Understanding the Uniting Church in Australia


Dr Miriam Oxford

About the Author


Personal history and reflection

I have been a Christian for as long as I can remember, having been a regular at Sunday School at my local Baptist Church from a young age. I was born again at an evangelical event in Newcastle at around the age of 13 and I was baptised in a Revival Centre at around 17 years of age, not long after I was married. I taught Sunday school during high school at a local church, and this continued at various churches until the early 1990s.

During my early married years, my husband and I attended a house church with friends, and we continued to do this for many years until we became involved in a local Pentecostal church. We attended an evangelism school associated with the Church and undertook a range of local mission activities.

We moved to Tasmania when I was in my early 20s and stopped attending church. Whilst I never stopped believing, I prayed less regularly as the years went on. I immersed myself in my career and raising my family, with only infrequent attendance at church.

Last year I felt that my life and career lacked meaning, in addition, I started attending church occasionally with my mother. After some time, I was moved to commence a Period of Discernment as I felt a life-long calling to become a prison chaplain.

History of the Uniting Church in Australia

I think it is important to reflect on our history. It has so many lessons to teach us. It also grounds us when we reflect on the past. Whilst I am not keen on the veneration of saints in the Roman Catholic tradition, there is an aspect that I feel has been missing for me as a protestant—a reflection of the saints from the past and the lives which they have led. There is so much inspiration that can be gained from their courage and faithfulness.

I first learned about our Church’s logo and what it stood for when worshipping at the North Launceston Uniting Church. I felt very connected to the image, and even more so, when I was taught about the meanings behind the symbols. In particular it shows that we are in renewal, incomplete but committed, bound together bringing the light and love of Jesus to our world.

I think that it is also important to remember that we started out as a movement, not just a church. To me this signifies that we are always moving with the Spirit. We should not get stuck in the past, as we live in the present and should look forward to our future.

Theology of the Uniting Church in Australia

In a tradition that values an informed faith, there are many aspects of our Church’s theology that have caused me to think deeply. For me personally, in recent times, I have especially had to think deeply about child baptism and the issue of who can partake in the Eucharist. I came to the conclusion of the semantics of these issues after reading the Assembly Standing Committee Doc.bytes paper on diversity of beliefs.1

Of course, infant children cannot proclaim their love of God in the same way an adult can, but they are so much closer to God. Having come from a Baptist Church in my youth, infant baptism was not undertaken, despite leaving the Baptist Church and moving to Pentecostal churches, I continued with a belief that only adults should be baptised as only they could make an informed choice for Christianity. None of my children were baptised as infants, however, I brought them up in the Christian faith when they were small. In some ways I saw infant baptism as coming from a time when so many children died before reaching adulthood and therefore never got the opportunity to be baptised. I saw it as an unnecessary act in a lot of ways, for me, of course, children went to heaven, that was never a doubt and so I felt it was more of a statement of parental intent and maybe even a bit superstitious. After reading and careful thought, I see it differently, it is not simply about whether you can state your faith, but it is instead about beginning a discipleship and entrance into the life of the Church. Jesus welcomed and blessed infants (Luke 18:15-17; Mark 10:16), so there is no reason that the Church cannot do likewise.

Whilst the Eucharist is for believers, we do not ask a person in our congregation if they are a baptised and confirmed member before they partake of the holy communion. Having said that, I believe that when we eat the bread and drink the cup, we are remembering the sacrifice of Jesus. That Christ died for our sins in order to reconcile us with God. It is important to explain what the Eucharist means to others in the service, so that they have a clear understanding of what they are affirming when they partake.

‘Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup’ (1 Corinthians 11:28). The Didache (9:10-12), whilst not part of the canon, states that the Eucharist is for the baptised citing Matthew 7:6. Thus, historically, it has always been undertaken by followers of Christ who have sought forgiveness from Him for their sins. For me receiving the Eucharist is a time of reflection and remembrance. I have cried during the process, cried because of my sin and separation from God and in the knowledge that God is forgiving of all I have done and loves me despite my sinful nature.

It is easy to get caught up in the finer points of faith, but what do we really know about the mysteries of God, we only see dimly now (1 Corinthians 13:12). Instead, I focus on the love of God, because for me that is the foundation of our beliefs, that God loves us and wants a relationship with us.

The Church’s life and witness

As the church we are called the body of Christ, its not only our identity, we are ‘individually members of one another’ (Rom. 12:5). A single unit, made up of many connected parts. Our mission is to work in unity to shine a light into the darkness of our world and invite others into Gods kingdom. We are not in the waiting room twiddling our thumbs, we are called to action, planting seeds and harvesting for his kingdom. We have all been called to share the gospel.

Whilst not addressed in Our Vision for a Just Australia, the prison community is overflowing. Imprisonment rates are escalating, particularly the imprisonment of women2 which has a very significant effect on the health and wellbeing of children.3 The document, Our Vision for a Just Australia, does discuss the issues of drug misuse and mental health which can lead to incarceration and certainly plague the prison community.

Research shows time and time again that prison does not make the community safer, that it has a significantly detrimental affect on families and children and fails to rehabilitate. When a person receives a custodial sentence they lose their job, often their prosocial supports and friends, they often lose their homes and their belongings, when they re-enter the community they often have just a garbage bag of clothes, half a centrelink payment and usually no job prospects. Their lives may have been in a bad state when they went in, but when they come out it has only gotten worse. That’s just some of the bad news, the problems seem overwhelming. But as the body of Christ we are called to make a difference, the harvest is great, the workers are few, but with God, nothing is impossible!

Act2 is an interesting project focussing on the way forward for the Church. Some of our congregations have tried to embrace new ways, while others prefer what they believe are the ‘tried and true’ ways to worship. Over the past few months as I have travelled, I have been able to visit a number of Uniting churches, often I am one of the youngest people present, at 52 years of age. Surely this is too old to be considered one of the young people! I have seen a range of different types of services from different ministers, lay people and trainees. It has been an interesting experience. But in each situation, the Church building itself vastly exceeds the needs of the size of congregation. The message is still as relevant today as it was 2,000 years ago. Unfortunately, in many congregations, the delivery has not changed in the last century.

According to research, people who are affiliated with a religion other than atheists has grown. In the past two years the number of Christians has grown, with Pentecostals and evangelicals experiencing the most growth denominationally. Growth has centred on Africa, Asia and Latin America.4 So whilst the Western church has stagnated, other regions are experiencing new birth.

What makes a church relevant to a community? I think that in the first instance, it needs to be a part of that community. Only through involvement can actions be undertaken, and needs met—physical, emotional as well as spiritual. It’s not just about the same people coming on Sunday mornings to do the same things, Christianity is not a one day a week activity, yet that is how it is often treated. It is discipleship to Jesus, a command that we follow in His steps. Whilst Jesus was a regular at the Temple, He walked and travelled among the people, both within His own community and those outside of the community.

There are several new trends impacting the Church, what we see in Churches in Europe is a lot more of the application of secular marketing and business models, such as re-branding and entrepreneurship, which have become prominent with new words such as ecclesioprenuership5 coming to the fore. But I would have to ask the question: is this simply another way to focus on governance and administration and the interior workings and politics of a Church community, rather than a reinvigoration of the Church itself?

However, I do feel that the model of Pioneer Ministry, which is being undertaken by the Church of England, does seem to respond to being out in the wider community looking for opportunities to connect.6 Regardless of the structure of ministry and administration, it is every Christians call to spread the good news (Matthew 29:16-20), use our gifts in service to others (1 Corinthians 12:4-11) and together as a Church we are called to be a servant community (Matthew 10:28).

Councils and ministries of the Uniting Church in Australia

As the Uniting Church we are a movement and a pilgrim people and we need to be open and flexible, constantly renewing our way in order to respond to the calling of God. Whilst I have not been a part of church decision making, I do appreciate the process that has been utilised in the Uniting Church, in particular the time given to be inclusive and participatory using a collaborative and relationship building approach.

One of the things that draws me to the Uniting Church is its ability to not shy away from the difficult decisions and the process it goes through to ensure all voices are heard. This is so vital in a society where people often feel marginalised and not heard. There is deep justice in this approach.

As I have matured in my corporate career, I have seen the ways in which I have ‘left people behind’ when I have rushed my decision making as a leader. When I fail to share the process with others and reach a decision based on true collaboration done in love. I have also seen in the business world how sometimes the process of consultation is not grounded in true openness, when decisions have already been made, minds made up and consultation becomes only a way of placating others, but not actually listening to their needs. This creates cynicism and disengagement.

By nature, I am an overachiever, I like to get things done. But over the years I have learned that often in my rush to achieve, I can exclude and hurt others, despite my genuine love for them. I have at times been blind to what others are experiencing and too task orientated. I have come to appreciate that, when it comes to family, community and working with others in group settings, the time invested in relationship building, understanding the needs, desires, and preferences of others, and joining together to collaborate, always results in a better outcome, that slowing down reaps more progress.

I read something recently on the internet, a quote which said ‘Churches have become book clubs stuck on the same book. They were never supposed to be about a book. They are supposed to be about community and loving people.’ Are we guilty of ‘churchianity’, that is, putting the habits and traditions of religion before discipleship to Jesus? Are we desperately trying to hold onto the past, holding onto the known, where it is safe, because the world is a tough place to do Jesus?

The Act 2 project call us to listen and discern, so that we can change and evolve. My heart filled with joy recently when I saw rows of beds in the Bangalow Byron Bay Uniting Church as their congregation responds to the housing crisis in the area. I enjoyed watching a video about Tuggeranong Uniting and their partnerships with other community groups and all the activities and people that they are welcoming into their church community. The Spirit is always doing something new, always transforming each of us as individuals and as the body of Christ, into the likeness of Jesus, making the new possible.

As I journeyed through my Period of Discernment and as I continue to develop the skills required for my lifelong call; I have come to realise that it is more than just a ‘career change’ but rather a strong pull for my whole life to be made new. It is a calling to be responsible to the whole Church catholic in God’s mission in and for the world, for dispersing and reforming, as a Deacon. It requires not only commitment but character development which can only be achieved through the working of the Holy Spirit and the strength of Jesus Christ. It requires me to partner with God in this process—God works with each individual in the process of transformation. Each of us needs to surrender our whole life to God and be actively engaged in a Holy Spirit led intentional process of transformation.

Intercultural relatedness

The definition of being an inclusive intercultural community of Christ which resonated with me is that it is a:

harmonious sharing of common life with people from different cultural traditions in one church/in one community.

  • In which the uniqueness of each culture is not lost
  • In which we can accept, appreciate and respect each other
  • In which we can share and learn from each other
  • In which we participate equally in decision making
  • In which we can establish a strong bond with a common faith
  • In which we can serve people of no-faith and other faiths with the love of Jesus.

We remember that Jesus Christ made peace between people of every race, culture and class. We believe that life in Christ transcends cultural, economic, national and racial boundaries.7

Race often takes the primary focus when we discuss inclusion and diversity. I believe we also need to consider other cultural aspects of our worship and activity such as socio-economic, intergenerational, gender, religion etc. It is important that we do not compound feelings of marginalisation by not thinking about the impact that what we say and do has on others not like us in our work.

Walking with First Peoples

As a teenager, having been through my primary school years in England, I returned to Australia knowing almost no Australian history or geography. As such, I read widely and outside of the traditional school curriculum. I read about genocide, slavery and war. We moved to a town with a large Indigenous community not long after returning from the UK and I saw firsthand the racism, discrimination and poverty, as well as the pride and culture of the community. These events truly changed the way that I viewed white Australians and Australian society.

It is important that as a Church we work to support ‘meaningful and effective, culturally-appropriate and research-based policies and programs to significantly reduce Indigenous incarceration’.8 The imprisonment of our First Nations people has not decreased in the 30 years since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCIADIC), in fact the vast majority of the 339 recommendations have not been implemented.9 Since 1987 there have been a further 400 deaths in custody. Despite making up only 2% of the general population, Indigenous Australians make up 26% of the prison population and are 10 times more likely to be locked up than other Australians.10 Indeed, as stated in the covenanting statement ‘the denial of justice continues today’.11

True connection and understanding comes about through listening to others with love. I believe that building relationships, sharing our lives and growing together in love can bring about learning, change and reconciliation.


Part of being on this journey during my Period of Discernment has had as its expression coming together as a group for stimulating conversation and learning and exploring often diverse points of view. The more I have learned about our Church, its history and challenges, the more I feel in community with the followers of Jesus in the Uniting Church who courageously choose unity in diversity. I want to be a part of a community, most people do. A community which is vibrant, healthy and engaged with the world around us, focused on serving the poor, the oppressed and those less fortunate than us. This is why I want to be a deacon, to build communities who do those things.


  1. Assembly Standing Committee, Doc.bytes 6 In what areas do we hold diversity of beliefs?, (Uniting Church in Australia, 2018), https://illuminate.recollect.net.au/nodes/view/20697 ↩︎
  2. “Prisoners in Australia,” 2021, accessed 16 November, 2022, https://www.abs.gov.au/statistics/people/crime-and-justice/prisoners-australia/latest-release ↩︎
  3. Erica Breuer et al., “The needs and experiences of mothers while in prison and post-release: a rapid review and thematic synthesis,” Health & Justice 9, no. 1 (2021/11/12 2021), https://doi.org/10.1186/s40352-021-00153-7, https://doi.org/10.1186/s40352-021-00153-7 ↩︎
  4. Center for the Study of Global Christianity, Status of Global Christianity, 2022, in the Context of 1900–2050, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (2022), https://www.gordonconwell.edu/center-for-global-christianity/wp-content/uploads/sites/13/2022/01/Status-of-Global-Christianity-2022.pdf ↩︎
  5. “What is Ecclesiopreneurship?,” 2022, accessed 22 November 2022, http://www.ecclesiopreneurship.com/ ↩︎
  6. “Growing pioneer ministry,” 2022, accessed 22 November 2022, https://www.churchofengland.org/resources/diocesan-resources/ministry/growing-pioneer-ministry ↩︎
  7. S. Yoo-Crowe, The Future of Multicultural Ministry of the UCA, Uniting Church in Australia Assembly (1999), https://ucaassembly.recollect.net.au/nodes/view/406. ↩︎
  8. Uniting Church in Australia, “A First Peoples Heart,” (2018). https://uniting.church/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/F1-A-First-Peoples-Heart.pdf ↩︎
  9. Thalia Anthony et al., 30 years on: Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody recommendations remain unimplemented (Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research (ANU), 2021), Working paper. https://apo.org.au/node/311817 ↩︎
  10. “The overrepresentation problem,” 2022, accessed 16 November, 2022, https://www.amnesty.org.au/overrepresentation-explainer-first-nations-kids-are-26-times-more-likely-to-be-incarcerated/ ↩︎
  11. Uniting Church in Australia, “Covenanting Statement 7th Assembly,” (1994). https://ucaassembly.recollect.net.au/nodes/view/310 ↩︎