Having never been to Clergy Summer School before, but only ever having heard positive feedback about the topics and guest speakers, I attended this year’s gathering at The Southport School in mid-January not quite knowing what to expect. Thankfully it lived up to its reputation!
This year’s speakers were Bishop Chris McLeod (addressing the topic of Indigenous Spirituality), The Rev’d William Loader (exploring Attitudes Towards Sexuality in the New Testament World) and The Rev’d Jazz Dow (who spoke about Being Intentional about Slow Church). Whilst we as Church internally and externally engage with all of these subjects, it is the presentation by Bishop Chris that I wish to reflect on.
Bishop Chris began his sessions by sharing some deeply personal stories of his own childhood, family and ancestry. He is of Gurindji descent, has been involved in ministry alongside Aboriginal peoples for more than 20 years and is responsible for developing and overseeing ministry among Aboriginal peoples nationally. As a master storyteller, he drew us into his own journey of faith, sharing stories with us as if we were sitting around the campfire having a yarn.
His sharing was open, honest and occasionally deeply painful. At times we laughed, at other times we sat in silence, but by the end of his sharing we were left in no doubt of the pain and challenges many First Nations peoples have experienced and continue to experience through intergenerational trauma.
During these sessions, Bishop Chris explored the role the Church has played over the years, at times protecting the remnants of colonial expansion, at other times arguably complicit with the oppression of First Nations peoples and the dispossession of their lands across the globe.
Bishop Chris’ presentation concluded with an invitation to consider how we as Church may explore ways to connect with local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups, to respectfully engage with our shared history, to acknowledge the hurt and damage that the Church has committed in the past, to pursue Reconciliation, and to look at how we can collectively journey forward together.
As the Priest-in-Charge at St John’s, Hervey Bay, I have had the privilege of connecting with numerous elders of the Butchulla people in the few years that I have been on the Fraser Coast. The Butchulla people, who have been the Traditional Owners of K’gari (Fraser Island) and the neighbouring mainland for thousands of years, are a proud people with wisdom to share with all those willing to listen. Whilst our parish has engaged in small ways with the Butchulla community, attending this session by Bishop Chris further opened my eyes to the intergenerational pain and hurt, resulting from the dispossession of ancestral lands, forced/slave labour, experiences of the Stolen Generations, and the tearing apart of families through forced relocation. Sadly, their story is not unique, sharing their history of oppression with Aboriginal peoples across Australia.
Bishop Chris emphasised that many, if not all, First Nations groups in his experience are willing to work together with government, local community groups and the Church towards Reconciliation. The Church has a role to play in the Reconciliation of all people in our country. Whether it be at the episcopal level on a national or diocesan scale, or at a personal level in the local parish, we all can do our part. However, underpinning the notion of Reconciliation is the need for honesty, truth telling and an openness to listen.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups are proud inheritors of ancient wisdom and customs. In my experience, they seek a meeting of open minds and hearts, a meeting of equals, where together true Reconciliation can occur. How this can happen on a local scale is up to each parish, but I would encourage parishes (as we have started to do in Hervey Bay) to seek ways to engage with a local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander group.
Seek out the Elders, meet with them and explore how they wish to engage with your parish. Invite First Nations peoples in your area to speak at small group gatherings, breakfast events or church services. Learn about your parish’s and the Anglican Church’s history in the region. I have only recently been made aware of an Anglican Mission run on the western side of K’gari which has been described as “a sand-fly infested containment area…run on strict military lines [where the] death rate was abnormally high even for the times” (The Badtjala People: A Cultural and Environmental Interpretation of Fraser Island, 1994, p.16).
Whilst this may be new to me and many in our parish in Hervey Bay, these stories have most likely been passed down through the generations by many Butchulla people. If your parish is associated with an Anglican school, perhaps explore ways of working with the school to engage with the Traditional Owners. A few years ago, Fraser Coast Anglican College, as part of Archbishop Phillip Aspinall’s annual theme of Peace and Reconciliation, ran a week’s worth of events celebrating Butchulla culture. Members of the community came and danced and shared stories, music and art with the students.
Intentionally look for that which unites (rather than that which divides) the local First Nations groups and your church. The Butchulla people have lived for thousands of years by these three rules:
- what is good for the land comes first
- do not take or touch anything that does not belong to you
- if you have plenty, you must share.
It is easy to see how the Fraser Coast’s Butchulla rules of life align with the Christian values of stewardship, grace and love – there is much more that unites us as a people than divides us, but we must be intentional in our peacemaking.
So, my thanks to the organisers of this year’s Clergy Summer School and to the guest speakers. If you are ordained, I encourage you to attend next year’s gathering; if not, I encourage you to persuade your priest to attend. No doubt it will be an educational and enlightening experience for them and their ministries in your parish.
Hear Bishop Chris McLeod speak about Reconciliation in a public lecture he gave at St John’s Cathedral to mark National Reconciliation Week in 2019.Jump to next article