Steps in our journey of reconciliation
Significant conversations are going on around Australia, in support of officially recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Australian Constitution. For many, this is an urgent need, as well as an appropriate next step in the process of reconciliation.
This search for reconciliation is one that should resonate with members of the Uniting Church. Not only does talk of “reconciliation” sit at the heart of the Basis of Union, but it has been part of our life for the past 30 years.
For us in the Uniting Church, this process began in 1985, with the recognition of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress. Recognising it as a discrete body within the Church, with authority in relation to Aboriginal and Islander members, congregations and ministers. Also, it was provided a constitutional voice in the decision-making processes of the whole Church.
Strained relations. Renewed discussions
Three years later, the Congress was deeply disappointed when the national Assembly of the Church refused to recommend that Uniting Church members boycott the Bicentennial Celebrations. This boycott was called for, due to the Congress believing inadequate steps had been made to gain justice and land rights for Aboriginal peoples. The Congress organised its response in the March for Freedom Justice and Hope.
The actions of the Assembly strained the Church’s relationship with the newly established Congress. So, in 1991, the Assembly agreed to begin a process of covenanting between the Congress and the rest of the Church. It committed itself to building relations of solidarity between the Uniting Church at every level of its life — congregations and the Aboriginal people in the locality; in Presbyteries, Synods and at the national level.
From 1992, at the request of the UAICC, I was appointed to work full-time in collaboration with members of the Congress to develop relations between Aboriginal people in every locality and Uniting Church groups. Between 1992 until 2000, I travelled to every part of the country encouraging local Church groups to meet, talk with and listen to local Aboriginal people about what reconciliation might mean in their area. Many local actions were taken in response.
A formal apology
In 1994, as part of this process of covenanting and reconciliation, in the presence of all the former Presidents and the whole national Assembly of some 250 leaders of the Church, the President of the Uniting Church made a formal apology* to the Chairperson and members of the Congress. This apology was for the wrongs done to Aboriginal and Islander people, after 1788, by the newcomers (and, in particular, the churches).
The Assembly, on behalf of the whole Uniting Church, entered into a covenant with the Congress. The terms of this covenant included the transfer of a proportion of financial assets of the Church to the Congress, for its work. Over the next 15 years, the Church took various actions as it explored the implications of this covenant.
Many people — both members of the UAICC and other members of the Uniting Church — felt that the constitution of the Church, drafted in the 1960s, should reflect the new situation in which we had come to recognise ourselves as a community of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and later comers.
This was not only a matter of recognising the reality that the Uniting Church comprised Aboriginal and non-aboriginal people. It required acknowledgment that before Christians came to Australia with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, God was already here. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples had been trying to live their lives for millennia in response to their recognition of the Creator God. They tried to live their lives in response to their understanding of themselves as creatures accountable to the Creator.
In 1996, the Assembly Standing Committee issued an apology on behalf of the Uniting Church to the Stolen Generations for wrongs done to them (and the whole Aboriginal community) under these policies. The Chairperson of the Commission of Enquiry, Sir Ronald Wilson, was a previous President of the Uniting Church National Assembly.
The 1997 Assembly also passed a resolution that the Church, at every level, should promote the choice of a new National Day. This would be to replace “Australia Day” on January 26, on the grounds it is offensive to Aboriginal people and, therefore, divisive within the Australian community.
Restoring a covenant bond
In 2006, procedures were established to affirm the right of the UAICC to present its view on any matter before the Assembly, before other debate took place on the issue. The Assembly went on to reaffirm the covenant with the Congress, and to encourage discussion at every level of the Church (and all its agencies) about the implications of this for the Church.
Over the next three years the Uniting Church, in its various councils, continued to work through the implications of being a church in a covenant relationship with the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress.
In 2009, the Assembly resolved to adopt a new Preamble to the Constitution, in recognition that the Uniting Church included both First Peoples — the Aboriginal and Islander peoples who had lived in Australia from time immemorial — and Second Peoples; those who had come to live in Australia since 1788.
The Uniting Church has taken some significant steps on the journey to reconciliation, but there is still a long way to go. Issues of land, sovereignty and self-determination, recognition of the contribution First Peoples can make to the Church and nation, and ongoing issues of racism and injustice need to be tackled. The Uniting Church needs to maintain its commitments and, particularly, its commitment to the UAICC.
John P. Brown
- This is an edited version of a paper John presented to a seminar on the Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Constitution, held at City Church, Canberra, on 29 November 2014. The paper was edited by Chris Budden, Interim National Coordinator, UAICC.
*Copies of the full text of the apology, and the response of the Chairperson of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress can be found in “Theology for Pilgrims: Selected Theological Documents of the Uniting Church in Australia”, edited by Robert Bos and Geoff Thompson (Uniting Church Press, 2008).