Our ten points on Welcome to Country

After spirited discussion about Eternity‘s opinion pieces on Welcome to Country and Acknowledgment of Country, Eternity editor John Sandeman reveals why he believes the debate is important and gives some behind-the-scenes information.

1. Not only do I believe Acknowledgments of Country should be done in church, I have done one, myself. And at work, at Bible Society Australia, there have been Acknowledgments of Country performed by people such as Uncle Ray Minniecon. Bible Society sees Acknowledgments of Country,  or Welcome to Country (when a local Indigenous elder is present) as part of what we want to be.

2. So, why publish a piece opposing Acknowledgment and Welcome to Country at church? Mark Powell’s arguments against Acknowledgment of/Welcome to Country (AOC/WTC) in church came to light in reports of a debate in the Presbyterian Church of Australia. Since publishing his article, I have learned that there was a formal debate at the church’s General Assembly – which referred it to a committee. Powell raised a complaint against NSW Presbyterian Assembly which had approved churches showing AOC/WTC on a slide at the start of a Sunday service but not as part of the service of worship. As a result, the issue of AOC/WTC was sent off to a committee which will report to their next general assembly in three years time. There is a real debate going on in that denomination.

3. Powell’s views are probably an outlier in Australian Christianity, but a number of Christians are nervous about performing these Indigenous protocols on Sundays. In many denominations and Christian networks, AOC/WTC are performed at conferences and synods but not generally as part of church services. The Uniting Church is much more likely to have a AOC/WTC in a church service.

4. Eternity, however, wants to be a media outlet that has Left and Right, Tim Costello and Martyn Iles, sharing one piece of newsprint. Or Brooke Prentis and Mark Powell – if they want to write for us – can share pixels on the same web address. We want Christians on all ‘sides’ of the discussions we feature to talk to each other. That’s why we published the two sides of the debate while making it clear that the broad mass of Australian Christian networks such as Hillsong, Sydney Anglicans and the UCA do AOC or WTC, at various gatherings and they are becoming more common.

In a response to Eternity, Mark Powell adds an explanation about his background. “Unlike what some have accused — and many have assumed — me of being, I am not ‘white’ but a descendent of primarily South Sea Islanders, sometimes referred to as “Kanackas”, who were brought to Australia as ‘sugar slaves’ to work on the plantations in Queensland. What’s more, I am married to a woman of Spanish migrant parents and pastor a multi-ethnic church. Before entering pastoral ministry, I completed an undergraduate degree in anthropology from the United States of America. All of which is to say, I am not unaware or personally unsympathetic to the many social injustices that have been done to people of different races in the past, and which tragically, continue to occur in the present.” (Because at some point the back-and-forth needs to halt, Eternity is choosing not to publish Powell’s whole response, but we’ll give him some space here. At this stage Brooke Prentis has not taken up a right of reply but her voice as a significant Indigenous leader is welcome at Eternity.)

5. We were keen to introduce Chris McLeod, National Aboriginal Bishop in the Anglican Church of Australia, to our audience. McLeod wrote a strong endorsement of Indigenous protocols. “Christians should always be discerning about what are acceptable practices for the church. This includes many secular practices, such as democracy, that we just simply take for granted. For my part, I strongly recommend the Welcome to, or Acknowledgment of, Country as an acceptable and respectful practice for our Christian gatherings.”

6. Daryl McCulloch, an Indigenous Anglican minister, has added insights to the debate that powerfully addressed concerns about syncretism. “Let’s look at the opening of the Acknowledgement of Country used by Bishop Chris McLeod in his article on this topic: ‘We acknowledge that God is sovereign over all land. Everything in heaven and earth belongs to God. We acknowledge the Kaurna people as the traditional custodians of the Adelaide region in which this church is located, and we respect the spiritual relationship they have with their country.’ I don’t know about you, but it seems pretty clear that God is first and foremost here – God is acknowledged as sovereign creator, as the one to whom all belongs.

“You see, doing a Welcome or an Acknowledgement of Country takes nothing away from God – in fact, it honours him first and only acknowledges the fact he entrusted custodianship of this land and waters to certain people groups … where have we seen that concept before, I wonder … (see Genesis 12). As for the smoking ceremonies … it is a completely different topic. But to be clear, smoking ceremonies when done in the context of Christian worship are used as symbol of cleansing and of our prayers rising before the throne of God (Revelation 8:3-4), they have nothing to do with warding off evil spirits.”

7. Eternity first became aware of the Presbyterian debate in a closed Facebook group that criticised us for running Brooke Prentis’ Pilgrimage to Uluru. We were accused of supporting syncretism by publishing this piece. It is likely that Prentis and other supporters of AOC/WTC were unaware of this pushback, which possibly reflects the tendency of Christians to live in seperate networks.

8. However, Powell may reflect the concerns of a wider group of Christians when he queries a comment made in the Prentis article: “This weekend, I was in a place that I consider one of the most sacred, most holy of places. Uluru.” The author, Brooke Prentis, makes clear though that she regards all land as sacred – an important qualifier that Powell omitted. “Every day you walk on someone’s country. Every day you walk on the Creator’s story. It is often just harder to hear or feel when the country is under carpet, concrete, and bitumen. Is all country sacred? Of course – it holds the Creator’s story.”

In a comment on Eternity’s Facebook thread, Prentis clarified that: “My piece was a personal reflection not a theological exegesis. I was referring to how Christians and society use the word holy and especially drawing from Stan Grant’s use of the word in his ‘Australian Dream’ speech where he refers to the football field as holy and sacred to Australians.”
Many Christians will see holding some places more sacred than others as a theological statement. The word “sacred” is a loaded one for Christians and, possibly, a Christian leader will be heard differently from Stan Grant. A Catholic view includes the idea of sacred places, and some Anglo-Catholic theology might allow for “thin spaces”, but the idea of sacred places will trouble most evangelicals. How does Uluru relate to Mount Zion and Mount Gerazim where the Samaritans held pilgrimages?

“However, with the coming of Christ there are no longer any sacred places or things (see John 4:20-21)” is how Mark Powell puts his view in his latest response to the debate. “And while all of creation declares the glory of God (Psalm 19), it is difficult to read Prentis’ article and not see that some places in creation are more special or ‘sacred’ than others.”

However, Prentis’ placing of Psalm 19 at the foot of her reflection is apposite to the discussion and a possible place of agreement:
“The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
The universe does speak to us.”

9. In response to suggestions that we should have ‘no-platformed’ Mark Powell, my colleague Kylie Beach commented on her own Facebook feed:

“I’m not an advocate of no-platforming for three reasons:”

“1. I think it is the method that enables echo chambers to develop;

“2. I think it develops individuals who are not aware that others think differently to them, unable to understand why they do and unable to respond in the face of that disagreement, let alone persuade their opponents;

“3. I think it ultimately widens the divisions in society due to this lack of understanding and because the de-platformed grow in resentment – which ultimately finds its way out in the long term.

“Silencing your opposition is an effective short-term strategy and it certainly feels good. I just don’t think history has shown it to be effective (except to build resilience and passion in the de-platformed).

“And in my experience, people who are both to the far right and far left call for it often. Centrists rarely do.”

Eternity promises to be an equal opportunity offender, for people of both conservative and progressive dispositions. We want Christians to explore and discuss each others’ views. Some conservatives and some progressives alike have suggested that the other side should be de-platformed in this discussion.

At the same time, Eternity accepts the criticism that presenting opposing views can cause hurt and distress and this will always bear most heavily on a group marginalised already. We acknowledge that this debate causes hurt or distress to the Indigenous peoples of the land now called Australia.

10. And all that should take us back to the Bible. Paul tells us he wants us to be be “united in the same mind and the same judgment” (1 Corinthians 1:10), but later on explains that, “There must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognised.” (1 Corinthians 11.19). Sorting out what is the right way to approach Welcome to Country and Acknowledgement of Country, and how and when to perform them, is a painful debate to have. But unless we listen to each other, how will we be persuaded?