the University of Divinity. At Flinders and Murdoch Universities, the theological collection is one discipline within a multi-disciplined university. The resources at Nungalinya College have been developed to especially support the learning of indigenous Australians.

The administrative relationships can affect the communities that theological libraries serve and who may use their collections.

Theological libraries and the core values of the UCA

Among the hallmarks of the UCA are:

  • Ecumenism and Relations with other faiths,
  • First Peoples and covenanting,
  • Multiculturalism and Intercultural relationships
  • Diversity and Inclusivity
  • Social & Economic justice (including Climate justice).

The Assembly Circles of Interest are ‘fostering a space for deepening faith and listening to where God is leading us to develop the distinctive theological voice of the UCA’.

Their themes are:

  • Walking together as First and Second Peoples = explore our Covenant relationship as First & Second peoples
  • Working for justice = reflect and act on issues of social justice
  • Being a multicultural church = build on our commitment to live faith and life cross-culturally
  • Discipling the next generations = connect with and support young leaders in our church.
  • Growing in faith = explore how we grapple with faith in 21st century Australia
  • Seeking common ground = be in relationship with people of other faiths, no faith and with our Christian brothers and sisters from other denominations
  • Transforming worship = learn about and contribute to vital, healthy worship in our Church.

Some of these hallmarks and themes are easier to reflect in the collections of our libraries, than others.

Since it is necessary that the collections of our theological libraries reflect the communities we serve and the distinctive theological culture of the UCA, there may be questions we need to ask.

‘Do our collections reflect the theological culture of the UCA and if not, are there initiatives which can be undertaken to improve the situation?’

‘Do our collections further our conversation and dialogue with voices from the present which reflect the diversity, equity and inclusivity emphasis of the UCA?’

‘If not, do we need to recalibrate our collections and how might we achieve this?’

The marginalised and minority voices are not always represented in our collections. Historically the collections have represented the view of the dominant culture (the culture of male whiteness, with its Eurocentric focus). As a result, the voices of underrepresented groups may not always have been included in our collections.

We may need to place greater emphasis on obtaining resources which reflect other voices, for example, indigenous approaches to theology, contextual theology, ethnic insights, sexual orientation etc.

If we are to reflect the multicultural, culturally diverse voice of the UCA we may need to create more culturally and linguistically diverse collections. This may not be easy because many of the multicultural groups within the UCA, especially First Peoples and those from Pacific nations, have the tradition of an oral culture.

Some initiatives at Camden Theological Library with the purpose of better reflecting the theological culture of the UCA

1. Korean language collection

At CTL we have been building a collection of 4000+ books in the Korean language. Some of these resources are theological books which have been translated from English into Korean, others are books which have been written by Korean scholars and address topics which are not represented in Western theology (e.g., Minjung theology). However, we are finding it almost impossible to obtain Korean language eBooks.

2. Pasifika collection

A second initiative is to develop a Pasifika collection which currently consist of c400 print books. These include the history of missions, some liturgical resources, and the discussion of relevant social matters, including sexuality and global warming. However, recent publications about contextual theology, including those whose authors are from Pacific countries, are generally published in English. This is an additional barrier to students who are grappling with theological concepts but whose heart language is not English.

3. First Peoples collection

The third initiative is to develop a collection relating to the First Peoples of Australia which currently consists of c400 titles. This material is heavily used by students of the Reconciliation course taught at United Theological College (UTC). However, it is only recently that ATF Press has begun to publish the ATF First Nations Series. There are currently five titles available which explore indigenous approaches to theology. MediaCom Education also makes available for purchase 10 titles about First Nations Theology.

4. Camden Theological Library and recent ‘theological statements’ by the UCA

In addition to collecting ‘published’ print and digital resources, theological libraries have a responsibility to preserve and provide access to documents which reflect another rich theological heritage.

Since its inception in 1977 and the ‘Statement to the Nation’, the UCA has sought to be what Rev. Dr. Chris Walker has described as ‘A Church in and for Australians’. This has included engaging with Australian society on a wide range of social justice issues. Many of these engagements have taken the form of Assembly ‘Media Releases’ which have highlighted concerns about the treatment of First Peoples; migrants, asylum seekers and the marginalised; nuclear weapons; care of the environment; relations with other faiths; sexuality and gender issues; human rights both within Australia and overseas etc.

These documents are a significant record of the UCA’s theological culture as it engages with contemporary society. However, it could be challenging for someone wishing to explore or research this rich heritage.

In recent years, Camden Theological Library has developed and maintained a digital repository ‘illuminate – A ‘Gateway to the history of our churches, treasured memories of local faith communities, reflective output of our faith people, and decision-making of Assemblies and Synods’. This currently contains 20,000 items, including theses completed by UCA ministers.

With the assistance of the Assembly Archivist, Christine Gordon, 350 Media Releases have been located, digitised, and added to illuminate so that the full text of each document is searchable. Without this joint initiative these documents could have been mislaid and would not have been made so easily accessible to anyone.

The documents in illuminate have been a primary source of material for students of UTC and Pilgrim Theological College who are required to take the ‘Uniting Church Studies’ course as part of their formation for ministry.

The digitisation and preservation of such resources supports their greater sharing. There may be other opportunities for digitising unique resources which will provide opportunities for greater interaction with these documents and create greater awareness of what they have to offer our ‘conversations’.

Theological libraries and the development of ‘an informed faith’

Rev. Assoc. Prof. Geoff Thompson, in his paper: The Theological Culture of the Uniting Church in Australia: Reflections and Possibilities, lists three different ‘registers’ for theology, one of which is ‘ordinary theology; the theology of church members’.

One of my ongoing concerns is the lack of engagement by lay people with CTL. It could well be that theology and theological libraries are not seen as relevant. Theology can seem very intimidating and a subject for experts only, a conversation that is closed to lay people. They may find it easier to rely on their ministers to support them in developing an informed faith rather than engaging in theological reflection themselves.

However, Rev. Dr. Michelle Cook, in her paper, A reflection on our culture of discipling, describes how she has found that ‘in general, people in the pews want to engage theologically’, but being time poor they may find it ‘difficult to commit’.

Other barriers could be the geographical location of theological libraries in comparison with many churches and congregations which are non-metropolitan. In addition, simply not knowing how to start selecting relevant, approachable theological material may be a barrier.

Prior to the onset of Covid, CTL created a series of carefully selected collections that were taken by Uniting Mission and Education staff as they led lay education courses in different locations across the Synod. The resources proved popular for borrowing and helped to overcome some of the barriers identified above. As a result of Covid, these courses shifted to online and most of the collections were disbanded.

However, the leaders of the Saltbush Programme continue to add print and digital resources to their ‘mobile’ collections which they report are well-used. We are also working to raise the profile of eBooks which are linked to current lay education programmes.

Theological libraries and ‘new’ media

Anne Muirhead in her Personal reflection on our theological culture has reminded us of how she has been nurtured in her faith by weekly church newsletters, music, podcasts, blogs, webinars etc. This highlights the increasing role of social media etc. especially amongst younger people. These are examples of a growing number of popular communication methods whose output will not be found in theological libraries. This is a reminder that theological libraries may become out of touch with changes in the information gathering habits from the preferred media of certain groups within the church.

Digital resources such as eBooks may not be an obvious solution since while digital content may offer remote access, some resources to which theological libraries subscribe may have access limitations, which mean the content is only available to people affiliated with a theological college or the format may not be compatible with the preferred digital access device. Whilst theological libraries are obtaining more eBooks, print still dominates the theological world. Much backlist and current material is still not in the digital format. Therefore, it is not possible to create a fully digital collection. However, during Covid and since, many theological libraries have significantly increased their expenditure on digital material. CTL is intentional in purchasing eBooks, especially commentaries and worship resources which could also be made available to ministers and lay people.

Theological libraries and ‘Janus’

The Roman god, Janus, is usually depicted as having two faces, since he looks to the future and to the past. Are there other ways in which the UCA theological libraries could explore possible new emerging trends, activities and services?

The Act2 Project includes exploring how to facilitate a national framework for theological education. In his paper, Rev. Assoc. Prof. Geoff Thompson also raises the possibility that ‘we could avoid simply replicating the same faculty positions across the colleges’. It is inevitable that there is duplication of some resources within the collections of our theological libraries. Whilst some of this is the result of the need for ‘core’ texts to be available within each collection, there may be a possibility for different libraries to also develop ‘special’ local emphases, which could result in better financial stewardship of increasingly finite financial resources. There is already a well-developed infrastructure for Inter-Library Lending but there has been no exploration of a greater collaboration in collection development. However, with the increasing emphasis on eBooks, this adds an additional complexity for the sharing of resources.

Theological libraries and publishers

It was suggested that I also refer briefly to libraries and ‘publishing arms’.

Most theological publishers are based in either the United Kingdom or the United States. Each of these is usually linked to a particular denomination (SCM Press and the Church of England) or reflects a certain theological emphasis (Fortress Press and the Lutheran Church or IVP and an evangelical emphasis).

Members of UTC Faculty have published with both theological and more general publishers including Routledge, Lexington, T&T Clark, SBL Press or Bloomsbury. Unfortunately, some of these publishers and others such as OUP and Cambridge University Press charge a significant price to purchase these books. Some of these publishers also require you to use a separate platform to provide access to their eBooks.

Over the years, it has been found that Wipf & Stock publish a wide selection of reasonably priced and theologically relevant titles. Many of these can also be easily integrated into ‘Revelation’ (our discovery service) which provides a common interface for identifying print and eBooks, together with full-text journal articles.

Very recently the Wipf & Stock website has announced a new series ‘Faith And Justice In These Lands Now Called Australia’. The first title in this series is ‘Sunburnt Country, Sweeping Pains: The Experiences of Asian Australian Women in Ministry and Mission’.

MediaCom Education is the main publisher of ‘UCA theology’. It currently makes available 41 UCA resources via its website. Several of the contributors of papers to the Act2 Project have made their works available via the MediaCom website in both print and digital forms.

The website of Uniting Academic Press states that they ‘publish work in theology and related disciplines from Australasia and Oceania, and so seek to bring a unique contribution to the world of theological studies’. As an initiative of the Uniting Church Theological College and Centre for Theology and Ministry in Melbourne, UAP aims to further our commitment to theological education and research, and to serve the needs of thoughtful readers by responding to the current and future challenges and opportunities facing the Christian community’. Currently, their website identifies two publications with more to be published.

As mentioned previously, ATF Press publish a wide range of material, not all with a theological emphasis. In addition they publish various non-denominational journals including ‘Interface Theology; A Forum for Theology and the World; The Bonhoeffer Legacy: An International Journal’.

Since 1995, UTC has published ‘Uniting Church Studies twice a year’. This is a peer-reviewed journal focused on the theology, history, ministry and witness of the Uniting Church in Australia. Many issues reflect a theme and include research articles, reflections and book reviews.


Theological libraries serve a changing community with changing expectations – communities where challenging, yet exciting opportunities continue to be identified.

As we seek to adapt our services and collections to a changing society and an increased reflection of the UCA theological culture, the changes could involve:

  1. The greater use of online content so that we can reach more people.
  2. The emphasis on more local and contextualised content to the reflect the greater diversity of the UCA such as:
    1. The digitisation of unique/special material so that it becomes more accessible.
    2. The increased emphasis on the intentional curation of local scholarship and conversations etc. The output of many meetings, conferences and ‘talanoa’ is often lost.
  3. A greater emphasis on resources which more strongly reflect the distinctive UCA theology.
  4. An increased collaboration among UCA theological libraries to meet opportunities that emerge from the Act2 Project.