B24 – Covenanting Task Group

Honouring a Sovereign Peoples: our destiny together as first and second peoples


In 2009 the Assembly, and in 2010 the majority of Presbyteries and Synods, voted to change what was known as the Preamble to the UCA Interim Constitution. This new Preamble, after telling the story of how the UCA came into being, states: “As the Church believes God guided it into union so it believes that God is calling it to continually seek a renewal of its life as a community of First Peoples and of Second Peoples from many lands…”

The Preamble then recognises the relationship of the First Peoples with this land and with the Creator, the dispossession of the First Peoples and the complicity of the Church in this, the formation of the UAICC and the movement to the covenant in 1994. This covenant was “so that all may see a destiny together, praying and working together for a fuller expression of our reconciliation in Jesus Christ”.

This covenanting report desires to be true to this hope that “all may see a destiny together”. Part of this hope is that the words we say and the statements we make as a Uniting Church are realised in our practices as Congregations, Presbyteries, Synods, Assembly, agencies and schools. The reality of being a nation, and a Church, of First and Second peoples is something that we will need to be working on long term. An important step in proclaiming the gospel and owning our history in this land is to honour First Peoples’ sovereignty and recognise the pain of separation and displacement that they have experienced. Beyond this, we are called to acknowledge, celebrate and enable the whole Church to be enriched by First Peoples’ faith and culture. We are also enriched by the cultural and linguistic diversity of Second Peoples. The unity we share in diversity, through Christ, is God’s gift to us as church and a witness to the nation; a sign and foretaste of the renewal and reconciliation of all creation.

Sovereignty may not be a term that is familiar to all members of the Assembly. Sovereignty in general terms “[r]esides in the people and it is the people who determine how they will be governed.” For us to recognise the sovereignty of First Peoples in the Uniting Church we are recognising their right to “self-determination”. Having said that, we have heard at repeated Assembly meetings from Congress leaders their commitment to be part of the Uniting Church and not be apart. Recognising sovereignty for First Peoples requires trust on the part of Second Peoples; trust in God, and in our covenant relationship. We may not understand all the implications of recognising First Peoples as sovereign but the Task Group has realised that it is part of our call as the Uniting Church in Australia.

The remainder of this report is broken into three sections, mirroring the three movements of the journey the Task Group has been on since 2012. The first section presents both the initial request which came from the 2012 Assembly and a summary of the collected responses. The second section outlines the developing conversation between the Congress and the Task Group as we grappled with how the covenant becomes a life-giving reality for us all. The third section offers support to the proposals which will be coming in the Congress report to the Assembly.


The 2012 Assembly resolved to evaluate the covenant between the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress and the Uniting Church:

a) request the Standing Committee to appoint a Task Group to evaluate the progress made in the Covenanting process by Assembly, Synods, Presbyteries, Agencies and Congregations since the renewal of the Covenant at the last Assembly [2009]; and
b) request the Task Group to bring a report and any recommendations to the 14th Assembly.

Consequently, in August 2012, the Assembly Standing Committee resolved to:

a) appoint Michelle Cook, Stuart McMillan and Terence Corkin to the Task Group to evaluate the progress made in the Covenanting process by Assembly, Synods, Presbyteries, Agencies and Congregations since the renewal of the Covenant at the last Assembly;
b) request the Task Group to report by November 2013;

Since August 2012 the Covenant Task Group has worked in conjunction with the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress (UAICC) to reflect on the progress of our covenant. There have been three movements in the process. First, the Task Group endeavoured to gather responses from across the Uniting Church (UCA) regarding the impact of the Preamble on the covenant between the Congress and the UCA. Response rates and responses were varied. While the term ‘covenanting’ has not had a deep penetration in the life of the church, since 2009 some new expressions of covenanting have emerged. Second, the Task Group entered into a listening conversation with the Congress. Through these conversations it was apparent that there is a desire and need for deepening of the relationship. Third, the Task Group offers its support to the proposals being brought by the Congress to this Assembly.

In 2012 clarification on the expectations of the audit was sought from the original movers of the proposal. This feedback formed the basis of the approach taken by the Task Group to gather responses from across the church. In 2013 the Task Group sent letters to the Chair and Deputy Chair of Congress, the Assembly General Secretary and Associate General Secretary and all the Synod General Secretaries asking for them to provide responses themselves to a list of guiding questions and forward this request for information to various bodies within their area. This included Regional Councils of Congress, Presbyteries, Theological Colleges, Agencies, Schools and various Assembly and Synod bodies

In general, many groups found it difficult to answer what impact the Preamble has had on the covenant. Comments suggested that the Preamble, the Congress and the covenant are not part of the every day language and life of most of the Uniting Church. For example, some congregations and agencies mentioned positive, working relationships with local Indigenous groups but did not mention Congress or covenanting, even in response to direct follow up questions. On the other hand some groups indicated that they did not participate in any relationship with Indigenous peoples citing reasons such as “there are no Aboriginal people here”, age of congregational members, lack of resources and a desire to avoid potentially controversial topics.

There is still a lack of awareness in some quarters of what ‘covenanting’ actually means for how we are church together. One Synod report said “it would seem there has been little penetration of the concept of covenanting…. despite the numerous times when the Synod gatherings have received reports on covenanting, passed decisions about covenanting and heard from UAICC about their work and justice issues faced by Aboriginal people.” This was a common issue. There was an acknowledgement that trust needs to be deepened and that this takes considerable investment in developing relationships. There was also recognition of the need to resource the Congress more appropriately and not put too much strain on their leaders. There were also comments about a lack of clarity on how congregations can support covenanting initiatives and be more directly involved with the Congress

Continuing covenanting initiatives are primarily in the areas of Social Justice and Community Service, such as incarceration rates, submissions to government inquiries and provision of services to Indigenous groups. This also includes participation in National Sorry Day events, Reconciliation Week, NAIDOC week and other similar events. It is unclear whether the Preamble has enhanced this ongoing participation.


These include:

2012 Assembly Walk to SA Parliament: This was in response to sharing from Northern Regional Council of Congress members about the Northern Territory Intervention.

Changes to the induction service: Question about the UAICC and the covenant included in the induction vows.

A Destiny Together: This was a week of prayer and fasting that grew out of the sharing of Congress at the 2012 Assembly. The whole church was invited to participate in this event. The public worship on the lawns of Parliament House in Canberra had particular significance. The conversations with the Congress National Executive highlighted the desire for this type of modelling.

Congregational partnerships such as the Boab Network between All Saints Floreat UCA and Mowanjum: This partnership was established in 2006 but has significantly grown since 2009.

School partnerships: For example, some schools have developed action plans to assess and improve areas such as curriculum, student support and cultural awareness

Ministerial Education: A Congress leader expressed a desire “to have covenanting implemented in our schools and congregations, and identifying it as an important step in our theological education.” Some ways this is happening include: mentoring for younger leaders of Congress, peer learning relationships between Congress leaders and candidates and compulsory cross-cultural awareness programs as part of candidate formation (For example “Walking on country” in SA).

Ministry with children, youth and young adults: One of the Congress leaders offers some wisdom here: “Leadership within our church, I think we’ve got to have that inclusive with the indigenous and the non-indigenous, hand in hand equally together.” For example, intentional invitation and encouragement for active participation in events like NCYC, NYALC and Synod/Presbytery based children and youth events.

During the various stages of gathering information and careful listening it became apparent to the Task Group that the original task which had been characterised by the word “audit” would not give us any more than raw data. What the church needs to know, that which shapes our destiny together, is not the various programs happening in different places, but rather it is the depth and quality of the relationship that defines our life as a people in covenant relationship.


Following the collection of this information the Task Group explored with leaders of the Congress “how the covenant is going” from their perspective. From these conversations it was decided to ask for some time at a Congress National Committee meeting to discuss the progress of the covenant. Stuart McMillan attended the National Committee Meeting in March 2014. This was a time of deep listening and sharing. A Congress leader shared how it seemed they were always sharing their traumatic stories with Second Peoples but what were the stories Second Peoples had to share? This moved the Task Group to emphasise that for this relationship between First and Second Peoples to deepen there needs to be trust and mutuality.

From this conversation with the Congress National Committee it was very clear that some deepening of the relationship has occurred in various regions, however, it is also clear that across the Congress there is a heart cry for deeper, real relationship. A relationship not based on papers and statements or on programs, but rather a relationship founded in the love and peace of God which we share by grace in Christ with one another. Other conversation points included:

The pain of the past is very close to the surface and things which might seem little for other parts of the church can be so much more hurtful because of woundedness.

The word ‘covenant’ is not understood outside the church (and at times inside the church). The suggestion is we use other language to describe our relationship. The suggestion was that ‘A Destiny Together’ may become our ongoing expression of the relationship. This phrase implies that we own and declare we are going to stay in this relationship and that we are going to grow and deepen it by God’s grace, reflecting the love of God which is ours in Christ.

The Uniting Church is calling on governments at all levels in Australia to engage in a new way of relating with First peoples, to truly listen to one another, to do things with people and not to or for them. This is also the way we must embody within the life of the UCA.

Sometimes the Church speaks as if covenant is largely about what it needs to do for Congress and for other First Peoples. Covenant can reinforce an unequal relationship, where one is the giver and the other is the receiver. Covenant is meant to be a relationship, and Congress has as much to offer the Church as the Church has to offer Congress. Covenant is about the mutual enriching of lives through deep and shared relationships.

Out of these conversations the Task Group made an explicit commitment that the preparation of this report and recommendations for the 14th Assembly would be done jointly with Congress. As part of this commitment Stuart McMillan participated in further conversations about covenanting at the Congress National Conference held in Tasmania in January 2015.


First Peoples have never been acknowledged as sovereign in our nation. In paragraph 2 of the Preamble the Uniting Church recognises that First Peoples see themselves as sovereign. The proposal at the end of this report calls on the Uniting Church in Australia to honour that claim and recognise that First People are, in fact, a sovereign peoples. The specific proposals accompanying the Congress report flow out of this recognition. Whilst our nation may determine sovereignty is lost at law we have an opportunity in this recognition of First Peoples sovereignty to right a wrong and lead a nation.

If the church is to explore in a helpful way the claim to ‘sovereignty’ it will be necessary to move beyond some of the terms which dominate our usual conversations. It helps us to remember that the modern idea of sovereignty as the ability to control borders and a geographical area is a modern development of the idea, as is the idea of ‘absolute’ sovereignty. Up until the medieval time, sovereignty was a relational idea. People had control of their communal lives, language, culture, and community, and access to land. Land could be shared, if it was done respectfully. Kings were bound by a set of rights, relationships and obligations. Treaties between people assumed that, if two sovereign people were to live in the one space, they had to spell out the limits of their sovereignty. Very importantly, God was bound by God’s decision to be in a covenanted relationship with humanity. That is, God may have absolute power, but God exercises that power in ways that reflect the sort of world that God has created. Conversations about sovereignty have changed to emphasise rights rather than the common good, and to be based on the idea that everything is about the right to self-preservation and the right to own property. Nation states regard their territory as property, which they have the right to defend in any way they decide.

It is important that, if the Church is to enter this conversation, it seeks to reclaim earlier ideas of what sovereignty means. To speak of, and recognise sovereignty is to change the framework around our relationships and conversations. At present the Church assumes that First Peoples are simply a part ‘us all together,’ and some respectful space needs to be created for ‘them’. But sovereignty says that First Peoples are not just part of ‘us,’ but are a community that engages with ‘us’ as a people with their own life and values and being, and claim of access to the land. They are not sovereign because they control a geographical space, but because they have rights and obligations and connections as a community that include rights around land.

It is true that First Peoples have a desire which is external to the Uniting Church for a “Treaty”. Rev Dr Djiniyini Gondarra expressed it in terms of sovereignty saying that First Peoples are seeking a way forward where there is true justice. The covenant was always about a way forward which afforded First People true justice. This is why recognising the sovereignty of First People is so fundamental for our covenant relationship.

There are a number of specific proposals that flow from the recognition of First peoples as sovereign which Congress will present:

First Peoples have a relationship with God as Creator who placed them in this land and entrusted the care of it to them. It follows then that the covenant which exists between God as Creator and First Peoples of the land, should shape the Uniting Church’s approach to land and property matters. This is so much more than a simple approach to property, it is about relationship and life. To quote the Congress report: “How we deal with land speaks of our sense of relationship with each other and the earth.”
The recognition of First Peoples as sovereign and the understandings of their relationship to the Creator and creation are ways we can together explore more deeply indigenous theologies that can inform and enrich all our theological conversations.

There is a desire for a deeper relationship between First and Second Peoples. The opportunity we have is to engage with one another in mutual, respectful listening and sharing.

The important issues of justice which are identified by First peoples enable the church to stand together in solidarity seeking a different future for us all. The Congress identifies a number of these important issues like: incarceration rates, closing of small communities, education and employment opportunities, and youth suicide. We must not be complacent about ‘Closing the Gap’, especially for Indigenous health. On issues of education and employment we have the ability to be part of the solution beyond our responsibility to advocate for change through our extensive community service agencies.

Many of our Second Peoples face the same issues of racism which First Peoples still face daily. Our church needs to be engaged in education which addresses racism both within and external to the Church. The conversation between First Peoples and Second Peoples of the Church has enormous potential to enhance the covenant and enrich the life of our Church.

Stuart McMillan and Michelle Cook
on behalf of the Task Group

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