Church politics

Like most Australian church denominations, the Uniting Church in Australia has members who reflect a broad range of political opinions. Both current Prime Minister Scott Morrison and former PM Kevin Rudd have previous associations with the UCA. Many current Uniting Church members have previously served in the political arena. These include retired ministers, such as the former Liberal NSW Opposition Leader John Mason and former Labor Deputy Prime Minister Rev. Brian Howe.

As Rev. Elenie Poulos told the ABC recently, while the Australian Christian Lobby appeal to a particular, right-leaning constituency, the majority of Australian Christians vote in a manner that is, “Just like all other Australians.”

“They’re going to vote depending on local issues, they’re going to make decisions on what’s most important to them,” she said.

While the Uniting Church itself occasionally issues statements on political matters where these reflect the church’s mission, this does not carry over to endorsements. As the first ever NSW and ACT General Secretary Rev. Frank Butler once said, saying that “these things matter” should not be confused with “saying vote for politician x.”

With the 2019 election quickly approaching, Insights spoke to Uniting Church members who associate with various political parties across a wide spectrum. These people are members of the Labor Party, the Liberal Party, the Greens, and the Democrats. While interviewing them is not an endorsement of any party, their answers reveal commonalities between them that cross partisan party lines.

The respondents all nominated their beliefs as one factor for their involvement in politics.

Philippa Clark worships at Leichhardt Uniting Church and is a member of the Greens.

“I joined the Greens for their policies of compassion and hope, and their commitment to environmental and social justice which, as a Christian, I share,” she said.

“The Greens have a grassroots structure – any party member can show up to any conference and have their say on policy, with MPs taking direction from the membership rather than the other way around.”

The Greens undertake decision making by consensus. According to Ms Clark this process, “forces people to put in effort to make sure the whole group is on board with the outcome of the discussion, rather than doing the bare minimum to get 51% support. When it is done well, it is a beautiful example of how participatory democracy can build community.”

Joan Wilcox worships at Epping Uniting Church, and is a member of the Liberal Party. This involvement came about after her work advocating for people with physical difficulties.

“This meant enlisting the support of successive State members (Liberal) and putting a case to the relevant minister(s) (Labor) — with some success.”

“I believe in freedom of conscience; hence I have always been Liberal,” Ms Wilcox said.

“It was only after working for some time with the local State member, that I actually joined the Liberal Party as a support base for action.”

Much like the Uniting Church in Australia, the Australian Democrats formed in the 1970s. After steadily declining, the party briefly lost its registered status. It has since re-registered and is contesting the 2019 Federal Election.

Rev. Dr Rob McFarlane is of its former candidates. He contested the Division of Berowra in the 2007 Federal election, as well as a spot in the NSW Legislative Assembly in the 2011 State election.

In a piece for the Zadok publication, Rev. Dr McFarlane said that he was comfortable being a candidate despite the often-grubby nature of politics.

“The short and not-as-cynical-as-it-may-seem answer is that church politics make party politics seem clean,” he said.

“Whether at parish councils or synods there is often murkiness, largely because people don’t want to recognise that they are behaving in political ways. All organisational behaviour is political. However, in church settings, people are often unable to recognise their own actions for what they are and are often unclear about their objectives.

“In contrast, my experience of most other candidates and party workers at election time is that there is a great deal of mutual respect among people who recognise one another as those prepared to have a go, whether running for office or just spending a baking hot or miserably wet Saturday afternoon handing out how-to-vote cards.”

Rev. Dr McFarlane joked, “On polling day you at least know who your enemy is!”

Each person Insights spoke to nominate their own challenges that were associated with being a member of a political party.

Ms Clark indicated that internal party conflicts were something that she had occasionally dealt with.

“Political parties necessarily attract egos, strong opinions and self-promoters, ” she said.

“When people don’t engage in good faith with the decision making process, it’s all too tempting to become bitter and retributive instead of acting with grace.”

“I’ve always let it be known that I’m a Christian, which is rare in the Greens, so there is certainly a feeling of being an ambassador for my faith. People expect Christians to always be nice. I wish I was one of those Christians, but I generally get as crabby at the end of a long day as everyone else.”

Ms Wilcox said that she had observed, “that people tend to join a local Liberal branch whose views are similar to their own.  Even so, if there are points of difference, such are acceptable.”  

The oldest political party in Australia’s history, the Australian Labor Party (ALP), has several members who are also members of the Uniting Church. Insights spoke to Darryl Holbrook, an ALP member who worships at St Luke’s Hamilton Uniting Church in Queensland.

Mr Holbrook is currently partway through his Bachelor of Ministry Studies, which he is undertaking through Adelaide College of Divinity. He says that his involvement with party politics came with some tension as it regarded a potential church role.

“I am nearing the end of my Period of Discernment where I have been discerning between being ordained as a Minister of the Word or a Deacon,” Mr Holbrook said.

“I believe if that happens I may need to address my membership with Labor as in that role I would not want to be seen advocating for a particular party, but until that happens I will advocate and fight for the values of the Australian Labor party to ensure all Australians are treated fairly and with respect.”

Needing to occasionally justify their party memberships to people in church is another challenge some interviewees identified.

“If known to be a Party member, a person is likely to be challenged by acquaintances and others to explain/justify Liberal policies,” Ms Wilcox said.

It’s an experience that Mr Holbrook identified with.

“I feel more accepted, respected and less subjected to scrutiny in the Labor party and union movement where I openly talk about God to people who you would think would never open up to you,” he said.

“Nobody bats and eyelid or gets offended with me as they see how I live and the values I fight for. More than not they are the ones who bring God up in the conversation and even their limited knowledge of Jesus enables them to comment how labor values align with Christ’s teachings.”

“Conversely while not as bad in the Uniting Church as other denominations I have experienced, there are conservative Christian circles I mix with that are less accepting and more suspicious of me and my involvement in the Labor party. I find this odd that I can sometime feel safer and more comfortable with my Labor colleagues than some the Christian circles I participate in.”

All interviewees also suggested that it was important that Christians involve themselves in party politics, despite the challenges involved.

Dr Glen Powell is the Executive Director of Uniting Mission and Education. He previously worked as an organiser for the Sydney Alliance, an experience that involved working alongside “political leaders of all sides of politics.”

“In the gospels, Jesus symbolically founded the Church in response to Peter’s statement of faith with words translated as “upon this rock I will build my Church,” Dr Powell said.

“The Greek word ekklesia which we translate as Church, represented something like a public meeting of citizens focused on the polis, or the City-State. That word ‘polis’ provides the root of our modern day ‘politics’.  So the idea that faith and politics should be separate is hard to justify.”

“I would say Christians should definitely be involved in party politics, if that’s where God wants them involved!  Christians who feel called to party politics should get involved – and hopefully stay connected to their faith communities. ”

In terms of his own involvement, Dr Powell has never been a member of a political party himself, however as he put it, “We are all involved in party politics, because as citizens we have a responsibility to vote and that involves voting for a party.”  

“At that level, I would love to think Christians could be less locked into voting for a party out of habit, and more involved in party politics as reflective voters who balance issues of justice and morality before deciding how to cast their vote,” he said.

Rev. Dr McFarlane added that it was more important to see Christians join a wide variety of parties so as to be able to influence the direction of policy making. It’s a point that many of the people Insights spoke to were also keen to make.

“I strongly believe in the separation of church and state, and would never tell someone that because they’re a Christian, they should vote for a particular party,” Ms Clark said.

“There are many ways for Christians to engage in political and social movements, but the main thing is to be a voice inside our organisation of choice which is not muffled by self-interest or short term gain, but speaks with a prophetic voice of truth and justice.”

A number of the interviewees indicated that party participation potentially gave Christians the chance to share an experience of their faith with others.

“When involved in party politics, we have an opportunity to model the civility and respect for other human beings – whether allies who share our views and values, or party members who have very different worldviews, or people in other parties who are our competitors,” Dr Powell said.

“I would hope involvement in a political party would provide a forum where we can publicly identify as Christian, so that our conduct as we exercise intentional, faith-informed participation in party processes could give Christ and the Church a public voice and a positive reputation.”

The 2019 Federal Election takes place on Saturday, 18 May.

Jonathan Foye is Insights’ Editor




One thought on “Church politics

  1. Wendy Podger

    I can support everything Darryl Holbrook has said, and then some. For the past thirty years I’ve lived in a fairly large country town where being openly Labor can be damaging for your job prospects, and doesn’t do much for your social life either, though that has changed over recent years. I don’t talk party politics, and it’s sometimes quite amusing to watch the facial expressions on some of the conservative voters from our church as they try to pretend they haven’t seen me at the polling booth. .In numerical terms there are a lot of Labor people in our town, and there several people at our church whom I’m fairly certain vote Labor,. but only one or two have ever said so. As Darryl said, there is much more acceptance of Christian beliefs in the Labor Party than the other way around.

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