It is disappointing Australian churches are not famous for having First Nations people in their top leadership. Perhaps we should share Chris McLeod, the National Aboriginal Bishop of the Anglican Church of Australia. (He would quickly point out that there are many great First Nations leaders in the church, and some of them are here).
For McLeod, there is a tension in being a First Nations leader in an overwhelmingly white church.
“One tension I think exists is that First Nations people are often a muted voice in the Church,” he tells Eternity.
“I must say that the Church is getting better at listening, and that is because of the work of previous National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander bishops, and the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Anglican Council (NATSIAC), and Second Nations people who try to work alongside us.
“However, we do still have some way to go. Sometimes we have to shout to be heard!”
Maybe it was not shouting, but McLeod had strong words to say in an article he wrote for Eternity last year. “Most people I know would not accept that they are racist, and many take deep offence if you suggest that they might be. Systemic racism operates at the deepest levels of our society. Systemic racism, or institutional racism, by another name, refers to how ‘white superiority’ functions as the norm. It is the lens by which we see all things. It shapes the political system, police force, the educational system, legal system, employment practices, and, yes, even our church. It shapes both you and me. All our social contexts are dominated by the, often unspoken and unrecognised, premise that being ‘white’, with all its associations, is inherently normative. This is why ‘Black Lives Matter’!”
McLeod is a Gurindji man, from the people around Katherine in the Northern Territory but he grew up in Adelaide. It was a happy childhood. “We had a very free and easy childhood – playing with neighbourhood friends, days at the beach, riding bikes, catching yabbies in the local creek, holidays at Goolwa and the Riverland. In the teenage years, listening to and playing music, hanging out with mates, playing Australian Rules Football, chasing girls and, sometimes, being chased by them. It was a very simple and, typically, Australian surburban life, and I enjoyed it all.”
But the family story is more complicated.
“My mother and her mother were both members of the ‘Stolen Generations’. The information I have on my grandmother is a bit piecemeal, but I know she spent her younger years at the ‘Kahlin Compound’ in Darwin,” says McLeod.
“My mother was taken from her mother at an early age and placed in an orphanage in Darwin. During WW2 she, with others, was brought down to Alice Springs and placed in ‘the Bungalow’ in the ‘Old Telegraph Station’. From all accounts ‘the Bungalow’ was not a good place to be. My mother reconnected with her mother in Alice Springs, but, sadly, my grandmother was dying of tuberculosis. The local parish priest, Percy MacDonald-Smith arranged for my mother and her sister to come to Adelaide, and they were placed in the Anglican Girls Home.
“Upon leaving that institution, my mother boarded with a number of families. She met my father at a local dance, married, had two children, and settled in Adelaide.”
McLeod’s mother was a faithful Anglican, and he lasted at church until 12 years old. But his teenage years bought him back. “One girl that I chased and caught is my wife, Susan. We met when we were 15. Susan and her family were active members of the Baptist Church, and I started to go to church with her.” It was at that church’s evening service that his faith in Christ began to grow. They got married at 20 and started to go to the local Anglican Church. By 23, McLeod was training to be a minister.
“We are all children of the God, despite our theological differences, and Jesus is Lord of all!” – Chris McLeod
McLeod is ‘very Adelaide’ in his theological formation – a combination of the Anglican St Barnabas College, then a follow-up degree at the charismatic Tabor College.
“St Barnabas College, when I attended, was part of the Adelaide College of Divinity, a consortium of theological colleges: Burleigh Baptist College, Parkin-Wesley Uniting College, St Francis Xavier (Catholic) Seminary, and the Bible College of SA,” explains McLeod.
“I took lectures in all of the colleges alongside students from all denominations. It was a very rich experience. The degree was through Flinders University and it was part of the requirements at the time to do non-theological subjects, so I second majored in history. I gave me the chance to further my education and to discover a love of learning. Tabor came later as I felt it was time to further my theological education. Again, it was an ecumenical environment, and the teaching was excellent. From both those experiences I have valued that we are all children of the God, despite our theological differences, and Jesus is Lord of all!”
Looking back, McLeod is grateful for two mentors, from the First and Second Nations.
“When I was in college I was blessed to have Bishop Bruce Rosier – who was, for a time, the [Anglican] bishop of the Diocese of Willochra [SA] – as a spiritual director. Bruce was a gentle and wise spiritual director, and a very Biblical and Godly man. When I was made a bishop he gave me his episcopal ring and pectoral cross.”
“Bishop Arthur Malcolm, the first National Aboriginal Bishop, is a man of great wisdom and experience. Bishop Arthur is a great leader of our people. I have learned much from him over the 25 years that I have known him.”
And to the breadth of Australian Christians, McLeod has a message, through Eternity:
“I think we are still trying to find our identity as Australian Christians. We are so influenced by Christian movements from other nations – some good; some not so good.”
“I do think that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Christians have much to say to Australian Christians about love, land, and justice.”