‘What I did not steal must I now restore?’
In Australia, National Reconciliation Week (NRW) runs from May 27 to June 3 and is immediately preceded by Sorry Day on May 26. The dates are significant. The 1997 report of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission into the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, Bringing Them Home, was tabled in the federal parliament on May 26. Sorry Day has become an annual observance inviting Australians to reflect on the genocidal policies which sought to destroy Indigenous families and communities and to renew community resolve to avoid ever enacting such policies again. May 27 commemorates the date of the 1967 referendum in which the Australian constitution was changed to recognise the existence of Indigenous peoples and June 3 recalls the 1993 ‘Mabo decision’ of the High Court of Australia to overturn the racist legal fiction of terra nullius. Beginning as a week of ‘prayer for reconciliation’ within some Australian churches, the week has now been taken up in some sections of the wider community as a way to encourage the building of bridges between Indigenous and other Australians.
I have to say that, to this Aboriginal Christian leader, National Reconciliation Week appears to be struggling as a tool to extract a more just settlement for our people. It is struggling, I think, for two reasons. First, instead of encouraging the colonial establishment to address issues of justice for First Peoples persistently and all-year-round, NRW has become a way in which organisations may signal their virtue in this area for one week per year, largely for PR reasons, but effectively ignore our concerns at every other time. Second, it has become increasingly clear that it is Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people themselves who are expected to do most of the work of Reconciliation Week, just as we are expected to do most of the work of reconciliation itself. Which means, simultaneously, that our prophets grow weary and sad at the lack of progress on justice for our people whilst our colonial gubbas congratulate themselves for their virtuous attention to the politically correct, all the while refusing to lift a finger to actually change anything. Which leads us to ask, with the Psalmist, ‘what I did not steal must I now restore?’ Must we who did nothing to create Indigenous suffering now be the ones who must do all the work of healing and restoration? Why cannot those who have benefitted from the dispossession of our people take responsibility for putting things right?
Many others have written about the consequences of conservative government for the reconciliation cause, pointing to the extraordinary lack of progress on matters like a voice to parliament, incarceration rates, health outcomes, family integrity, meaningful employment, access to country, housing and the preservation of language and culture. I don’t intend to add to that commentary. Rather, I want to point out that the very churches that initiated the week of prayer for reconciliation have now, very clearly, abandoned the cause in any meaningful sense.
The Uniting Church has long enjoyed a reputation for leading the way on matters of reconciliation. And there are plenty of signs that it continues to do so. Its national constitution has a preamble declaring that First Peoples enjoyed a relationship with God prior to the coming of Europeans. The Constitution also recognises and gives formal institutional authority to a national ‘Congress’ of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander members of the church who are able to run their own affairs (up to a point). The church also funds a small number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ministries around the nation and has handed some of those ministries land and property for their beneficial use. The church has an interest in a registered training organisation, based in Darwin, specifically designed to offer certificate and diploma level education to aspiring First Nations pastors and church workers. In addition, the church each year provides worship and other resources on Invasion Day, National Reconciliation Week and NAIDOC Week for the nourishment of its members in the ongoing work of reconciliation. All of which is terrific, at least to the naked eye.
Of course, as someone who was involved in the Uniting Church as a Congress member for 20 years or so, I can tell you with some experience that the gains of our people over that period were hard-won. The church authorities were very good at managing public perceptions, offering fine words of apology and commitment at the very time they were also steadfastly resisting our overtures for greater control of our affairs and a more practical investment in our ministries. I personally witnessed the official and institutionally sanctioned persecution of a Congress minister. Many First Nations leaders fell into despair and illness along the way. I, myself, eventually left the church becaue I could not find meaningful employment and because the battle to find a secure place to stand within the church was making me sick. Behind the glossy presentation of the Uniting Church’s leadership on matters of reconciliation there remains a fairly common, everyday racism. I still come across UC leaders who have never read a book about the true history of this country, have never had a respectful conversation with an Indigenous person, who have never studied with an Indigenous academic or theologian, and never felt the need to do so. To date, the senior leadership of the church remains steadfastly white, and there are no Indigenous people on the teaching staff of any of its theological colleges. In my observation, it is still the case that Australia’s most progressive church on these matters harbours a fundamentally white-blind membership that cannot really see what the problem is.
The Roman Catholic Church appears to have both a national and state-based apparatus to address matters of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander concern. There is a National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic Council reporting to the Bishop’s Conference, and a funded secretariat that functions nationally as well as on a state-by-state basis. Most states and territories appear to have at least one funded Indigenous ministry, with Tasmania being a notable exception. In addition, anecdotal evidence would suggest that Catholic schools and welfare agencies often form enthusiastic relationships with Aboriginal organisations and communities, Catholic and otherwise. These bodies collaborate happily both on curriculum and policy materials and on the building of relationships between people from Indigenous and non-Indigenous backgrounds. Certainly, most of the Indigenous Catholics I know are reasonably happy Catholics. For all this good work, it appears that the church has still invested very little in the development of indigenous theologies, theologians and clergy. The Roman Church is exemplary in its multiculturalism, not least amongst the clergy. But there are still no Indigenous bishops or tenured theological teachers and precious few deacons and priests. There are still, in other words, almost no Indigenous voices where they count most: amongst the pastoral and teaching authorities of the church.
The Anglican Church of Australia, likewise, has established a national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander council, which reports to the General Synod. This Council, of which I am a member, consists mainly of representatives appointed by the 23 diocesan bishops. Several bishops do not appoint anyone at all. Some apparently appoint non-Indigenous people. The General Synod funds a less-than-1.0 EFT national secretariat and an annual meeting for this Council, but it does not fund any on-the-ground Indigenous ministry of any kind. That is left to individual dioceses, which vary wildly in their engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The Diocese of Melbourne, for example, employs no-one to engage with Aboriginal people. And whilst there are, so far as I can tell, five Aboriginal priests in the diocese, four are employed in non-Aboriginal ministries and a fifth is not employed by the church at all. Across the church, nationally, it would be fair to say that almost all Indigenous church workers, ordained or not, engage in ministry with, or on behalf of, our people on our own time and at our own expense. The number of funded Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander ministries can be counted on one hand. The Anglican Board of Mission is allowed by its charter to fund individual projects that engage with Indigenous peoples, but that same charter prohibits the funding of wages or stipends, which effectively means that ABM cannot support Indigenous ministers, lay or ordained, to do long-term embedded ministries in Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander communities. It is sobering to note that, whilst the General Synod can in principle appoint national bishops for both the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, there is currently no funding allocated to do so. The national Torres Strait Islander episcopate is therefore vacant, and the national Aboriginal episcopate is currently being funded on a part-time basis by Anglicare in South Australia.
One might additionally note that pleas for a more meaningful engagement from the Anglican Church usually fall on deaf ears. Since its establishment in 1998, the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Anglican Council has sought on multiple occasions both a meaningful covenant or treaty with the rest of the church, and a more substantial funding base to underwrite its aspirations. Neither have been forthcoming. At the local level here in Melbourne, the overtures of Aboriginal clergy towards a more practical approach to reconciliation are routinely ignored by church authorities. And, as with the Roman Catholic Church, it is still the case that there are no tenured Indigenous theological teachers in the mainstream theological colleges of the church, and less than a handful of Indigenous voices on diocesan councils in the whole of Australia. One can only conclude that reconciliation in the sense of restoring some measure of voice, dignity and justice to First Peoples is effectively terminal in the Anglican Church.
Notwithstanding these realities, churches routinely call on us in National Reconciliation Week or in NAIDOC Week to participate in symbolic acts of reconciliation, usually within the context of worship services run by white people who appear to be engaged in virtue-signalling. I, for one, find that this invitation, when it comes, is very often the ONLY invitation I receive from a church in an entire year, and it arrives just a few days before the proposed event because that is how long that particular church has allocated to planning. There is no relationship with this church. There has been no foregoing process of story-sharing or relationship-building, in the midst of which the particular event or worship service might actually take on some genuine meaning for the community that gathers. Furthermore, precisely because of the lack of conversation with the church in question, one cannot help but feel that there will be little to no positive outcome from the event for our people. There will be no commitments made, for example, to hand back some land, or pay the rent, or fund an Indigenous ministry, or engage in ongoing conversation with an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander organisation. To make those kinds of outcomes even remotely possible requires a long conversation, much education, and the fundamental conversion of racist hearts and minds. All a one-off event can usually achieve is a self-congratulatory feeling of virtue in the hosting organisation for broaching such ‘complex’ issues and giving ‘difficult’ people like me a platform.
All of which leaves us Indigenous Christian leaders in a place of considerable dilemma. Most of us are already exhausted by this point, because we have already endured many weeks, months and years of scorn, ignorance and indifference: in casual conversation and on media, both social and traditional. We are deeply sceptical about the value of doing what is asked of us. But we feel we have a responsibility to our people, especially our kids, to keep speaking out, to keep fighting the fight as our elders did before us at great personal cost, even though it is so very, very difficult to do so. So, we pull ourselves together, put on a smiling face, turn up, do our little bit and hope for the best. We pray that God will give us patience to answer all the hurtful and disrespectful questions without losing our cool. And we go home even more exhausted, and usually just a little bit depressed. Depressed because the questions have not changed in years, depressed because the church seems stuck in a time-warp when it comes to addressing the question of justice, depressed because like everyone else, we long for signs of light, but we rarely see it appear. And really it is just oh so hard to keep the whole thing going.
In spite of all this, or most probably because of it, I am a person of prayer. I pray not because I am serene, I pray because I am desperate. Without the water from the well, which is the word of the suffering Christ, I would surely succumb to the floods of despair with which I am overcome at every reconciliation event. ‘Help me ancestors, help me Jesus, to stay alive, that the promise of your justice and peace may stay alive in me’. That is my prayer, and most days – especially during Reconciliation Week - that is about the best I can do.