Theological Culture in the Uniting Church: A Community Project


Rev Dr Robert McFarlane

About the Author

Rev. Dr Rob McFarlane serves as Presbytery Relations Minister across the twelve Presbyteries of the Synod of NSW & the ACT. Rob has served previously in three congregations in NSW, and two presbyteries in NSW & Queensland in leadership, missional and education roles. He has also served as Director of Continuing Education in NSW/ACT, and as adjunct faculty with the United Theological College (Sydney) for 25 years along with visiting roles with UCLT in Adelaide, Newlife College (Gold Coast) and Trinity Theological College (Brisbane). Rob’s teaching roles span Biblical studies, leadership and bioethics. He chairs the Assembly’s Standards for Ministry Committee.


I like the Act2 working definition of theological culture:

“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.”

The definition blends general ideas about culture with hints about what the content of that culture might be for the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA). The mention of “prophetic speech” and “the world” point towards a particular shape of theology.

Reflecting on how we do theology – and embody a theological culture – in the UCA, I offer the frame of “community project” to describe both the content of our theological “conversations”, “decisions” and “speech” as well as the network of our “practices” and “institutions”. There are tensions in both of these areas; for shorthand, our speech and our practices.

First, tensions in our theological speech.

As I listen to our theological conversation, a core UCA value is inclusion. We seek to embrace and include people who are diverse in a range of spheres. Spheres of diversity include ethnicity, ability, health, socio-economic status, faith understandings, gender and sexuality. We don’t always succeed at inclusion, but we see the aspiration as living as Jesus lived, embracing those others would see as outcast.

We often describe ourselves in contrast with other Christian traditions in which only a very narrow range of thought is acceptable, or which celebrate certainty over curiosity. In desiring to include as wide a diversity of theological perspectives as possible, we are sometimes seen as not having a core. However, this is precisely where our core sits. In a sense, this is a paradox, expressed flippantly as: “I love everyone, but I just can’t stand bigots”.

Two recent examples show where we have wrestled with our core value of inclusion in our “prophetic speech about God, Christ and the world.”

One example of how we have wrestled with inclusion is around “marriage equality” or “same-sex marriage”. (Where one sits in our spectrum of diversity is expressed in what language one uses to describe the issue.) One perspective on how to express our value of inclusion was that we should unequivocally embrace marriage equality, in seeking to include people of all sexualities. Another perspective was that the value of inclusion was best expressed by including people of all theological perspectives about marriage, whether affirming or opposing same-sex marriage. In the end, we embraced theological inclusiveness by creating the space for ministers and congregations who either affirmed or denied the validity of same-sex marriage/marriage equality. Theological inclusion was valued in a way that allowed people to remain within the UCA whose own inclusiveness did not extend to marriage/sexuality. Some, who did not value theological inclusiveness, in that they could not be in a church that allowed views other than their own, placed themselves outside our inclusiveness and left. Inclusiveness always has limits.

Another example of how we have wrestled with inclusion was around The Voice. Long before the referendum was announced, many UCA bodies affirmed the three-fold call from the Uluru Statement from the Heart: voice, treaty, truth (makarrata). The NSW/ACT Synod made this affirmation in 2019. While UCA members individually voted as they felt led, the UCA collectively felt that the Voice expressed our value of inclusion publicly, and that support for the Voice expressed our solidarity with the UAICC internally in the life of the church. Travelling around Presbyteries and Congregations as I do, I heard some members questioning when the UCA had decided to support a “yes” vote, and why they hadn’t been consulted. Some people couldn’t see a line-of-sight from our Synod vote to support the Uluru Statement and a concrete endorsement of “yes” in the referendum. Affirming the aspirational inclusive values of the Uluru Statement was one thing, endorsing a particular vote was another. Nevertheless, our value of inclusiveness was unequivocal in our collective voice to affirm inclusion of First Nations people, and thus affirming only one way to vote in a public action.

Thus, from these two recent examples of how the UCA spoke about matters on which Australian society voted, we see two different ways of expressing our value of inclusion. Regarding marriage, we affirm two view theological views, allowing ministers and congregations to have differing limits to their own boundaries of inclusion. Regarding The Voice, we collectively affirmed only one expression of inclusion, resolving to give unqualified support for The Voice, however individual members will have felt led to vote personally. We wrestle with the limits and scope of inclusion around both persons affected and theological views held by people. Our theology is a community project, balancing inclusion as a value to be expressed or a practice to be embodied.

And so, to tensions in our theological practice.

The UCA and our prior denominations have always valued theological reflection and engagement. Presbyterianism affirmed rigorous academic standards for ministry and secular education. Methodism affirmed prophetic speech and community engagement. We are heirs to both traditions. Thus, we affirm the importance of our theological colleges and university connections, and we expect our theologians to engage in public discourse. Our theological practice is academically-grounded and outward-facing.

Within the Act2 definition of culture, “institutions” are closely related to our practice. Our institutions include, among other bodies, our theological colleges. One tension that has emerged over the last few decades is the place of the “academy” in the life of our Church. Our colleges are affiliated with universities as the basis of their accreditation to confer degrees. Our colleges thus have to work hard to meet both the requirements of the “academy” and the needs of the Church. These imperatives do not always align, or at least lead to competing values around where to place most effort: earning research points or forming disciples. In the ideal world, both can be done, but there is always a tension.

One way in which this tension between the requirements of the academy and the needs of the church has been expressed is in the role of UCA theologians. The requirement for qualified and published academics on our college faculties has resulted in a decrease in the number of UCA ministers and members in those roles. Further, the desire of each Synod to have its own college to be a “real” Synod has resulted in a valuing of the institution-as-institution. The voices of UCA ministers and members with strong theological capacity, but no institutional standing, are often marginalised.

The tension in our practice of theology is how to do the work in a way that embodies inclusiveness, not just proclaims it. A vision for the future of our colleges could be to become curators of communities of theological reflection. Our theological reflection could express more fully “all of this is us”. Once again, our UCA theology is a community project.

A further tension in the practice of inclusion in our theological colleges is in our network of relationships. One aspect of the Act2 workstream 4 is the institutional shape of our colleges. Whichever way we discern this across our Synods, there is an opportunity to affirm our culture and values over structural concerns. Perhaps inclusiveness leads more in the direction of collaboration rather than combination of institutions. From a personal perspective, as I survey the landscape, I see an unprecedented level of collaboration and goodwill among our colleges. This mirrors the work being done in the “Presbytery Project” across the 12 Presbyteries of the Synod of NSW & the ACT. Our discernment is leading towards a focus on strengthening relationships and collaboration oriented towards effectiveness rather than the costly work of structure with uncertain prospects of achieving the aims of the restructure. Culture and relationships are primary over structures.

Drawing this together, I have reflected on our theological culture through the one value of inclusiveness. Within our theology, we sometimes struggle with what inclusiveness can look like around diversity, notably around sexuality, ethnicity and theological perspective. This will always be a struggle. Within the practice of generating our theology, we struggle around what inclusiveness looks like for each college within its Synod, and for all the colleges in relationship with one another across our Synods. It is an open question for our colleges in how they will relate to the wider UCA theological community within their Synods. The way forward for our network of colleges will be through the embrace of collaboration along with inclusiveness.

In summary: Our theology is a community project. Our theological value of inclusion is expressed in both the struggles of what is IN our theology and how we DO our theology.