This Sunday, 20 January, Uniting Churches around Australia will be holding services which focus on a Day of Mourning, ahead of a day later in the week (26 January) marked in many calendars as Australia Day.
These churches will be doing this in accord with the decision of the 15th Assembly of the UCA, held last year, “to request members to support a Day of Mourning to occur on the Sunday prior to 26th January each year, and to engage during worship services in activities such as reflection and discussion of the profound effect of invasion and colonisation on First Peoples”
This service provides an opportunity to acknowledge the dispossession, violence and murder of First Peoples, and to lament the fact that as a Church, and as Second Peoples, we were, and remain, complicit in this ongoing process.
Resources for use in such a service have been prepared and are available online . These resources invite worshippers to draw on the words of the Revised Preamble to the UCA Constitution, adopted in 2009, as they acknowledge that through this land, God nurtured and sustained the First Peoples of this country, the Aboriginal and Islander peoples; recognise that the First Peoples had already encountered the Creator God before the arrival of the colonisers; the Spirit was already in the land, revealing God to the people through law, custom and ceremony; and to honour First Peoples for their custodianship of the land on which we gather today.
The resources also provide opportunity for people to acknowledge and lament the injustice and abuse that has so often marked the treatment of the First Peoples of this land and to pray to God, by your Spirit transform our minds and hearts so that we may love as you have loved us, that we may boldly speak your truth and courageously do your will.
Drawing on the Covenant relationship that the Uniting Church has with the United Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress, the resources offer this word of mission to conclude worship, and to shape the witness and service of those who have shared in these services:
People of God, go from here to live out the covenant into which we, the First and Second Peoples of this land, have entered with one another. Confront and challenge injustice wherever you see it. Act justly yourselves and insist that others do the same. Rejoice in the richness of our diverse cultures and learn from them. Celebrate and demonstrate the unity we share in Jesus our Lord. Commit to worship, witness and serve as one people under God, until God’s promised reconciliation of all creation is complete.
In designating this Sunday as a Day of Mourning, the Assembly is referring back to the initiative of First Peoples in 1938, when they marked 150 years since the colonising invasion of British settlement in Australia with a Day of Mourning. They issued a statement protesting the callous treatment of our people by the whitemen during the past 150 years, appealing to the Australian nation to make new laws for the education and care of Aborigines, and asking for a new policy which will raise our people to full citizen status and equality within the community. This last matter was eventually determined by the 1967 referendum.
This decision of the Assembly stands in a line of decisions on various matters relating to indigenous Australians, made by earlier Assemblies.
The 2nd Assembly (1979) recognized the injustice done to Aboriginal people through the dispossession of their lands, the importance of ties with their land for the maintenance by Aboriginals of their culture, and the economic importance of land, and sought to initiate a process of sharing property and land with Aboriginal people.
The 4th Assembly (1985) determined to recognise that the history of Australia over the last 200 years, along with its achievements is marked by injustices, particularly to Aboriginal Australians and other marginalized and deprived groups in our society.
A series of decisions during the 1980s addressed the contentious issue of Land Rights, which eventually would be resolved by the courts through the Mabo and Wik decisions.
In 1996, ahead of the national Bringing Them Home report delivered in 1997, the Assembly Standing Committee acknowledged the trauma and ongoing harm caused to individuals, families, the Aboriginal community as a whole and the entire Australian community the practice of separating Aboriginal children from their parents and raising them in institutions, foster homes or adoptive homes.
The same 1996 Assembly Standing Committee noted that the church thought it was acting in a loving way by providing them with homes, but was blind to the racist assumptions that underlay the policy and practice [and] the fact that these assumptions, spoken and unspoken conveyed destructive, negative messages to the children about Aboriginal culture and their aboriginality.
Then the 8th Assembly (1997) resolved to adopt the policy of commencing all meetings of the Assembly with a recognition of prior Aboriginal ownership of the land and the sacredness of the place. That is now a common occurrence at every meeting of Assemblies and Synods, in many Presbyteries and also in many Congregations, Schools and Agencies across the continent.
More recently, of course, the 15th Assembly has affirmed that the First Peoples are sovereign, referencing the 2017 Statement from the Heart at Uluru, which affirms that sovereignty is understood by the First Peoples as a spiritual notion, reflecting the ancestral tie between the land and the First Peoples.
So this concern for the rights of Australia’s First Peoples, and a desire to see justice done for them, flows on into this designation of the Sunday before 26 January each year, as a Day of Mourning. And it evokes an important moment in indigenous history.
But there’s a further issue lurking here. In 1997, the 8th Assembly resolved to take the view that the nation must find a date for a National Day which has the capacity to unite all Australians in celebration.
That Assembly observed that successive Assemblies since 1982 have recognised that 26 January divides rather than unites the nation, and noted that Aboriginal people have observed that day as a Day of Mourning or Invasion Day or Survival Day for many years. It reminds them of the dispossession and marginalisation of their people over the past two centuries.
Accordingly, the 8th Assembly supported a change in the date of our National Day, and urges the Federal Government to promote community discussion directed towards identification of a date for Australia Day with greater power to unite than 26 January.
So here is my pitch for consideration at this time of the year: as a sign of respect for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, the first inhabitants of this continent and its islands, we do need to change the date of our national day. Australia Day remembers actions taken by invading colonisers in 1788, claiming the land without consideration of those already inhabiting it.
But according Luke Pearson, the founder and director of IndigenousX, we need to change the country, and not just change the date.
We need to change the country, so that we no longer perpetuate the consequences of that 1788 invasion: unacceptably high rates of Indigenous imprisonment and suicide, the continued removal of children from their families, lower than average life expectancy, higher levels of unemployment, higher rates of domestic violence, the failure to support the continued use of Indigenous languages, and no meaningful Indigenous representation in decision making.
Changing the date of Australia Day would be a small, but symbolically significant, contribution to recognising the damage that has been done by the colonial, imperial attitudes exhibited from the beginning of British occupation of this continent. Changing the country will be a larger, more challenging enterprise—but, surely, we need to rise to the challenge?
This is an edited version of a blog post that first appeared here.
Rev Dr John Squires was formerly Principal of Perth Theological Hall and is currently undertaking an Intentional Interim Ministry with Queanbeyan Uniting Church.