In its first Statement to the Nation, the newly minted Uniting Church declared it would seek to rectify injustice wherever it saw it and vowed to stamp out racism and poverty.
In the fairly brief statement, 143 of the 509 words – or better than one in every five – were devoted to either justice or the protection of the environment.
Forty years on, the Church remains steadfastly committed to a more just and equal Australia as well as pushing the case for a more inclusive world.
At the local level as well as internationally the Church has campaigned against government policies which exclude the vulnerable and hamper their full and equal participation in society.
A commitment to social justice continues the tradition of the Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregational churches, each of which had a long history of speaking for the voiceless.
Rev Dick Wootton is one of the many social justice advocates who have pursued the Church’s mission in Victoria and Tasmania. A former Presbyterian missionary in Korea, Mr Wootton returned to Australia in 1970 and quickly became active in the Church’s resistance campaign to conscription during the Vietnam War before being appointed as a justice minister based in Melbourne by the Board of Mission and Resourcing.
Mr Wootton suggested that the young Church’s strong commitment to justice was at least partly reflective of the stance adopted by the World Council of Churches (WCC), particularly its general secretary Reverend Dr Phillip Potter.
A West Indian, Dr Potter – who preached at the Uniting Church’s inaugural gathering on 22 June 1977 – was known for his strong stance in support of his people. He made the fight against racism a pivotal issue for the WCC.
The WCC waged an effective campaign against Apartheid in South Africa, and other forms of racism throughout the world. The Uniting Church was a powerful ally with Mr Wootton establishing strong relationships with groups such as the trade union movement.
This led to regular protests by Church members on the Melbourne offices of South African Airways as well as the Shell oil company, who were accused of propping up racism by continuing to purchase South African oil.
The former director of the synod’s Commission for Mission, Rev John Rickard, said while the focus areas and methods of engagement had changed over the years, the fight for justice remained very strong in the Uniting Church.
“Seeking justice as a key outcome of the gospel is central to the thoughts of many within the Church,” Mr Rickard said.
Mr Rickard said the passion for social justice has not diminished even if it is less visible. He said that more of today’s interaction took place in ‘backroom’ meetings rather than large public demonstrations.
Justice and International Mission (JIM) unit director Dr Mark Zirnsak agreed. He suggested that for some issues, the mobilisation of bodies on the street was no longer the most effective way to get the ear of decision makers.
“In society generally now there is less taking to the streets,’’ he said.
“While mobilisation has occurred over (Indonesian military atrocities in) East Timor and the second Iraq War they were short lived in comparison with South Africa and Vietnam (in the 1970s).”
That is not to say there are no current day examples on Uniting Church members taking a public stand against injustice.
Support for Palm Sunday asylum seeker rallies remains strong. Uniting Church members have been among the almost 200 Christians arrested over the last three-and-a-half years for protesting against the inhumane asylum seeker policies of both major parties at MPs offices as part of the Love Makes a Way campaign.
Dr Zirnsak said with less Church members, and therefore less people active in the social justice space, the unit had found letter writing and postcard campaigns and face-to-face visits to MPs were much more effective strategies in effecting change.
“I think we have been more effective by understanding what works in having influence in the corporate and political spheres,” Dr Zirnsak said.
“We do a lot more work providing evidence to back up what we are saying. In the past we were inclined to make statements out of theology but now spent time proving them to get credibility.”
A clear example is the work in the tax justice sphere. The JIM unit has been at the forefront of achieving significant government policy change aimed at making it harder for individuals and international companies to avoid paying their share of tax in Australia.
However, not all within the Church think that it has remained prominent in social justice advocacy.
Former Victorian Labor minister Bronwyn Pike has long been involved in the Uniting Church’s quest for social justice. The chair of the church’s community services organisation Uniting was the synod’s director of justice and social responsibility between 1991 and 1997.
“It has disappointed me that the Uniting Church has not always been heard on ministry advisory committees,” she said.
“I can remember when we were always at the table but that is now not the case. Which is disappointing given the Uniting Church has always had a deep interest in justice.”
Ms Pike acknowledged the Church remained active in campaigning but could be more effective.
“This is not just a matter of size because Church membership is still significant and mounting a major social justice campaign did not necessarily require large numbers of people,” she said.
“Look at what domestic violence campaigner Rosie Batty has achieved as an individual.”
Dr Zirnsak said in recent years Church members have encouraged the unit to focus on domestic issues rather than international ones.
“There has definitely been a shift, probably following a broader trend in society where local issues are considered more tangible than international,” he said.
Mr Rickard supports active engagement at a local level.
“While it can be romantic to engage on the international stage the local issues are just as important and should not be ignored,” he said.
Dr Zirnsak said issues church members wanted the unit to focus on had remained the same for most of the past decade. These include asylum seekers, the relationship with First Peoples, poverty, gambling reform and the environment.
He said mental health was a growing area of concern for many supporters in recent years so work in that space was becoming more prominent.
“The authors of the Statement to the Nation gave us a really good foundation and I do not see the focus changing any time soon,” Dr Zirnsak said.
Ms Pike said she is keen to see Uniting work with the JIM unit to speak on behalf of society’s most disadvantaged.
“We are very big players in the delivery of services and that provides us with a real opportunity to build on that engagement by helping them to have a strong voice on things such as government policy decisions which affect their lives,” she said.