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Levon Kardashian, the Multicultural Project Officer for the Presbytery of South Moreton. Photo: Megan Haryanto

Multiculturalism within the Uniting Church

What does it mean for the Uniting Church to  call itself a multicultural church? As part of Queensland Multicultural Month, Levon Kardashian reflects on the importance of multiculturalism within the Uniting Church.


I use the terms multicultural and cross-cultural interchangeably most of the time. I believe that the word of the cross, in the term “cross-cultural”, is one of the ties that binds Christian identity across cultures, and has the power to convert a company of strangers into the body of Christ in a way which a term taken from politics and sociology cannot.

In her book Imaginary Australian: Anglo-Celts and Identity 1788 to the Present, Miriam Dixson states that the “nation lives ultimately in people’s minds.” The Australian identity originates from three different sources: “indigenous, Anglo-Celtic and ‘new ethnic’ Australians.” In the minds of the Anglo-Celtic and new ethnic Australians, in the early 1970s Australia was an Anglo-Celtic country. That image has not changed yet. Hence the Australian imaginary, which is in the minds of the people and does not necessarily reflect the reality of the nation, is an Anglo-Celtic nation. This Australian imaginary, the Anglo nation, is projected onto the Uniting Church in the minds of the people, making the Church an Anglo church. That is, the thought and culture of the three originating churches, who were all transplanted from the United Kingdom, was Anglo-Celtic and in their imagination the Uniting Church was an Anglo-Celtic church. The church that ultimately lives in people’s minds, which does not necessarily reflect the reality of the church, is an Anglo-Celtic church. This is also true for all the other cultures who come to join and accept this Anglo-Celtic church Imaginary. This shapes the church and its power structures. It also shapes the interaction of diverse people with the church and the interaction of the church with them. Becoming a multicultural church is entering into a new space which creates a great tension between multicultural Uniting Church in Australia and the Uniting Church in Australia imaginary.

Being a multicultural church and doing cross-cultural ministry

Calling the church “multicultural” has two aspects: being a multicultural church and acting as a cross-cultural church.

In its simplest form, being a multicultural church is a statement of fact. In 1985, the fourth Assembly of the Uniting Church adopted a statement entitled “The Uniting Church is a multicultural church.” It was designed to recognise the reality of the cultural diversity within this church, in particular, and the Australian society in general. This statement, however, was not based on political and sociological factors only, but established in theological and ecclesial claims. In this sense, being a multicultural church is not just a statement that sees and reflects the reality but encourages the church to become. It is a process rather than a statement of fact. It is an ontological statement. Being a multicultural church means to be with the people with the diversity of their cultures in ways that are sensitive to the cultural differences not only by respecting the other, but by entering into the cultural worldview of the other.

The second aspect is functional. Acting as a cross-cultural church or doing cross-cultural ministry. Being inclusive of all cultures and languages, food and dance, songs and traditions, etc. This is where things that are happening can actually be seen by others. At the same time, it prepares us to become a better cross-cultural church. So, it is a cycle of being to doing to becoming better to doing better and so forth.

The 1985 statement of the church has not changed in essence, but progress has been made in its application from being an intentional statement arising out of an emerging reality, to seeking actively to become a cross-cultural church. This progress has opened the door for discussion and rethinking of what it means to be a cross-cultural church. Examples include the introduction of the alternate regulations for Korean congregations and the 13 National Conferences.

This also requires experimentation. There are no step-by-step instructions to becoming a cross-cultural church. Some things that work in one situation may not work in another. The establishment of the Korean Presbytery in the Synod of New South Wales/Australian Capital Territory is one of these experimentations which created a non-geographical presbytery within a rigidly structured and geographically divided set of presbyteries. The coexistence of the two different structures and their relationship was one of the questions that needed exploring.

Paragraph Three of the Basis of Union states that the church “is a pilgrim people, always on the way towards a promised goal”. In the course of that pilgrimage, we influence others and others influence us. On the way, we need to create an inclusive community that will allow all the people who join the pilgrimage to become part of the community. We will be changed by the other and we will change the other. Eventually, we will need to live in the image of Christ: becoming a pilgrim, forsaking what holds us back, which may include our culture, to go forward.

Challenges and Opportunities

The statement “We are a Multicultural Church” brought with it many challenges. Those challenges still continue today, 35 years later. However, each challenge is an opportunity if we have the right attitude.

The tension between the cross-cultural Uniting Church in Australia and the imaginary of the church is one challenge that has created many opportunities for people to tell their story. The challenge still remains and is getting more complex, because we now hear the stories of all other cultures but start to ignore the stories of the Anglo-Celtic and European cultures.

A second challenge is the diversity of not only cultures, but also the way of being church. Being church means different things to different people. Each one comes with a different expectation. They all come to be church together, and suddenly we are faced with the impossible task of being church because we do not agree what church is. For many migrant communities, the church is a central point that safeguards their identity. This identity is not only the Christian identity but also their cultural identity. These communities are in chaos or disequilibrium because they have been uprooted and now try to live in a foreign space. The church becomes the only reference point for them which provides the necessary safety they need to survive in this new and foreign space. Put this next to a community that has not left its comfort zone, and you will have conflicts and misunderstandings. This challenge also creates the opportunity for the different cultures to tell their stories, find common trends, and engage with each other.

A third challenge is tokenism. It is a concern that 35 years after the declaration of being a multicultural church we still appoint a token multicultural person as a representative or even create token multicultural committees. For western cultures, being present means full participation, while for most other cultures presence does not translate to contribution but an invitation is necessary. Most cultures have a respect structure and will operate within that structure even when they are outside of their culture. In western cultures respect is earned and the person will do his or her best to earn that respect. In most other cultures respect is given and the person needs to live up to it to be able to keep that respect. In such cultures, a person will not talk or contribute unless explicitly asked to contribute with the specific gifts that they bring. They will not be representatives of their community but liaisons. We have the opportunity to learn the cultural nuances in the term “token” and step out of our worldview to understand the worldview of the other.

In Conclusion – a Vision

The Uniting Church’s was a vision of different churches coming together. In 1977 that vision started to materialise and the three churches came together. Today, we still talk about those three churches as the originating churches. What we fail to see is that since then many other churches have come to join the Uniting Church. Almost all of these churches are migrant churches. The Uniting Church is evolving into a migrant church. The vast number of Korean and Tongan congregations is an example of this.

It may be time for the Uniting Church to realise that it has become a migrant church and live its life as such. Being a migrant church does not necessarily mean migrating from another country to Australia. The Basis of Union touches on this in Paragraph Three, when it mentions that the church is a pilgrim people. In this pilgrimage we become migrants of this world into the Kingdom of God. We have not yet reached the promised goal, but we are on the way, we are in the process of migrating. We need to make sure that we do not forget necessary things behind because we cannot have them shipped later.

I believe that a multicultural church is a church that goes back to its roots of service rather than authority; a church that prioritises the marginalised rather than the privileged; a church that allows itself to be criticised, and learns and amends itself; a church that acknowledges that it has ignored and marginalised many people, and empowers others to care for them; a church that is filled with the Holy Spirit which gives it the power to speak in the language of the people who hear it; and a church that cares more about the people than itself.

Levon Kardashian is the Multicultural Project Officer for the South Moreton Presbytery. He is a member of the Multi-Cultural Cross Reference Group, Synod Ecumenical Relations Committee, Synod Inter-faith Relations Committee and Synod Community Disaster and Community Recovery Committee.

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