12th Assembly 2009

New Preamble to acknowledge First Peoples

One of the most significant documents to be discussed during the Uniting Church’s 12th Assembly, meeting in Sydney July 15-21, is the proposed new Preamble to the Constitution. All members of the Uniting Church will take an interest in the changes to this foundation document.

However, the new Preamble is of particular significance to Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress members as it recognises their place as the First Peoples of Australia as well as acknowledging that the role the churches have played in recent history has not always been a positive one.

From June 30 to July 9, Congress held its National Conference in Perth, Western Australia, and the proposed new Preamble was one of the key issues for discussion during business sessions.

The discussion was held during the second half of the week, after a number of days spent in prayer, Bible studies and discussion designed to help the members of Congress discern the will of God.

During the final day’s business session, agreement was reached on the wording of the Preamble that Congress would like to see agreed by the Assembly.

The Rev. Rronang Garrawurra from the Northern Regional Council of Congress (NRCC) said it was important that the document enabled the church to move forward as the body of Christ.

“We can walk together, side by side,” he reminded the conference. “We are Christian brothers and sisters in one Jesus Christ.”

The Rev. Shayne Blackman, national administrator of Congress, agreed, saying, “This is about how we can walk together with respect for one another.”

The Rev. Dr Chris Budden, convenor of the Task Group on the Constitution, and the Rev. Terence Corkin, Assembly general secretary, both attended the Congress meeting to resource the discussion and hear the views of Congress in relation to the proposal.

“The aim of this exercise is to produce a preamble that would honour the Indigenous people and the Congress, and allow the church to name its history,” explained Dr Budden.

Although the proposal will be presented by the Task Group, the aim of the Congress discussion was to decide whether they would support the proposed wording.

Over the course of two business sessions, a number of small but significant changes to the document were discussed. One change involved finding a way of acknowledging the special relationship of Aboriginal and Islander people to the land of Australia, while expressing the right theological understanding.

The wording of what may become Clause 2 was changed to say that, rather than the land having sustained the First Peoples, that God, through the land, sustained and continues to sustain them.

Speaking after the close of the National Conference, Mr Blackman said he realised there would be a lot of debate around the proposed new Preamble during Assembly.

“There’s a process we have to go through to arrive at support for that, and through the process it gives people the opportunity to reflect on it and enable them to understand where were coming from,” he said.

“This country has been founded on a lie, that it was an empty land. And in the invasion of Aboriginal people’s countries, scant respect was payed to the fact that there was an organised group of people who live on this land, who had laws for life that involved social, cultural, marriage; how we respect one another’s boundaries; how we interact and how our relationships are structured.

“[The new Preamble is] important for the church, whose background, history and interpretation of the Bible comes from a country other than Australia — so it’s basically an important theology that  hasn’t to this point officially recognised in the documents of the Church the fact that Aboriginal people, as part of God’s created order, also had a God-given wisdom. To do that I believe will restore some respect to the relationships.”

Mr Blackman said that while the Preamble was largely a symbolic document, it had far-reaching consequences for the life of the church and the covenanting relationship with Congress.

“For us, that is for Aboriginal people, it provides a platform for developing how that relationship works out within the constitution and in fact provides the integrity for engaging with Aboriginal people.”

The final draft of the proposal was supported by Congress. It will now be the role of Assembly to discern the way forward.