The Ethos of the Uniting Church in Australia
(Expanded with material drawn from historical sources)
Who are you, when you are at your best? What characteristic spirit is manifested in you attitudes, your aspirations and, most importantly, in your actions. Who are you in your essence?
At our recent Church Council meeting we were discussing the recommendations of the Hunter Presbytery following the Faith and Witness Consultation with this congregation and Boolaroo. One of the recommendations referred to Uniting Church ethos, and the importance of reflecting this in the life and witness of our church. At this point one person asked the obvious question- “What actually is our ethos?”
Firstly, what is “ethos”? One dictionary defines it as “The characteristic spirit of a culture, era or community as manifested in its attitudes and aspirations” I would add “in its actions” on the basis of Micah 6:8- “What does the Lord require of you but that you do justly…” Christian is as Christian does. Applying this to the Uniting Church, how do we characteristically behave on the basis of who we believe we are? In other words what is our DNA, and who are we; and further, who are we when we are at our best?
The following is a succinct summary of Uniting Church ethos, from a disturbingly unlikely source: Chat GPT!
The ethos of the Uniting Church in Australia is rooted in principles of inclusivity, diversity and social justice. It seeks to be a welcoming and inclusive community that embraces diversity in all its forms, including race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, age, ability, and socio-economic status. The church is committed to promoting social justice and advocating for the rights of marginalized and oppressed communities, both in Australia and around the world.
The Uniting Church in Australia also places a strong emphasis on ecumenical and interfaith relations, seeking to build bridges of understanding and cooperation with other Christian denominations and religions.
At the heart of the Uniting Church's ethos is the belief that all people are created in the image of God and are worthy of love, respect, and dignity. The church seeks to embody these values through its worship, community life, and outreach activities, and to make a positive difference in the world by working for justice, peace, and reconciliation.
In 2015 I was commissioned by the Synod of NSW/ACT to write a paper on the Uniting Church’s Theology of Service as part of the Synod’s Mission Plan. The following is an extract from that paper:
The ethos of the Uniting Church, that is, its fundamental character, guiding beliefs and ideals are enshrined in and drawn from a number of sources including the scriptures and its foundational and other key documents. (see summary below) The church also uses the term DNA, which indicates that its character is inherited from its Judeo-Christian tradition, and particularly from the Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregational denominations that came together to form the Uniting Church.
The name “Uniting Church in Australia” is itself descriptive of ethos. “Uniting” indicates openness to becoming something for which we strive- a people on the way to the promised goal. “In Australia” indicates that we are not “of” this nation but stand in a prophetic and pastoral (or serving) relationship to the community in which we are located.
Ethos is also perceived when the church as a whole expresses its conviction about what it holds to be of primary importance. For example, in the 2011 National Church Life Survey, church attendees from Uniting Churches throughout Australia, when responding to the question “Which of the following aspects do you most like about the Uniting Church as a denomination” rated “Inclusiveness of all types of people” well above the other 11 options (71.6% chose this category in its top three selections). “Provision of community services (e.g. preschools and aged care)” at 25.4% was the second choice, and “Social Justice emphasis”, at 21.6%, fourth. Notably, inclusion, community service and social justice are all categories related to the service ministry of the Uniting Church.
The ethos of the Uniting Church affirms all people as equally entitled to flourish, and actively seeks to demonstrate fairness in offering service to all without reference to race, class, culture, economic status or sexuality. In so doing it aims to restore a level playing field by focussing on improved quality of life for those who may be in a position of disadvantage. It takes inspiration from the recorded experience of the early church as it lived in community whose worship, witness and service was inclusive and generous to all (e.g Acts 2:43-47 and 4:32-37), the revelation to Peter that Jews and Gentiles were equally under God’s grace (Acts chapter 10), and the conviction of fundamental equality under God of people formerly divided by culture and custom (Galatians 3:28-29).
The Uniting Church seeks to go beyond gender equality to specifically affirm and promote the leadership of women, to the point where the gifts and skills of women and men are fully appreciated and utilised.
The Church is committed to promoting the benefits of a multi-cultural community, and to ongoing covenanting with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to promote the interests of Australia’s First Peoples, and foster mutual respect and understanding.
The following are expressions of Uniting Church ethos embedded in some of its key documents:
The Basis of Union
The Basis of Union affirms that The Uniting Church is centred on Christ, (paragraphs 3 and 4) with all of the faith and ethical implications of that allegiance. It expresses an openness to learn new things in terms of Christian scholarship and the influence of contemporary society and thought (paragraph 11). It describes the church as being “the people of God on the way to the promised end” (paragraph 18). By implication, it has not “arrived” and needs to be open to correction.
The Basis of Union affirms (paragraph 13) the gifts of all who are called to serve Christ within the Community of Faith, and seeks to find a place for everyone’s service. Further, it affirms in its form of government (paragraph 15) the interrelationship of and mutual respect between its various councils. Service within the Uniting Church therefore assumes the participation of each one and each part for the good of the whole community. Former Uniting Church Assembly President Alistair Macrae says that “The church, and hopefully agencies related to the church, is the steward of a vision that is radical and universal, of social order that is without fear, oppression and the violence of exclusion because it is one where each recognizes their dependence on all and each is seen as having an irreplaceable gift for all.”
Writing with special reference to social responsibility in the first twenty years of the Uniting Church, Bronwyn Pike draws the following three characteristics from the Basis of Union:
“*to be a fellowship of reconciliation- following the example of Jesus who brought
reconciliation at an individual, interpersonal and societal level
* to be a pilgrim people- continually wrestling with our place in contemporary
* entwine word, sacrament and service- recognizing that the separation of these diminishes the mission of the church at both congregational and agency level.” (Emilsen, 168/9).
The Statement to the Nation
The Uniting Church’s “Statement to the Nation: Inaugural Assembly, June 1977”, expresses an ethos of passionate intention to be a church that reaches out wholeheartedly and with compassion to the vulnerable, disadvantaged and dispossessed with in prophetic and pastoral acts of justice and mercy. The Uniting Church’s witness in the midst of the Australian community is determined by the affirmation “that the first allegiance of Christians is God…”. The statement recognizes that such a commitment will sometimes lead the church into conflict with the rulers of the day. The statement does not claim that such service to Christ’s poor should be the primary focus of all churches, but that “In the Uniting Church our response to the gospel will continue to involve us in social and national affairs.”
The Faith Foundations document locates the ministry of service of UnitingCare Australia in an ethos described particularly in terms radical equality, inclusive unity and ministry with the vulnerable poor. “We witness God’s love extended to all people, with no discrimination on the grounds of age, gender, sexuality, class, culture creed or cultural origin.” Under “Core Values”, worship, witness and service are grouped “to give greater expression to unity of God’s love for the world and the church as a loving agency, a church that cares and works together for justice”. Under “Multiculturalism” the document speaks of “A commitment to transformative action”, emphasizing the power of social engagement to be a witness that can bring about a change of hearts and minds. Under the heading “Service”, UnitingCare Australia commits to “continue to give care and hospitality to those who have been victimized and hurt by their involvement in Australian society.”
In summary, Uniting Church ethos is consistent with the key theme “Towards Wholeness”. As this term acknowledges, Uniting Church ethos is not “cut and dried” but develops with the church’s own willingness to be open to new spiritual insight and leading. The expansive base of Uniting Church ethos encourages service with compassion, courage and generosity of spirit, embracing those who may be excluded by other parts of society.
The Common Good from a Christian Perspective
The ministry of service in the Uniting Church operates from the understanding that it is the will of God that all creation might flourish under God’s reign. We seek the Common Good because God is uncommonly good.
“When it comes to life in the world, to follow Christ means to care for others (as well as for oneself) and work toward their flourishing, so that life would go well for all and so all would learn how to lead their lives well….A vision of human flourishing and the common good is the main thing that Christian faith brings into the public debate…. For this, in the end, is what the Christian faith as a prophetic religion is all about- being an instrument of God for the sake of human flourishing, in this life and the next.” (Miroslav Wolf. A Public Faith.)
Finally, here are a few stories to illustrate the nature of a church that is open and embracing of change, and willing to stand out from the ecclesiastical crowd when necessary.
Same-gender marriage: When the Australian Government responded to a surge of community support for an amended Marriage Act to include same gender unions, the UCA stood almost alone among the churches in support of the change. Then, when the Act was amended the Uniting Church was the first to allow its ministers and congregations to officiate and participate in same gender marriage ceremonies, should they feel so inclined.
Divestment from investments in fossil fuel: In line with its evolving environmental convictions the NSW/Act Synod, in 2014, under its theme Uniting for the Common Good, gained the consensus of over 500 diverse participants, both clergy and laity, to begin to divest itself of such investments. As the first church organisation to do so, it expressed its solidarity with the poor, who are usually the first and most impacted victims of climate change.
When the Roman Catholic Church withdrew its support from a group of its Sisters who were aiming to establish a Medically Supervised Injecting Centre in Sydney’s King Cross, the Uniting Church’s UnitingCare, under the leadership of Rev Harry Herbert took up the cause. The MSIC is now a lifesaver and beacon of hope for drug addicts in the area. The UCA is also at the forefront of efforts to decriminalise the use of recreational drugs.
Love Make a Way: At the height of the Federal Government’s efforts to Stop the Boats, a group of young (mainly UCA) Christians prayed for a solution to the Immigration detention of refugee children. LMAW organised sit-in vigils in the electoral offices of high profile Government and Opposition politicians such as Tony Abbott, Scott Morrison and Bill Shorten to try and influence a change to a more compassionate approach to the crisis involving refugees and asylum seekers. Participants were sometimes arrested, then released or charged. Later, the Grandmothers against the Detention of Refugee Children (GADRAC) took up a similar cause, using rallies and street protests to get their message across. The NSW/ACT Synod joined in many of these actions, and the Pitt St Congregation hosted a public Service of Lament in solidarity with those who were suffering the consequences of this cruel and punitive policy.
Who are we when we are at our best? Are we open to embracing change, when to stay the same has become a dry and barren state of being because the spring of living water has left us in frustration and gone to spring up elsewhere? Do we dare to be different when time makes ancient good uncouth? Are we ever alert to the biblical imperative to be engaged in prophetic ministry for the Common Good?
Are we a people of vision, holding on to the Divine assurance from the Book of Revelation- “Behold, I am making all things new.” Are we willing to move forward in faith, leaving behinds the baggage or former days? Will we affirm, with our founders, in the words of the Basis of Union: “We are a people on the way to the promised goal”?
Brian Brown May 2023