Call to help Aboriginal church leaders thrive

The Anglican Bishop of the Northern Territory is calling for up to 50 mature Christians to move to Arnhem Land to disciple up-and-coming Aboriginal church leaders on a long-term basis.

Dr Greg Anderson, a former CMS missionary to the NT who returned to Darwin as bishop a year ago, sees the need for “an ongoing, possibly permanent partnership” between mature Christians and Aboriginal churches in Arnhem Land.

“We have local, ordained leaders but some of them are old, well past ‘whitefella’ retirement age, and there’s a younger generation we’re looking for to come up behind them and there are some signs of those people coming forward, but those people need [cultural] scaffolding.

Greg Anderson, Bishop of Northern Territory

Greg Anderson, Bishop of Northern Territory

“I’m looking for people who will stand alongside them to mentor them. We need people who won’t dominate, who will be prepared to listen to what Aboriginal people are saying, who won’t go in imagining that what is a solution where they come from will be a solution in Arnhem Land, who are prepared to empower Aboriginal church leaders to find their own solutions.”

Dr Anderson raised the issue at CMS NSW Summer School in Katoomba in January. He told Eternity some of the 50 men and women he has called for would be  based in each of the Aboriginal parishes, while others would be roving among them.

As well as traditional cross-cultural missionaries, he is also looking for people to serve in a new CMS category “intentional mission workers,” who take secular jobs in places like Arnhem Land, perhaps as a teacher, a nurse, a council worker, electrician or mechanic.

“People like that could then stand alongside Aboriginal church leaders,” he says.

“It’s better to have long-term interface because short-termers aren’t going to learn the language.”

Dr Anderson recognises that his call for a long-term partnership between the mainstream and Aboriginal church flies in the face of the principles of Aboriginal self-determination brought in under the Whitlam government in the 1970s. But he believes autonomy is not a realistic goal in Arnhem Land because of the loss of capacity in Aboriginal communities since the beginning of the self-determination era, with low employment rates and high rates of interaction with the criminal justice system.

“There is such a degree of marginalisation, such a degree of disempowerment, that to just keep pleading for self-determination doesn’t provide the capacity for self-determination, so the whole thing can just spiral down.”

Just as Christians live as exiles in this world, indigenous minorities in the developed world live as exiles in a “fourth world”.

“They’re exiled from the mainstream world and as communications increase they have more exposure to the wider world but that doesn’t provide them with an entry point to the wider world.”

Dr Anderson, who can speak several Aboriginal languages, says the broad cultural gulf between the Western and Aboriginal worldviews derives from language.

“Very few white people have learned Aboriginal languages enough to engage strongly with Aboriginal worldviews and concepts. That means Aboriginal people have always had to do all of the movement towards English and towards the Western, mainstream worldview and conceptual framework,” he says.

“I find myself wondering if people down south think Aboriginal people in Arnhem Land speak English and maybe they speak their own traditional language as a hobby on the side. No, they speak their own vernacular language and they speak some English.”

People in three of the Arnhem Land parishes speak Kriol, which has a full Bible, but the other three parishes have only between seven and ten books of the Bible in their own languages.