From the Statement from the Heart to the Voice to advise Parliament and Government

At a meeting of the Canberra Region Presbytery of the Uniting Church, held at North Belconnen Uniting Church on Saturday 25 March 2023, Nathan Tyson was invited to address the Presbytery on issues relating to the upcoming referendum proposal to establish a Voice to advise the Federal Parliament and the Executive Government. There was a full house as Nathan spoke and then responded to questions from those present.

The Rev. Ivan Roberts introduced Nathan Tyson. Ivan has worked with Nathan in Synod roles since 2017. Nathan is currently the Manager, First Peoples Strategy and Engagement with the Uniting Church in Australia’s Synod of NSW and the ACT. He is an Aboriginal man of Anaiwon/Gomeroi descent, who has lived most of his life in Sydney.

Nathan Tyson addressing the Presbytery

Nathan is a lawyer and long time advocate for the rights of Aboriginal peoples, having worked for organisations such as the NSW Ombudsman, the ICAC, the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, Western Sydney University, and Uniting, before commencing his role with the Synod in May this year. Nathan is currently undertaking a Graduate Diploma in Theology.

Nathan spoke to the Presbytery about the Statement from the Heart, and matters promoted in that Statement, namely, Truth, Treaty, and Voice.

The Statement from the Heart, 2017

The Statement emerged after twelve regional dialogues, relating particularly to constitutional recognition, had occurred. The process drew together many conversations that had taken place amongst First Peoples in the previous decade. The Statement was crafted during a gathering at Yulara, close to Uluṟu in the heart of the continent of Australia. There was a diversity of views at the gathering, including a group that left the gathering before the Statement was finalised. This diversity reflects the reality of society in Australia, and of Aboriginal and Islander peoples.

Truth, Treaty, Voice

The Statement calls for a Makarrata Commission, following a model used in Canada. There needs to be a recognition of the terrible things that did take place in Australia in the past; Truth means acknowledging that history, and the impact that it has had on our society. There is no need for personal guilt amongst those of us living today; rather, it is simply acknowledging the Truth about that history.

The Statement asks for the Commission to oversee a process of forming Treaties with the First Peoples. (There would need to be multiple treaties, as there are multiple First Nations in Australia.) Such treaties exist in all the other Commonwealth countries; Australia is the only nation without such a Treaty. Having a Treaty—or Treaties—in place would enable constructive ways of addressing the past and its impacts into the present.

The Synod has supported Truth, Treaty, and Voice. (See the link below.) All three are equally important; they each need to be implemented, they each need to be in place. (The Assembly is likewise strongly supportive, have agreed to the repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery in 2015 and recognised the prior sovereignty of First Nations in 2018. Again, see the links below.)

The Presbytery discussing the presentation by Nathan Tyson

The Voice

The question for the referendum has been made public. It is a straightforward proposition. There are key principles underpinning the proposal. There are also key criticisms that have been made in recent times.

Opponents to “Voice before Treaty” claim that this will cede the sovereignty of First Peoples. This is not the case. As a lawyer, Nathan recognises that any ceding of sovereignty would need to involve the free, prior, and informed consent of the First Nations people. Sovereignty will be addressed through the process relating to Treaty.

A second criticism relates to the order of things. “Treaty should come before Voice” is the claim. Applying the doctrine of terra nullius in 1788 meant that a Treaty was not required. Now that the Mabo decision has declared terra nullius null and void, a Treaty process is required. Nathan compared the situation in Australia with what is the case in New Zealand. There was never, here, any opportunity to cede sovereignty, as there has been in New Zealand.

A third area of criticism is, quite simply, “we don’t trust government”. The Stolen Generations feeds this, and there are legitimate concerns here. However, the present government does want to move things forward. It is a once in a lifetime opportunity. This is an opening we need to take. If not now, how long will we have to wait?

Solidarity through tshirts!!

The process is a legislative process—the politicians will be responsible for creating the detail of this matter as it is prepared, debated, and decided upon in the Federal Parliament. To say “we don’t have enough detail” is disingenuous, as those critics will be sitting in Parliament, deciding those details!

Nathan quoted from the documents already released which explain how The Voice will work. It will make representations to Parliament and the Executive Government; it can research, propose, and advocate through these representations. Membership will be by elected members, representative, and with fixed term limitations. Membership will rely on the three-part test that has been applied since 1983 (a person identifies as Aboriginal, is recognised by their community, and is Aboriginal by descent). It will have gender, age, and geographical diversity. Members will reflect the wishes of their communities.

A key task for the Voice will be to address the current situation of inequity experienced in Aboriginal communities, with direct access to advise and advocate. It will be accountable and transparent, subject to the usual processes of all governmental bodies. It will work alongside existing First Peoples organisations. It will not deliver services; it is only advisory. It will not be a third body in the parliamentary structures, despite what a former Prime Minister (mistakenly) claimed.

What is the point of a body that does not make decisions? Is that not creating a body with no power? Article 19 of the UN’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples provides that Indigenous peoples have the right not to consent to decisions that may impact on them. That is not reflected in the Voice. However, the advice provided to the Voice will be made public, for all to see. If the advice is counter to proposed legislation, that will be public. There is a level of public accountability, and the Voice will certainly have power within the current system. It will not be a powerless body.

Nathan suggested that it may be helpful to see the new Voice as an Indigenous lobby group, akin to the ACTU, the Business Council of Australia, the Farmers Federation, and other lobby groups. He then responded to a series of questions which sought further clarifications, and comments which expressed support for the case he had put.

In making a proposal to thank Nathan Tyson for his presentation, Presbytery Secretary Robbie Tulip noted that the UCA Assembly and the UAICC National body has supported a YES vote, as has the Board of Uniting and five of the six Synods of the UCA.

In response to the substantive matters in Robbie’s proposal, the Presbytery agreed by consensus that it would support advocacy for a YES vote in the referendum in the coming months; encourage Church Councils to consider the issues involved in the Voice and to facilitate local conversations about this issue; and to encourage all members of the church to give serious consideration to the way that they vote in that referendum.

(In the Uniting Church way of doing things, a consensus decision means that all who took part in the deliberation and decision process agreed to the proposal, and nobody participating in that indicated that they were unsure of, or opposed to, the decision.)


For resources relating to First Nations people that Nathan Tyson has collected and developed, go to

For Uniting Church decisions, see my reflections at

On relevant themes in recent years, see

The ‘word of truth’, according to Colossians 1 (Pentecost 5C)

This coming Sunday, we turn from a letter written in the name of Paul, which few interpreters doubt is an authentic letter of Paul, to a slightly shorter letter which also claims to be written by Paul—but about which there is quite some debate as to whether Paul did write it. We will hear the opening section of the letter this Sunday (Col 1:1–14).

The letter begins with a clear claim to be a letter from “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, to the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ in Colossae” (Col 1:1-2). Despite this claim, there are signs that Paul may not be the author.

A more complex grammatical structure at some points, and some unusual vocabulary when compared with the vocabulary of the authentic letters of Paul, suggest a different hand in the creation of this letter. Some theological motifs are developed further than is found in the authentic letters of Paul, while the situation addressed appears to be different from—and probably later than—any situation envisaged in the lifetime of Paul.

(On the authorship of the various letters attributed to Paul, see

It is typical of Paul’s letters that the opening “prayer of thanksgiving” sets out some of the key contenders which will be addressed in the body of the letter. (This is the case in many other letters from the time that survive to today; whether Christian, or Jewish, or pagan, letters invariably flag key issues in the opening sentences.) Here, the key concerns seem to be about “the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding” which will enable the readers and hearers of this letter to “lead lives worthy of the Lord” and “be prepared to endure everything with patience”.

The letter refers to Onesimus (Col 4:9), the slave about whom Paul wrote to Philemon (Phlm 10), as well as one of the addressees of that letter, Archippus (Col 4:17; Phlm 1). The greetings at the end of the letter contain a number of names also found in the greetings of Philemon 23–24: Epaphras (Col 4:12), Mark and Aristarchus (Col 4:10), and Demas and Luke (Col 4:14).

This suggests that the two letters might have originated at the same time in the ministry of Paul—when he was in prison (Col 4:3, 8; Phlm 10, 13), perhaps in Rome towards the end of his life. However, there is little else to connect Colossians with Philemon. The content of each letter is quite different.

Alternatively, the Colossian references to Paul’s imprisonment might link the letter with Philippians, written similarly during an imprisonment (Phil 1:7, 12– 14, 17). This would be so if Epaphroditus in Philippians (2:25; 4:18) was the same person as Paul’s associate, Epaphras, noted in Colossians (1:7–8; 4:12– 13). That possibility suggests a common origin; but no further links between these letters are evident.

A more fruitful connection is found between Colossians and Ephesians, where there are a number of similarities in theological development as well as a significant overlap of text. Eph 6:21b–22 replicates almost exactly the underlined phrases in Col 4:7–9. The most persuasive theory is that Ephesians, written well after the death of Paul by a follower of Paul’s teachings, drew on that section of Colossians, believing it to be the words of Paul.

Returning to Colossians itself, we note that it follows the traditional form of a letter, with opening greetings (1:1–2) and thanksgiving (1:3–8) leading into a further prayer for the Colossians (1:9–14) before the body of the letter (1:15–2:23) and a series of exhortations (3:1–4:6). The closing greetings (4:7–17) and grace (4:18) bring the letter to a close in conventional fashion.

There are a number of indications of the distinctive situation to which the letter is addressed, although these insights are mediated through the perspective of the writer of the letter. The Colossians, although believers in Christ, continue to recognise the “elemental spirits of the universe” (2:8, 20). They are “deceived with plausible arguments” (2:4) and thus are captive to a “philosophy and empty deceit” (2:8) which is contradictory to Christian belief. They take part in “festivals … new moons … sabbaths” (2:16), engage in “self-abasement and worship of angels” (2:18) and adhere to strict regulations (2:20–22).

These terms seem to be describing people who are Gentiles (elemental spirits) who have adopted some Jewish practices (new moons, sabbaths, worship of angels) yet have an ascetic flavour (self-a basement) with rhetorical interests (plausible arguments) mediated through their philosophical interests. That’s quite a thick description of the presumed recipients, and not like others who received authentic letters from Paul.

Along with clear evidence for syncretism amongst the Colossians, there is a thought that the believers in Colossae were proto-Gnostics—that is, precursors of the kind of Christianity that emerged fully in the second century onwards, and which we know about most directly through the documents collected in the Nag Hammadi library (discovered in Egypt in 1945). See

Over against this cluster of beliefs, the letter-writer advocates the gospel, which is described as “the word of truth” (1:5) and “the faith” (1:23; 2:7), and exhorts the readers to be “mature in Christ” (1:28; 4:12). The opening thanksgiving (1:9–10) contains key terms which express the writer’s hopes for the readers: understanding (2:2) and growth (2:19), and especially wisdom (1:28; 2:3, 23; 3:16; 4:5) and knowledge (2:2, 3; 3:10). These last terms, particularly, point in the direction of the developing Gnostic movement which held sway in some parts of the developing Jesus movement.

Some of these terms do appear in Paul’s authentic letters; some others appear less frequently, if at all. They do appear, however, in the Pastoral Epistles (written “in the name of Paul” some decades after his death) and then in various documents, not part of the New Testament, which demonstrate the growing Gnostic and speculative-philosophical tendencies in some parts of Christianity in the late first century and on into the second and third centuries.

The positive qualities which are highlighted in this letter, noted above, are especially related to Christ, in whom “the whole fullness of deity dwells” (2:9–10), a doctrine which sits at the core of a distinctive hymn in which Christ is portrayed as an all-encompassing cosmic figure (1:15–20). This is one key point where the letter moves beyond what is found in Paul’s authentic letters to the formulation of a post-Pauline doctrine. This, it seems, is central to “the word of truth” that is highlighted from the start of the letter.

My own conclusion is that Colossians was most likely written by a follower of Paul, writing in his teacher’s name in order to claim his authority as he addressed a situation different from, and some time after, Paul’s own time. Paul’s theological and ethical positions are known by the author. However, the problematic situation addressed, the theological ideas expressed, and the ethical instructions offered, each point to an origin after the lifetime of Paul.