The leading cultural question


LESS than a decade after it was formed the Uniting Church in Australia boldly declared itself to be a multicultural Church. More than 30 years on from the 1985 statement can the UCA say it is “mission accomplished” or does the statement remain aspirational rather than a reality?

The UCA contains 193 language groups, 56 intentional cross/intercultural congregations, 12 National Conferences and one bi-lingual English/Korean Presbytery. Two synods, Northern and NSW, are respectively designated as multilingual and bilingual.

Within the Vic/Tas synod there are 22 congregations and 19 faith communities which conduct worship in a language other than English. One of these, a Korean congregation, is located in Tasmania and the remainder in Victoria.

These congregations represent a broad cross section of cultures including Tongan, Samoan, Cook Islands, Indigenous Fijian, Indo Fijian, Korean, Chinese, Burmese, Tamil (Sri Lankan), Dinka (South Sudan), Chollo (South Sudan), Filipino and Indonesian.

Of the 264 ordained active ministers within the synod, 48 are from Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) backgrounds. More than 26 percent of students who enrolled at the Pilgrim Theological College this year are from a CALD background.

Just as the nation has become more distinctly multicultural, so has the church. Tongan church leader Rev Jason Kioa believes positive steps have been taken towards the goal of being a true multicultural church but feels we are still short of the promised land.

Mr Kioa was the first Pacific Islander to lead an established Australian church body when he was appointed as the VicTas synod Moderator in 2006.

He said that until the leadership of the church at all levels more closely reflects the diversity of those sitting in the pews, it could not be seen as multicultural mission accomplished.

“If we say we are a multicultural church, the leadership must reflect that,’’ he said. Mr Kioa said that raising leaders from culturally diverse backgrounds was not easy, particularly when many of the Church’s activities – both verbal and written – are in English, a second language for many.

He said the establishment of national conferences for other nationalities in 1987 was very important in helping to train and equip future leaders of the Church from CALD communities.

Rev Swee Ann Koh is the director of the synod’s intercultural unit. He agreed that leadership in the synod predominantly rested with those from an Anglo-Celtic background.

“Just because our church looks diverse doesn’t mean it is diverse. For example, the leadership at all levels of the church are by and large from the dominant (Anglo- Celtic) culture,” he said.

Mr Koh said he was encouraged that the Port Phillip West Presbytery was working towards having at least three CALD representatives on every council and committee.

But, he said CALD NextGen and CALD women were still largely absent from boards, councils and committees.

“When will the rich diversity within our church be truly reflected in all levels of our church? Or will the growing part of the church still be unrepresented in our structures?” he asked

Rev Dr Tony Floyd – the former Melbourne-based national director of multi and cross-cultural ministry – said dominant culture (Englis-speaking) church members need to be mindful that there were culturally different ways of discerning and approving leadership.

“Many people, and particularly those in CALD communities, won’t put their hand up in response to being invited to participate. This is misinterpreted as shyness or not being interested but it is not in keeping with the way their culture works,” Dr Floyd said.

“But if you go to them and indicate the gifts you see in them and their valued contribution to the broader UCA community often the response is very different.

“So there has to be willingness to change the way we do things in relation to inclusion in both leadership, nurture and recruitment, and the ways in which we do our business.”

Dr Floyd said the Church is “pregnant with life and hope in Christ” because of the many positives which come from cultural diversity. “We are a multicultural church but, as the Basis of Union tells us, we are together on that journey,” Dr Floyd said.

“There is no question we are a church of many cultures, that is a given.

“But there are changes we need to consider, such as the English language base of our teaching, methods and assessments of theological education.

“We are the only church structure in the world which uses inter-related councils and it is a model which is difficult to explain
to someone who is only familiar with a hierarchical model.”

People from other cultural backgrounds worshipping alongside those of English- Celtic descent goes back to the days before union.
Many Tongans were supported by the Methodist Home Mission Department and welcomed into small churches such as Hyde Park, in Kew.

Dr Floyd said that as part of the process of seeking an identity in a new context and culture many migrants engage with English language congregations.

Many first-generation migrants also understood the need for their children to improve their English and undertook church activities in the dominant cultural language. One such example is the Melbourne Korean Uniting Church in Malvern, which has a fulltime English-speaking minister on staff but conducts their main service in Korean.

Dr Floyd said he believed many English- speaking churchgoers struggled with the concept of attending a service in some other language.
“People enjoy going to watch, hear the singing, and so on but really struggle to comprehend they can participate without understanding the words,” he said

“But worship happens with the heart and the head, not simply the head.” Dr Floyd said a desire to worship in their own language and culture was an important reason CALD members sometimes chose to establish their own congregations with a minister from their religious and cultural background. He argues that dominant culture English-speakers and those from other backgrounds would benefit by taking the time to listen to each other’s stories.

“It is one of the simplest ways to grow an understanding and leave behind our uncertainties and fears,” he said.

Second generation CALD woman Elvina Kramer, who is of Tongan heritage, said she saw great benefit in being able to grow in her faith through relationships with both her Anglo Manningham Uniting Church community and the Tongan community.

“It allows me to take the good out of both the Tongan church and my local church,” Ms Kramer said.

“It is obviously important for me to have the support of my local church but just as important to get support from my Tongan community.”

Ms Kramer said she felt privileged to have experienced both cultures and believes it has helped her spiritual growth, to the point where she initiated and facilitates a local Bible study group for Tongan women. However, she also acknowledges that some have found crossing from the Tongan to the Anglo-Celtic church community more difficult because of the change in worship style.

Rev Jacob Yang, who was ordained in the Korean Presbyterian Church in 1990 and transferred to the Uniting Church six years later, said he believed it was important for Anglo-Celtic members to encourage and support CALD members in continuing to worship according to their own traditions. Mr Yang said the lack of English skills of many CALD members made it difficult for them to fully comprehend the operations of the Uniting Church which limited their ability to engage, particularly in leadership.

“It would be extremely helpful if the Uniting Church could invest some money in translating some of their documents (such as rules and regulations/Basis of Union) more freely into ethnic languages,” he said.

“Too often it seems the Uniting Church expects the ethnic community leaders to learn English and then translate such documents.”

While Mr Yang said it was important for ethnic groups to nurture and prepare their young people for leadership within the church, he would also like to see Anglo- Celtics take a role in nurturing young leaders from ethnic backgrounds. He said he would much rather all members viewed themselves as members of the Uniting Church rather than using terms, such as CALD.

“After all, everyone is from the one church,” he said.

Mr Koh said as the church moves forward there needs to be a shift from being a multicultural church to becoming truly intercultural.

“In a multicultural church, we live alongside each other, in cross-cultural church, there is some reaching across boundaries,” he said.

“But in an intercultural church, there is respect, mutuality, reciprocity, equity and engagements with other cultures
and ethnicities.”

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