The Uniting Church in Australia this year is marking its 40th anniversary. In part one of a two part interview, National President Stuart McMillan, who grew up in Sydney but has spent the last 35 years based in Darwin, talks about what led to the creation of the church, the “rich edge” of the church today and his own journey to the office of president…

Congratulations on the 40th anniversary. To kick us off, can you tell us a bit about how the Uniting Church in Australia came to be formed?
“The Congregational Union of Australia, the Presbyterian Church of Australia and the Methodist Church of Australasia as it was in those days – it included New Guinea and some other places – began a conversation really 40 years before the union actually come into being and that conversation was prefaced around the Biblical understanding in John 17 that Christ desires that we might be one. I think the significant thing that sticks out for me – and I’m certainly not a scholar of the commission that worked on the union – but the significant thing that sticks out to me is something one of our theologians has said as he’s read the commission for union’s reports and that is, that the significant theological breakthrough that caused the three churches to join together was that the church is in and for the world or it’s not the church. And that shifted the focus from a kind of inward, denominational focus to an outward, community focus, both here in Australia and internation[ally]. I think that was the significant shift in thinking that finally brought those three churches together.”

Stuart McMillan1

Stuart McMillan, president of the Uniting Church in Australia

 

"[T]here is a growing and a rich edge of the church and I see it most strongly when I gather with youth and young adults in our church. They’re a passionate community of people that are disciples and that care about others and the kinds of things that are happening both in Australia and in our world and that are very committed to one another, almost seamlessly, in terms of cultural backgrounds.” 

Were those three churches involved together because of the similarities in the denominations?
“Well, simply that they were part of the reformed tradition. In some places, not necessarily the three, but in some places two, sometimes three of them were already working together. There had been the significant establishment of the United Church of Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands [and] there was in Australia, the establishment of the United Church in Northern Australia. They were established prior to the union that came about in 1977. So when I first went to Darwin to work for the Northern Synod of the Uniting Church in Australia in 1982, I discovered this rich history of the United Church in Northern Australia and recently - late last year - I was over in PNG for the United Church’s annual meetings and was able to catch up with some of the leaders there that were part of the original movement towards union. So, it’s because they’re part of the reformed tradition, but it’s [also] because they were parts of the church that were already together in significant ways, before here and overseas.”

And those links with Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands – are they still maintained today?
“Absolutely. In fact, one of the things we celebrate and rejoice about is that out church these days is very culturally and linguistically diverse so there’s large diaspora communities that are part of the life of our church and I think we have just under 200 congregations that are culturally diverse and that worship in about 26 different languages and that’s not including First Nation congregations. And then we’ve got 12 national conferences – the Tongan National Conference, Korean National Conference , Fijian National Conference and a range of others. So the connection between those communities in Australia and our partners in the Pacific and Asia particularly (there are some other partnerships in Africa and the newest partnership [is in] the Middle East) are very strong...Internationally, we part of the Methodist family…even though we’re the Uniting Church in Australia.”

In Australia, I think the latest Census data showed that more than 870,000 people – or about 3.7 per cent – listed the Uniting Church as their religious affiliation. In general – and the big news with the Census was the growth in people ticking ‘no religion’ – was that data in any way a surprise to you?
“No it wasn’t a surprise, we’re very conscious of those parts of our church that have aged and that have declined…I don’t get too perturbed about the data – I think we’ve got to take that seriously but in the life of the church I can see the Spirit is transforming the church. The Basis of Union that was framed 40 years ago talks about a fellowship of reconciliation and I think the intercultural community that the church is becoming is a true example of what was envisaged in that…And so I think, whilst the data set is there, there is a growing and a rich edge of the church and I see it most strongly when I gather with youth and young adults in our church. They’re a passionate community of people that are disciples and that care about others and the kinds of things that are happening both in Australia and in our world and that are very committed to one another, almost seamlessly, in terms of cultural backgrounds.”

Following on from that, what words would you use to describe the identity, the culture, of the Uniting Church in Australia today?
“The word that we use for our youth and young adults conference that we hold is a Burramattagal word – the First People from the Parramatta area – and the word is ‘Yuróra’. And that means 'passion' in the Burramattagal language and, if I was asked to use one word, then I would say a ‘compassionate' and 'passionate' people of God. [But] that’s not one word is it?”

"We believe quite strongly in the way in which the Scriptures talk about the gifts and enabling of God’s people and God’s mission...So, lay people have a different call in their life in terms of the way in which they might be following Christ to ordained people and God gifts people in unique ways."

You’re only the third lay person to be elected president nationally (although you did work for 10 years as a pastor). Do you think being a lay person brings something different to the role?
“The Uniting Church has always been a church that’s about the whole people of God…We believe quite strongly in the way in which the Scriptures talk about the gifts and enabling of God’s people and God’s mission and so I think we’re on about discipling and growing the people of God and enabling the whole people of God to participate in the life of the church and God’s mission, fully, in the world. So, lay people have a different call in their life in terms of the way in which they might be following Christ to ordained people and God gifts people in unique ways.
     “Some of the uniqueness of the gift I bring to the church is the 35 plus years experience I’ve had learning from and working alongside and with First Nations peoples, particularly the Yumul peoples of Arnhem Land – speaking a language, working in a community development role, those kinds of things. Sir Ronald Wilson, who was a lay president in the life of the Uniting Church, obviously brought a considerable legal acumen but had a very compassionate heart as well and his role in the Bringing Them Home report and the Stolen Generations inquiry shows that...Jill Tabart, the other lay president, a doctor, brought all of that medical care attributes and gifts to the role but also Jill was very organised [and] administrative – she’s done a lot of work with the World Council of Churches in terms of the way meetings are held and how one achieves consensus…
     "Each person has unique gifts as have the ordained presidents of the Uniting Church – Andrew Dutney, immediately prior to me, [was] a great theologian and a gifted writer. So each person in all parts of the church are uniquely gifted to contribute to the mission of God.”

While we’re speaking personally, when did you become a member of the Uniting Church and when did you become a Christian – how has your personal walk with Christ unfolded?
“As a child, my parents sent me to Sunday School – in those days, they weren’t active members of the church, but they sent me to Sunday School and they went to church occasionally. But I suppose my commitment to Christ was about [the age of] 12…I made a decision that I wanted to participate as a disciple of Christ, whatever that meant, and so I began to follow my own journey...
     "As a young married adult – and I was married at 19, so I was young – my wife [Ros] and I were members in a Congregational Church in Epping in New South Wales and so we were part of that congregation when union happened. And then I felt a strong calling on my life to go and work with and learn from the Yumul people of Arnhem Land and so in 1982, we  and our two small children left Sydney and headed for Darwin and a very different but wonderfully rewarding [experience]. It was an incredible privilege to learn from and work with Yumul elders.”

Was that in a church role?
“I was an accountant by profession and the Northern Synod of the Uniting Church in Australia had an accounting service that worked with Aboriginal book-keepers in all the communities. So that was the vehicle that the Lord used to get me to the Northern Territory and to Arnhem Land and I’ve done a whole lot of different things since that first year…And I’m still there.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Part two of this interview will be published shortly.