Australia is a democracy, governed by a series of parliaments—one for each state and territory, and one for the whole nation, drawing together representatives from across the continent, to meet, deliberate, and legislate. The Federal Parliament meets in the Australian Parliament House, in Canberra, the capital city of the nation.
Each time a new parliamentary sitting commences, one of the churches of Canberra hosts a service of worship, to which come the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, their parliamentary colleagues, and others connected with the workings of the Parliament. The service moves around churches on a rotating basis, and the liturgist and preacher are provided each time by leaders in those churches.
This year, at the start of the parliamentary year, the preacher was a friend and colleague, the Rev. Dr Sarah Bachelard, who is the Director of the Benedictus Community, which meets in Canberra and online. Sarah spoke words drawing from the scriptural heritage of Christianity and Judaism; the texts read in the service were Proverbs 8:1–4, 8–11; Psalm 24:1–5; and Matthew 5:1–10.
Sarah spoke directly, and clearly, to the parliamentary leadership, about an issue which deserves to have the central place in our public and political considerations during 2023: the Statement from the Heart, an offering written at Uluṟu in 2017 by leaders of the First Peoples of Australia, addressing the nation of Australia. With Sarah’s permission, I am reproducing what she said at that service of worship.
Every week in religious communities around Australia, prayers are offered for those charged with leadership and the government of peoples. ‘Give wisdom to those who have responsibility and authority in every land’, so the Anglican version goes, ‘that we may share with justice the resources of the earth, and work together in trust’. It’s a theme as old as human community.
To those of you who commit to this service, these difficult responsibilities, on behalf of us all – thank you. For as I’m sure I don’t need to tell you, real leadership in the face of this complexity is demanding. It involves many elements – good intentions, good information, the willingness to nurture relationships and build consensus, and sheer hard work. There’s something else needed too, as the prayer I cited above suggests. Something absolutely vital. We call it wisdom.
The recognition that nurturing just and life-giving relationships between peoples, negotiating competing desires and interests in a world of gift and limit, while caring for the very conditions of existence, is no straightforward matter.
Wisdom is the quality of those we relate to as elders, of those who speak with authority, whether or not they have positional power. It has to do with judgement, discernment, seeing a bigger picture. Of course, like every human quality – wisdom can be corrupted or reduced by self-interest. Guile and cunning are its debased expressions.
True wisdom, though, is different. The wise perceive and connect to the depth dimension of reality and so enable creative, compassionate engagement with the fuller truth of things. Wisdom is a form of what the great Australian poet, Les Murray, called ‘whole-thinking’. (The phrase comes from his poem, ‘Poetry and Religion’ in Les Murray, Selected Poems; Melbourne: Black Inc, 2007, p.94. )
As one contemplative teacher has put it, ‘wisdom is not knowing more things. It’s knowing with more of ourselves’. (see Cynthia Bourgeault, https://www.cynthiabourgeault.org)
For the wisdom traditions of the world this capacity for ‘whole thinking’, fuller knowing, is connected to the ‘heart’ – where ‘heart’ refers not to feelings alone, but to the centre or soul of a person. Wisdom is an integrated, attentive, compassionate responsiveness. It embodies what Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr, former Senior Australian of the year, calls ‘dadirri’ – ‘inner deep listening and quiet still awareness’. (See Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr, ‘Dadirri: Inner Deep Listening and Quiet Still Awareness’, https://www.miriamrosefoundation.org.au/dadirri/, © 1988 Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr)
‘Give wisdom to those in authority’. But where does wisdom come from? How does any of us grow in it, amidst the messy, busy and often overwhelming circumstances of politics, work and life?
Strangely enough, experience teaches that our access to this integrated, heart’s knowing is usually by way of the heart’s breaking. And maybe you know this for yourself. A time, perhaps, when a disappointment, failure, betrayal or profound grief threw you out of the life you’d known and had tried to fashion for yourself. A time when your ways of making sense faltered, and you found yourself unable to go on as before.
Almost none of us undergoes heart-break willingly. Yet the great paradox is that if we can abide in this broken space without closing ourselves off by becoming bitter or repressed, we wake up at a different level. As the grip of our ego-ic illusions and fantasies of control loosens, we discover ourselves rooted in deeper ground. And gradually, we come to know ourselves more fully part of an interconnected, interdependent whole, capable of being responsible to the whole. Which is the beginning of wisdom.
This has nothing to do with valorising suffering or deprivation; licensing a society to neglect the vulnerable and dispossessed, or to fail to redress injustice. It’s simply the recognition that we don’t attain to ‘whole-thinking’ by cleverness, but through the integration of our wounds. We cannot acquire wisdom as a possession – it grows within us as we are opened at the level of the heart.
This is what Jesus means by poverty of spirit. And as he says in the text we heard read, it’s the poor in spirit … those who have touched the tears of things … those who walk humbly on the earth … who are blessed. For they are connected to the fullness of life and so are capable of truthful vision, of mercy and of making peace.
And this speaks directly to a matter which you, Prime Minister, have identified as central to the work of this current Parliament. Our nation has received the great gift of a Statement from the Heart of the first peoples of this land. This is a wisdom text. Born of heartbreak – of long and continuing suffering, yet marked by an extraordinary generosity of spirit open to the possibility that the wounds of our history might be reconciled for the good of all – the Statement from the Heart can only truly be heard and enacted when those to whom it is addressed make contact with and listen from their own heart
This is its gift and challenge to us all. The call for a First Nations Voice to be enshrined in the Constitution is thus not just another policy proposal, to be debated at the level of strategy and argument. As well as a condition of lasting justice for Australia’s first peoples, it’s an invitation to our nation as a whole to grow in wisdom’s way.
At a time when petty factionalism is tearing at the fabric of national and international communities, and the crises of our age escalate, the necessity for wisdom in the government and among the peoples of the world is urgent. May this Parliament, this nation – all of us – grow in wisdom that we may share with justice the resources of the earth, and work together in trust.
(A Sermon preached at St Paul’s Anglican Church, Manuka, in a Service for the Opening of Parliament, on 6 February 2023, by the Rev. Dr Sarah Bachelard)
In a “doorstop” media interview after the service, two of the four questions asked of the Prime Minister related to the issue of a Voice. He was asked, “When do you think you will want to introduce legislation and set up the Voice? Would it be in this term of Parliament?”
Mr Albanese replied: “I’d be very hopeful that it would be, of course, in this term of Parliament. This is a task which we need to, of course, get the detail right. And there’d be a process as well of that parliamentary debate about the legislation. And I’d want to get as much agreement as possible, because I want this to be a long-term reform to benefit Indigenous Australians, to help close the gap. We’ll be talking about closing the gap, and the targets, and the fact that so many of them have not been met, when that is debated in Parliament over this sitting. And that is why this is a change that’s necessary.”
Then he was asked, “Will the Voice also advise National Cabinet?”, and he responded, “This is a Voice to Parliament, and it will be a Voice that will release its views publicly. Publicly, it will be available for all, is one of the principles that has been there. And of course, so many of the issues go across different levels of government. This is about consultation. It won’t have a right of veto, it won’t be a funding body, it’s very clear with the principles that have been put out.”
A little later, the Prime Minister tweeted, quoting Sarah Bachelard and affirming her words.
For information about Benedictus, see https://benedictus.com.au