The Uniting Church recently became the first major Christian denomination in Australia to commence processes to formally acknowledge, in the Preamble to its Constitution, Australia’s traditional owners and their pre-existing relationship with the Creator God. The church also acknowledged its complicity in dispossessing the First People of Australia from their land, culture and spirituality.
The Preamble was overwhelmingly supported by members of the 12th Triennial Assembly and, according to Uniting Church processes for constitutional change, will now be referred back to the State Synods and Presbyteries for further consideration.
While some concern has been expressed about the acknowledgement of Indigenous peoples having a pre-existing relationship with the Creator God, this concern is misplaced.
Aboriginal Christians are endeavouring to hold together two realities in their experience - the truth of their convictions about and experience of Jesus Christ, and the enduring power and place of their traditional law, traditions and ceremonies.
Christian mission has, with rare exceptions, tended to condemn Indigenous practice and spirituality wholesale but failed to apply a similar critique to the dominant European culture.
This tendency was evident even as we deliberated about the Preamble and may have tripped us up were it not for the commitment from everyone to deal openly with the hard truths of our own histories. The Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress, the Indigenous arm of the church, repeatedly emphasised that they weren’t interested in guilt or shame but in a truthful statement about the mixed legacy Christian mission has left their people.
When Reverend Ken Sumner, Congress chairman, told the Assembly, “Sometimes we struggle to see God in you,” it was a gentle rebuke considering the extent to which the Church’s complicity in policies of assimilation and child removal, among others, has had such destructive impacts on the First Australians.
The church’s proposed Preamble now acknowledges the obvious: that God was here before European settlement. The Christian claim that God is “fully and finally” revealed in Jesus Christ is affirmed in the Preamble and by members of the Congress.
Throughout history great evil has been perpetrated when the church has failed to acknowledge the limitation of its understanding of the mind and will of God. Good theology brings deep humility to its task.
There nonetheless remain some significant questions for Indigenous and non-Indigenous church members. For example, at what point does God’s revelation in Jesus Christ affirm or challenge values and practices in any culture?
Without idealising one culture or demonising another, how can we arrive at a shared account of “truth” (in this case the truth of the mixed impact of Christian mission on Indigenous peoples) in ways that offer a sure foundation upon which to build further reconciliation; and to deepen understanding and partnership?
The Uniting Church has embarked on a journey of truth-telling in relation to Indigenous peoples which began with a formal apology in 1994.
Fourteen years later many Australians were moved and relieved when Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologised to the First Australians, acknowledging the truth of what had happened to them on behalf of the Federal Government.
I hope that members of the Uniting Church will continue to lay a foundation of truth that will set us free, to address more effectively the massive challenges facing Australia’s Indigenous peoples, and to identify and overcome the significant obstacles to meaningful reconciliation in this land.
Discuss in our Forums
See what other readers are saying about this article!
Click here to read & post comments.
23 posts so far.