The Uniting Church’s relationship with the nation’s First Peoples has changed markedly throughout the last three decades. Those of non-Aboriginal heritage have sought to throw off the cloak of paternalism that dominated much of the early relationship between First Peoples and the formation churches.
In 1985, the UCA Assembly unanimously endorsed the establishment of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress (UAICC). In doing so, the Church recognised the rights of Aboriginal leaders to have more autonomy over their own ministry and mission.
This was exemplified in 1994 when the UCA Assembly accepted an invitation from Congress, first made six years earlier, to enter into a covenantal relationship “so that all may see a destiny together, praying and working together for a fuller expression of our reconciliation in Jesus Christ”.
Fifteen years later the 12th Assembly adopted a Preamble to the UCA Constitution.
The Uniting Church was the first church in Australia to publicly express its sorrow for past injustices. In the Preamble, the Church acknowledged it was “complicit in the injustice that resulted in many of the First Peoples being dispossessed from their land, their language, their culture and spirituality”.
During a gathering with First Peoples in Sydney earlier this year, UCA president Stuart McMillan said the 2009 Preamble “recognised the violent history of our nation, our part as Second Peoples in this history and God’s presence with First Peoples prior to colonisation”.
The synod’s former Commission for Mission executive director Rev John Rickard and former Victorian Congress state director and chair Vince Ross consulted with Congress nationwide to determine what to include in the Preamble.
Mr Rickard describes the experience as “one of the greatest privileges of my entire ministry”.
“The fact there was to be some acknowledgement (of God’s presence in the land before white settlement) in the law of the Uniting Church was very important to First Peoples,” Mr Rickard said.
But Mr Rickard stressed the Preamble was only one step towards a deeper relationship with First Peoples.
“We still have so far to go to make things right for the damage we have done,”
Mr Ross is adamant that work on issues such as the Preamble helped solidify the relationship between First and Second Peoples within the Church.
“I certainly believe it has helped bring us closer together, because we have been able to have good conversations and listen to each other,” he said.
“Documents like the Preamble certainly help in building a bridge.”
Rev Dr Djiniyini Gondarra is a First Nations man who has journeyed with the Church since the formation of Congress.
Dr Gondarra was a close confidante of Congress founder and inaugural president Rev Charles Harris.
Mr Harris – became convinced of the need for an autonomous Indigenous body within the Church after visiting New Zealand in 1981. During the trip, he saw the distinctive Maori theology and organisational structure that existed within Protestant churches.
Dr Gondarra attended the pivotal meeting of Aboriginal leaders in 1983, which established a national Indigenous organisation at Galiwinku, in the Northern Territory, and designed the distinctive UAICC logo.
He vividly recalls sitting down with Mr Harris and former assembly president Rev Rollie Busch to discuss Mr Harris’ vision to establish the UAICC as a nationwide body.
“Charles said he needed $1 million and I thought the president was going to fall down from his chair,’’ Dr Gondarra said.
“I often called Charles ‘the million dollar man’ after that.”
Dr Gondarra recalls the debate around the Preamble as difficult for all parties. The discussions came at a time when the true nature of the covenanting relationship was a source of tension between the Church’s First and Second Peoples.
The question of whether God was in Australia prior to colonisation was a particularly challenging one for some within the Church.
Dr Gondarra explained the First People’s position this way: “God is a God that cannot be limited; he created the universe (so) he was already here. This is his land.’’
The UCA and UAICC have now turned their attention to questions around sovereignty and Treaty.
The assembly has asked synods to discuss a paper by Congress’ interim national coordinator Rev Dr Chris Budden. It arose from a decision of the 2015 Assembly “to explore with Congress what it would mean for the practices of the Church to recognise and affirm that First Peoples are sovereign Peoples.”
It will be discussed in more detail at the 2018 Assembly in Melbourne next year.
Dr Gondarra said the UCA deserved credit for its willingness to openly discuss the issues. As Dr Budden said in his paper, “We (the UCA) are being challenged to make space for the idea that First Peoples are both citizens of this nation, and also have political rights as independent communities”.
“While there is not one First Peoples’ view about sovereignty, the common concern is to assert an inherent right as a community – and not just as individuals – to negotiate their place within the nation,” Dr Budden said.
Dr Gondarra said the church has a unique opportunity to provide state and federal governments with an example of how difficult matters can be addressed in a constructive environment.
“We are the ones who can show governments and in every area of our work we can be witnesses and say ‘it is not that difficult, we have done it’,” he said.