From past to present

Posted in Culture

There is much that current Uniting Church members can learn from the work of past congregations, members and organisations. The Uniting Church SA Historical Society (UCSAHS) is dedicated to the preservation and promotion of Uniting Church history in South Australia, as well as the history of its antecedents – the Methodist, Congregational and Presbyterian churches.

UCSAHS President Dr Judith Raftery spoke to New Times about the important work of the UCSAHS and how congregations can engage with church history.


Could you please introduce yourself and tell New Times readers about your history with the Uniting Church?

My name is Judith Raftery. I’ve been a member of the Uniting Church since 1987, but in an earlier life I was actively involved in Churches of Christ. I currently attend Pilgrim Uniting Church in Adelaide, where I am part of the 9.30am community. Over the years I have been involved in planning and leading worship, social justice, public theology, Sunday Night Tea (part of Pilgrim’s ministry to the homeless) and coordinating a theology reading group.

My involvement with the wider work of the Uniting Church in SA has included being on the Board of UnitingCare Wesley Adelaide (now Uniting Communities), being Chair of Parkin-Wesley College Council, and being a member the UnitingCare Commission and the Educational Ministries Commission.

I am currently the President of the Uniting Church SA Historical Society (UCSAHS), and Secretary of the Board of the Uniting Church National History Society (UCNHS).


How and why did you first become involved in the UCSAHS?

I was nominated for membership of the Council of the UCSAHS by an existing member of the Council. She knew that I was an historian, that I had done post-graduate research in Australian church history, and that I had a career in university teaching and research. She presumed that I would have something to offer to the UCSAHS, even though at that point I’d never actually been a member of it. I guess it was a case of being head-hunted, and I was very happy to say yes.


What has been the highlight of your time with the UCSAHS?

Two things stand out. One was the public lecture I gave in 2014 as part of the UCSAHS’s contribution to what was then called History Month. The lecture was on the history of hymn singing within the Methodist, Congregationalist, Presbyterian and Uniting churches. It drew a big crowd, involved some wonderful singing and a lot of nostalgia, and was great fun.

The second highlight was playing a key role in organising the inaugural Uniting Church National History Conference, which was held in Adelaide in June 2017. This attracted 60 participants from across Australia and included some splendid lectures, papers and public events. The conference engendered a good deal of enthusiasm for Uniting Church history and for the UCNHS, which was launched at the conference.


What do you consider to be the most important function of the UCSAHS?

Encouraging interest in, and promoting the study of and reflection on the history of the Uniting Church and its antecedent congregations in SA – and ensuring that the material that informs and extends this study and reflection is properly preserved and safeguarded. Underlying this is the conviction that we will be impoverished as a church if we are not informed about our history and open to what it can teach us about how best to confront the challenges of our future.


How does the UCSAHS fit within the new Uniting Church National History Society?

At the organisational level, the UCSAHS is affiliated with the UCNHS, and its members automatically become members of the UCNHS. In states and territories where no local historical society exists (e.g. WA, Qld) individuals may join the UCNHS directly, and congregations in any state or territory may join, too. The mechanisms for all this to happen, and the fees and levies that will be involved, are still to be finally determined by the UCNHS.

But that’s just the nuts and bolts. Beyond that, the UCNHS aims to strengthen and extend the work done by the UCSAHS and similar state-based bodies, and provide them with a broader audience and platform. This is summarised in the UCNHS’s constitution as follows:

  • organise conferences, public lectures and workshops;
  • establish connections with other national and international historical organisations;
  • award prizes and scholarships which advance public knowledge of Uniting Church History;
  • draw to the attention of the Assembly significant dates, events and people in the history of the Uniting Church… with the aspiration that appropriate resources may be provided for their celebration, commemoration or refection on the contemporary life of the church.


How can individuals and congregations provide support for the UCSAHS?

All sorts of ways!

  • By becoming members.
  • By attending our public meetings, forums and workshops, which cover a wide variety of historical issues, and are always lively and accessible.
  • By encouraging your congregation or organisation to value, record and preserve its own history, and letting us know what historical projects you are involved in — so that we can help with resources, publicise your projects, put you in touch with others involved in similar enterprises.
  • By joining the team of volunteers who regularly spend time at the History Centre, and do a variety of jobs: sorting, filing, following up specific requests for information, oral history, identifying and displaying artefacts, property maintenance.

And remember to reverse the question, and ask, “How can the UCSAHS support me and my congregation?”

  • At our History Centre (44a East Tce, Black Forest) there is a very substantial collection of historical and archival material, plus highly knowledgeable History Centre Managers who will help you answer questions, find missing evidence, identify a minister, black sheep or building, and navigate your way though church records and newspapers.
  • We’ll also be able to help you locate the kind of material we don’t keep – e.g. baptismal and marriage records.
  • We offer small annual grants of money (normally up to $1,000), to support local history projects that are in keeping with the aims and responsibilities of the UCSAHS.

The Uniting Church SA Historical Society is currently seeking a casual Historical Records Officer. Read more about the position here.

For more information about anything in this article, please contact the Uniting Church SA Historical Society:

History Centre: 44a East Tce, Black Forest, SA 5035





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