Welcome to Country (WtC) or Acknowledgement of Country (AoC) will not be able to be performed at public worship services of the Presbyterian Church of Australia after a vote in their General Assembly of Australia, the church’s peak council that draws commissioners (members) from around Australia.
Commissioners voted strongly in favour of a crucial clause in a multi-pronged motion that bans the practice but also lays out a view of Australian history. The motion was moved by Peter Barnes, the retiring Moderator-General (national leader of the church) acting as convenor of a committee that had been charged with devising a response to the aboriginal protocols.
The critical clause, clause 5, reads, “The Assembly … declare that Welcome to Country and Acknowledgement of Country are inappropriate for where the call to worship centres on God.” This can be taken as a declaration that WtC and AoC are distractions – a view firmly put during the debate. This clause was amended from “weekly Sunday services” to “public worship,” with the change moved by John McLean, Vice Principal of Sydney’s Christ College. Another speaker pointed out that this would include school chapel services.
Clause one of the motion attracted fierce debate. It commits the assembly to “Affirm that in spite of mistakes and cruelties perpetrated since colonisation, yet much good, notably the proclamation of the gospel, has been accomplished for the benefit of the indigenous population.” Barnes, in moving this clause, said that it simply defined history as mixed. Critics of this motion contended that it minimised indigenous experience and would be read as saying “bad things happened but on the other hand a lot of good.”
Clause 2 notes a claimed lack of consensus among indigenous people regarding WtC and AoC.
Barnes said that typical WtC or AoC, in endorsing elders past and present, “carried overtones of Aboriginal Spirituality.” This was picked up in clause 3, which reads, “Affirm that the wording of Welcome to Country and Acknowledgement of Country almost invariably carries overtones of an Aboriginal spirituality inconsistent with Christian belief.” An attempt to change the word “invariably” failed, with a strong speech by Tasmanian Minister Mark Powell, including reading a wordy sign put up at Springwood Presbyterian that included references to the local indigenous peoples’ Spirituality. John McClean, who had moved an amendment to soften this clause using the word “often” rather than “almost invariably,” rose to give a clarification that the sign was removed after some elders of his church had raised concerns*. However, Powell’s warnings about syncretism formed a powerful part in the ensuing debates.
Clause 4, which passed without debate states “As Christians we have to avoid wording that suggests final ownership of land is vested in people rather than with the creator.” This could be seen as commenting on claims of continuing sovereignty, but there was no debate on it, so that intent was never explicit.
On the way to clause 5, an amendment that attempted to encourage prayers of repentance and lament was moved by Queenslander Nathan Campbell seeking to have some positive actions supported in the motion. His suggestion included prayers perhaps on Aboriginal Sunday, the Sunday before January 26, as suggested by William Cooper, whose leadership of the Aboriginal people was affirmed in a Campbell motion. A counter-motion was put up that gave thanks for missionaries. These two views of history were pitted against each other in the ensuing two-hour debate, which resulted in neither motion being adopted. One speaker noted they “overlapped,” that they were not irreconcilable.
The Other Cheek left the assembly at the lunch break with the debate continuing with clause 6 “Recognising that the past cannot be changed encourage a positive desire to build bridges and to work prayerfully with Aboriginal people for reconciliation.”
And a final clause that suggests if a Welcome to Country is used, one based on a Bush Church Aid version be used.
“We acknowledge the triune God (Father Son, and Holy Spirit,) the Creator of heaven and earth and his ownership of all things (Psalm 24:1)
“We recognise that He gave stewardship of these lands upon which we meet to the Indigenous occupants of the land (Acts 17:26)
“We pray for civil peace for all people groups in order that the Gospel of peace would be truly proclaimed.” (1 Timothy 2:1-2).
- Correction: An earlier version of the story said that elders had ordered the sign at the Springwood church to be removed.