Friday, January 22, 2021

Uniting Church Theology and History - Intensive at Pilgrim Theological College, Feb 15th -18th and 20th

This year Pilgrim Theological College and United  Theological College will be co-operating in the presentation of their respective units, "Uniting Church Theology and History" and "Uniting Church Studies"  in mid-February (see dates below).  Dr Damian Palmer and I will be leading the teaching, assisted by a variety of other presenters from various parts of the UCA. We'll be live-streaming into each others' classrooms and facilitating interaction between our respective cohorts of students.

We are very intentional about taking these units beyond being simply opportunities for denominational induction and/or enculturation. Instead, we are wanting to see them as a chance to explore the Uniting Church - its theology and history, its emerging identity, and its changing role and diverse places in Australian society and religion - as a topic of tertiary-level academic enquiry. 

Relative to other 'mainline churches' (itself a designation which invites scrutiny), the UCA has a relatively short history. In many respects, and properly so, it is still a work in progress. Nevertheless, it has also now been around long enough to have generated significant amounts of critical reflection, commentary and debate. There is much to study and evaluate. 

For logistical reasons we can only do four of the five days together. The fifth day will be in our separate cohorts exploring slightly distinct themes. On those first four days we'll cover the UCA's historical and theological roots, the content and status of its Basis of Union, and the various church-shaping debates and decisions about: 

  • women's ordination;
  • being a multicultural/intercultural church
  • its colonial entanglements, the covenant with the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress and the adoption of the 'Revised Preamble'; 
  • sexual diversity and same-sex marriage; 
  • innovation and tradition in liturgy; and
  • its profile in matters of social justice.  
The following sketches the particular issues/questions/approaches we'll be exploring on the final day in the Parkville cohort.

1. The various histories of the Uniting Church

The UCA's history can be told in a wide variety of ways: telling the stories of its theological disputes, charting and interpreting its numerical decline; appropriating the multitude of local congregational histories; assembling the various academic publications of the UCA Historical Society or those which have marked the various anniversaries of the UCA. After canvassing some of these, this session will focus on William Emilsen's 2019 biography of Charles Harris, a key early First Peoples' leader in the UCA. His story (as told by Emilsen) is powerful personal story, but indirectly it also tells a story of the hopes, achievements and failures of the UCA. 

2. What is 'Uniting Church theology,' how is it produced and by whom, where is it found and what is it for?

In a formal sense, Uniting Church theology is that which is affirmed by the Assembly, the Council with "determining responsibility" in matters of doctrine (glossing over, for now, the distinction between theology and doctrine). Less formally, it is also what is preached by its preachers, articulated in its justice statements, and embodied in its mission etc. This session will explore the tensions and possibilities between these formal and informal theologies, noting how neither can be easily mapped by the frequently invoked but blunt and largely uniformative categories of 'liberal' and 'conservative.' There will be a special focus on what theology is actually for, noting the ways the different groups in the UCA (activists, pastors, deacons, preachers, community services, academics, administrators, and leaders - all of which categories being further differentiated by age, gender, culture) have different expectations of theology. Does the force of these diverse expectations shape the UCA's theological work? How does the UCA's theological work measure itself by the confession of Christ's lordship? 

3. Locating UCA theology in contemporary global theology

The UCA's founding theology - and its confessional, missional and Christologically-based features - was shaped by and in the mid-twentieth century European-centred ecumenical atmosphere. Emerging from that environment it was already alert to the post-Christendom context the West's churches were then entering (and there are definite post-Christendom impulses already evident in the Basis of Union). But the ecumenical diversity of the mid-twentieth century has given way to a more radical diversity of 'global Christianity' with its accompanying theological diversity generated by attention to race, colonialism, gender, religious pluralism, climate change and poverty. What sorts of conversations are possible between the UCA's founding theology and these contemporary theological movements? And what does the rise of new global Christian traditions mean for the Uniting Church's received ecumenical impulses?

4. The UCA's pilgrimage in contemporary Australian Christianity and society

If the global Christian landscape has changed in the last 50 years, so too has the Christian landscape in  Australia. This landscape is characterised by: 
  • a significant decline in Christian allegiance (slightly slowed, but not arrested by the 'growing' churches); 
  • the swap in social and political influence between the churches once considered marginal and those once considered central;
  • the growing cultural and linguistic diversity of Australian Christianity;
  • the churches' collective complicity in child sexual abuse;
  • the disproportionate presence of the churches in community services 
  • the growing public profile of other religions; and
  • politically-charged debates about the relationship between 'Australian' identity and the so-called "Judeo-Christian tradition."
For the UCA, as one of the forms of Christianity that has moved from near the centre to towards the periphery, this context is potentially an opportunity to vigorously explore and develop two images from the Basis: the "strange way" of Jesus Christ and the character of the church as "pilgrim people." Both images are related to the summons from the Basis for the church to be nothing less and nothing more than an "instrument through which Christ may work and bear witness to himself."  They also raise internal questions about what forms of Christian community actually justify the definition of "congregation," the scale and responsibilities of the UCA's inter-related councils, and the dependence on inherited property and occupied land (the latter in terms of both Christian stewardship and the UCA's commitment to First Peoples' sovereignty).


Dates for Uniting Church Theology and History / Pilgrim / Parkville: 15th - 18th and 20th February


Enrolment info:

Dates for Uniting Church Studies / UTC / Parramatta: 15th - 19th February

UTC Website: 

Enrolment info:

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