Church leaders grilled at Aboriginal inquiry

Bishop Genevieve Blackwell at the Yoorrook Commision

Church leaders faced intense questions at Victoria’s Yoorrook Justice Inquiry’s “Share Land, Sky and Water hearings” into First Nations’ dispossession. This truth-telling commission is the first major governmental response since the Voice referendum. The church leaders who appeared before the inquiry are among a line-up of leaders, including Premier Jacinta Allan, being questioned on tough matters. The Commissioners examining the church leaders are First nations people.

Awkward exchanges

There were awkward conversations. After giving an answer about ways in which indigenous presence is made visible among Victoria’s Catholics – by “fire carriers,” a system of marking indigenous representation by students or teachers in Catholic schools for “awareness raising, to build relationships, to seek pathways of reconciliation.” 

Commissioner Travis Lovett intervened and asked a tougher question: “Do you see yourself as culturally competent?”

The Archbishop responded, “I would hope I am. I don’t think I would want to go so far as to just make a blanket. I am. I’ve certainly done training in that prepared by the national Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander Catholic Council. So there’s a national body, and they provide training, and I have undertaken that, but I wouldn’t hope that is the case. It’s for others to judge about me. “

Lovett doubles down: “I second that question, Archbishop, we were talking about fire carriers a little bit earlier. We talked about students undertaking that role now as a proud Kerrupmara Gunditjmara man, the cultural load on that child to carry that fire stick or that fire is a massive cultural load for that child to do. So just want to make the point of, I wouldn’t articulate that if that’s our measure of success, that that’s cultural competency in the context of my people just wanted to make that point. I think it’s really important that we should be looking after our young people and not overloading them with cultural loads and the continual compounding thing where they have to educate non-aboriginal people on our history, our journey and the things that have continually happened to us as well. So I just wanted to make that point.”

The Archbishop responds, “Thanks very much. The manner in which people are chosen comes from our indigenous peoples in the offices of the Catholic Aboriginal ministry, and I would certainly be happy to take that back to them.”

Commissioner Lovett then says, “Yeah, I understand that and I think they’re fitting in your structures. But again, when we think about our culture and our practises, that is a significant load that our people are carrying in society and continue to carry it recognised also by your earlier acknowledgements here as well around our people and what we’ve been through. So it’s really important that we don’t lose sight of that and cultural competency is something that has to be continually strived for and it’s really hard to achieve that because it needs continual effort as well.”

Framed in the language of cultural competency, this exercise contains a major message from the Yoorrook truth-telling commission: Is the church giving space for Aboriginal people to define their own spaces, or are they being squeezed into the church’s structures even with the best of intentions—as with the “fire stick example?”

Uniting church: pluses and minus?

The Uniting Church, which has a covenant relationship with the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress, could point to support for First Nations congregations. Asked if Congress is part of the Uniting Church, David Fotheringham gives a “Yes/and” answer “It is technically part of the Uniting Church in the sense that the property trust has that ultimate responsibility and yet the Congress also sees itself as independent to the extent that we have a covenant relationship with the Congress.”
But the Uniting Church, with arguably the most carefully articulated relationship with its Aboriginal body – the Congress – of any denomination, could still be asked a tough question.

Commissioner Maggie Walter, a Palawa woman, asked about a meeting at Narana Creations, a Congress cultural centre in Geelong, if the artifacts there were going to be “repatriated.” Fotheringham could only say he would take the question on notice. Quite possibly, it would have been better to have a Congress person at the inquiry.

Attachment to country

The leaders were asked about the religious aspect of First Nations and the country by Counsel Assisting Tim Goodwin. “I was reminded by Auntie Phyllis .. at Lake Tyers Aboriginal Trust just last month, Bishop Richard Treloar of the Anglican Diocese of Gippsland responded. “She said, ‘It’s not just that she belongs to us, we belong to country.'”

He also quoted First Nations theologian Garry Deverell: “For us, spirituality is all about the most basic building blocks of life: country, kin, and the practice of ritual storytelling that waves past, present and future living together in a web sometimes referred to as dreaming.”

Moderator Fotheringham referenced a conference organised by the University of Divinity’s School of Indigenous Studies that Deverell leads: “It brought together a range of first people’s views on our Christian theology and indigenous spirituality connect or don’t connect. There is a range of views and I think the conversation between that range of views was a particularly important part of the conference. In some ways, I recognise that this is a conversation that occurs amongst First Peoples. It’s not for me to say how that lands, but I would say that the churches have a strong interest in learning from this and learning from those conversations.”

Counsel Assisting Tim Goodwin read from an 1836 UK parliament select committee report into First Nations, asking the leaders to comment on its “Genesis story” of First Nations people having “suffered in an aggravated degree from the planting amongst them of our penal settlements in the formation of these settlements as does not appear that the territorial rights of the natives were considered and very little care has since been taken to protect them from the violence or the contamination of the dregs of our countrymen.”

Bishop Treloar began by describing how the church sent missionaries out of a mix of “protectionist ideology” and “evangelical zeal” but added, “The enterprise itself, I would want to say is just fundamentally flawed. It’s just built on completely erroneous premises. I was deeply, deeply moved by the testimony of Uncle Jim Berg and Uncle Robbie Thorpe at a hearing in late March, and Jim Berg reflected on this irony of a combination of a protective ideology in terms of those reserves and missions coexisting with this loss of identity and language and law and kinship precisely in that context. So there’s this sort of protection going on, protection going on at one level and cultural genocide at another level, and these two things are kind of coexisting. So it’s a really debilitating paradox I think for us to come to grips with and there’s no question that our church partnered with the colonial government to implement policies and practises that were and continue to be profoundly harmful to First Nations people in Victoria, partly in response to reports like this and the kind of evangelical opportunities that they extended to the churches.”

Commissioner Lovett challenged the leaders, asking, “More than one witness has observed that the missions and reserve system mark the beginning of Aboriginal deaths in custody in the context of racism. Does your church now say that your religious beliefs are superior to ours?”

“Absolutely not,” Bishop Treloar responded.

Fotheringham for the Uniting Church gave another response, pointing to a Methodist mission near Geelong called Buntingdale, as intended as a place of refuge. “The Buntingdale mission was a little more free-flowing … people weren’t confined so much to the mission, people came and went, but it’s entirely true that the impulse to share the gospel was completely entangled with the idea of the superiority of Western civilisation and certain social structures. So it’s entirely true that the missions were disastrous in that regard.”

The Yoorrook commissioners’ angst at the history was clearly present. But it was not a one-sided view that came across as questions went to the complicated history of missions and the variation in their character. Counsel Assisting Tim Goodwin asked about John Bulmer of the Lake Tyers Mission in Gippsland “and his close relationship with the people”

“Yeah, it’s another paradox, isn’t it, Tim?” Bishop Treloar responded. “I’ve actually written about this in the current edition of our diocesan paper as a result of my kind of thinking about these questions, and it’s true by all accounts, including those of local residents. John Bulmer, who was the Church of England lay manager of Lake Tyers for 47 years – was only ordained in 1894, towards the end of his life, when Gippsland became a diocese. And by all accounts, he was a caring, decent, compassionate man, relatively speaking. And I want to underscore relatively speaking, he encouraged traditional cultural practises and hunting back, he settled on Lake tyres partly because of its proximity to some of those opportunities. During the period of so-called mission tourism of the 1870s and eighties, he encouraged a degree of economic independence for the residents of Lake Tyres through the selling of artefacts, something that the board explicitly discouraged.”

But Treloar then mentioned the other side of the paradox. “But again, I’d want to stress that paternal affection bespeaks the heart of the problem. So he might’ve been a good man doing his best, but the system in which he was working in was irredeemably broken. And so, how do you try and work for good in a system that’s so fundamentally flawed and broken? And so I’ve got just a very short excerpt of a 1962 poem by Kath Walker from her Aboriginal Charter of Rights poem, which I just wondered if I could have leave to read because I think it sums up some of this. She says,
‘give us Christ, not crucifixion,
though baptised, blessed and Bible,
we are still taboo and libel.
You devout salvation settlers,
make us neighbours, not fringe dwellers,
make us mates, not poor relations,
citizens, not serfs on stations.’
And I think that’s the kind of paradox that John Bulmer was operating in.”

As the session continued the focus was on church land -as the result of dispossession. The Anglicans were at the forefront of receiving grants of land in the colonial era, and counsel Assisting Tim Goodwin pointed to their property trust holding $1.38 bn of land.

Treloar was able to point to a percentage of monies from property sales going to First Nation’s work. Fotheringham pointed to a similar system in the Uniting church since the 1980s: “But our funding to Congress is topped up and not limited to that proportion of sales proceeds in a very similar sort of manner. I think to the heart of your question though, we don’t have an ongoing policy of transfer to traditional owners or working with traditional owners in that respect. So yes, we have to own that. We don’t have that.”

Yoorrook will shape the future

Bishop Genevieve Blackwell from Melbourne Diocese’s Marmingatha region acknowledged that the Yoorrook Commission will impact the churches’ resourcing directly of First Nations.

“I want to also openly acknowledge that within the church there will be a debate. And this is where I think it’s also important what comes from the Europe Justice Commission recommendations to government and then how government acts in response. There will be a debate about whether things should that support aboriginal ministry or should that support, as you are indicating Aboriginal corporations and recognise leadership. So what comes from the Yoorook Justice Commission to government I think will be important in that, in helping to shape the debate.”