Archive Article: The Uniting Church Turns 25 21 June 02.
December 29, 2008

The Uniting Church has turned 25. Its 10th anniversary generated a great deal of interest. There has not been quite so much excitement this time. Perhaps this is a good sign that the Uniting Church has become one of the established churches in Australia and so it is no longer such a novelty.

The Uniting Church was created in 1977 by drawing together the Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregational Churches. In the case of the Presbyterian and Congregational Churches, their system of church governance required a vote in each parish. Some parishes voted not to join and so stayed out the new Uniting Church.

The inaugural meeting of the Uniting Church for all of Australia took place in the Mission’s old Lyceum Theatre. An important overseas visitor for the event both there and in the Sydney Town Hall that evening was Rev Dr Phillip Potter, then the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches.

I was then the Mission’s Director of Administration and I was responsible for working with the police to avoid any crowd disturbances. It seems hard to imagine that this should be a concern but we had been warned that the American Christian fundamentalist Carl McIntyre would also be in town for the event. He was opposed to all forms of ecumenical co-operation and so naturally opposed the three churches coming together to form the Uniting Church. He and his supporters certainly gave additional colour to the proceedings but no violence took place. Overall, it was a great day and all the organizers were very pleased with the way it had gone.

There are four points to be made about the Uniting Church’s creation. First, the Uniting Church was Australia’s first home-grown mainline church. All the other major churches have been imported: from Rome, Canterbury, Moscow, etc.

Second, the Uniting Church’s creation did not occur suddenly. There were negotiations underway throughout most of the 20th century between various denominations. As the decision of some Presbyterian and Congregational churches showed, even by the late 1970s there was not complete agreement on whether to proceed.

Third, the name of the church is “Uniting”. It is not “united ” as, for example, in the United Church of Canada. The word “Uniting” suggests that the process is still underway and that other churches are welcome to join.

Fourth, the Uniting Church’s inbuilt sense of chaos seems to surprise other churches. The other churches have well-established set, formal ways of doing things (usually with a man or group of men running the show and setting the direction). The Uniting Church has a much more dispersed – or devolved – way of making decisions. It loves committees. The Uniting Church has never yet found a committee it doesn’t like.

Well, perhaps that’s the way of the future. It may be messy but that is the way things go nowadays. Indeed, in my conversations with nuns, there is the occasional comment that the gentleman in Rome has his opinions and they have theirs. Perhaps this devolved way of decision-making will become the norm of all the churches in the modern world.

Thus, perhaps the Uniting Church’s flexibility and openness to new ideas will be a key factor in its survival.

As John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, once said: “The best is yet to be”

Broadcast On Friday 21st June 2002 On Radio 2GB’s “Brian Wilshire Programme” At 9pm And On 23rd June 2002 On “Sunday Night Live” At 10.30pm