12th Assembly 2009

Preamble debate under way

“I want to tell you this, brothers and sisters: it’s time to stand up and acknowledge who we are. I know this will be hard, but it is important for our future.”

The Rev. Shayne Blackman launched the case for the controversial new preamble to the Constitution of the Uniting Church in Australia on Friday evening.

The eagerly-awaited session at the national Assembly in Sydney began with information, questions and comments. This will be followed by small group discussion on Saturday afternoon and a decision-making meeting later in the Assembly.

Proponents of the new preamble claimed it tells the truth about the history of Australia and of its Christian churches; that it places the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people at the centre of the denomination’s life and witness.

Deliberations on the matter were foreshadowed as likely to be complex and time-consuming.

The proposed preamble states that:
“1. When the churches that formed the Uniting Church arrived in Australia as part of the process of colonisation they entered a land that had been created and sustained by the Triune God they knew in Jesus Christ.
“2. Through this land God had nurtured and sustained the First Peoples of this country, the Aboriginal and Islander peoples, who continue to understand themselves to be the traditional owners and custodians (meaning ‘sovereign’ in the languages of the First Peoples) of these lands and waters since time immemorial.
“3. The First Peoples had already encountered the Creator God before the arrival of the colonisers; the Spirit was already in the land revealing God to the people through law, custom and ceremony. The same love and grace that was finally revealed in Jesus Christ sustained the First Peoples and gave them particular insights into God’s ways.”

The preamble affirms, further, that many church members “shared the values and relationships of the emerging colonial society including paternalism and racism towards the First Peoples. They were complicit in the injustice that resulted in many of the First Peoples being dispossessed from their land, their language, their culture and spirituality, becoming strangers in their own land.”

The preamble is not legally binding in terms of interpretation of the constitution, or for any understanding of regulations which flow from it.

The Rev. Dr Chris Budden, chair of the task group working on the proposal, outlined the rationale for the new preamble.

He recalled the earlier comment at the Assembly from the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress chairperson who said that “growing up in a nation that doesn’t recognise you, makes it impossible to dream”.

“This new preamble seeks to move us beyond the story of the three churches that came into union in 1977,” Dr Budden explained. “The present preamble tells how we became ‘Uniting’. The new Preamble tells what it means to be ‘in Australia’.”

The new document, he said, was the result of a task group’s two years of solid consultation across synods and presbyteries, and extensive theological input.

National administrator of Congress, Shayne Blackman, acknowledged the task group’s work.

“I am aware there will be a huge number of questions on this,” he said. “Will it solve all our problems? I don’t think so. But it will restore faith and pride in our identity. It will restore faith and pride in the expectation that this church has truly taken up the challenge to rectify a continuing wrong.”

Mr Blackman referred to the genealogy of Jesus in the beginning of the gospels and the genealogies throughout the Old Testament.

“Why then do we have these constant references to those whose names appear in the Bible? Because it is important to know how they connect. Jesus didn’t just appear. His mother had a history. She came from somewhere.

“If you and I are going to live together in this place, then we have to recognise each other, as the Bible recognises that all people have a history.”
Assembly President Alistair Macrae then called for “conversation, questions and comment”.

Two Assembly members asked whether the statement “the First Peoples had already encountered the Creator God before the arrival of the colonisers” was accepted by all Indigenous peoples, including those who did not identify as Christians.

Mr Blackman answered, yes. Dr Budden replied that the statement was authorised by Congress and that it was not the role of the task group to decide paternalistically whether or not they agreed with it.

An Assembly member raised a question about the expression “the traditional owners”. He suggested that Christians didn’t actually own anything: “We are rather custodians or stewards.”

Howard Amery, from the Northern Territory, responded in both English and Yolngu language that in East Arnhem Land there are nine different categories of land ownership, through the father’s line and the mother’s line. The proposed wording, he affirmed, was acceptable.

Another member expressed concern that the proposed preamble had “no acceptance that discovering Jesus Christ is significant in any way”.

The discussion concluded with a reflection from the Rev. Rronang Garruwurra from Elcho Island.

The session closed with a time of silent reflection.

Photos from the discussion are available here in the photo gallery