The young guest minister entered from the vestry and moved along the nave much as on any other Sunday in church. He stopped before reaching the chancel, turned to face the congregation, then recited: “I acknowledge this church stands on the traditional lands of the Wurundjeri people. I pay respects to its elders past and present, and affirm our church’s commitment to indigenous reconciliation.” The minister then continued walking and commenced the service with the usual prayers.
This was the weekly family service in an Anglican church in suburban Melbourne. The incumbent was away and another priest was filling in for the morning. Given the circumstances, no one raised with the guest his unexpected political declaration, although there was talk among parishioners in the weeks after.
Symbolic “inclusiveness” of Aboriginal culture is a key issue in the Melbourne diocese, pressed mainly at the instigation of Archbishop Philip Freier, who is also the Primate of the Anglican Church nationally. However, there has not been discussion on what is appropriate in normal church activities, or when political agendas have no place in religious practice. Mind you, those with qualms about the direction the church is steering are reluctant to voice their private views. Who will risk being thought a white bigot?
The Diocese of Melbourne has undergone quite a transformation under Archbishop Freier, a former Bishop of the Northern Territory. The diocese now observes an annual “Reconciliation Week”. This starts each May 27, the anniversary of the 1967 referendum, and finishes on June 3, “Mabo Day”. There are prayers and readings for use by participants on each weekday (a passage by Martin Luther King is used one day). The diocese has materials for a “Sorry Day” service available for use if requested.
These initiatives do fulfil the role of a church. Other moves are questionable. The synod now starts with a “Welcome to country” address. Each year an Aboriginal elder is hired to come into St Paul’s Cathedral and, standing at the front, recites a very short passage in an Aboriginal language which no one understands. Pay cheque in pocket, the elder then exits and prayers can begin. It is proposed to book elders often for these “Welcome to country” recitations at diocese and even local parish functions. (Being Anglicans, however, no one is to say anything in Latin because it is not the common language.)
Then there are name changes in the Melbourne diocese. For decades it has been sub-divided geographically into three zones, each with its own bishop: the eastern; the western and northern; the central. These terms were clear and all knew which area in Melbourne was referred to. However, to speed reconciliation the zones have been renamed with Aboriginal terms: as explained by the media office, “In consultation with Indigenous elder Aunty Di, we have been given permission to name each area of care using the local Woi Wurrung language.” So the zones are now “Marmingatha” (which means divine, supreme being), “Oodthenong” (gathering) and “Jumbunna” (speaking out, proclamation).
There is a problem here, a mighty big one. Only the clergy seem to know which zone the designations refer to. Everyone else is in a muddle, lay people not having a clue which Aboriginal term refers to where. Common sense, and the common language, have been surrendered to politically-correct foolishness. To compound confusion there is a fourth episcopal zone, “Monomeeth” (wellness, wholeness) which is puzzlingly referred to in some church publications without any explanation of where it is. As for self-congratulatory claims that the change to diocese names greatly advances reconciliation, most privately feel it achieves nothing concrete and smacks of tokenism.
Placing Aboriginal art in churches is another issue quietly festering away. There is gentle enthusiasm for parishes to display tribal work in churches to signal commitment to reconciliation. However, advocates of this do not understand that tribal pictures, being mythological in basis, might not be appropriate for a place of Christian worship, as assorted Anglicans have commented to me. There would be quite a rumpus if a church displayed paintings from classical mythology, like Cronos devouring his sons, or Europa being impregnated by the bull. These pagan myths have no place whatsoever in the Christian communion, as everyone instantly recognises.
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Yet around Melbourne, churches are encouraged to hang paintings from Aboriginal mythology which parishioners do not understand, and cannot decipher. I know of one church with a handsome dot painting from Central Australia hanging beside the font, although there is no explanation of what the large abstraction symbolises. It is visually attractive, but what does it mean? What myth does it narrate? It may involve a violent encounter or a disturbing supernatural event. If we do not know what the piece shows, is it suitable for display in the church? A meeting room or common room may be more fitting.
This is not a new dilemma. Other Christian denominations faced similar questions in Africa, South America and Asia when efforts were made to incorporate into worship works by indigenous artists. In each instance guidelines were introduced to ensure native religious beliefs did not undermine Christian values. But, oblivious to the lessons of art history, Anglican clergy rush in where angels fear to tread.
It’s not only the laity that doesn’t readily grasp tribal art. Archbishop Freier has some good dot pictures around his office at St Paul’s Cathedral, as I discovered several years ago, each of them by tribal painters he knows personally. He had much praise for the cheery colours and decorative values, although, when I asked His Grace what myths were portrayed in the pieces he showed me, he said he did not know.
Churches must also take care due to the problem, widely known across the art scene, of bogus “tribal” paintings run off by those cashing in on indigenous art. There exists a thriving market in sham work. The chief offenders are individuals who, claiming an Aboriginal forebear or two, crank out simulated desert-dot compositions that are utterly fabricated with no legitimate origin in genuine myths or inherited values. You would think a church, given its awareness of apostolic succession, would be cautious about taking up concocted “traditional” culture. But very strange works have been occasionally seen in the Melbourne Anglican, our diocesan journal of record.
There has long been ambiguity within Christianity between religious duty and social activism. So how to approach fraught questions involving indigenous politics? Complexities about relations between settler cultures and indigenes are made the more baffling by biblical history. The reviled people of Canaan were indigenes when the Israelite tribes arrived out of the desert; later, the events in the gospels occurred when Judea was occupied by the Romans, as the Crucifixion highlights; and, as the faith spread during the Apostolic Age, there was often tension between religious splinter groups and a prevailing community. Wherever one dips into the Bible there seem collisions between dominant and subjugated peoples, with neither being automatically on high moral ground. Even the well-known parable of the Good Samaritan uses a disliked ethnic figure to make a point about ethical behaviour.
Given such a background, it’s about time the Anglican Church in Melbourne had an open, frank and mature discussion about the appropriateness of Aboriginal flags, political signs and jingoistic declarations of solidarity with Aborigines being imposed holus bolus on church buildings, publications, posters, websites and weekly pew sheets, as well as inserted into diocesan or parish meetings, and even some church services.
Take the display of Aboriginal flags. In keeping with the principle of separating church and state, the Anglican Church does not fly national or political flags. During my youth it was rare to view an Australian flag fluttering from a C-of-E flagpole, and on those rare occasions—such as the funerals of local dignitaries or former servicemen, or for Anzac Day ceremonies—no congregation was short of boys who volunteered to run the flag up and down the pole. Otherwise churches only flew or displayed either their diocese’s ensign, or the Anglican Church of Australia’s ensign.
But in 2012 it was decided that when churches in the diocese raise the Australian national flag they must display the Aboriginal flag at the same time. The reason given was this would signal the message that Aborigines were welcome at church, not only white folk.
Our national flag is still hardly sighted and the Anglican Church flag is likewise rarely displayed, but Aboriginal flags have sprouted all over—and not just on flagpoles. Besides always flying an Aboriginal flag out front, St Paul’s Cathedral has one at the base of its web page, an example followed by several suburban parishes. Some are quite enthusiastic, like St Jude’s, Carlton, which has a huge photograph of an Aboriginal flag constantly cycling across the top half of the screen. The national church, diocese and Australian flags do not appear on these same websites. What message does that signal? (The same query about signals may be asked of the snapshot of Julia Gillard on the diocese home page.)
Declarations of indigenous solidarity likewise are featured on many Anglican web pages. St Paul’s Cathedral carries the statement, “Wominjeka: St Paul’s Cathedral stands on the traditional lands of the Kulin Nation. We pay our respects to elders past and present, and affirm our commitment to the work of reconciliation.” Superimposed over its large flag, St Jude’s, Carlton, runs the line, “[this church] acknowledges that it gathers for worship on the traditional lands of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nations, and is committed to work for reconciliation and justice.”
Most parish web pages adopt a more modest tone, like St Peter’s, Eastern Hill, which says: “We are an inclusive and welcoming church, built on the traditional lands of the Wurundjeri people.” Others in an exposed position, like Holy Trinity, East Melbourne, a church neighbouring the archbishop’s official residence, make a grand gesture:
We acknowledge the Wurundjeri people as the original inhabitants of this country. Today they are still the custodians of the cultural heritage of this land. Further to this, we acknowledge there are other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who have lived, worked and contributed to the cultural heritage of our community.
Similarly worded statements can be included in pew sheets for services, especially on festivals that pull a good crowd like Christmas and Easter. Some churches may slip these declarations into the printed orders of service for sacramental rites; last year I attended a baptism which began with a statement about Aboriginal custodianship and reconciliation.
The diocese is also behind an official sign displayed on external walls at many Anglican churches around Melbourne, sometimes prominently facing the street, often discreetly by the parish hall. Printed on these metal plaques are the words, “We are proud to acknowledge the Wurundjeri people as the traditional owners of this land”, with an Aboriginal flag shown beneath. And, on a noticeboard inside or near the entrance, most churches have of their own volition pinned up statements about the poor treatment of Aborigines historically and a need to work for reconciliation.
Whatever Anglican church the humble pilgrim visits today, symbolic markers for indigenous affairs are as essential to the sacred package as holy relics were in medieval times.
Questions need to be asked within the church about the process of making noise on a vexed political issue. The immediate dilemma involves what is meant by reconciliation. I have yet to sit through one of those periodic sermons referring to it which explains what must be done in practical terms. Instead, the word reconciliation is more a rhetorical stick used to beat white parishioners for sins-of-the-fathers.
Then there is the diocese’s Reconciliation Action Plan. It sounds imposing and the glossy brochure looks chic, but when you read through it’s mostly padding and waffle. Still, it does supply a definition:
What is reconciliation? There is much in human life that separates us from God; this gap needs to be bridged, or reconciled. This was achieved in the events of Easter when the death of Jesus, God’s Son, achieved reconciliation between God and humanity. St Paul puts it this way; “… God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them” [sic] (Romans 5:10).
One must ask if scripture is taken out of context here, and the quoted passage is from an unidentified non-standard translation—it resembles no Bible I have checked. So it is risky to claim that Romans 5:10 proves that what secular governments have called Aboriginal reconciliation is a “Christian principle”, is “part of being Christian” and “at the very core of our obligations as Christians in Australia”. Paul affirms that we be peacemakers, help others, and offer the loving hand of friendship. He does not command us to join political cults.
Then there is an Orwellian rewrite of national history. In his introduction to the Reconciliation Action Plan, Archbishop Freier laments “the decimation of the Aboriginal population through war …” Wars leave a gigantic paper trail. But there are no military records, parliamentary policy documents, or other evidential papers proving a war took place. Nor are there peace treaties or documents of submission concluding a war, as in New Zealand with the Maori Wars, in Southern Africa with the Anglo-Zulu War, and the United States with the Indian Wars. Morals are seriously askew when, eager to side with the underdog, the church has to make up a war—which “decimated” populations no less—that did not happen.
No one disputes the church’s duty to the afflicted and disadvantaged, or the sincerity of people wanting to act, but efforts should be fitting and properly thought out. Take signs acknowledging the Wurundjeri as custodians of the land. Why no recognition that God the creator made the land, and we all, irrespective of ethnicity, have a responsibility to care for it? And what of a new Doctrine of Atonement much forced by populists—their censorious view that white people are born guilty and must atone for past actions they took no part in, including a fictitious war!
Anglicans in Melbourne, and elsewhere, will have their own views on these matters. But a mature discussion fully involving lay members must take place, and what are political policies must cease to be imposed pontiff-like from above. A need for cautious probity was shown by the Anglican Church’s well-intentioned support in what became the Hindmarsh Island fiasco. On one other matter, too, a halt must occur. Priests, vicars, ministers, pastors, chaplains—however they style themselves—should not recite jingoistic statements as part of church services. Political cant has no place in holy worship.
Christopher Heathcote is a regular contributor to Quadrant.