The Theological Culture of the Uniting Church in Australia: Reflections and Possibilities


Rev Assoc Prof Geoff Thompson

About the Author

Geoff Thompson is Co-ordinator of Studies—Systematic Theology at Pilgrim Theological College in the Vic/Tas Synod and is Associate Professor in the University of Divinity. This paper is has been written in a personal capacity and is not a document of Pilgrim Theological College.


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


Act2 has invited the Uniting Church to reflect on its theological culture. This is an unusual term. It is not part of our normal vocabulary in conversations about theology. Nor is it a term with much currency even amongst academic theologians.2 As a rule, the church is far more used to talking of theological ‘positions’ or ‘methods’—the diversity of them, debates about them, and the disputes which ensue when the church is urged formally to adopt or privilege one over others.

The working definition provided by Act2 and quoted above certainly takes us in different directions. It focuses our attention on the realities out of which those positions emerge (i.e., practices, institutions and texts) and is also a reminder that theological products are wider than simply theological positions (i.e., conversations, decisions, speech).

To these explicit realities, however, various implicit features of theological culture can also be added. Indeed, my principal aim in what follows is to offer some reflections on both the explicit and implicit features of the theological culture of the Uniting Church. But I also want to draw attention to the way theology assumes different registers: I will name three: ordinary (theology of church members), scholarly (theology produced by scholars) and communally authorised (theology formally adopted by particular churches).3 Although the intersections between the explicit/implicit features and the three registers are manifold, I will focus on a number which I believe illuminate the theological culture of the Uniting Church and which, in my view, warrant close attention.

But first, of all, I believe that this discussion needs to be framed by some general reflections on what theology is and why the idea of a theological culture is a useful one. Having done that I will turn to the more specific discussion of the Uniting Church’s theological culture.

What is theology?

Christian theology can be defined in numerous ways and all definitions are contestable (as will be the one I propose below). Most of the academic text book definitions, however, are too mono-dimensional to capture, let alone illuminate, the multi-faceted nature of the task. For understandable reasons, they orient the task to its intellectual dimension, including when they allow for appeals to experience or context. Even then, however, they often do so in ways abstracted from its embodied, affective and communal aspects. When definitions of theology are restricted to only one of its dimensions, they too quickly gloss over its highly differentiated character.

I propose that Christian theology can be understood as an embodied activity which emerges from Christian communities as they love and serve God in particular times and places.4 It is a truth-telling ministry of the church which yields practical wisdom about God, the cosmos, humanity and salvation. It is produced as we reflect critically and constructively on the gospel of Jesus Christ—the risen, crucified and coming one. It emerges as we are variously consoled, discomforted, challenged, astonished, enlivened and perplexed by this gospel.

All this occurs as we read and re-read the scriptures, as we engage the insights of Christian communities in other times and places, as we open ourselves to the Spirit’s interruption of our always—limited and often-distorted visions of God, cosmos, humanity and salvation, and as we worship, witness and serve in our time and place. It takes form in a manifold variety of genres in various media and is oriented to diverse audiences. And, as I noted above, it assumes various registers: ordinary, scholarly and communally authorised.

None of this occurs in the abstract. That brings me to a discussion of theological culture.

What is theological culture?

As noted earlier, “theological culture” is an unusual term. For this reason I think it is worth stressing that the topic at hand is not “cultural theology” or a “theology of culture” or “theology and culture.” These various topics have had significant prominence in recent decades, largely out of a recognition of the impossibility of a culturally neutral theology. This, in turn, has led to Christian theologians engaging—and contributing to—the shifting definitions of culture.5

Our presenting issue, however, concerns those features of ecclesial culture(s) that foster and produce theology. This does not require an especially tight definition of culture. We can move towards a sense of what theological culture is by thinking more about how the communities that produce theology are themselves varied and differentiated.

Theological culture can, therefore, be understood as a matrix not only of institutions, practices and texts (as Acts2’s working definition indicates) but of people and communities in the almost limitless variety of their inter-relationships. The various activities involved in producing theology as described above (reading, speaking, thinking, writing, engaging, worshipping, witnessing and serving) all occur in the midst of the church’s varied life. They are embedded in multiple cultures with their various linguistic and conceptual possibilities as well as their various discernment processes. It’s carried on by people with diverse kinds of expertise, knowledge, prejudices, dispositions and sensibilities. It occurs at the multiple interfaces of these many communities, individuals and institutions, all of which are shaped by differentials of power and various degrees of trust and distrust, agreement and disagreement, friendship and suspicion. The production of theology cannot be abstracted from this matrix. And it is from this matrix that churches produce the institutions, practices and texts from which emerge its ordinary, scholarly and communally authorised theology.

Attending to this unusual idea of theological culture is helpful because it forces us to address the often invisible dimensions of theological work, especially those related to power differentials as well as the more elusive realities of dispositions and sensibilities. It also allows us to acknowledge how power differentials are themselves shaped by such factors as gender, ethnicity and economic realities. It also allows us to explore how dispositions and sensibilities weave their way into institutions and practices and take institutional form. It also encourages us to recognise that the church is itself a community of communities, and that the interfaces between the various communities are themselves theologically generative and help make theological culture what it is.

The Theological Culture of the Uniting Church

Having drawn attention to the distinction between the explicit and implicit elements of theological culture, I will now apply it to the Uniting Church.


Act2’s working definition of the Uniting Church’s theological culture names practices, institutions and texts as elements of the UCA’s theological culture. Employing these categories, I will focus first on practices and institutions before turning to the question of texts in the next subsection.

(a) Practices and Institutions

One of the background papers for this part of Act2 names the wide range of practices and institutions that generate theology in the Uniting Church: worship, bible study groups, participation in the civil society, discipleship formation activities, and our consensus decision-making processes. It places theological colleges as “central among” the theologically formative institutions.6 This claim could be contested for several reasons. And whilst the roles of the Uniting Church’s theological colleges will inevitably be given close attention in the Act2 discussions, my concern is that any focus on the spatial arrangement of the relationships between the institutions obscures a more pressing issue.

Deciding whether a particular institution should be centre, periphery or somewhere in between obscures the respective roles that the various institutions play in generating and sustaining the different registers of theology: ordinary, scholarly or communally authorised. I believe that the vitality of Uniting Church theology requires these three registers of theology to be mutually informing and mutually accountable. This, in turn, requires the various institutions that produce them to be similarly mutually informing and mutually accountable.

Staying intentionally connected to communally-authorised theology will help ordinary theology resist idiosyncrasy. Staying intentionally connected to ordinary theology, communally-authorised theology will be reminded of the limits and source of its authority. Staying intentionally connected to ordinary theology will help scholarly theology resist abstraction. Staying intentionally connected to communally-authorised theology, scholarly theology can more fully engage established traditions of Christian wisdom. Staying intentionally connected to scholarly theology will help both ordinary theology and communally-authorised theology be alert to their capacity for insularity. The list of various relationships and possibilities could go on. I will name what I believe to be three particular challenges/possibilities specific to the Uniting Church.

The status and dissemination of communally-authorised theology.

In the Uniting Church it is the Assembly which has “determining responsibility” for doctrine. Doctrine, of course, is only one part of theology. Nevertheless, in exercising this responsibility, the Assembly—as the Uniting Church’s elected representative national council—has made authoritative decisions about, for instance, women’s ordination, baptism, and marriage. The introduction of the Assembly Circles, and specifically the Growing in Faith Circle, has been an important development in making connections, at least between ordinary theology and communally-authorised theology. Yet this move has also, in my view, made the official theology of the church less visible and has somewhat blurred the distinction between theological conversation and authorised theology.

The fundamental problem did not, however, emerge with the creation of the Circles. There is a long history of the Uniting Church’s authorised theology not being efficiently disseminated throughout, and received by, the church. But as we attend to the theological culture of the Uniting Church, I believe we need to consider whether it is the Assembly’s role to foster conversations or to articulate the church’s established theological positions?

Scholarly theology and the function of theological colleges.

I have argued elsewhere that the Uniting Church’s theological work has been limited by the tight nexus that has existed since union between theological colleges and ministry education.7 Historically, this had the effect of narrowing the range of the church’s theological agenda. Of course, none of our theological colleges today limit their curricula to matters of ministry narrowly defined. But it remains the case that there is nothing in the Basis, Constitution or Regulations to mandate a wider role for our colleges. The wider roles that they and their faculties do perform have developed spasmodically, whether this be in terms of, for instance, research, public theology or teaching beyond the academy.

This current consideration of the Uniting Church’s theological culture provides an opportunity for us to imagine how scholarly theology and its role is not confined to theological colleges and how it might assume a more differentiated role in its interconnections with ordinary and communally-authorised theology. As we now consider, under the framework provided by Act2, the relationships between, and oversight of, the theological colleges, we could avoid simply replicating the same faculty positions across the colleges and intentionally explore possibilities of faculty positions deliberately not oriented to ministry formation or the traditional theological disciplines.

This could include positions exclusively devoted to public theology (to engage with non-theologians and non-Christians in public discussions about the common good) or ordinary theology (to engage and foster the interface between scholarly and ordinary theology and intentionally bring it to bear on scholarly theology) or research and writing (to increase the Uniting Church’s contributions to scholarship and attract a younger generation of theologians). Unless we are intentional about such developments, they will not happen. In order to embed them in our explicit theological culture, it could be necessary to re-think and expand the regulatory mandates given to our theological colleges.

It may require closer attention to the constructive and limiting tensions that exist at the interface between the academic and ecclesial cultures that our colleges necessarily straddle.

Ordinary Theology and an “informed faith.”

The category of ordinary theology has its own legitimacy independently of its awareness or otherwise of scholarly theology or communally-authorised theology. It is a form of theology legitimately informed by other—non-academic—sources. This provides an opportunity to think about its relationship to the idea of an “informed faith” referred to—somewhat loosely—in paragraph 11 of the Basis of Union. Absent the many cultural supports that enabled faith to be informed in informal ways in the culture of Christendom, and now facing the power of dominant cultural and political narratives, ordinary theology is today vulnerable to being denied any formative encounter with some of the received language and symbolism of Christianity. It can be difficult, without particular efforts, to sustain an “informed faith.” Although addressed to his own North American context, Douglas Ottati’s comments could be applied to our own:

[A] primary danger in many places today is simply a loss of theological acuity, a diminishment of our readiness and aptitude to draw on explicitly theological language, ideas, and symbols as we engage a demanding, contemporary world. And, where its theological vocabulary fails, specifically Christian wisdom falters.8

Writing as self-confessed “liberal Protestant” from a mainstream denomination (Presbyterian Church (USA)), Ottati also draws attention to the particular edge which the lack of theological acuity can assume in that context:

Many appear to know almost intuitively where they stand on important issues of the day, such as economic inequality, racism, Christianity and other religions, migration, gay marriage and environment and uses of military power. Their witness is both good and important. Too often, however, they are unable to give strong theological reasons for the stands they take …9

This is too general a statement to be directly applied to the Uniting Church. But it can’t be denied that it captures a charge often levelled at the Uniting Church by its external and internal critics. The theological foundations of many of our decisions and policies are not well known or grasped even by those who enthusiastically champion them. This indicates problems of communication and education within our theological culture. It also suggests a lack of confidence in theological language. This, in turn, calls for closer attention to the relationship between ordinary theology and the informal ways in which an informed faith is cultivated.

(b) Texts

The established Christian traditions are sustained by various authoritative texts which they have generated and which theologically define them. Their status and use is often sustained by particular understandings of tradition and its authority. They explicitly shape the theological culture of those churches. For instance, many Presbyterian churches formally acknowledge the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) as their “subordinate standard” (subordinate, that is, only to scripture).

At its inception, the Uniting Church resisted investing any document with such a status. The Basis of Union does name several of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century confessions and John Wesley’s sermons which defined the respective cultures and identity of the antecedent Presbyterian, Congregational and Methodist Churches. It presents them as resources from which the “Uniting Church continues to learn” (paragraph 10). This choice of language (echoing the language about the Creeds in paragraph 11) is extremely important. It reflects the deliberate view of the authors of the Basis to be grateful for, to learn from, but not to be defined by, the denominational past. This does mean, however, that the Uniting Church lacks a set of historical texts to serve as authoritative norms for our reading of scripture (the church’s primary text) or as established points of reference for our theological conversations. (Whilst this opens the Church to the present and future, it is not unproblematic and can feed a hyper-protestant suspicion towards the wisdom of the past.)

Of course the Basis itself is a high-profile point of reference and identity marker. Yet it has not been invested with the status which the confessions enjoyed in the earlier denominations. Its status is to “guide” the church in its life and work “within the faith and unity of the one holy catholic and apostolic church.”10 Since union, the Church been developing other theological texts which have gradually pressed their claim upon Church as points of reference and identity markers and which, at some level, function as norms. These include: the Statement to the Nation (1977), The Uniting Church is a Multicultural Church (1985), the Covenanting Statement (1994), Uniting in Worship 2 (2005) and the Revised Preamble to the Constitution (2009). 11Each of these is more than a theological position as such. They are explicit statements about the nature and calling of the Church and its practices. They also reflect how the cultural and linguistic profile of the Uniting Church and its self-understanding has been transformed since union.12 They could be tentatively described as “instruments” of the Uniting Church’s theological unity.

All of these documents (including the Basis), whatever their formal status, are still being received by the membership of the church at large. This is a reminder that our identity is still in flux and still being discovered. It is not settled in the way that other churches might be or as our antecedent traditions were. The consequence of this is that our theological culture is loose and is itself in flux—and perhaps quite rightly always will be.13


For this section I will focus on what I call “sensibilities”—implicit but effective impulses woven into the Uniting Church’s theological culture which shape our theological decisions. They lie beneath the explicitly stated theological methods, but may well be more influential than those methods. There are several which I will argue are already established and several which are emerging.

(a) Established sensibilities

These can be observed to be at play in some of the Church’s significant decisions: the rejection of re-baptism, the affirmation of women’s ordination, the adoption of The Uniting Church is Multicultural Church, the Covenanting Statement and the Revised Preamble to the Constitution, and the affirmation of two understandings of marriage. Often these decisions or adoptions are interpreted as the victory of one theological camp or one ecclesiastical tribe over another. They might be interpreted as illogical compromises between those camps and tribes. They might be interpreted as a shift one way or another along a liberal-conservative spectrum. I suggest, instead, that that they can be read as outcomes of the Uniting Church giving different weight to confession, context and controversy. There is no fixed formula for how the weighting is applied, but each sensibility has been present.


Here I’m referring to the idea of confessing the faith (not confessing sin). The Uniting Church was born in such an act of confession. Union was a confession of faith: because the church is grounded in the gospel of reconciliation, the church should display that unity visibly and organically. Such acts of confession are “here we stand” moments. With this sensibility in our origins, it has surfaced at other times. These include the decisions about baptism and women’s ordination as binding on all ministers. This has meant that alternative positions were excluded as contrary to the gospel. On these issues, dissent was excluded and background controversies were officially concluded.


At its outset the Uniting Church sought, albeit inadequately, to acknowledge its context.14 The Uniting Church is Multicultural Church, the Covenanting Statement and the Revised Preamble to the Constitution can all be read as ways not only of acknowledging our context, but also as moments of confessing the faith afresh. The gospel, being what it is, calls the church to re-state its identity and history in terms of who belonged to the church in this time and place. This was certainly the case in The Uniting Church is Multicultural Church and the Covenanting Statement. But the Covenanting Statement and the Revised Preamble to the Constitution also reflect the church learning to tell, with repentance, a different story about itself. Attention to context demonstrated that the faith had previously been denied rather than faithfully confessed.


It is often forgotten that union was itself controversial. It was opposed from within each of the uniting churches and was treated with suspicion by other churches. If that controversy had not been embraced, union would not have occurred. There are many examples of the Uniting Church subsequently embracing controversy. The decision in 2018 to acknowledge “two statements of belief” on marriage followed the church embracing both internal and external controversy about sexuality and gender. It reflected the church’s engagement with a changing context. The decision itself generated yet more controversy. On this issue, by allowing two positions to stand side by side in the life of the church, the controversy within the church was not decisively resolved. In this respect, the decision reflected the divided mind of the church, but precisely as such also indicated that both “beliefs” could belong to the confession of the church’s faith.

(b) Emerging sensibilities

Being a “uniting” church. I noted above that the identity of the Uniting Church is in flux, still being discovered. I believe that theological discussions of the phenomenon of united and uniting churches has been seriously neglected. The generation of highly-developed theologies helped to pave the way for the union of such churches in the mid-twentieth century. But what theologies emerge because of union? At least for this uniting church, not least because of its multicultural nature (not necessarily a feature of all united and uniting churches), the process of union continues: not between denominational traditions but between all manner of other differences. Alertness to these emerging kinds of union warrants being welcomed as an emerging sensibility within our theological culture.

Intercultural relationships.

These relationships are acknowledged in the Uniting Church but are often hard to navigate. The sensibility is emerging but lacks strong visibility in our theological culture. The Tongan communities within the Uniting Church have introduced us to the notion of “talanoa” (dialogue) that takes place on the “Fala” (mat) of welcome and hospitality. Rev Dr Jason Kioa has written of the fruitfulness of extending this idea into “semi-institutional” forms in the Uniting Church.15 Of course, it is for the Tongan community to explain and articulate the richness of this idea. But through exposure to this and parallel practices in other cultures present in the Uniting Church, I believe that such sensibility will become part of our theological culture.

Living on stolen land.

There is nothing at all implicit about this. The Uniting Church, with its acknowledgement (in 2018) that the First Peoples of Australia are sovereign peoples in Australia has made this explicit. There are overt political and ethical implications of this. But its significance for our theological culture is still emerging. As is the role of Indigenous theology in the Uniting Church’s theological culture. We may be being taught to understand the land and stories it tells as itself one of the texts of our theological culture. Aunty Denise Champion makes this observation at the conclusion of her book Anaditj:

Any time we talk about connecting with Creator … it means that we were right there. It means that we have stories that stretch right back to the beginning of creation. That’s very significant because to me that gives us a much older form of knowledge. Older than the written scriptures even.16

As this sensibility develops, and as we consider the relationship between the stories of First Peoples and the witness of scripture, we may be drawn into one of the most demanding and enriching developments in our theological culture.

Theological culture is indeed about “institutions, practices, and texts”—and how they combine to “extend the Uniting Church’s particular conversations, doctrinal decisions and prophetic speech about God, Christ and the world.” It is right and necessary for us to pay attention to the details of these institutions, practices and texts. But in the end, theological culture is about people, Christian disciples, who are part of a community of communities: communities which confront us with difference. This has implications for the task of theology. American theologian, Willie James Jennings, addresses this in this short statement of his vision for theology, a vision “in which we are required by the very nature of faith … to enter deeply into different ways of life and to perform Christianity within the cultural logics of peoples different from us.” It involves the “performance of commitment to Jesus inside the cultural logics of people not our known.”17 This would never have been the language of those who birthed the Uniting Church, but their logic, although narrowly confined as it then was to denominational difference, has hints of Jennings’ vision. The foregoing reflections on the Uniting Church’s theological culture has sought to identify at least some of its “cultural logics.” The possibility provided by Act2 to reflect on this culture will hopefully enhance the capacity of the Uniting Church to see its theology as a “performance of commitment to Jesus.”


  1. “Act2: Response to God’s Call June 2023,” The Uniting Church in Australia: Act 2, accessed July 31st, 2023, ↩︎
  2. I am aware of only one academic monograph which explicitly addresses the theme of “theological culture,” i.e. John Webster, The Culture of Theology ed. Ivor J. Davidson and Alden C. McCray (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2019). I follow Webster only in the sense of locating theological culture ecclesially and in presenting the gospel as its driving force. Interestingly, the International Journal of Systematic Theology devoted its July 2023 issue (Vol 25, no 3) to the theme, “Toward a Renewed Theological Culture.” The articles are, however, generally oriented to the culture of academic theology with little attention to the broader ecclesial culture of theology. ↩︎
  3. I take the idea of “ordinary theology” from Jeff Astley, Ordinary Theology: Looking, Listening and Learning (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002) although wanting, for the purposes of this paper, to use the term loosely, trading on the suggestiveness of the juxtaposing it alongside the other two registers I have nominated. Those two registers “scholarly” and “authorised” are deliberately distinct from Astley’s own categories of “academic” and “ecclesial”. I have chosen “scholarly” partly because of its place in the rhetoric of the Uniting Church (based on its well-known use in paragraph 11 of the Basis of Union) and partly to make the point (important for the later argument of this paper) that “academic” is only sub-culture within a wider culture of scholarship. I have chosen “communally authorised” as a reminder that the formal adoption of theologies by particular churches is the result of their respective processes of communal discernment, and that such theologies carry an authority invested in them by those communal processes. For what I believe is the only academic study that expressly relates the methods and interests of “ordinary theology” to the Uniting Church, see Michelle Cook, “On being a covenanting and multicultural church: Ordinary theologians in the Uniting Church explore what it means to be church” (PhD thesis, University of Queensland, 2020), ↩︎
  4. As I noted earlier, the account of theology which I outline in this paragraph is contestable. For what it’s worth, however, my aim has been to hold together certain descriptive, normative and aspirational dimensions without absolutizing any one of them. Arguably its most contestable element is its emphasis on theology’s ecclesial provenance. A potential counter to this is that theology is generated by a wider range of concerns than those of the Christian gospel and the community which proclaims it. There are vast historical and methodological issues raised in this discussion. For a detailed discussion see Kathryn Tanner, Theories of Culture: A new agenda for theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997), 63–69. In particular, against the charge of an ecclesial narrowing of theology, see her comment: “Because theology operates within a Christian context is no reason to think theologians are discussing matters that only concern Christians” (69). ↩︎
  5. For a very helpful overview, see Judith Gruber: “Culture/s as a Theological Challenge: Towards a Systematic Approach to Intercultural Theology” in Interreligious Hermeneutics in Pluralistic Europe: Between Texts and People, ed. David Cheetham, Ulrich Winkler, Oddbjørn Leirvik and Judith Gruber, 397–413 (Leiden: Brill, 2011). My thanks to John Flett for alerting me to this work. Also see Tanner, Theories of Culture. ↩︎
  6. Andrew Johnson, “Unpacking our theological culture,” The Uniting Church in Australia Assembly, accessed August 14th 2023, . ↩︎
  7. See my A Genuinely Theological Church: Ministry, Theology and the Uniting Church (Reservoir: Uniting Academic Press, 2018), especially 23-37. ↩︎
  8. Douglas F. Ottati, A Theology for the Twenty-First Century (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2020), 2. ↩︎
  9. Ottati, A Theology for the Twenty-First Century, 2. ↩︎
  10. The Uniting Church in Australia Constitution, Clause 2. ↩︎
  11. I have not included The Statement to the Nation (1988) or The Invitation to the Nation (1997) only because in my judgement neither of those have assumed the status or been received by the Church to the extent that those in the list have. ↩︎
  12. That is not to say that the transformation is complete or fully acknowledged. A large gap exists between these statements and the life of the church. On this see Michelle Cook, “The Ecclesiology of a Covenanting and Multicultural Church,” Uniting Church Studies, 24 no. 2 (December 2022), 21-32. ↩︎
  13. It is also a consequence of the refusal to treat union as an exercise in “ecclesiastical carpentry.” Had that option been taken, it is likely that the Uniting Church’s identity would have been established more quickly, and no doubt more firmly. It would also have been a betrayal of the particular call to union grounded in a “fresh confession of the faith of the church” (Joint Commission on Church Union, “The Faith of the Church” in Theology for Pilgrims: Selected Theological Documents of the Uniting Church in Australia, ed. Rob Bos and Geoff Thompson (Sydney: Uniting Church Press, 2008), 40). ↩︎
  14. Whilst being specific about the Asia and Pacific contexts of the church, the Basis of Union failed in any way to acknowledge Australia’s First Peoples. ↩︎
  15. Jason Kioa, “The Role of the Tongan National Conference in Relation to the Basis of Union” in The Basis of Union at 50: Its Present and Future, ed. Ji Zhang and Geoff Thompson (Bayswater: Uniting Academic Press, forthcoming). ↩︎
  16. Denise Champion Anaditj (Port Augusta: Denise Champion, 2021), 79. ↩︎
  17. Willie James Jennings, “Disfigurations of Christian Identity: Performing Identity as Theological Method,” in Lived Theology: New Perspectives on Method, Style and Pedagogy, ed. Charles Marsh, Peter Slade and Sarah Azaransky (Oxford Oxford University Press, 2017), 83. ↩︎