“History teaches everything, including the future”
September 14, 2022
“History teaches everything, including the future”
Written by Richard La'Brooy, Uniting Church National Historical Society
This quote from 18th Century French poet Lamartine is one that I often use when teaching History to my Year 7 students. It captures the nature of History. History gives us a window to the past but also allows us to glimpse the future.
I’m a School Chaplain and Uniting Church Pastor, but I’m also an Historian and History Teacher. So, I’m often navigating these dual roles in my daily work. I’m also fascinated to think about the role of history more broadly in shaping our Uniting Church and guiding us in our future. I’m a member of the Uniting Church National Historical Society’s Board, but more broadly I’m interested in exploring the role of History in shaping our identity as the Uniting Church.
Our history contains many markers of our Uniting Church identity. Our history shows us that we are courageous and risk-takers, it shows us that we are pioneering and missional and it shows us that we are people-focused and inclusive. These are key markers of our Uniting Church DNA and are writ large in the fabric of our history.
Part of our identity as a Uniting Church is being courageous and being willing to take risks as we step into a new future. The notion of ‘pilgrim people’, which is central to our identity, is inherently risky. We step into an unknown future, trusting in God’s presence on the journey. The mere act of union was a courageous and bold decision, three Christian denominations joining to form the Uniting Church in Australia. The Inauguration Service in the Town Hall on 22 June 1977 is a testament to that courage.
But a part of that day that I had, until recently, not known about speaks deeply into this identity of courage, and I hope I have got the details of this correct. I learnt that on the day of the Inauguration Service, before people gathered at Sydney Town Hall members of the three union churches met in different parts of the Sydney CBD. The purpose of these meetings was to dissolve those union Churches and resolve to join the Uniting Church. After those meetings they walked together to the Town Hall to celebrate the Union. But particularly poignant was the meeting of the Presbyterians, where only some of the group proceeded on to the Town Hall, leaving behind their friends and colleagues who chose to remain. This historical event, I feel, speaks deeply into our identity as a courageous and risk-taking Church.
Another key tenant of our Uniting Church identity is that we are pioneering and missional. We genuinely seek to live out that notion of pilgrim people in being willing to try new things and innovate. This also guides the way we interact in the world and how we strive for justice of all of humanity and all of creation.
Again, this identity is deeply seen in our history. The 1977 Statement to the Nation expresses this justice-focused mission of the Church. In that statement we named concerns around poverty, racism and even the environment at a time when many were not even considering it. We named our willingness to engage in national affairs and the issues of our region. These were pioneering statements, expressed in a national context that was still quite Anglo-centric. Over our history, these principals have become fundamental to who we are and, once again, we see them entrenched in our historical documents.
A third feature of our identity is that we are people focused and inclusive. Our Basis of Union clearly affirms an all-person ministry and holds fundamentally the equality between lay and ordained, male and female. Our inclusivity has been expressed in our support of First Peoples justice, our celebration of culturally and linguistically diversity and our support of people with diverse sexualities. Over time, this inclusivity has been lived out in many ways and continues to be expressed in our national conversations, but also in our day-to-day living.
Once more, when we look to our history, we see this aspect of our identity shining through. When we see the photo of the top stage of the Inauguration Service we see a lay woman, Mrs Lilian Wells, sitting there as the first Moderator of the NSW Synod. We also see a young person, Christine Gapes, among those on stage. That is an image of inclusivity of different ages and genders right from the very start. When we look at the image of Dr Jill Tabart, our first lay and female President, signing the Covenant with Pastor Bill Hollingsworth, the UAICC Chairperson, we see once again an image of inclusivity at both of First Peoples but also the leadership of people from different backgrounds. Images from countless NCYC’s speak to the role of young people as well as people from diverse cultural backgrounds. Once more, our identity is firmly lived out through our historical photos.
Our history should not be consigned to the past, but rather should continue to inspire and challenge us as we strive to be the Church of now and the future. As we think about how we be the Uniting Church into the mid part of the 21st Century, our history should guide us. As we undertake big projects, such as Act2, that shape the future direction of our Church, we should take inspiration from our past. It is through our history that our identity as the Uniting Church was formed. And it is through that history that our identity will be re-shaped for the future.
Images: Inaugural Assembly of the Uniting Church in Australia, Sydney Town Hall, 1977; Signing of the Covenant in 1994 Dr Jill Tabart and Pastor Bill Hollingsworth; NCYC Perth 1979, Installation of Dr Jill Tabart as first woman President 1994; NYALC 2019; renewing the Covenant 2022 at the 16th Assembly