A century of uniting churches in Australia part 1


The Uniting Church in Australia was inaugurated on 22 June 1977.

That event was the culmination of a process that began in 1901, the year of the Federation of Australia. With Federation in the air, some of the leaders of the Congregational, Presbyterian and Methodist Churches thought it would be a good idea if their churches caught the mood. That, however, was not their main motivation.

The story had already been a long time in the making – from the 1850s, when the various Methodist and Presbyterian Churches began the processes of reuniting their divided denominations. That is, not the divisions between Methodism and Presbyterianism, but – as noted below – the divisions within the denominations that bore those names. The polity of the Congregational Church was – and is – one that saw the local church as an independent entity. And it did not go through the experiences of division to the extent that the other two churches experienced.

1901 was also the year when the Presbyterian Church of Australia federated its state churches into a national Assembly, with an agreed Basis of Union.

 But it was not as simple as that. Detailed information about the background of the Presbyterian Church – and the others – can be found in Frank Engel’s Australian Christians in Conflict and Unity. Much of the content here owes a lot to Engel’s book.

Christianity came to Australia as separated – and often hostile – denominations, each very certain of its own uniqueness and theological correctness.

Presbyterianism and Methodism came, not as two denominations, but as a total of eight: three Presbyterian and five Methodist churches. Congregationalism came as one body, each congregation in that polity seeing itself as the Church in its fullness. 

The Presbyterian denominations were:

  • The Church of Scotland;
  • The Free Church of Scotland; and
  • The United Presbyterian Church.

By the 1850s, further divisions within the Presbyterian Churches led to there being a total of six different Presbyterian Churches in Victoria – and a similar picture emerged in the other colonies.

At that time, there were five varieties of Methodism in Australia:

  • The Wesleyan Methodist Church;
  • The Primitive Methodist Church;
  • The United Methodist Free Church;
  • The Bible Christian Church; and a very small contingent of
  • The Methodist New Connexion.

A gradual process of reuniting began for the Methodist churches in 1888 and by 1901 it had been largely accomplished. In May 1904 the First General Conference of the Methodist Church of Australasia was held in Melbourne.

Congregationalism came to Australia by way of missionary work. Missionaries from the London Missionary Society came to Sydney at the end of the eighteenth century, after an unsuccessful experience in Tahiti. Congregationalism was main­tained by lay members and missionaries until the arrival of several ordained min­isters in the 1830s. The first church was established by a Congregational minister in Hobart in 1830. By 1840, Congregational work had been established in Victoria and South  Australia, and by 1853 in Queensland. Congregationalism grew mainly by immigration from England.

During the second half of the nineteenth century various State unions were formed, but given the independent nature of Congregationalism it was quite a while before the Federal Union was formed. In 1904 a follow-up conference of the Queensland Congregational Union’s Jubilee (1903) established the Congregational Union of Australasia. New Zealand was included until 1960

In the Presbyterian Churches, moves got under way in 1859 that led to one Presbyterian Church in Victoria by 1870. A similar set of union negotiations in New South Wales had seen the three Presbyterian Churches there unite in 1865.

Presbyterian unions had been achieved in Queensland in 1863, in South Australia in 1865 and Western Australia in 1901.

Along with all this, there was some discussion among the Presbyterian churches in the states to have ‘inter-Colonial conferences of delegates from the Presbyterian Churches’.

They achieved a scheme of federation and decided to meet in 1886 as a Federal Assembly. The ‘scheme of federation’ did not create a federal body – the Assembly was a gathering of autonomous state-based Presbyterian churches.

In July 1886, the meeting of Presbyterians was chaired by Rev John Meiklejohn of South Melbourne, by “…whose energy, wisdom, tact, patience and unfailing courtesy…” during his nearly nine years as Convener of the Committee on Church Union the result had been largely achieved.

Delegates were present and spoke from the Wesleyan Methodist Church and the Congregational and Baptist Unions. The Anglican Primate of Australia sent a warm message of congratulation.

The Assembly appointed a strong committee to explore the possibility of a larger union that would be called a ‘United Evangelical Christian Church of Australia’.

At the 1902 Presbyterian Assembly, there was much debate on a paper on ‘The Articles of Doctrine and the Church’ that the Committee had prepared to ‘…help prepare the way for the formation of a Basis of Union and as a guide for the Presbyterian negotiators in the discussions with other churches.’

This was then sent to the Anglican Primate and the Bishops of all the dioceses, the President of the Methodist Conference, the Chairpersons of the Congregational Unions in each State, the Presidents of the Baptist Union, and of the Churches of Christ in each State.

The invitation to them to consider a wider union was seen by the Presbyterian Assembly as a natural outcome of the achieved union of the Presbyterian Churches.

In his Moderatorial address to the Presbyterian Assembly, the Rt Revd John Meiklejohn stated that

“…in seeking to strengthen our Church we are not seeking to weaken any other …”

Acknowledging that in the political life of Australia, Federation into a Commonwealth was still a new thing for Australians, he said:

“Union is not only in the air, and in public prints, and in church Assemblies: it is in the heart of every Church that has any claim to be a Church of Christ: for in so far as that claim is well founded, His Spirit dwells in the Church, and His Spirit is a spirit of Union, for it is the spirit of Love…”

It seems that the Churches of Christ never joined in the discussions.

There was a conference of Baptists and Presbyterians in Melbourne in 1905, but by 1910 discussions ceased.

There were very positive responses from the Anglican dioceses [The Anglican Church at that time was The Church of England in Australia]. For example, the Bishop of Gippsland made it the focal point of his address to his Church Assembly in 1903. He described it as: 

“…the first official overture to any part of the Anglican communion made by any other Church…”

 While recognising that it was only the General Synod that could deal authoritatively with it, he was sure of widespread Anglican interest and support because 

“…our efforts to provide for the spiritual needs of our scattered population are considerably weakened by much wasteful overlapping and unseemly competition [applause] …that the religious rivalry which exists is a scandal that the effect produced upon our people is oftentimes disastrous in the extreme.”

But the Church of England in Australia was limited by its constitutional tie to the Church of England – which, although characterised by an ecumenical spirit – could not enable the Church of England in Australia to pursue the matter. There was also the matter of episcopal succession, which was a problem for the Presbyterian Church.

What had impressed the Anglican Primate and Bishops was not just the possibility of a union with the Presbyterian Church to rationalise ministry in Australia. More than that, they warmed to the theological and missional imperatives expressed in the Presbyterian Basis of Union.

But because of their constitutional restraints, the Anglicans were unable to proceed to formal discussions. The talks that had been going on ceased in 1912. It was not until 1962 that the Anglican Church of Australia gained the independence of its own Constitution. Until recently, it was hard to find any evidence of Anglican interest in negotiations for union with other churches.

However, in 2009, a new beginning was made and produced a working paper on ministry, which is available on the Queensland Synod’s website’s Ecumenical Relations page to be circulated to the two churches for discussion and response. The name of the Working Paper is A Covenant of Association.

Yet one good thing was achieved out of the ten-year discussions between the Anglican and Presbyterian Churches at the beginning of the twentieth century. One of the concerns expressed in the discussions was that of the number of theological colleges operated by the various churches throughout Australia. A Scheme for Conferring Degrees by an inter-denominational Board was developed and led to the creation of the Melbourne College of Divinity in 1908. It still functions.

Also, the process had been good in getting the two churches to look at issues of faith and mission together. A Sydney Archdeacon commented in 1922 that:

“…the discussions reached down to the fundamentals of our faith and respective systems of church government and, to my mind, the differences disclosed were not very vital.”

So … all that stuff is by way of commenting that the part of the Church to which we belong has had a long history of union negotiations, reaching back into the 19th century in Australia. And to indicate that very early in the 20th century, there were some very active attempts to take union discussions to as many Protestant churches as possible. The arrival the Roman Catholic Church on the scene of ecumenical dialogue had to wait until the second half of the 20th century – Vatican 2 and its subsequent Decree on Ecumenism in 1964.

And I have given you just one little snippet of the moves towards church union that ultimately led to the inauguration of the Uniting Church. I’ve given you a bit of a sketch of the Presbyterian bit, which saw the achievement of its own formation out of several differing and competing factions, to become the Presbyterian Church of Australia and then make overtures to other churches to join with them in further unions.

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