Harmony and diversity: transforming the church


Australia is celebrated as a multicultural country, with around a quarter of Australians born overseas, according to the latest Census data (2011). This Census also confirmed that WA is the most culturally diverse state in Australia, with 31% of Western Australians originally hailing from other countries.

In WA, Harmony Week runs from Tuesday 15 to Monday 21 March. It’s an opportunity to celebrate multiculturalism and for cultural groups to learn and grow from each other. Inspired by the United Nation’s International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Harmony Day and Harmony Week aims to end discrimination by celebrating difference and getting to know each other. While Harmony Week shines a spotlight on our diversity, its aim is that we carry those stories and relationships throughout the year.

Rebecca Ball is the executive director for the Government of Western Australia’s Office of Multicultural Interests. She said that there is a range of benefits to living in such a diverse community.

“There’s a multitude of benefits. It’s realising that where you think there might be difference, in fact we’re all the same,” she said. “To have a society that’s diverse really can only improve ones understanding of other people; it can broaden our minds, accept difference. You don’t have to agree with one another on every point, but at least you can understand one another’s viewpoints. And that is absolutely essential to a peaceful and tolerant society.

Pacific Island members of the Uniting Church attending the Peoples' Climate March in Sydney last year.

Pacific Island members of the Uniting Church attending the Peoples’ Climate March in Sydney last year.

“With the world being so small and the movement of people being so great. All our borders are porous by way of the technology and information age. If you can’t at least acknowledge and spend some time thinking beyond your own community and cultural identity, you’re missing out on so much richness and knowledge of how the world works.”

The Uniting Church, as an Australian church, reflects Australia’s cultural diversity, and is committed to its identity as a multicultural church. Each week, 165 Uniting Church congregations around Australia worship in a language other than English, comprising of 24 different languages.

Rev Dr Apwee Ting is the national director of Multicultural and Cross-Cultural Ministries at the Uniting Church in Australia, and will be visiting Perth for a number of multicultural ministry events in March. He said that the church is multicultural not only in its diversity, but also in its policy.

“Within the Australian mainstream churches, the Uniting Church is the first nationally declared as a multicultural church, in 1985,” he said.

This means that the way the Uniting Church shares its property, values the translation of key documents into other languages, and values its multicultural relationships between synods, presbyteries and Assembly are very clear in its policy.

“We are in the frontline in terms of cross cultural ministry within the Australian mainstream churches,” he said.

While the term ‘multicultural’ describes the nature of our diversity, and ‘cross-cultural’ refers to two cultural groups interacting with each other, what really creates healthy communities is its ‘intercultural’ nature. When we are intercultural, our cultural groups are all celebrating, working, worshipping and living together. It’s important to keep cultural heritage alive, but intercultural relationships and activities are vital to a peaceful and harmonious society.

Apwee believes that the church is on its way to becoming intercultural, but that there is still some work to do. Around 70% of our churches are mono-cultural; being Anglo, English speaking congregations. He believes that the Uniting Church could improve its intercultural relationships by encouraging congregations to continue worshipping in their own cultural traditions, while also coming together regularly for worship and mission with other congregations.

“Each have their own particular ministry for their language and culture because we have to realise there are some people still only able to [express] their faith journey in their own language. At the same time, we encourage that once every couple of weeks there’s a combined service and [people] can also join the church council for mission in the neighbouring area.

“So they meet together and they do mission together. The relationship is very important, and the openness from each leader.”

Rebecca also sees the value in different cultural groups coming together for a common purpose, such as a tree planting or social gathering.

“There’s some pretty wonderful initiatives going on at a fairly local level of people between different religious backgrounds just doing things together,” she said. “Like young fellas who might be Muslim, Jewish or Christian getting together and going to the footy and then posting it on social media. It’s just ‘we’re going to the footy.’

“I think demystifying difference is important. Not focussing on the difference and focussing on the commonality is really important.”

Apwee agrees.

“We also recognise that to live in a diverse community we need to have a shared value. The shared value that is important for everyone regardless of their cultural and religious background is about peace; peaceful living in Australia where every person, community and family will be able to express what they believe.”

Stuart McMillan, president of the Uniting Church in Australia, believes that diversity in the church is one of its biggest callings right now.

“It’s vital,” he said. “I believe this is what the spirit is doing in the Uniting Church right now to transform us.

“As president, one of the things that I’m seeking to do in this three years, is to facilitate the voice of the cultural diversity of the church to be heard. When you’re a minority then it’s very easy to be marginalised. It needs to become normal in the life of the Uniting Church that we hear the voice of the diversity of the Uniting Church.

“It’s not that we turn to the multicultural ministry co-ordinator in the Synod [only] when there’s a multicultural issue, because every issue is about our cultural diversity.”

Using an old mantra that is so important, Stuart reminds us that our diverse relationships are that keep us going.

“Don’t do anything apart that you can do together,” he said. “That’s it in a nutshell.”


  • The Uniting Church in Australia supports 12 national conferences for cultural groups within the church; its newest being the National Middle Eastern Conference which will be held in Sydney this September. For more info on Multicultural and Cross-cultural ministry in the Uniting Church in Australia visit https://assembly.uca.org.au/mcm.
  • The Uniting Church WA has a number of events coming up to support people in building intercultural relationships. The Cross-cultural Relationship Workshop will be held from 15–16 March. And the Intercultural Conference and Workshop will be held from 19–20 March. Rev Dr Apwee Ting and Rev Jason Kioa, chairperson of the Uniting Church Tongan National Conference, will be guest speakers at these events. An Intercultural Family Camp will also be held in WA from 25–28 March. For more information on these events, contact Rev Dr Emanuel Audisho, Multicultural Ministry co-ordinator for the Uniting Church WA on 9260 9800 or email audisho@wa.uca.org.au.
  • For more info on multicultural ministry in the Uniting Church WA visit http://unitingchurchwa.org.au/multicultural-ministry/
  • Beth Shalom Tongan Uniting Church Choir will be taking part in Harmony Week’s Voices in Harmony’ choral event. Keep your eye on the Harmony Week website (below) for more info on how to download their track via SoundCloud.
  • To host your own Harmony Week event or for more information visit http://www.omi.wa.gov.au/omi_harmony_week.cfm and download the Harmony Week Kit.

Top image: Rev Dr Emanuel Audisho and the Multicultural Ministry network share communion with the 14th Assembly of the Uniting Church in Australia, held in Perth last year.

Heather Dowling

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