by Rev Prof Andrew Dutney
This year, we celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the formation of the Uniting Church in Australia. On 22 June 1977 the Australian Congregational, Methodist and Presbyterian churches united – a momentous religious event in Australia and internationally.
The last forty years haven’t been particularly good for organised religion in Western countries. Mainline churches have ceased to belong in the centre of society as secularisation and religious pluralism have advanced. But the Uniting Church still has more than a million adherents, over 100,000 weekly attenders, and more than 2000 local congregations. Its vast network of community service agencies, affiliated as UnitingCare Australia, operates out of 1600 locations, involves 30,000 volunteers and has 40,000 employees.
While the Uniting Church has a markedly smaller profile than when it was formed in 1977, it is still a significant presence in the Australian community.
The resilience of this church has a lot to do with its international connections. While churches have been declining in the West, globally Christianity has continued to flourish – especially in Africa, Asia, the Pacific and Latin America. Most of the world’s Christians now live in this “global south”, and most of the Uniting Church’s international partnerships are there too – especially in Asia and the Pacific, with more recent partnerships being established with churches in Africa and the Middle East. Out of these relationships, coupled with patterns of migration in recent decades, the UCA has become a noticeably multicultural church, conducting its life and worship in dozens of languages and having its agenda set by the needs and experiences of newer migrant communities in Australia – including refugee communities.
The relationship between the UCA, its Aboriginal members and Aboriginal communities more generally has also been making a positive difference. Historically, these relationships were based on the work of missionaries, but since the end of the 1970s they have been guided by the goal of Aboriginal self-determination. In 1985, the UCA recognised the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress as the body within the church with responsibility for ministry by and with Aboriginal people. In 1994, the UCA and the UAICC entered into a solemn covenant together to work for justice and reconciliation between First and Second Peoples in Australia. The UCA adopted a new Preamble to its Constitution in 2009. This Preamble truthfully told the story of the church’s relationship with the First Peoples in Australia, and committed the UCA to the goal of reconciliation.
In these and many other ways, the Uniting Church has been working diligently on matters that concern many Australians. From the edges of society, it has continued to make its distinctive contribution. A fortieth anniversary is unremarkable against the two millennia of Christian history. But the UCA does have something to celebrate.