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Yes: 'It's a mark of respect'

This article is part of an Eternity series about when Christians gather, should they make an Acknowledgement of Country? National Aboriginal Bishop of the Anglican Church of Australia, Chris McLeod, offers reasons why churches should participate.

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Click here to read Mark Powell, Associate Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Community Church, New South Wales, providing reasons why churches should not. Examples of ‘Welcome to Country’ and ‘Acknowledgement of Country’ can be found here.

In recent years it has been customary in some Christian churches and gatherings to have a Welcome to, or Acknowledgement of, Country. This is also true of secular gatherings. There has also grown the use of dedication plaques on buildings, and the like, acknowledging prior First Peoples’ custodianship of the land.

Custodianship is a concept which Christians can easily resonate with.

To begin with, we should recognise the differences between a Welcome and an Acknowledgement. In a Welcome, a First Peoples’ custodian welcomes the gathering to the land. There is normally an acknowledgement of elders, past, present and future, and of the wisdom that is contained within First Peoples’ culture.

An Acknowledgement is just that, an acknowledgement that we gather on the land of the original custodians. Custodianship is a concept which Christians can easily resonate with. The land is not exclusively ours, but we care for it and are responsible for it (Genesis 1:26; 2:15).

As a man of Gurindji descent ministering in Adelaide, I acknowledge the custodianship of the Kaurna people. There is no fixed formula, but here is an example of what I often use in Christian circles in Adelaide.

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.

We pay our respects to all elders, past, present and those to come. We acknowledge that their cultural beliefs, authority and wisdom are still important to the Kaurna people today.

As Christians, we commit ourselves to pray and work for justice and reconciliation with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of Australia.

Sometimes the question arises why should we do this or, indeed, is it right to do this. My answer is yes, of course – but why do I say this? ‘Out of respect’ is the simplest answer.

Paul writes in Romans chapter 13 about being “subject to the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1 NRSV). He goes on to say, “pay to all what is due them: taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due; respect to whom respect is due, honour to whom honour is due” (Romans 13:7 NRSV).

After thousands of years of continual occupation of Australia, alongside forced removal from traditional lands, “the stolen generations”, brutal and violent treatment, the destruction of culture and language – much of which is still ongoing – and the sheer resilience in the face of these, the First Peoples of Australia are due respect.

Alongside this is the acknowledgement that this continuous and resilient custodianship of the land contains within it much wisdom.

Some people struggle with the concept that wisdom did not first “build her house” (Proverbs 9:1 NRSV) in this land with the arrival of the “First Fleet”. Wisdom was present with the original custodians, and found its expression in living in close and respectful connection with the land.

Christians should always be discerning about what are acceptable practices for the church.

For some, the concept that wisdom can be found outside the Christian tradition is a challenge. Let me answer that concern this way. Most Christians accept democracy as the best form of government. We have come to accept democracy as preserving the rights and freedoms of our Western societies. We have even gone to war to protect the freedoms that we associate with Western democracy, and Christian churches have, largely, supported these causes. Most, if not all, Christian Australians participate in the democratic process of elections. However, there is nothing essentially Christian about democracy.

Democracy’s roots lie in the thinking of the ancient Greeks, and were given renewed impetus during the so called “Age of Enlightenment” (18th century). It is said that the ancient Athenians established the first democracy in 508-507 BCE. Democracy has also become the backbone of how many churches conduct their business. Anglicanism, my own denomination, uses democratic principles through our parish councils, vestries and synods. We accept that there is an inherent wisdom in democracy, which can be of service to our Christian goals. No Anglicans that I know of feel that by using the wisdom of democracy we will become pagan Athenians.

In similar terms, most Christian First Peoples accept that we can learn from our elders and forbears, and that their wisdom may be of use for an Australia still struggling to live with the land. It should be noted that many First Peoples custodians are Christians, and feel they are able to be 100 per cent First Peoples and 100 per cent Christian.

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 Acknowledgement of, Country as an acceptable and respectful practice for our Christian gatherings.

The Rt Rev’d Chris McLeod is the National Aboriginal Bishop of the Anglican Church of Australia

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