Conversations with Congress

congress members at 14th AssemblyBy Dan Wootton

One of my tasks as moderator has been to act as convenor of the Renewing the Covenant Task Group. The task group is attended by representatives of the Victorian and Tasmanian Regional committees of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress (Congress) as well as representatives of the synod.

The report of the National Congress to the 2015 Assembly in Perth made clear that there is a need for the Church to build on and deepen the work begun with the Preamble to the UCA Constitution – and consider what it means that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who belong to Congress are actually sovereign peoples who have never given up their claim on the land – including land on which the church exists.

“The issue is not simply real estate but relationship,” the report states. “How we deal with land speaks of our sense of relationship with each other and the earth.”

The Uniting Church is being challenged to enter into a serious conversation with Congress about issues of land and property. An important next step in Covenant may be to set up a period of listening and truth-telling about the past and the present.

Last month I attended a service of worship at Romsey, celebrating 150 years since the laying of the bluestone foundation stone. We were told that in 1863 the Romsey congregation applied for a grant of land for the purpose of building a church.

In the mid-1800s, in a typical Victorian town such as Romsey, ‘Crown’ land was reserved for religious denominations – just as it was for town halls and court-houses. Land was granted, promised, or reserved for church purposes, pre- and post- 1 July, 1851, which was the date of separation of the District of Port Phillip from the Colony of New South Wales.

Old parish plans show that land was not only set aside for the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church, it was also set aside for the Presbyterian Church, the Free Presbyterians, Gaelic Free Presbyterians and Reformed Presbyterians; the Wesleyan Church, the Methodists New Connexion, Primitive Methodists, United Free Methodists and Welsh Calvinist Methodists; as well as, the Baptists, Bible Christians, Catholic Apostolic, Evangelical Lutherans, Free Church of England, Independents, Jews, Lutherans, Swedenborgians, Unitarians, United Welsh Protestants, and the Victorian Free Church.

All this came to an end in 1871, when the Victorian Parliament passed Act Number 391 – the State Aid to Religion Abolition Act. There were to be no more handouts. However, the Act provided that Crown land already reserved for church purposes could be disposed of  by the relevant church, which could keep the proceeds. The Act is still on the statute books, and is still in use.

The report of the Congress to the Assembly asserts that one of the more ugly aspects of the Church’s history is the way it has offered stories that have justified and/or excused invasion, dispossession, and the destruction of  Indigenous peoples. Arguably, the churches were much too closely aligned to the governments of the day.

The report goes on to say that one of the most significant ways the church cooperated with colonial empires was in the development of the Doctrine of Discovery, a principle of international law that dates back to the 15th century and which provided the justification for the invasion of Australia.

“In 1095, at the beginning of the Crusades, Pope Urban II issued an edict – the Papal Bull Terra Nullius (meaning empty land). It gave kings and princes of Europe the right to “discover” or claim land in non-Christian areas. This policy was extended in 1452 when Pope Nicholas V issued the bull Romanus Pontifex, declaring war against all non-Christians throughout the world and authorising the conquest of their nations and territories.

“By 1492, this Doctrine of Discovery was a well-established idea in the Christian world. What is particularly significant for Australia is that King Henry VII adopted the Doctrine of Discovery granting his explorers the right to assert dominion and title over all non-Christian lands with the Church’s blessing”.

The report asserts that the Uniting Church undoubtedly occupies land that was stolen from Aboriginal people as a consequence of the Doctrine of Discovery. In assuming and claiming that the Church has a right to this land it implicitly lives within the theological justification of the invasion of Australia and the taking of the land.

As a former synod property officer, knowing some of the history of church land acquisition, I read the report with considerable interest. I believe that it warrants some serious consideration and would encourage the Synod to enter into some probing conversation about this – particularly in our theological college – which sits alongside Act 391 land.

Dan Wootton

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