12th Assembly 2009

Many words, one God

The challenges of the way our stories — and the language we use to tell them — translate across cultures was evident as Assembly began to grapple with the proposal to change the preamble of the Uniting Church’s Constitution.

The session was designed to introduce the proposal and allow a space for comments. Many of the responses from members of Assembly illustrated the difficulty of using human language to express an understanding of God and spiritual issues.

The Rev. Dr Chris Budden, convenor of the Task Group on the Preamble to the Constitution, said part of the intention of the new preamble was to “honour the claim that [Aboriginal and Islander people] knew God before the second peoples arrived.”

However, a number of members raised questions about whether the God known by Aboriginal peoples was the God of Jesus.

The Rev. Shayne Blackman, National Administrator of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress asserted that this was the position of the Congress.

Dr Budden also responded by reminding members that, “There is one God.”

He said the question of whether God had revealed Godself to the Aboriginal people was one for them to answer, and non-Indigenous members of the church should be guided by the wisdom of Congress and not assume their knowledge of God was better.

At the end of the session, the room fell into a respectful silence as Aboriginal elder the Rev. Rronang Garrawurra, from Elcho Island, walked to the stage.

Through his interpreter, Howard Amery from the Northern Synod, he asked permission to share a story, asking also that after hearing the story, members would “take this story deep into your spirit to reflect on, to sleep on, to ask God to share with you some of the deeper story I’m telling you now.”

Mr Garrawurra said that within his oral tradition there were two spirits — not the spirit within but spirits out there. One of the spirits was good and one was not good.

“As we try to discern the difference between those two spirits of immense presence and power, we have to ask the question, ‘Who made us? Who made this place that we inhabit and live in?’”

To discern the spirits, the people must look around at all the vegetation in all its different forms, at the animals, at all the difference water sources and everything that sustains life.

“These are questions but we’re not left alone just with questions,” he said. “There are answers through story in our traditions.”

Mr Garrawurra said that even though most of the people in the meeting didn’t look like what he would consider indigenous to this country, “You have a story and a history.”

“So I can say, for us, that we know through our traditions but also through law which, like Old Testament law, has been handed down to us generation by generation to know who we are; whose land we are on; how we are all connected; how it fits together into a patchwork over the landscape.

“But as we reflect on those traditions and those stories that have been with me all my life — with my father’s generation and my grandfather’s before that. The story is the same. The name of the one who gave us life, the one who created the very places we inhabit.”

Mr Garrawurra shared the name of that creator spirit: Wanga.

However, he said, “We don’t fully know who Wanga is. Just as you don’t fully know who God is.”

Mr Garrawurra said that when the missionaries came to his land and entered into dialogue with that generation of his people, the missionaries said that Jesus was part of God’s story.

“Our ancestors took that revelation as a fuller sense-making story of who we understand God to be,” he said. “But it didn’t change the story, it just made it clearer.”

He charged members of the Assembly to keep asking questions.

“Whatever you are holding in your heart bring it out,” he said. “This is a safe place, a place where we can bring it before God and share those stories.”

Finally, into a room filled with listening, he shared a word from his language.

“This place, I can call it nada,” he said.

“Nada is a chamber of law. Nada is a place that is sacred, it is holy."

Mr Garrawurra said the understanding of the word in his culture was different to the idea of law when it is expressed in the English language.

“It is bigger and wider, expressing the full understanding of our existence under the creator,” he said.

Mr Garrawurra also had slightly different words to talk about the process of discerning the will of God, which is what the Assembly meeting aims for.

“I’d ask you all to take the opportunity to meditate on the discussion, on the words we have shared, and to pray to God that when we come tomorrow we will all be truly ourselves,” he said, “people with integrity to ask God what’s on our hearts.

“This is an exercise not in shallow thinking and quick verbal response,” he warned. “What I’m requesting is that you meditate and think deeply on this, listening for God’s word to you.”