This year marks the 30th Anniversary since the Assembly formally established the UAICC (May 1985).
The mandate given to Congress by that Assembly says: “Congress shall have responsibility for oversight of the Church’s life and mission with and for Aboriginal and Islander people of Australia. In fulfilling this responsibility, the Congress shall seek to work with the Assembly, synods, and presbyteries”.
In these 30 years Congress has built strong regional committees, supported various sorts of local ministry, committed significant resources to the formation of Christian leaders, worked (with varying degrees of ease) with other parts of the Uniting Church, encouraged the development of Indigenous theology, stood up for issues of justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and has sought to exercise control over its own life within the framework of a relationship with the Church.
Some of the highlights of that period have been (i) the 1988 March for Justice, a protest against a community and church that wanted to only recognise part of the history of this country, (ii) the establishment of the Covenant in 1994, (iii) the Church’s apology to the stolen generation (1997), and (iv) adoption of the new Preamble in 2009.
The report to the Twelfth Assembly highlighted two central activities which need to be part of Congress’s ministry, and it is worth repeating what was said:
* A covenant-partner relationship between the Indigenous and non-Indigenous sectors of the UCA to enable “ministry to the Aboriginal and Islander people of Australia” to be fulfilled as well as enabling Congress to share its unique God-given gifts with the wider UCA;
* Development of an Indigenous Christian theology to complement and enrich that of the UCA and, hopefully, Australian mainline churches.
It is the hope of Congress that the Assembly will celebrate the anniversary of the Church’s recognition of Congress (1985), and the establishment of the Covenant (1994). It is hoped that the celebration will be well-publicised, and can include a statement by leaders of Church, and by the Elders and other leaders in Congress. It is also hoped that there can be an appropriate honouring of leaders such as Charles Harris, Dorothy Harris-Gordon, Rronang Garrawurra, Djiniyini Gondarra, Sealin Garlett, and Bill Hollingsworth, who did so much to establish Congress and shape the Covenant.
2. A PLACE IN THE UCA
Congress would like to highlight what it sees as four really significant issues in the relationship between Congress and the rest of the UCA:
* Congress has made the decision to be a part of the Uniting Church, rather than being a separate Aboriginal Church. That decision was, and is, about relationships and friendships. However it has to be said that it is not always an easy belonging, and that at times the limits that come with belonging are far too restrictive and limiting of Congress’ ability to have control of its own life. The issue of the church’s ability to find alternative ways to include Congress in the Constitution is one that invites further engagement.
* The relationship that exists is a covenant relationship, and commitment to the covenant has deepened relationships and brought shared actions. The ASC has sought to encourage further conversations about the next steps in that relationship. One of the things which the UCA needs to wrestle with is whether it has entered the covenant as a way of being committed to a journey of justice, or primarily as a way of sustaining the unity of the church. Is the Church able to really act on the understanding that reconciliation, which underpins Covenant, needs to deal with continuing issues around land (including the church existing on stolen land), self-government, and justice?
* Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have unique gifts to bring to the church; they have a contribution to make. The Church is inclined to act as if it was ‘helping’ First Peoples, rather than recognising that it can be helped to be church if it remains open to the gifts and leadership of First Peoples.
* Congress members are committed to the development of an Indigenous theology, not simply as a separate theology but as one that contributes to and enriches the life of the UCA. The Preamble has given Congress members a great deal of permission to honour their own understandings of the presence of God in Australia, but there is a lot of work to be done. The Preamble makes claims that cannot leave the church’s theology unchanged, but that work is still largely undone.
3. HIGHLIGHTS OF THE LAST THREE YEARS
Over the last three years there has continued to be a strengthening of ministry in regional areas. In NRCC there has been a remarkable growth in ministry provided by Pastors, which has been very important to communities and homelands in the Northern Synod. In Victoria and WA the educational, culture-strengthening, and training work has continued to develop. Other regions have continued to develop local congregations and faith communities, and to strengthen local, Aboriginal expressions of Christian faith.
The Destiny Together Week of Prayer and Fasting held in 2014 was greatly appreciated by Congress members. The sharing of public worship so close to Parliament House in Canberra was a great act of public witness. There was enormous encouragement as people shared in this commitment to justice. It was also encouraging to know that many congregations had spent time in prayer and fasting.
The last three years has seen the emergence of new, young leaders in the life of Congress. Young people from Congress were well-represented at NCYC (2014), and have been well-represented at the National Young Adult Leaders Conference. Not only have young Aboriginal people been present, but they have acted as mentors and led studies. There have also been two National Aboriginal and Islander young leaders gatherings. Young people were well represented at, and contributed to the National Conference in January this year.
Unfortunately national support for women’s ministry has become less over the last couple of years, but conversations have begun in order to get this support going again. There has also been regional support for women’s training with a women’s training camp held at Barrkira in North East Arnhem Land in November 2013 and at Putatja in the APY Lands in June 2014.
As the Preamble acknowledges, the Church’s mission history has been ambiguous. And, yet, First Peoples still honour mission work, and still honour those who committed their lives to this ministry. In 2012 there was a celebration of the centenary of Mowanujum mission in the Kimberley.
In 2016 there will be a celebration of the centenary of Methodist mission work at Goulburn Island,
In 2014 Congress sadly said goodbye to one of the National Elders. He was the first person from the APY lands (SA) who was ordained as a Uniting Church Minister. We celebrate his commitment to Christ, his faithfulness to the ministry that was entrusted to him, and his work in strengthening the culture of his people.
Over the last three years the regional committees have grown in their capacity to oversee ministry, and have continued to strengthen relationships within their synods. National Congress has slowly been moving towards a more federated set of relationships, rather than having all the power in the national committee. This led to a decision to shift the national office from Townsville, and to change the main staffing role from National Administrator to National Coordinator (a resourcing and support role).
4. THEOLOGICAL EDUCATION AND TRAINING
For many years Congress has provided two options for the education and formation of Ministers and other leaders – attendance at Yalga Binbi Institute in Townsville, which was financially supported by National Congress and provided the necessary Diploma level study, or attendance at Nungalinya College which was supported by NRCC. While Nungalinya could and did provide excellent education for lay leaders (including Pastors) it did not provide a Diploma level course.
In 2013 National Congress was surprised to learn that it had no voice in the administration of Yalga Binbi, and no capacity to shape its future directions. In 2104 it determined to withdraw students and support from Yalga Binbi and establish its own Registered Training Organisation. A review of education for ministry was also established to consider the direction of education and training, and how that could best be delivered.
A number of factors continue to shape a changing scene – financial pressures, conversations about one national college, new courses at Nungalinya, and growing concern for ways to support ministry candidates in southern regions and in relation to other UCA colleges. Probably the major change, at least in its long term impact, was the decision that ‘readiness for ministry’ could not simply be equated with gaining a Diploma in Theology. There are a variety of ways people can show readiness for ministry – which includes an appropriate understanding of biblical studies and theology – and a Diploma is not the only way.
In the light of these changes National Congress has determined not to start an RTO, but to encourage candidates and others seeking education to attend Nungalinya College or other Uniting Church Colleges. Congress will provide additional Congress and Uniting Church related courses, and oversight of formation.
5. NATIONAL CONFERENCE
Congress’ triennial national conference was held at Poatina (Tasmania) 12-18 January 2015. The theme was ‘Holy Mountains, Healing People’. Nearly 150 people (including participants in About Face) enjoyed a week of worship, Bible study, fellowship, friendship and business. There was fun and laughter. And there was deep pain as people shared the stories of the past, and their experiences of the present – including racism, closure of communities, imprisonment rates, and the ongoing impact of stolen land. There was a long discussion about marriage.
Rev Dennis Corowa (Calvary) was elected National Chairperson for the next three years, and Rev Garry Dronfield (NSW-ACT) was appointed as Deputy.
6. GOVERNANCE CHALLENGES
Pressures around risk management, safety, care of staff and volunteers, and the need for good financial management have grown across the church, and Congress is not exempt from those pressures. The mission of God remains central to the life of Congress, but more and more time is taken up with governance responsibilities.
One response to these pressures was a governance workshop conducted for the members of the National Committee in March 2015. The aim of the workshop was to clarify responsibilities and delegation of authority, to consider strategic directions and risk management, and to consider the National Committee’s obligations in regard to budgets and financial control.
As a result of the workshop two working groups have been established – one to clarify the role of the National Committee within the whole of Congress, and to develop its strategic direction for the next few years, and the other to consider what governance structures are needed at this time so that more work can be done on Congress’ Constitution and Regulations.
7. SOME ISSUES
Congress is committed to holistic ministry. That is, it is committed to helping people gain new life in Jesus Christ that transforms personal, social, spiritual, and cultural dimensions of life. It seeks to protect and nurture culture, language and every day well-being.
Congress values and affirms worship and daily living that draws people closer to God, and enables people to hear what God is saying. There is an openness to and seeking after the Holy Spirit. There is a commitment to doing theology in each local context.
Congress would like the Church to hear again the issues which constantly surround First Peoples, and would like to challenge the Church to build partnerships with Congress and other First Peoples to respond to these issues.
While it may be difficult to hear and accept, the Church is challenged to hear that it has not always reflected, governed and served First Peoples well. Consultation is not always an open conversation. Councils of the Church do not always find it easy to honour Congress as a group of First Peoples. It is not that people do not try, and are not good-willed; it is that what Congress represents is often challenging. There is a need to keep listening. There is a need for all councils of the Church to communicate better when it comes to issues that impact on First Peoples.
There is diversity within Congress, including a diversity in the way people claim their identity as Aboriginal peoples. The church needs to be careful of the temptation to honour one people as the ‘real’ Aboriginal people, or to believe that what works in one place should work for everyone.
This is reflected in conversations about the recognition of First Peoples in the Australian Constitution. At the last Assembly Congress offered strong support for Recognition. It now needs to be said that while Congress still supports Recognition, that support is more ambiguous. Many communities do not trust governments, and are wary of what Recognition might mean. Others are concerned that the conversation about Recognition distracts people from the real issue: sovereignty and treaty.
Aboriginal communities and people are constantly confronted with death, and the demands of funerals. People still die 10 years earlier than other parts of the Australian community, and youth suicide remains very high.
Aboriginal people are still over-represented in the court system, and in the prisons. In WA 17% of the population make up 50% of the prison population, and similar figures are true in other states. The experience of Aboriginal people is that they are ‘over scrutinised’ by police. Indeed, some would claim that there is an unrecognised crime in relation to traffic offences called DWB – driving while black.
Aboriginal people are still dying in custody, despite the many years since the Deaths in Custody Royal Commission passed down its recommendations.
People are still dealing with issues raised by the stolen generation, which caused personal and communal trauma. While then PM Kevin Rudd’s apology was appreciated as an honouring of history, very little practical action has followed. Children continue to be taken from their families, and far too many are placed in care with non-Aboriginal families. This means that another generation is denied their language, culture, sense of belonging, connection to the land, and identity as an Aboriginal person.
The Closing the Gap report released in 2015 reminds us that, while some gains are being made, there is still some way to go before the Indigenous peoples of this country enjoy the same health and well-being as other members of the community.
In many places progress is being made to halve the gap in Year 12 attainment. Education is crucial to people finding employment, and to being able to achieve the quality of life enjoyed by other Australians.
The report reminds us that, sadly, there has been no progress in reaching the gaol of halving the gap in Indigenous employment outcomes. Early childhood enrolment targets have not been met, and will be harder to meet with recent budget cuts to funding. There has been slow progress in closing the infant mortality gap, and no overall progress on halving the reading and numeracy gap.
The findings in the report remind us of the likely negative impact of Federal budget cuts in areas like the Tackling Indigenous Smoking program – which also connects to healthy eating, nutrition and exercise activities. It is crucial to have well-funded primary health care services to detect, treat, and manage many of the chronic conditions suffered by First Peoples.
The real challenge to improving health outcomes is the other factors which determine health. Gracey argues that “desired health improvements depend heavily on a wide set of social and environmental determinants”, including “education, living conditions, vocational training, employment, closer cooperation between individuals and government and non-government agencies, access to high quality and affordable fresh food”. (Gracey, M. 2014. “Why Closing the Aboriginal Health Gap is so Elusive” Internal Medicine Journal 44: 1141-1143.) Connections to land, support for language, and retention of identity are crucial to health. It will not be enough to simply provide better medical treatment and disease prevention. The healing ministry of Jesus reflected this holistic approach to health. Jesus’ healing did not just respond to physical health needs, but also addressed matters of spiritual, emotional and mental health.
Many communities do not have access to land rights, and there are ongoing efforts to undermine peoples’ ability to protect their sacred sites.
Fracking is a contentious issue in Australia at present. It is made more difficult for Aboriginal people when local land councils are in favour of such activities (for financial reasons) and do not listen to local landowners, or when some landowners are under such financial pressure that they want to mine, even when others do not. This Assembly is asked to express its opposition to fracking on Aboriginal land.
The Intervention continues in the Northern Territory, raising significant ongoing human rights abuses. Uniting Justice and Congress have made a joint-submission to the Human Rights Commission about these matters.
A separate section of this report highlights stresses being caused to WA communities by the Federal Government’s decision to not fund services in remote communities. Unfortunately WA is not the only state being targeted in this way, and basic community infrastructure – unquestioned in other Australian communities – is under threat in other states (e.g. SA). This threat to community services is also paralleled in threats to funding for homeland centres in the Northern Territory, which are a source of identity and survival for many people.
In the Northern Territory, a major report into Indigenous Education has recommended to the Government that secondary education in indigenous communities be wound back. In future the only option for secondary education will be boarding in the major centres. This is seen by many as a major step backward for indigenous education. Boarding away from home is a good option for some students but others are better educated at home. It also separates young people at a crucial stage of their lives from the cultural events in their home communities and thus contributes to the demise of Indigenous cultural knowledge and practices. It is a further manifestation of the Indigenous cultural genocide that has been occurring in Australia since European settlement.
NRCC, with the Northern Synod, is engaged in an attempt to support Indigenous Education remaining close to country.
Congress would like to build a network of people who would support the struggle for justice for First Peoples. People in this network would be kept informed of issues, and encouraged to take action when it was needed. If you would like to be part of that network, please email Chris Budden at email@example.com.
8. PROPOSAL TO CLOSE REMOTE ABORIGINAL COMMUNITIES IN WESTERN AUSTRALIA
In 2014 the Federal Government decided that it would no longer accept responsibility for the provision of municipal services to remote Aboriginal communities. The argument was that such services should be the responsibility of states and local communities.
The reality is money. In Western Australia these services cost approximately $1 billion annually, but the WA Government was offered an extra $90 million over two years. The WA Government has decided to close communities – nearly 150 of them. It made the announcement in November 2014, then seemed to backtrack with a promise of funding, but has again recently reiterated its threat to close communities. Indeed, some have already been closed.
This has caused enormous stress and anxiety across these communities. In a nutshell the issues are:
• there has been no consultation with Aboriginal people or the organisations which represent them;
• many of these communities exist in places that allow Aboriginal people to stay in touch with their land and their culture. This is another example of forced removal and dispossession. There has been no attempt by government to understand what such forced community closures and movement of people means for people’s social, mental, spiritual and physical life; and
• the movement of this many people will put enormous pressure on the communities they go to – housing, education, health facilities, and community relationships. Nothing has been done to plan for and deal with such impacts.
While these are decisions of the WA Government, they arise from decisions of the Federal Government and its attempt to shift financial responsibility. It is an indefensible attack on the human rights of Aboriginal people, made worse when the Prime Minster describes the need to stay on country as a ‘life-style choice’.
Some brief history of the communities
People have chosen to live in these small, remote communities as a way of responding to colonial dispossession and an attempt to stay close to the land which is the source of their life.
Aboriginal people had their land taken away from them by force, and the massacres that occurred around the country bear testimony to their determination to defend their belonging to the land. Yet even when they lost control, Aboriginal people continued to live on and live off the land, and many stayed in their country working for pastoralists and farmers. However, in 1968 it became law that they had to be paid wages and when the pastoralists and farmers could no longer afford to pay them, Aboriginal people had to move to town camps.
In addition to the massacres and their dispossession from the land, Aboriginal people have had to deal with the consequences of racism and racist policies including:
• the 1905 Act by the Protector of Aborigines which led to the forced removal of children;
• the men in the Kimberley being ‘black-birded’ (conscripted) and force marched in chains to Broome to be pearl divers – many died from the ‘bends’;
• the sexual and economic exploitation of women as they struggled to find work to maintain their families;
• the abuse of alcohol, drugs and suicide by young people – a direct result of their continued dispossession and disillusionment;
• the imprisonment of people far from their homelands and families; and
• the continuing tragedy of Aboriginal deaths in custody – a tragedy that has touched every Aboriginal family.
In the 1970s there was a movement to allow people to return to their ‘country’ and communities were established. Some of those are quite small today. Living on community is integral to the identity, health and wellbeing of Aboriginal people. To force Aboriginal people to leave their land is nothing less than an act of cultural and community destruction.
The rationale for the proposed closure of communities was that they are not economically viable. However, the real purpose of any community is to sustain the people who live in it across all aspects of human life. If ‘financial sustainability’ was the only measure of the value of a community then quite a few non-Indigenous communities across Australia – in rural and remote areas – could equally be closed. That this would never be countenanced by governments or broader Australian society just highlights the racist nature of this policy.
These decisions represent a significant breach of human rights. For more detail, please visit the Congress Website, http://uaicc.org.au
9. FEDERAL GOVERNMENT FUNDING
The May 2014 Federal Budget had a significant impact on Aboriginal peoples. Overall there was a significant reorganisation of Indigenous Affairs, including a shift of many programs to the oversight of the Department of Prime Minister and cabinet, a funding reduction with no indication on how the proposed savings will be achieved, and very few details about the reorganisation / consolidation.
The major impacts have to do with:
(i) the mainstreaming of Aboriginal people and shift of responsibility to the States/Territory (and the almost inevitable fact that they will not get services and support that suits them);
(ii) the disproportionate impact of some measures because of the age (young) and disadvantage of Aboriginal people;
(iii) the major impact this will have on the Close the Gap program; and
(iv) reduced capacity to have a voice or to protect Aboriginal people and their culture.
There are significant changes in policy and programs that seem to have occurred without any serious consultation with Aboriginal people who have been appointed by Aboriginal people.
The overall funding for the five new program areas is $4.8 billion (a 4.5% reduction from the funds presently spent).
Cuts and reductions
* National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples – $15 million. This means that there is no representative body for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
* Aboriginal Legal Service – $13.4 million.
* Family Violence Prevention Legal Service – $3.5 million.
* Torres Strait Regional Authority – $3.5 million.
* Aboriginal Languages – $9.5 million. This is a terrible attack on language programs at a time when there has been a slow revival of interest in language learning, and what this means for people’s identity and well-being. I have heard Elders say recently how important it is for them to be able to do a welcome to country in their own language.
* Indigenous Health – $270 million
The Federal Government has a number of National Partnership Agreements with the states and territories that are central to the health and well-being of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples:
* Indigenous Early Childhood Development. No funding has been made available in this budget. This may lead to the closure of up to 38 children and family Centres.
* Remote Indigenous Housing, and Stronger Futures (the Intervention) both have allocations until 2017-18.
* Closing the Gap in Indigenous Health Outcomes – expired June 2013. No mention in this budget. Neither is there any mention of meeting the goals of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Plan 2013-23.
* the NPA on Remote Service Delivery is, when it expired in June 2014, to be replaced with a new Remote Community Advancement Network in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, and bilateral arrangements with each state and territory. The Government has not yet explained how the new arrangements would work. However further changes would seem to contradict the advice of Brian Gleeson, the Coordinator General for Remote Indigenous Services, in his last biannual report, January 2014:
“If there is one message I want Governments to hear from this report it is: Do not press the reset button! … If we continue to start over again the foundations previously laid will be pulled up time and again, never allowing enough time or energy to build the structure required to close the gap on Indigenous disadvantage.” (Dr John Gardiner-Garden, ‘Budget Review 2014 Index’. Parliamentary Library)
* Axing of the Preventative Health National Partnership Agreement – will limit a key part of the strategy to close the health gap.
* Newstart / Youth Allowance – 6 months delay before eligibility. Newstart / Sickness Allowance; increase in age of eligibility. Both will fall more on Aboriginal people because more are under 30.
* Income management – extension and expansion. Impacts only on Aboriginal communities, and has occurred without consultation.
* The consolidation of 150 program areas into 5 (jobs and economy, children and schooling, safety and well-being, culture and capability, remote Australia strategies), with $534 million in program cuts, and a commitment to achieve the Government’s priority areas (rather than those of Aboriginal people). The cuts will occur across the Department of Prime Minister and cabinet ($409.2 million), Department of Health ($121.8 million), Torres Strait Regional Authority ($3.5 million).
* More stringent conditions on remote Indigenous housing.
* Funds to provide essential services to remote communities have been cut, something for which the Commonwealth has been responsible for 50 years. This means rubbish collection, diesel supply, and sewerage. This will impact on 60 communities across four states and territories, and 4000 people. It will threaten the existence of homeland communities.
The Indigenous Advancement Strategy is not serving the needs of Aboriginal peoples. In many cases Aboriginal organisations have been denied funding for community based programs which have been run successfully for some time, while large welfare organisations absorb the funds and nothing happens on the ground. The community sector finds itself fighting over a small amount of funds.
There needs to be a bi-partisan commitment to long-term funding, rather than the present situation where policies and funding change every few years. People need the opportunity to start and develop programs without the constant fear that at the very point where they work the funding will be removed.
Twenty one years ago Congress and the Assembly entered a Covenant, a commitment to a new form of relationship that would honour the place of First Peoples and Congress in the Church. It is important to remember that the Covenant arose because the members of Congress felt that the church had not stood with it in the debate about the Australian Bicentennial; there was a broken relationship that needed fixing.
Covenanting is a commitment to an equal, just, and inclusive relationship between First and Second Peoples within the church. It is a relationship that is founded in God’s covenant relationship with the whole creation. It also recognises that Aboriginal People have a covenant with the Creator who placed them in this land as its custodian, and enter a relationship with the Church as a sovereign people.
This relationship is not simply about sitting and talking together. It is a relationship which implies that the church wishes to share in the search for justice and well-being for First Peoples. Congress wishes to suggest some practical things which might mark the next stage in the covenant relationship.
First, there is a need for the Church to build on and deepen the work begun with the Preamble, and consider what it means that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples who belong to Congress are actually a sovereign peoples who have never given up their claim that the land – including the land on which the church exists – is land entrusted to them by God.
The issue here is not simply real estate but relationship. For First Peoples relationships begin in a relationship with the whole of creation and the sacred presence that sustains life. How we deal with land speaks of our sense of relationship with each other and the earth.
This means that the Church needs to enter into a serious conversation with Congress about issues of land and property.
It also means that the Church needs to encourage and support both explorations of Indigenous theology, and attempts to understand the implications of the claims of the Preamble for the theology and worship of the Church.
Second, there is much that needs to be said and much listening that needs to occur. An important next step in Covenant may be to set up a period of listening and truth-telling about the past and the present.
The foundation for this truth-telling is relationships. There is a need to build relationships in which people can really walk alongside each other, develop mutual respect, and learn to be honest as only friends can.
Church has to have ownership of what the church did and then move it forward. It is not about guilt but owning the pain.
Third, there needs to be a commitment from the whole Church to work actively on the issues facing First Peoples: very high imprisonment rates, deaths in custody, high levels of youth suicide, efforts to close remote communities, attempts to close high schools in communities, protection of sacred sites, funding cuts to health and education services, continuing high rates of children being removed from their homes, the continuing Intervention, attempts to undermine the homeland movement.
Fourth, it is too easy to see Aboriginal people as passive victims, rather than as active participants in dealing with all the things that impact on their lives. Central to people’s capacity to engage in life-affirming ways are support for culture and language, education and employment. The Church, as a major employer and education provider, has the capacity to take practical steps in these areas.
Fifth, there needs to be a quite deliberate effort to engage all the diverse communities within the Uniting Church in the conversations around covenanting. In what ways does covenant impact on recent migrants and refugees, and how can these issues be explored?
Sixth, Aboriginal people still experience racism on a daily basis. This racism needs to be named, and the Church can play an educational role in this area.
Finally, there should be a standing group that develops a specific action plan around these issues, and continues to monitor progress.
In 1891 the Presbyterian Church established a mission at Mapoon, on the western side of Cape York, just north of Aurukun. The purpose was to curb the abuse of people from European and other intruders in the area. Over the years people from many communities moved there. Stolen children from across Queensland’s north were brought there.
When bauxite was discovered by Comalco and Alcan in the 1950s pressure developed to shift the people of Mapoon to other places. From the early 1960s funds were withdrawn to force the people to move. In 1963-64 people were forcefully removed, and buildings burned down. This included the church building.
The wider church has since acknowledged that it did far too little to defend the people and stop their forced removal.
The people started to return to Mapoon in 1974, and finally won control of their land, with their own Shire Council (2005).
As the result of a visit from the then President, Sir Ronald Wilson (1988-91), an appeal was established for the rebuilding of the Church. Some money was raised, but nowhere near what is required.
It is only recently that the Council has been able to make the necessary decisions to allow the rebuilding of the church.
Congress is asking the Assembly to launch another appeal for the Mapoon church, and also to raise again the issue of compensation from the Mining Company and Queensland Government for the destruction that was caused to the community.
12. THE DOCTRINE OF DISCOVERY
Human beings wrap their actions in stories and rituals that explain and justify what we do. They provide meaning and purpose, and often seek to offer the moral foundation for action.
One of the ugly parts of the history of the church is the way it has offered stories that have justified and / or excused invasion, dispossession, and the destruction of Indigenous Peoples. Being too closely aligned to those with power, and too little aware of those for whom Jesus had a special place, it justified and explained the actions of colonial powers.
One of the most significant ways the church has cooperated with colonial empires has been in the development of the Doctrine of Discovery, a principal 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 the 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 authorizing the conquest of their nations and territories. These edicts treated non-Christians as uncivilized and subhuman, and therefore without rights to any land or nation. Christian leaders claimed a God-given right to take control of all lands and to justify wars of conquest, colonization, and slavery.
By 1492, this Doctrine of Discovery was a well-established idea in the Christian world. As Columbus reached the Americas he performed a ceremony to “take possession” of all lands “discovered,” meaning all territory not occupied by Christians. While later popes denounced the dehumanization of Native Americans, none of the Papal Bulls previously declaring all “discovered” lands belong to Europeans have been repealed.
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.
Hundreds of years of decisions and laws continuing right up to our own time can ultimately be traced back to the Doctrine of Discovery—laws that invalidate or ignore the rights, sovereignty, and humanity of indigenous peoples around the world. In many countries, like the USA, this doctrine is woven into law through nineteenth century case law that is still used as a precedent today. The Statement from the WCC which is contained in the proposals from Congress also makes it clear how this doctrine has impacted on Australia.
The Uniting Church occupies land that was stolen from Aboriginal people because of this 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.
Congress raises this issue of the Doctrine of Discovery to challenge the Uniting Church to build on the work of the Preamble and to continue to understand how the relationship between Christian faith and culture, mission and coercion and the power of the Church and its theology – without in any way meaning to – harmed those who are First Peoples.
The Doctrine is a case study of the dangers which arise when the church gets too close to the state or other places of power, and when the church provides theological rationale for whatever a state does. It calls the Uniting Church to be clear about the relationship between church and state, in relation to First Peoples but also in all its relationships with government, and the value of an appropriate separation.
Congress is asking the Assembly to do two things. First, to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery, and to commit itself to challenge any ways that doctrine still exists in our society and the rest of the world. This is an act of naming, owning and repudiating some parts of the church’s history and involvement in the colonising of Australia. It is to implicitly question the church’s occupancy of land, and its unwillingness to accept the sovereignty of First Peoples.
Second, the World Council of Churches has called upon member churches to consider the issues raised its Statement on the Doctrine of Discovery Impact on Indigenous Peoples. We have not. Congress asks the Assembly to affirm that statement, and encourage its consideration in the church and, in particular, in theological colleges.
13. HONOURING REV SHAYNE BLACKMAN
When the National Committee made the determination to change the job description for the national staff person, and relocate its office, it also determined that the placement of Rev Shayne Blackman should conclude. This seemed an appropriate time to explore new directions in leadership.
Shayne was part of Congress from its formation. He was a strong advocate for self-determination, and the need and capacity of Aboriginal people to control their own lives. He constantly pushed the church to hand over authority to Congress. He had a great capacity to imagine new forms of ministry.
National Conference offered thanks to Shayne and to Lurleen for their support of Congress over many years.
At present the Regulations indicate that the National Administrator is an ex-officio member of the Assembly and the ASC (3.3.8 (a) (i)). There is no longer a position of National Administrator. The position has been replaced by ‘National Coordinator’, who need not be (and may not be eligible to be) a member of Congress. Congress may also appoint 16 of its members to Assembly (3.3.8.(a) (ii)). Congress would like its chairperson and deputy-chairperson to be ex-officio members of the ASC, and would like the National Coordinator to be a full member of the Assembly and able to be present at ASC in the same way that Synod Secretaries are (3.7.5 (j) (i)).
There are proposals about how these things may best be achieved in the Regulations.
That the Assembly
1. receive the report;
Amendments to Regulations
2. authorise the Standing Committee on the advice of the Legal Reference Committee to amend
(a) Regulation 3.3.8 (a) (i) so that it reads:
3.3.8 (a) The membership of the Assembly shall consist of:
(i) ex-officio members:
• the National Administrator Coordinator of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress.
(b) Regulation 220.127.116.11 (a) (ii) so that it reads: “the Chairperson and the National Administrator Deputy Chairperson of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress”;
(c) Regulation 18.104.22.168 (j) (i) so that it reads: “Secretaries of Synods, National Coordinator of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress, the Associate General Secretary and the National Director, Theology and Discipleship”.
3. commit its members and programs to work with synods and other parts of the Church to continue to highlight the issues faced by First Peoples at this time, and to developing appropriate responses in partnership with Congress;
4. request the Standing Committee to continue to give attention to the way the various Councils of the Church give authority to Congress so that they can exercise real control of ministry and mission among First Peoples;
5. support the Northern Regional Council of Congress’ opposition to fracking on Aboriginal land, and convey this position to the Northern Land Council;
6. commit to work with Congress to establish a memorial for Rev Charles Harris at a place to be determined by Congress National Committee;
Recognition in the Constitution
7. (a) note the comment in the Congress report that there is a diverse set of views within Congress regarding Recognition in the Constitution;
(b) continue to support Recognition as long as the form of recognition offered can be seen as a step towards and not a blockage to the larger issues of sovereignty and treaty;
(c) commit to work with Congress to educate members of the church about the need for a treaty;
Week of Prayer and Fasting
8. request the Standing Committee, in partnership with Congress, to facilitate an annual week of Prayer and Fasting which may in some years involve a pilgrimage to the national capital, and which has the aim of the deepening the Covenant relationship rather than the event being an end in itself;
9. (a) request the Standing Committee to launch a new appeal for the building of a church at Mapoon;
(b) commit to work with Congress to raise the issue of compensation with the Queensland Government and the mining company for the destruction that was caused to the community;
Doctrine of Discovery
10. (a) repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery, and its theological foundations as a relic of colonialism, feudalism, and religious, cultural, and racial biases that have no place in the treatment of First Peoples; and
(b) affirm the WCC “Statement on the Doctrine of Discovery Impact on Indigenous Peoples”, and encourage its consideration in the church and, in particular, in theological colleges.
Statement on the doctrine of discovery and its enduring impact on Indigenous Peoples
Indigenous Peoples have the oldest living cultures in the world. Three hundred to five hundred million Indigenous Peoples today live in over 72 countries around the world, and they comprise at least 5,000 distinct peoples. The ways of life, identities, well-being and very existence of Indigenous People are threatened by the continuing effects of colonization and national policies, regulations and laws that attempt to force them to assimilate into the cultures of majoritarian societies. A fundamental historical basis and legal precedent for these policies and laws is the “Doctrine of Discovery”, the idea that Christians enjoy a moral and legal right based solely on their religious identity to invade and seize indigenous lands and to dominate Indigenous Peoples.
17 February 2012 WCC Executive Committee, 14-17 February 2012, Bossey, Switzerland
1. Indigenous Peoples have the oldest living cultures in the world. Three hundred to five hundred million Indigenous Peoples today live in over 72 countries around the world, and they comprise at least 5,000 distinct peoples. The ways of life, identities, well-being and very existence of Indigenous People are threatened by the continuing effects of colonisation and national policies, regulations and laws that attempt to force them to assimilate into the cultures of majoritarian societies. A fundamental historical basis and legal precedent for these policies and laws is the “Doctrine of Discovery”, the idea that Christians enjoy a moral and legal right based solely on their religious identity to invade and seize indigenous lands and to dominate Indigenous Peoples.
2. Around the world, Indigenous Peoples are over-represented in all categories of disadvantage. In most indigenous communities people live in poverty without clean water and necessary infrastructure, lacking adequate health care, education, employment and housing. Many indigenous communities still suffer the effects of dispossession, forced removals from homelands and families, inter-generational trauma and racism, the effects of which are manifested in social welfare issues such as alcohol and drug problems, violence and social breakdown. Basic health outcomes dramatise the disparity in well-being between Indigenous Peoples and European descendants.
3. The patterns of domination and oppression that continue to afflict Indigenous Peoples today throughout the world are found in numerous historical documents such as Papal Bulls, Royal Charters and court rulings. For example, the church documents Dum Diversas (1452) and Romanus Pontifex (1455) called for non-Christian peoples to be invaded, captured, vanquished, subdued, reduced to perpetual slavery and to have their possessions and property seized by Christian monarchs. Collectively, these and other concepts form a paradigm or pattern of domination that is still being used against Indigenous Peoples.
4. Following the above patterns of thought and behaviour, Christopher Columbus was instructed, for example, to “discover and conquer,” “subdue” and “acquire” distant lands, and in 1493 Pope Alexander VI called for non-Christian “barbarous nations” to be subjugated and proselytized for the “propagation of the Christian empire.” Three years later, England’s King Henry VII followed the pattern of domination by instructing John Cabot and his sons to locate, subdue and take possession of the “islands, countries, regions, of the heathens and infidels . . . unknown to Christian people.” Thereafter, for example, English, Portuguese and Spanish colonisation in Australia, the Americas and New Zealand proceeded under the Doctrine of Discovery as Europeans attempted to conquer and convert Indigenous Peoples. In 1513, Spain drafted a legal document that was required to be read to Indigenous Peoples before “just war” could commence. The Requerimiento informed Indigenous Peoples that their lands had been donated to Spain and that they had to submit to the Crown and Christianity or they would be attacked and enslaved.
5. In 1823, the U.S. Supreme Court used the same pattern and paradigm of domination to claim in the ruling Johnson & Graham’s Lessee v. M’Intosh that the United States as the successor to various “potentates” had the “ultimate dominion” or “ultimate title” (right of territorial domination) over all lands within the claimed boundaries of the United States. The Court said that as a result of the documents mentioned above, authorising “Christian people” to “discover” and possess the lands of “heathens,” the Indians were left with a mere “right of occupancy;” an occupancy that, according to the Court was subject to the “ultimate title” or “absolute title” of the United States. The Johnson case has been cited repeatedly by Australian, Canadian, New Zealand and United States courts, and the Doctrine of Discovery has been held by all these countries to have granted European settler societies plenary power (domination) over Indigenous Peoples, legal title to their lands, and has resulted in diminished sovereign, commercial and international rights for Indigenous Peoples and governments. Europeans believed this was proper based on their ethnocentric, racial and religious attitudes that they and their cultures, religions and governments were superior to non-Christian European peoples.
6. Consequently, the current situation of Indigenous Peoples around the world is the result of a linear programme of “legal” precedent, originating with the Doctrine of Discovery and codified in contemporary national laws and policies. The Doctrine mandated Christian European countries to attack, enslave and kill the Indigenous Peoples they encountered and to acquire all of their assets. The Doctrine remains the law in various ways in almost all settler societies around the world today. The enormity of the application of this law and the theft of the rights and assets of Indigenous Peoples have led indigenous activists to work to educate the world about this situation and to galvanise opposition to the Doctrine. Many Christian churches that have studied the pernicious Doctrine have repudiated it, and are working to ameliorate the legal, economic and social effects of this international framework. Starting in 2007, for example, with the Episcopal Diocese of Maine, followed by the Episcopal Diocese of Central New York in 2008, and in 2010 by Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, individual churches began adopting resolutions and minutes repudiating the Doctrine. In 2009, at its 76th General Convention, the Episcopal Church adopted resolution D035 – “Repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery.” In 2010, the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada adopted resolution A086 – “Repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery.” In 2011, various Unitarian Universalist churches and Quaker organisations are adopting and considering adopting resolutions and minutes repudiating the Doctrine. This issue of the Doctrine of Discovery has also been brought to the forefront of world attention by Indigenous Peoples working with international bodies.
7. Considering the fact that the Doctrine of Discovery will be the theme for the 11th session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) in 2012, churches and the international community need to be sensitized on this issue. The Doctrine of Discovery: its enduring impact on Indigenous Peoples and the right to redress for past conquests (articles 28 and 37 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples) will be discussed at the UNPFII from 7 to 18 May 2012; this event will bring together representatives of Indigenous People’s organizations and networks around the world. Churches and ecumenical networks of the WCC will be mobilised to be part of the 11th session of the UNPFII in 2012.
In this context, the executive committee of the World Council of Churches, meeting at Bossey, Switzerland, 14-17 February 2012,
A. Expresses solidarity with the Indigenous Peoples of the world and supports the rights of Indigenous Peoples to live in and retain their traditional lands and territories, to maintain and enrich their cultures and to ensure that their traditions are strengthened and passed on for generations to come;
B. Denounces the Doctrine of Discovery as fundamentally opposed to the gospel of Jesus Christ and as a violation of the inherent human rights that all individuals and peoples have received from God;
C. Urges various governments in the world to dismantle the legal structures and policies based on the Doctrine of Discovery and dominance, so as better to empower and enable Indigenous Peoples to identify their own aspirations and issues of concern;
D. Affirms its conviction and commitment that Indigenous Peoples be assisted in their struggle to involve themselves fully in creating and implementing solutions that recognize and respect the collective rights of Indigenous Peoples and to exercise their right to self-determination and self-governance;
E. Requests the governments and states of the world to ensure that their policies, regulations and laws that affect Indigenous Peoples comply with international conventions and, in particular, conform to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the International Labour Organization’s Convention 169;
F. Calls on each WCC member church to reflect upon its own national and church history and to encourage all member parishes and congregations to seek a greater understanding of the issues facing Indigenous Peoples, to support Indigenous Peoples in their ongoing efforts to exercise their inherent sovereignty and fundamental human rights, to continue to raise awareness about the issues facing Indigenous Peoples and to develop advocacy campaigns to support the rights, aspirations and needs of Indigenous Peoples;
G. Encourages WCC member churches to support the continued development of theological reflections by Indigenous Peoples which promote indigenous visions of full, good and abundant life and which strengthen their own spiritual and theological reflections.