Locations of visitors to this page


papers/talks worship resources ecological footprint Adelaide Ecofaith Bellingen Ecofaith back to new site

This is an old file (circa 1997), put here for historical interest, based on a talk I gave at some ecology and theology conference at the Adelaide College of Divinity, Adelaide.

Ecojustice and the diaconate

The Uniting Church as a part of the ongoing story of relating church structures to the rest of creation.

Jason John


Since it's inception in 1977, the Uniting Church in Australia has been outward looking, though its concern for creation was thoroughly anthropocentric. The late eighties saw the UCA recognise creation as valuable in and of itself, and also renew its commitment to the marginalised through the renewal of the diaconate.

In 1997, creation has dropped off the national and state agendas, while the diaconate remains an issue because of the proactive work of deacons and their supporters. It may be that the diaconate is the link through which the UCA's relationship with the rest of creation can be renewed.

This is the story of the UCA, and what I hope will be my small part in it, as a student deacon committed both to the structural church, and to the rest of creation. It raises issues of money and power that will be familiar, to anyone with similar concerns, in a way that I hope will be helpful to the ongoing struggle for institutionally supported ecojustice.

My Story

Apart from one, brief, flirt with the idea of law enforcement, I was always going to be a scientist and study animals. School football picnics were always spent knee deep (or even shoulder deep) in creeks, and during summer holidays I shivered in my wet-suit over the reefs around Victor Harbour. It was here that my fascination with animals expanded into an anguished realisation of the human tendency to destroy their habitats, through draining swamps to build houses in the foothills, and through the (illegal) devastation caused to the reef during the Greek mussel picking festivals. I finally made it to university, where both my fascination with, and fears for, the rest of the world were heightened.

Having now almost completed my candidature as a deacon in the UCA, I continue to be fascinated by creatures, and now even plants. I continue to fret over the destruction of their habitats, and in some small way to try to redress the damage. I continue to draw what I now recognise as spiritual strength from my immersion in the rest of creation.

Deacons in the UCA are not trainee priests, but permanent, ordained ministers. As Peter Kaldor put it during our small group discussion, "deacon's primary task is not to work for the church, but to work for the world." According to the church's documents, this work for the world involves catalysing compassion and justice for the world's marginalised. So far, the focus has been exclusively on marginalised humans, but I believe that we need to expand our horizons to the marginalised creation around us. I have argued the case for this more thoroughly in a paper which I hope to submit to Trinity Occasional Papers soon.

I have just moved to Queensland, where talk of an 'ecojustice deacon' is met both with affirmation of it's value, and affirmation of the total lack of funding for such a ministry. The talk revolves around things like, ecojustice/eco-religious communities, permaculture, land restoration, pastoral care for environmentalists, being a voice for creation in the church, strengthening bridges between the UCA and environmentalists, promoting and supporting UCA members who are already involved in creation care.

The thrust behind an 'eco-deacon' is not some invention of my own. The underlying principles are solidly expressed at Assembly and Synod levels, and affirmed by the Pastoral Relations Committee of my presbytery. In other words, I am not attempting to start anything new, or to call the UCA in a new direction. I am simply a part of the ongoing story of the UCA in its struggle to relate more meaningfully to the rest of creation. I believe that this story has reached an interesting chapter, one that will either move the UCA back towards its earlier ambitious resolutions of 1988-91, or see it drift right away from this most crucial issue for our time: how to live rightly as members of creation.

As not all of you are from the UCA, I want simply to give a quick history of the UCA story as it relates to the creation, and the diaconate. I will then recount some of the discussion our small group had on the issues that face those who want to remain dedicated to two spheres of life that are slowly drifting apart, and some possible ways forward.

The Uniting Church Story- eco version

Since its inception in 1977 the UCA has been concerned to protect "the environment", though for strictly human centred reasons. At the same time, it saw the possibility of renewing a diaconate of men and women ordained to work for compassion and justice for those people on the margins of society (figure 1). That is, through thoroughly human centred, the UCA was determinedly not self-centred.
Assembly and Creation

1977-87 Anthropocentric conservation 

77 Statement to the Nation  
basic human rights, protect environment for.  
"future people's daily use and enjoyment" 

82 Ethical Investment  
Opposed to unacceptable levels of social injury resulting from the destruction of the environment  

1988-91 Theo-creation centred  

88 UAICC  
Sanctity of earth, earth as living and nurturing 

Nuclear Disarmament  
God's reconciliation includes the "natural environment"  

Statement to the Nation(1) 
Creation is good in God's eyes, good in itself.  
"We will: work..promote.indentify.challenge"  

91 Rights of future generation, and rights of nature(2)  
dignity and rights of all individual creatures  
rights of nature, of species and ecosystems  
"government must: preserve.protect.restore"  

1994-97 The sounds of silence (sexuality discussion)  
 [but see the STOP PRESS at the end of this article]

Assembly and the Diaconate

1977-87 Glimpses of diakonia (Anthropocentric)  

77 Basis of Union  
"The Uniting Church recognises that at the time of union many seek a renewal of the diaconate . in the service of humanity in the face of changing needs. The Uniting Church . remains open to the possibility [of] such a renewed diaconate." 

1988-91 Renewal and Synthesis 

88 Lavender Report  
Review of all ministries 

91 Institution of sacramental diaconate  


1994 Backlash? Separate ordinations, but sacraments retained   
1997 Silence   
2000 Full Review? 

Figure 1: A potted history of Uniting Church in Australia Assembly Resolutions concerning the environment, and the diaconate.  1988-91 marks the high point for both (to date).

Notes: (1)Rev Dr Andrew Dutney worked on this, influenced by his involvement with Friends of the Earth, and discussions he facilitated between FoE and Sean McDonagh.

(2)A statement by the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, adopted by the Assembly.

The 1988 and 1991 Assemblies marked a key turning point for the diaconate, and the UCA's official attitude to environment (variously called the "natural world", earth, and creation). While it may not be directly relevant, it's a good piece of story telling to mention that 1991 also marked my conversion to Christianity, and entry in to the UCA! Not so trivial is that one Rev Dr Andrew Dutney drafted the 1988 Statement to the Nation, with its creation-centred language. He had been involved with Friends of the Earth for some years while a chaplain at Sydney University, and while there managed to set up a meeting between FoE and Sean McDonagh, whom we now all know. The resulting dialogue, through its influence on Andrew Dutney, significantly shaped part of the statement to the nation. I hope Sean's return to Australia will mark a similar impetus in the UCA's determination to be serious about it's responsibilities as a member of creation.

If so, perhaps it will occur at least in part because of the parallel development of the diaconate. Following the 1988 Assembly's call for a review of ministry, the diaconate was renewed officially in 1991, as a ministry of the same ordination of our existing ministers of the Word(sic), but with a different accreditation. This was modified in 1994 to produce two distinct ordinations, but with deacons and moWs still having the same relationship to the sacraments.

Deacons are ordained to work "particularly among people who are marginalised, oppressed, suffering, the forgotten, the unlovely." The intention is that deacons will "work for the most part outside the institutions of the church"."being in places and among people where [UCA members] rarely go." Deacons are called to be, "along with the scattered members of the congregation, a sign of the presence of God in the everyday world." Deacons are to release those gifts in church members, "that will enable them to share in this ministry of caring, serving, healing, restoring, making peace and advocating justice as they go about their daily lives." To summarise (inadequately), deacons are called to the dual ministry of compassion and justice for the margins.

Whereas environmentalism has disappeared from the Assembly agenda, and from most if not all Synods, the diaconate remains simply because we have ordained deacons who, with their supporters, retain a voice in church councils. Unfortunately, creation's voice is not so easily heard in the circles of power. The UCA story, then, might be represented schematically:

The diaconate, then, is a ministry in touch with the margins, but also with at least some access to the power structures in the centre of the UCA. I can't speak for other deacons, but I sometimes feel that figure 3 is a reasonable diagram of my life at the moment, given that my two concerns, the UCA and creation, seem to be moving slowly apart:

Figure 3

The resulting stress is easy to imagine, as either concern could easily absorb all of one's dedication and energy. In fact, after discussions with a considerable number of environmentalists and Christians (and some who are both), it seems to me that, while there are a number of people in the same situation as myself, the resultant tension leads to one of two scenarios (figure 4 a&b). I am hopeful, however, that there is a third option (4c), and it is this that we discussed in our small group after I'd told this story.

Figure 4: representation of the relationship between the UCA, environmentalism, and those who care for both.

Outcome 1: leave the church and spend all energy working in the ecojustice movement.(ecojustice, but not UCA ecojustice)
Outcome 2: Give up on ecojustice concerns, and work in areas that the UCA is already involved with (UCA justice, but not UCA eco justice)
The hope: Draw option 1&2 (and those still in their unstable equilibrium above) together to form UCA ecojustice communities. (That is, accountable to, and listened to by, the UCA structures, not solely communities of UCA members)

A number of people I met through the conservation council in SA were active Christians at one stage, but, despairing of any real change in the church, they went out and cared for the creation through existing institutions, like Greenpeace, FoE, or Trees for Life. Some remain Christians, and a few still attend church, but don't attempt to challenge or reform it. Others, though less that I am aware of, spent a lot of energy trying to draw the church into an ongoing commitment to care for the earth, but eventually went where they could get money, that is, into traditional (anthropocentric) church ministries of compassion and justice. Other examples might be ministers with a strong pro-creation ethos, who nevertheless are swamped by parish responsibilities, and see no point in pushing for yet more Assembly resolutions in the light of inaction over the existing ones.

The hope is that some of these people, plus those still with a foot in each camp, might be resourced to create some expressions of the hope (4c). These people would be on the margins of both the UCA and environmentalism, being tacitly supported by some in both camps, and rejected outright by others. Being on the margins, and being concerned for a marginal issue, they rightly deserve the support of the diaconate, and resourcing from deacons. It is here that I hope I might be able to become a part of the UCA story. As I said before, plenty of people, even people of considerable power and influence in both circles, agree that it's a good idea. They also agree that they won't be funding it.

And this is where the story ends for now, though there are some pointers to the future. The following snatches and sketches are the synthesis of some issues I brought to my seminar presentation, and the wisdom and experience of those who attended. Since I am eligible for settlement in the middle of next year, this is a crucial issue for me, and I believe that anybody who wants to continue to spend energy both within their religious tradition, and in protecting and restoring the rest of creation will feel the same way.

The story yet to come: issues to be faced


While the church structures do fund 'marginal' issues, the Qld synod will have to drop several from the agenda next year. Funding for issues not currently on the agenda, then, will be extremely difficult to obtain from any central body. A number of wealthier parishes may offer joint funding, however. A wealthy benefactor, or a lotto win, would be nice, too!

If funds are shrinking in institutional economies like the UCA Synod, they are non existent in the alternative economies. Alternative magazines are folding, and energy seems low. The transition from figure 3 to figure 4c will be a gradual one, involving considerable compromise and stress. A new eco-religio-justice community, then, will not be a self-funding 'congregation'. Anybody who wants to minister in such a context will probably have to support themselves through traditional ministry ventures, unless they have the courage of somebody like John Smith.

There are signs of increasing flexibility in recognising non-traditional vocations as settlements. For example, Philip Hughes, for example, has recently had his ministry, of providing up to date and reliable information about religious faith and life in Australia, recognised as a settlement, despite the fact that it is based on short term contracts, and is not a stipended position. Di Bos (Qld) is in a diaconal settlement in a domestic violence shelter, despite her not being on a stipend. Although this provides hope that new forms of non stipended ministry may be recognised by Presbyteries, neither of these ministers are funded by the UCA. To date Victoria is, I think, the only Synod to have provided funding grants for new ministries, and even these were of only three years duration, and funding beyond 1997 is uncertain.

The underlying issue? More reflections on 'the centre' and 'the margins'

Val Plumwood's presentation warned us about allowing people in the power centre to make decisions that adversely affected the marginalised. This applies not only to government, but the church. Through deacons, who ought to have various connections to the decision making processes, perhaps the marginalised have another way of making their voice heard in the UCA.
Rosemary Radford Ruether (in her 1980 Kuyper lectures, cited in Dutney, 1993: p. 58) said, "Don't trust a theologian who doesn't cook." That is, one who isn't required to spend energy in the daily grind, doing stuff marginal to their main concern, without recognition. Liberation and Feminist theologians point out that male western theologians, who remained isolated from the 'marginal' issues of injustice against women and those in other countries, were unable to be trusted to theologise for them.

Similarly, we might be suspicious of those who claim to be eco-theologians, but who are not vegetarian, who don't recycle, or march in protests, or sweat over restoring land to its native state. We might also suspect any who that claim that alternative communities and economies are the way of the future, and claim to prophesy their creation, yet remain firmly within the academic institutions that have bought into the present capitalist, economic-rationalist system, and which provide their salary, which enables them to live as a nuclear family in their own home, with their own car(s) (I may be about to start navigating my way down this slippery slope).

An ecojustice charter which calls on governments and ecumenical church councils to take action, without a similar commitment on the part of those who drafted the charter, might be equally questionable. Perhaps we shouldn't say, "don't trust", since we are all at different stages on the way to ecojustice, but at the very least we ought not allow ourselves to be lead by them, or rather, slowed down by their fear of commitment. And as I talk, I'm still not sure if I am the 'we' or the 'they.'

So, here is the story as it stands. As I grew up, good stories were ones which tied up all the loose ends in the final chapter, with a twist or two to delight the reader. In this story, however, the threads remain decidedly unwound. I hope to be one of the threads, and I dare say a number of other conference participants do too. I should know in a few months just how I will be woven into the ongoing story, and there will doubtless be something about it at, if you're interested. Or drop me a line at

For now, I'll leave you with a quote from someone whose work I always mean to read more of.

"All the necessary principles, and every technique for conserving and restoring the earth is already known; what is not evident is that any nation or large group of people is prepared to make the change. However, millions of ordinary people are starting to do it themselves without help from political authorities"
Bill Mollison
Introduction to Permaculture (1991, p. 1)
 I have just read the third of the Bible studies prepared for the 1997 Assembly by Dr Vicky Balabanski, from Parkin-Wesley College.  It is titled, "Pilgrimage and Wilderness", and shows that although environmental issues may have disappeared from the official agenda, someone kept a candle burning for them, and it wasn't a deacon.  And while she gives a plug for deacons (p. 34), she demonstrates what I hope is clear enough in this paper, that the diaconate is a way of engaging the church with the rest of creation, not the way.

Relevant UCA documents

(extracts from many of the following documents, including this paper, and various others by Anne Wansbrough, Andrew Dutney and myself, are available at:, or follow the links from

UCA Assembly documents

1977 Statement to the nation
1982 Assembly ethical principles for investment
1988 Statement from the UAICC to Assembly
1989 Statement on Nuclear Deterrence, Disarmament and Peace
1989 Statement to the nation
1991 Assembly adoption of the World Alliance of Reformed Church's statement on the rights of
future generations and the rights of nature.

UCA Synod resolutions

South Australia

1989 Includes.

8.1a draw the attention of the whole church to the church's participation in destroying the environment

8.1a iii God's call for us to participate with Him in healing the earth

8.1a iv the consequent need for a re-orientation of our theology and its practice

8.1c request Standing Committee to appoint a person or persons to conduct worship preparation

8.1 d request Business Committee to allocate a portion of the 1990 Synod to a further review of
environmental issues

8.1e request Standing Committee to canvass further ideas and submissions

As far as I have been able to discover, none of these were enacted. The following Synod did, however, see a number of people bring their own mugs, and the Synod now recycles its paper.


89.98 (includes call for a "Practical policy of environmental responsibility", which was never written)
90.96 "affirms that the Synod's responses to environmental destruction are imperative to its proclamation of faith in Jesus Christ in the 1990's."
91.112 "urges all parishes to choose, implement and support at least one environmentally responsible activity within the church."
93.100 statement of opposition to mining in Shoalwater bay
93.101 repeated call for a "code of responsible environmental ethics for [church bodies]." (never written)

Others Synod's resolutions may be found in the paper by Anne Wansbrough, q.v.


Balabanski, V. (1997), That we may not lose the way: Bible studies of the 8th Assembly of the Uniting Church in Australia, Perth, July 1997, UTC Publications, North Parramatta.

Dutney, A. (1993), Food, Sex and Death: A personal account of Christianity, Uniting Church Press, Melbourne.

Mollison, B., (1991), Introduction to Permaculture, Tagari Publications, Tyalgum, Australia.

Wansbrough, A. (1994), Environmental Issues - Review of Uniting Church in Australia policy and action, Assembly/NSW Synod Environmental Task Group, May 3, 1994.