In the second part of an interview to mark 40 years since the establishment of the Uniting Church in Australia (for part one, head here), President Stuart McMillan talks about highlights and challenges, what having a voice in the public sphere means in today's world and the many celebratory cakes...

Looking back over the past 40 years of the Uniting Church’s existence in Australia, what for you have been some of the key highlights?
“Obviously, because I have worked and associated with First Peoples…I think, for me, the ways in which the Uniting Church firstly established the Uniting Aboriginal Islander Christian Congress in the early Eighties, then in the mid-Nineties, established a formal covenant with the Uniting Aboriginal Islander Christian Congress…and then in 2009, we…established a preamble in our constitution which recognised Australia’s tragic history and honoured First People. And now we’re in the space where we’re seeking to understand what it means in the practices of the church to honour First People…So I think our church has taken a lead in the reconciliation journey with the First People in Australia and, if I’m allowed to be proud, I’m proud of that.
     “I think over the 40 years, the changes in cultural diversity and hence the changes in the way worship happens, the theological framings that don’t just come from the West anymore…I’m proud of the positions we’re taken in social reform and justice areas over the years – many and varied, highlighted at the moment by a concern, with many others, around climate change and global warming…[I'm also proud of] the current position with respect to refugees and asylum seekers and policy reform in that area but also the compassion of reaching out that happens in ordinary congregations and communities of the Uniting Church. And that’s been something that’s happened over a long period of time - that our theological, Scriptural base of welcoming the stranger has been lived out in practice.”

 Stuart McMillan2

Stuart McMillan, president of the Uniting Church in Australia.

 

"I think our church has taken a lead in the reconciliation journey with the First People in Australia and, if I’m allowed to be proud, I’m proud of that."

As it now stands today and drawing on that 40 year history, what do you see as the greatest strengths of the denomination and, conversely, are there are weaknesses or any particular challenges that the denomination has?
“It won’t surprise you, if you did a swot analysis, to know that our greatest strength can at times be our greatest weakness. I think one of our greatest strengths is rich diversity - a theological diversity as well as a cultural and linguistic diversity - and I see great strength in that. But, of course, at times that requires a lot more of the members than if we were all of the same mind. But I think there’s something about the way of Christ that speaks into that and so the challenge for us is to live the way of Christ and be able to put the other ahead of our own desires and wishes and to put Christ at the centre.”

As you’ve mentioned, the Uniting Church is known for its social justice advocacy – do you think the church has a good balance in that area given Christianity can get split, sometimes, into being about evangelism or about social justice?
“One of the things that I’ve been banging on about around the church over the last year is another statement out of the Basis of Union which is 'Christ constitutes, rules and renews the church’ and I believe that emphatically. I think that our church is in a time of renewal at the moment and part of that renewal is about balance.
     "I can’t remember the church being called to 40 days of prayer before…One of the things I did and, then with the leaders of the church from each synod – moderators and general secretaries, we met together at the beginning of that 40 days in Melbourne for 40 hours of prayer to offer some leadership but also to indicate how important we thought it was to spend time in prayer listening to the Spirit, seeking God’s wisdom for what’s beyond this anniversary time, if you like. And also, because in our Basis of Union we talk about those things that are erroneous in our life being corrected by the Spirit. So, we weren’t just seeking God for future direction, we were also asking 'What are the things that you see, Lord, that are not right in our life and that we might need to fix?'.
     "So I think that we are in a time of renewal and I think there’s a fresh emphasis again on prayer in the life of our church, there’s a very strong sense of what it means to build disciples, build followers, build people that are equipped…There has been, over recent years, an increased emphasis on mission and evangelism whilst it might look different to the way it looked 40 years ago.There’s a new course that’s being offered online in that space to help build people’s capacity in that area. So, some of these things, I think, are part of the ways in which the Spirit is renewing the church and ensuring that the balance…is there.”

What about as a voice in the public sphere – is it important that the church continue to have a voice here?
“Yes, I [think so]. I don’t think we need to kid ourselves that the voice we have today ought to be the same as the voice we had 40 years ago. [There was a] centrality of Christianity within the Australian community 40 years ago; we’re on the margins today, so the voice is different. Nevertheless, we’re required by God, really, to have prophetic voice and I don’t mean to declare doom and gloom but we have some things to offer into the public square and we ought to be continuing to do that, knowing that we’re not going to be heard in the same way. Churches in Australia have been called to account - the tragic history related to the Royal Commission into child sexual abuse, obviously that’s done damage to the church capital, to the universal church, so I think we’re also called to evidence our integrity, our compassion and our ability to lament and to own those terrible and wrong things that have happened.”

"[W]e’re required by God, really, to have prophetic voice and I don’t mean to declare doom and gloom but we have some things to offer into the public square and we ought to be continuing to do that, knowing that we’re not going to be heard in the same way."

I also wanted to touch on the issue of Indigenous justice given its closeness to your own heart and wanted to ask what your thoughts are with regard to a treaty with Indigenous peoples in Australia?
“I’m on the public record as calling for just term treaties for First Peoples in Australia. I’ve just hosted a conference in Darwin...on the honouring the First People’s sovereignty and there was a good deal of talk about treaty at that conference. I’ve changed in my view over time. Back in the early 90s, I was working with Indigenous leaders before the native title legislation - around about the time of Mabo...and in those days I would have thought that sovereignty was lost because I was thinking from a Western, legal frame, and that treaty was not possible because it hadn’t been entered into in the same way that Aotearoa/New Zealand entered into various treaties with Maori/First Nations peoples there. I’ve changed over time because I’ve realised as I’ve grown and listened that my thinking was limited by a Western construct. And so now I’m very supportive and a strong advocate for us to work those things out. I know some people are fearful of that but I don’t hold fear in that because of the relationships that I value with First People throughout Australia. I believe we can move forward as a more mature and reconciled people in Australia if we embrace this conversation and work it through. “

And, just lastly, I wanted to ask, given it’s the 40th anniversary this year, how is the church commemorating that?
“Lots of cakes. Cakes everywhere. That’s facetious. But it is one of the stories. I was at the Tongan National Conference on the June long weekend – 1,500 people coming together in worship and it was their 30th anniversary – our 40th and their 30th – and we had three cakes, one for each of the 10 years. But, look, as I said, we’ve recently completed on the anniversary date – 22nd June – 40 days of prayer. There’s some significant things that have happened to people in that time; people have shared a lot of their experiences during that time. There’s lots of just individual celebrations of life really, happening around the church – in small, country regions as well as in the cities. I attended a conference in Melbourne celebrating an intercultural journey – that was a 40 year celebration of the growing intercultural community that is the Uniting Church in Victoria and Tasmania. That was a wonderful celebration. So, different ways in very different parts of the country...I want to celebrate, I want to honour those people that have been the founders of this church, that have been wonderful, servant-hearted leaders in our community over the 40 years and before, [but] I also want us to look forward because in that the Spirit has something to say to us.”

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.