Earlier this year, the 15th Assembly of the Uniting Church affirmed Australia’s First Peoples as the sovereign peoples of Australia. Former President Stuart McMillan introduced the proposal, calling it an opportunity to bring moral leadership to the nation, and noting that this decision could lead to a new way to live together in this land, based on mutual respect.
Together, members of Assembly considered the proposal, discussing the meaning of the word sovereignty, considering the implications of this decision for our national polity and for our life as the church, and working towards a consensus view on the matter. The process of discussion and deliberation was important.
The decision of the Assembly recognised that Sovereignty is the way in which First Peoples understand themselves to be the traditional owners and custodians of the land. This land has been cared for and cultivated by the First Peoples for tens of thousands of years before our time. What we have in the land on which we live, represents both the creative forces at work over time, and the careful custodianship of these peoples.
The proposal also referred to the Statement from the Heart which was adopted in 2017 at Uluru, which indicated that Sovereignty is understood by the First Peoples as a spiritual notion, reflecting the ancestral tie between the land and the First Peoples. Sovereignty looks like a formal, legal term, to those of us used to the Western way of thinking. Not so for Indigenous peoples. Sovereignty has a deep spiritual resonance. We need to ponder that dimension more fully.
This decision built upon the earlier decisions of the Uniting Church in earlier years. There was an early action where Uniting Church people stood in solidarity with the Yungngora people (at Noonkanbah Station near Fitzroy Crossing in WA) to oppose the unlawful and destructive activities of western corporations on their traditional lands.
There was agreement at a national level to establish a distinctive body for Aboriginal and Islander peoples within the Uniting Church, a body known as the Congress, with its own leadership and decision-making processes. Early in its life, the then National Chairperson of Congress spoke of our gifts of Aboriginal spirituality, our culture, our Aboriginal way of loving and caring, our instinctive concern and … every good aspect about being Aboriginal and Islander. Congress provides a means for those aspects to be highlighted and articulated.
There was the decision to adopt a process of deliberation and discernment in our meeting procedures which valued and honoured the way that First Peoples meet, talk, listen, and decide. It’s been a process that has challenged the presuppositions and assumptions of a western style of decision-making: propose, oppose, debate, argue, vote, decide, and then enforce the decision no matter what. Instead, we are challenged to listen, pause, seek to understand, look for commonalities, be open to the leading of the spirit, ensure that everyone’s voices are heard, and make a decision only when we are sure that we are able to move on together with consensus, or at least high-level agreement, about the matter.
There was the formalising of a Covenant between the Congress and the UCA as a whole. This recognised the special significance of the First Peoples and urges us to place our relationship with them at the heart of all that we decide to do. Covenant is a rich biblical idea which can inform how we function in our relationships together. In making this Covenant, the then President of Assembly prayed that it might unite us in a multi-racial bond of fellowship which will be a witness to God’s love for us all and a constant challenge to the continuing racism which oppressed you and separates us in this land and that it might move us towards a nation which provides justice and equity for all. That’s a prayer that holds good, still, today.
There was the adoption of a revised Preamble to the Constitution a decade ago, in which the church acknowledged the tragic history of colonisation, and affirmed that the First Peoples had already encountered the Creator God before the arrival of the colonisers, and the Spirit was already in the land revealing God to the people through law, custom and ceremony. That is a hugely important theological affirmation and I sense that we will be working out the implications of this affirmation for quite some time to come.
And more recently there was a gathering in Canberra of Uniting Church people from across the continent, converging in the nations capital to affirm that, as First and Second Peoples, we are hopeful that all may see a destiny together, praying and working together for a fuller expression of our reconciliation in Jesus Christ. Reconciliation is a key matter for us as a church, something that we need to continue to place at the fore of our life together.
This week, the Presbytery of which I am a member in Western Australia met on Noongar country and was led by elders and leaders of the Noongar peoples in a consideration of the implications of the decision to affirm that the First Peoples are sovereign in this land. What does it mean for us to value and hold to the covenant relationship, to affirm the sovereignty of the First Peoples, to shape our church life on the principle of reconciliation based on justice, and to advocate for these values in our national life? There are lots of challenges involved in these matters. The Chair of Congress in WA told us that “what we are talking about today is big business”.
I’m reading rather carefully through a recently-published book by Chris Budden, Why Indigenous Sovereignty Should Matter To Christians. Chris writes that “affirming Sovereignty is a way [Australia’s First] people can reclaim their place, identity, dignity, access to economy, spirituality, and humanity. It is an action that may contribute to reconciliation.” (p.11)
May we play a constructive and enthusiastic part in ensuring that this process continues!