12th Assembly 2009

Living as a guest

The Rev. Dr Chris Budden is a name that keeps popping up at the 12th Assembly.

Not only has he launched a new book, Following Jesus in Invaded Space, he is also the front man for what is shaping up to be the biggest discussion of the meeting: the proposed new preamble to the Constitution of the Uniting Church.

Dr Budden’s book explores what it means to “do theology” as the people who came second to Australian, recognising that we are living on Aboriginal land.

In many ways the ideas outlined in Following Jesus in Invaded Space provide a theological and historical context for the discussion about the preamble and what it means for the Uniting Church’s covenant with the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress.

Dr Budden said the ideas contained in the book had been “bubbling in his soul” over many years spent working alongside Aboriginal people as person who is fifth generation Australia.

This journey started in the late 1960s when, as a young man, he had already candidated and been accepted to start his training as a minister.

“By the grace of God I had this idea coming out of church one morning,” he recalled. “I’m sure it was God that said, ‘You’ve got three months before you start university, why don’t you offer it to the church for mission.’”

Having already done some accountancy training, the church sent him to Aurukun Mission as an accountant.

“I went there for three months and basically it was life changing,” he said. “I was 18 years of age living in this Aboriginal community and being confronted by all these issues.”

It was there Dr Budden became aware of the damaging effects of paternalistic attitudes and policies.

“I was watching the government taking money out of people’s bank accounts even though they didn’t spend it, because all Aboriginal people were the same,” he recalled.

This experience sowed the seeds for a passionate involvement in social justice issues.

After being ordained, Dr Budden’s second placement took him to the Northern Synod, where he became involved with the land rights debate and developed relationships with Aboriginal Christians.

However, it was only relatively recently, during the 2003 Assembly meeting in Melbourne, that a conversation with his friends and colleagues from Congress led to a turning point in the way he thought about what it meant to be an Australian Christian.

“I made a comment in the debate that the primary covenant for the church was baptism and we had to figure out what the covenant with Congress meant in terms of baptism,” he recalled.

What he realised was that to take seriously the relationship with Congress meant he had to re-think his own received traditions and stories in the context of that relationship.

“I came to the conclusion that I couldn’t answer the question of what does baptism imply in just a traditional sense. I had to figure it out in relationship with them,” he said

“I had to take seriously what they said about covenant and how that impacted on my understanding of the rights and responsibilities that come with baptism.”

Dr Budden said once he started to seriously consider that he realised there were implications for how he thought about his own faith.

“The important thing is that it actually moves the conversation from being just about justice and ethics to being about central theological truths,” he said.

However, Dr Budden stressed that his aim was not to talk about Aboriginal theology which would be perpetuating a tradition of the dominant culture “speaking for” others. Rather, his aim was to find a way to speak about his own faith living with the history of Australia as one of “invasion and suffering” for Aboriginal people.

“It’s about the connection between tradition and context. How do you engage with your tradition in the light of your questions that are raised in the context in which you live,” he said.

“You always approach the tradition from a particular place. And I want us to approach it from the place of say we are people who occupy aboriginal land and find out what that does to the questions we ask of the tradition.”

He is influenced by the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who said that who is Jesus is inseparable from where is Jesus.

“So part of my question was always, ‘How do I talk about God in Australia?” he said.

“Jesus was always located on the edges of community and with the poorest of people. How do I find Jesus in Australia if that’s where Jesus always is?”

The question of space and place is a crucial one for Australian Christians as they learn to relate with Aboriginal people, whose culture has a spiritual connection to the land.

“What Aboriginal people do is integrate the fact that land for them is economically and socially crucial and is tied to their understanding of where God is,” explained Dr Budden.

“We as Christians have got to think again about the locational nature of our faith,” he said.

“There’s a challenge in there about where we should be as a church — more on the edges and less in the centre.”

Dr Budden said as he thought more about this issue he realised that place was important within the Old and New Testament traditions of the Bible.

“It struck me that Jacob’s well is actually a sacred spot,” he said, referring to the place where Jesus met the Samaritan woman, a story which has been explored in a number of different ways during Assembly.

Asked whether he thought the ideas contained in his book would change the way the church operated, Dr Budden said, “I hope we would relate to Aboriginal people differently and would begin to wrestle with the question, ‘What does it mean if you treat yourself as a guest, rather than thinking of ourselves as the host all the time?’”