The Triple Inheritance of Uniting Church Theological Culture


Matt Julius

About the Author

Matt Julius is a member of Northcote Uniting Church, a graduate of Pilgrim Theological College, and a member of the Synod Standing Committee of the Synod of Victoria and Tasmania. Some of Matt’s sermons, theological reflections, and commentary on church and culture can be found at:


Setting and Place

Culture has a texture. Before we can begin to unpick the theological culture of the Uniting Church in Australia, we must acknowledge the concrete ways in which we experience the texture of culture. When turning our attention to the theological culture of the Church, then, we should be attentive not only to the official statements of various councils of the Church, but to the dispersed ways in which theology is engaged, practised, tested, heard, spoken, enacted, challenged, approved: the joy and terror it brings.

As I began to write this piece I was sitting in the Dalton-McCaughey Library (DML): one of the great inheritances of the Uniting Church and its history of ecumenical cooperation. Named after two significant figures in the Australian Jesuit and Uniting churches, respectively, the DML is one of the most significant theological libraries in our corner of the world. It sits on Wurundjeri land, between a stretch of residential colleges at the University of Melbourne: land whose legal ownership is derived from colonial law. The building which houses this library also houses several offices for the Synod of Victoria & Tasmania and the Synod’s theological college.

I sat down to write at the end of a workday managing a cafe in the city. And yet, though a hospitality professional, I find myself in a building I have frequented regularly for 12 years: as student, candidate for ordained ministry, a sometime preacher, no one in particular—perhaps as a member of the Synod Standing Committee, among other church roles.

All of this tells us something about the textural quality of the Uniting Church’s theological culture: set in the context of indigenous dispossession; inheritors of a significant ecclesial heritage; placed in antipodean context; open to lay and non-specialist theological voices who inhabit diverse and ambiguous places within the corporate life of the Church. The theological culture of the Church emerges from a triple inheritance: indigenous dispossession, ecclesial heritage, and the uniting churches’ active participation in Australian civil society.

The Triple Inheritance

The context of indigenous dispossession is at one level obvious: it suffuses everything. All theology done in the lands now called Australia is theology on stolen land. Although the Uniting Church at times identifies as a uniquely “Australian” church, this claim is never strictly true: the uniting churches (Presbyterian, Methodist, and Congregationalist) found their origin in the renewal movements of Europe, from the Protestant Reformation through the Evangelical revival. That is to say, this uniquely “Australian” church is a church from elsewhere. In this strict sense alone, perhaps, it can be considered a truly “Australian” church: a church of the settled totality of these lands, and not a church birthed from the varied and vast peoples, cultures, and communities which preceded colonisation.

Indigenous dispossession is not merely one other justice issue among others which the church is morally bound to address. Lumping the task of indigenous reconciliation together with all the other pressing issues facing the church is akin to setting Christianity’s relationship with Judaism flatly alongside all other interfaith engagements. Reductive and lacking historical consciousness. It is the starting point for the possibility of a church in these lands. We are woven into the land’s history. As people who profess a God who encounters humanity in history we must confront our responsibility to the history of this land.

In the space of theological culture, the task is not simply about making First Nations’ perspectives one more item on a syllabus, the incorporation of traditional stories as sermon illustrations, or even yet another book club reading about the history and culture of First Peoples. The Uniting Church does not need another rehearsal of moralism. Of course, we should do all these things, but they ought to arise from our fundamental pursuit of the Reconciling One in our midst, who is in the land itself. Who sustains our very lives, even as we desecrate the body of the earth.

The recognition of the church’s dis-place-ment, as a church from “elsewhere”—a settler church—is a necessary starting point for our theology. It leads us to acknowledge that neither God nor the Gospel are possessions of the Church itself. God both precedes the church, and exceeds the church: sustaining the life of the land and the land’s people for history beyond our understanding, and calling us into a reconciliation and renewal which is yet before us. The church exists in the interstitial space between past and future, injustice and justice, rupture and reconciliation.

The church’s place in the ambiguity of the world that is and the world that ought to be is also reflected in the other side of the colonial project. It is quite notable the ways in which the uniting churches, in particular, contributed to the construction of Australian civil society. Through education, social and community services, healthcare, and broader community organisations, the Uniting Church is the inheritor of quite a significant history of civil society participation. Rather than a voice from various margins, the Uniting Church has been an active participant in the network of organisations and other entities which have sought to advance a better, more open and democratic society in these lands now called Australia.

The porosity of the church and wider civil sphere has enabled significant work towards education, the alleviation of poverty, and the move towards a more just society. And this not only through organisations and programs, such as the agencies which form the UnitingCare Network; and key programs like LifeLine and even the Royal Flying Doctor Service. The crossover of key people has been telling as well: Uniting Church members and ordained ministers can be counted among State Governors, Cabinet Ministers, High Court Justices, and senior figures in Australian public service. It is to the church’s credit that we have a history of active responsibility taking for the challenges facing society at large.

It is, however, both true to say that the Uniting Church has made a significant positive contribution to the flourishing of Australian civil society, and that the Church has incurred debts in this pursuit—albeit not debts unique to the Church or other churches themselves. Programs which have grown out of volunteer-driven, grassroots community projects have been a site of innovative social care: they have also carried with them the risk (again, not unique to churches) of being places of poor oversight, pain, and abuse. So too, delivering government programs has at times placed the Church at risk of complicity in the moral failures of government. The Victorian government, for example, recently announced a redress scheme in relation to historic forced adoptions: a government policy enacted, in many instances, by non-government agencies (including church-run agencies).

The point of all of this is to name that the theological culture of the Uniting Church is set within a broad set of social, political, and cultural considerations. There is not neutral, ‘right’, or objective standpoint from which to consider the theological culture of the Church—let alone to conduct this work. We must simply exist in the complex, and conflicted field of the church’s history.

Crucially, the dual settings of colonisation, and civil society have their own inertia. They have bequeathed us a legacy, and a range of entanglements to which the Church, throughout the Act2 process, must be responsible. It is telling, for example, that ecumenism has receded in prominence on the agenda of the Act2 project’s remit (coming out of feedback from the last Assembly), while maintaining our ethical and legal obligations has been accepted as a necessary principle. Whatever we might say about our aspirations for the Uniting Church’s theological culture it must address the inevitability of the inertia of our inheritance as a church.

To make this point more explicitly: a theological culture which cannot address the concerns of theology on stolen land, and theologising the manifold expressions of the church in agencies, schools, care settings, alongside communities of faith, will be inadequate to the task.

Saying more about the theological culture that is

A distinctive feature of Uniting Church theology is its catholicity. Not here a reference to Rome, but rather a recognition that the theological culture of the Uniting Church is done in ‘accordance with the whole.’ That is, it draws from anywhere and everywhere. At its best this enables a richer, and deeper theological landscape which takes seriously the insights of diverse perspectives, particularly those whose voices are often marginalised in mainstream theological discourse—both academic and ecclesiological. At its worst the Church can be robbed of common touch points and language for scaffolding healthy theological disagreement.

The seeds for this theological culture can be seen in the Basis of Union itself, particularly in the unhelpfully titled paragraph on ‘scholarly interpreters,’ which commits the Uniting Church to listening to contemporary scientific, and scholarly approaches to the world. Beyond that, however, the call in the Basis is to diverse modes of witness with which the Uniting Church and its theologians ought to do business: prophets, evangelists, martyrs. This expression in the Basis is itself grounded in key decisions of the Joint Commission on Church Union: namely, their refusal to partake in ‘ecclesial carpentry,’ and instead to embrace a kind of catholicity in the development of the Basis itself.

The understanding of their task was not to adjudicate the hierarchy of authority given to the old official theologies in the new ecclesiological situation. Rather, they sought after the generous revelation of the Gospel in the faith of the Church itself (which is bigger than any given church, let alone the uniting churches). Insights into God’s ways are given abundantly in the world, and the Christian theological task is primarily an act of witness to this beneficence of God to and through all of creation itself.

This cosmic scope of the theological culture of the Church is all-encompassing. Against those who would paint the Church in their own image, one can truly find the full spectrum of theological beliefs—indeed beliefs which don’t fit neatly into any clear typology at all. Much of the reductionist accounts of the Uniting Church and its theology say more about the theological and reputational commitments of the commentator than they do the textured, and lively reality of the Church itself. It does not do justice to the Church and its theological culture to simply name it as “diverse.” The visible diversity of the Church—seen in the discussions of councils, pages of Synod magazines, and various committees and working groups—barely moves beyond the narrow-band of theological discourse which is thoroughly shaped by majority culture concerns.1 So too the entanglements of the Church with wider society: both under the veil of colonisation, and the complex obligations of civil society.

The ongoing need for the Uniting Church to listen to voices which pierce the veil of its majority culture theology also unsettles easy assumptions about the Church’s commitment to be both “a counter-cultural prophetic voice” and “a contextual expression of church.” These two presumed identities within the Church need not be inherently contradictory. There is no singular context, but only diverse frames of culture and meaning complexly related across any society; as such, counter-cultural voices address different publics, and cut across different contexts. Culture here should not be too easily collapsed into questions of ethnicity: sub-cultures of class, disability, sexuality, and political consciousness exist as well.

With this in mind, it is worth interrogating the legitimacy of the Church’s sometimes claim to be a voice from the margins, given its disproportionately white membership and leadership, and the ongoing benefit of its dual heritage of colonial history and embeddedness within Australian civil society. If a prophet, perhaps the Church takes more from the prophets who sought the Word of the Lord from within the courts of the king and temple. The truly counter-cultural word might yet come from those minority culture voices who upset the status quo, and find themselves too often in a place of response to the inertial culture of the Church.

The ecclesial heritage of the Uniting Church carries with it theological commitments which might help us to attend to the theological challenges of these realities in the life of the Church. That is, might help attune us to the questions which arise from our evident diversity, and complex embeddedness in the world.

… and now the third inheritance?

The third inheritance which has a kind of inertial status in the theological culture of the Uniting Church is our ecclesial heritage. This, of course, includes the theological traditions of the uniting churches: the Reformed theologies of Presbyterianism and Congregationalism, and the evangelicalism of Methodism. This Reformed and Evangelical heritage is reflected in all manner of cultural forms: from texts and ideas, to structures and institutional arrangements, and extending into our ways of worshipping and forming community. Beyond these more obvious connections we should not ignore that the Uniting Church itself was formed in the fervour of the 20th century ecumenical movement, and so we are shaped also by the gifts of that movement: liberation, contextual, feminist, intercultural, and various political theologies.

With this framing in mind I want to propose five principles of Uniting Church theological culture, which reflect some of the theological commitments of our antecedent ecclesial history. We should think of our engagement with antecedent traditions more as conversations of which we are intrinsically a part, not repositories of answers which we simply need to excavate. The task is to take what we have received seriously: which implies both appreciation and critique—particular in recognition of the ways this theology has engendered a wilful blindness to harm.

I. Cosmic

A core idea of the early Christian movement is that the work of God in Jesus Christ has implications for the cosmos itself: it is not simply human beings, but the world as such which is transformed by this wandering Jewish preacher. The cosmic and eschatological dimension of early Christian proclamation relativises any claims Christian individuals or communities might make to being the keepers of the salvation offered by Jesus Christ. We are changed because we are caught up in the transformation of the world itself: subject to the intervention of God in and through the world itself. As such the Church’s theological culture can never be reduced to private concern, nor be inattentive to the ways in which God is working in and through the world—even in critique of the Church itself. Christian theology must address the world, and be addressed by the world: and so our various engagements with the world are material to our theologising.

II. Christ-centred2

No Christian theology can exist without the proclamation of Jesus Christ, the Risen Crucified One.3 Such a commitment to Jesus Christ is not simply a matter of upholding received christological orthodoxies, but about taking seriously the centrality of contingent, embodied, historical existence in our encounter with God. Throughout Scripture the remedy to idolatry is not a doctrine, but a story: the God of your ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (and might add Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah); the God who liberated the Jewish people from Egypt; the God who meets us in Jesus Christ. The centrality of our story with God is a necessary element of our Christian being, precisely in its particularity and contingency. It is Jesus, the Risen Crucified One, and no other who is our Lord. Acknowledging who and whose we are is not antithetical, but necessary for navigating our place within a pluralistic society. Only with continually renewed clarity about who we are can we begin to form meaningful relationships with difference.

III. Creaturely

Reclaiming the creatureliness of humanity is perhaps not front of mind as we think about what is needed for a contemporary theological culture. A focus on creation by way of eco-theology, certainly. But the creatureliness of the human seems an anachronistic way of thinking about anthropology in a society in-credulous to a Creator God. However, the creatureliness of the human preserves the continuity between humanity and the wider creation: humanity’s own fate is intrinsically tied to the wider social, political, economic, and indeed ecological world. We must tend to this garden. In Jesus Christ God becomes truly human that we might become truly human: truly subject to the renewing work of this world as a matter in which we have an active and existential stake. So too preserving a focus on the creatureliness of humanity leads us to celebrate the fullness of humanity’s diversity in culture, language, philosophy, and religion. All of the proliferating fullness of humanity may take its part in a flourishing world: this is a common task core to the church’s being.

IV. catholic

catholicity (with a small-c) reflects what is already the case in the life of the Church: sheer diversity of sources and perspectives and experiences. Our catholicity, however, is often reflected in discursive silos, and needs to move to a place of open subjectivity: where you can shape me, and I can shape you. This mode of theology is the natural outworking of the prior theological principles set out above. If indeed it is the world which is the locus of divine action (and not first and foremost the Church itself), then we must attend to the full breadth and diversity of what is spoken in the world. At the very same time, to heed this plural word does not mean a departure from our own identity: indeed a refusal to own our identity forecloses true dialogue, because my self is always hidden or reserved, protected from critique. And if humanity is indeed creaturely, set within and as a good part of God’s good creation, then it is intrinsic to our humanity to be open to creation itself, and the fullness of our fellow humanity within creation. We must, of course, move from cacophony to symphony, sounding together, but never at the cost of heeding more voices.

V. Confessing

Lastly, it is worth recalling the Uniting Church in its theological culture back to the confessing nature of our tradition. Confessing rather than confessional is an important distinction (akin to the distinction between Uniting vs. United). The Reformed tradition of which we are a part has been shaped by a practice of confessing faith in new and renewed ways, in new and renewed places. Such confessing seeks after a common voice which binds together communities, often in the midst of significant conflict or controversy. Such confessing is the concrete outworking of the catholicity proposed above: we listen and then we confess. Confessing is a practice of articulating in common what we must say in response to God’s ongoing work in the world: it must take stock of a deep attention to the world, and not a rejection of it. Here is the domain of fresh words and deeds.


This paper has proposed five principles of a Uniting Church theological culture. Principles rooted to varying degrees in the received ecclesial history of the Church. The point here is not that these principles are ready-made answers: each one gives rise to significant demand for inquiry, research, and creativity. We can expect no less of a demand, given the Church’s embeddedness with ungraspable complexity as a church which plays an active role in the civil sphere of Australia, and whose feet are constantly set on stolen land. The Uniting Church’s theological culture must be attentive to the texture of our common life, common history, and common hope. Theology’s measure is not sophistication or abstract perfection, but honest acknowledgement of the truth: the truth of who we are, and of whose we seek to be.


  1. The most striking example of this narrowness comes from the 15th Assembly in 2018. One of the key issues of discussion was the question of same-gender marriage. While this discussion received considerable attention, what received less attention was a comment in the out-going President’s address lamenting the church’s rejection of polygamy: thus ripping apart First Nations families and communities during the period of colonisation. These even deeper, more wide ranging theological engagements with the church’s history and cultural location are still a way off: the majority culture is not yet ready to listen through the full implications of decolonising the church. ↩︎
  2. There is no clearer christological voice in the Uniting Church at the moment than Rev. Dr. Sally Douglas, what is offered below should be set within her much better commentary on this point in this Act2 series: here. ↩︎
  3. The “of” here carries a double force: the proclamation which Jesus Christ proclaimed; and our proclamation of this very same Jesus Christ. ↩︎