Covenanting: A Personal Reflection by John Rickard

Covenanting: A Personal Reflection by John Rickard

The experience of Covenanting is critical to the ongoing life of the Uniting Church in Australia. Covenanting defines the relationship between the Indigenous and non-Indigenous members of the Uniting Church. This article is my personal reflection on my journey into covenanting.

Obviously, not everybody has the same journey. It is influenced by both life experience and what we bring to it.

It also should be noted that these stages are usually not a steady progression toward a maturity at stage 7. All persons vacillate between these stages sometimes moving rapidly between various stages depending on the context and our emotional encounter with it. This means that one can ever be confident that one holds a mature perspective on Covenanting no matter how deep our experience.

When I first met Vince Ross – National Chair of Congress Victoria – I was totally unaware of Aboriginal people, their communities and cultures – in every way I started my journey into their world from a position of almost total ignorance and ‘blindness’. Yet over the past ten years I have been taken by my Aboriginal colleagues, along one of those life transforming journeys.

1. Ignorance

As with all cross cultural exploration, journeys into covenanting generally have their beginning in ignorance. From my own culture I began my journey with little, if any knowledge of the other.

This is how it was when the first settlers arrived. They thought the First Peoples of this land were hunter gatherers who travelled throughout the land seeking sustenance for their families with little connection to the land. This was a position of great ignorance. These Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples had been the traditional owners and custodians of the country since time immemorial. They were bound to this land, even a particular piece of land, it was this land that gave them their identity and defined their place in the world. Even their relationships with each other were defined by their relationship with this country, their country.

It was this ignorance that enabled the white settlers to claim that this place was unoccupied, allowed them to describe this country as “terra nullius” It was this ignorance that enabled this untruth to be propagated throughout the colony, even into the present.

This ignorance is maintained in the dominant community to this day. Because many of us live in cities, far away from traditional communities, many members of the dominant culture rarely see an Aboriginal or Islander person, and if they do, they frequently fail to recognise them as such. The ignorance continues, even continues to shape Covenanting in the present. This was certainly true for me.

2. Denial

The process of Covenanting cannot remain in ignorance. Eventually we have to become involved in this country and experienced its life. As we do, the presence of Aboriginal and Islander people and their relationship with and to the land is plain for most to see. They were here, and they were here before us. This fact can not be ignored. This became my struggle.

But the lie that these First Peoples were hunter gathers with no special relationship with specific parts of this country, needed to be maintained. It allowed our forebears to claim this land as theirs with no compensation being paid to the First Peoples for them to surrender their rights. There was only one course open. The truth of the presence of these First Peoples and their relationship to this land, this country, had to be denied with vigour for the well being of the new society. Settler racism exerted its strength and has a strong hold even today.

This denial also required a denial that there ever were cultural wars as the First Peoples defended their land, and a rewriting of Australian history in order to write out the many massacres of the early years.

There was even a denial that God had come to these people well before the arrival of the now dominant culture, a coming that had been expressed in Aboriginal custom, ceremony and law. These customs defined their relationships with their Creator Spirit, the land, and each other.

These denials continue to this very day as many claim they can know this place now called Australia without acknowledging the importance of the First Peoples in that relationship. This cannot be tolerated if Covenanting is to have a place within the church.

In some respects, I like to think that I had not plunged totally into the depths of denial as set out above, but there is no doubt that as a fairly ordinary ‘Melbournite’, I was shaped and affected by such views that still prevail today.

3. Relationship

There is only one way forward for Covenanting. The truth has to be told. Relationships have to be formed, bridges needed to be crossed. And so, the Uniting Church encouraged her members to seek relationships between black and white. More than that, members of the Uniting Church were encouraged to move out beyond the boundaries of the church to establish relationships between members of the dominant culture and the remnants of the First Peoples.

I was one who was bold enough to step out on this journey. Through a number of personal relationships, through books and stories, through participation in various Indigenous communities, slowly the ignorance and denial was broken down and relationships began to form.

This forming of relationships was seen to be the beginning of Covenanting. As we began to experience each other as human beings, yet from different cultural systems, we began to realise the depth of the chasm that exists between white and black in this country. We also became aware of the gap that exists between the social and communal fabric of each community.

How can we continue to deny the existence of the First Peoples in our land when we are in relationship with them? This was my dilemma that forced me to pursue this covenanting journey into the next stages.

4. Justice

Relationship is never sufficient on its own. For once in relationship our awareness of the other is heightened, and obligations are placed up us for a deeper experience of Covenanting.

Our consciousness of the well being of the human other brings a challenge to us, as human beings as well as Christians. Why is it that the living standards of these First Peoples are so much less than those of the rest of Australian culture? Why is it so difficult to get general acknowledgement of the wrongs of the past let alone any compensation? Why are health and education standards of the First Peoples so far behind mainstream society in Australia?

Once exposed the issue of justice for these First Peoples becomes prominent in any relationship. Secularly and politically this has been defined in terms of  “Closing the Gap” that exists in Australia between the Indigenous and Non-Indigenous community but for Covenanting it must be expressed in terms of justice.

But at this stage justice for the First Peoples of Australia remains but one justice issue among many. There is no acknowledgement of the primacy of justice for the First Peoples of Australia for those of us who live in their land.

5. Crossing Over

For some to talk about justice is never sufficient. Personal action is required. To work for justice for the First Peoples of this land became a critical phase in my journey into Covenanting.

Some will be called to work for justice within the dominant system. Some will be called to work for political change that just relationships will be restored. Others however will be called to cross over, to surrender their place within the dominant culture and to work for the First Peoples of this land; not to be like these First Peoples, but to work with and for them.

There was a time when this was thought to be politically incorrect, that the First Peoples should achieve justice for themselves. Only in this way could it be seen to be self determination. This view has changed in more recent times.

Now many believe that working alongside those from the dominant culture is required in order to achieve justice for their people; to work with, alongside the First Peoples of the land. The critical issue is that the First Peoples remain in control, hold the decision making authority in any such relationship.

I discovered that Congress is actively seeking such people who desire to work with and for them, under their active direction and control, in order for Congress to achieve their desired outcomes.

6. Partnership

It soon became apparent to me that for a relationship to move to maturity however, even more is required. Not even naming the primacy of justice for the First Peoples is enough. Relationships must move into a defined, committed relationship, a partnership.

For persons, this requires a definition of what is expected from each partner in the relationship and a commitment to deliver these expectations.

For organisations, such as the Uniting Church, such partnerships would also require a definition of what is expected from each participant in the partnership and how that expectation will be delivered. Then an act of commitment is usually necessary in order to seal that partnership before God.

Of course, such a partnership would not only be at the Assembly level, the national component. Partnerships are also required between Congress regions and the various local Synods with whom they relate. They could also exist between congregations of the Uniting Church and the Congress. Memorandums of Understanding could be drafted and approved that define the various relationships so that expectations of both partners are clear and easily verified that they are being delivered.

Change in our society, and change in our church will only be achieved if we work to bring it about together.

7. The Australian identity

But this is not sufficient either.

It seems to me that much of the focus of the relationships between Indigenous and Non-Indigenous people in this country seem to focus on how the First Peoples of this nation are going to fit in with the dominant culture; about how the First Peoples are going to “become like the rest of us.”

What I now believe to be critical is that we of the dominant cultures must seek ways not only as to how we can better understand these First Peoples, but also about how we might “become more like them.” We need to seek ways in which we invaders can begin to truly identify with this land and its peoples, and how that identification might change who we are, that our “heart” might be changed as we resonate with the heart and soul of this country; that we might truly become who we claim to be; Australians.

The same is true for our organisations.

It seems to me that all our relationships, and all our structures in the Uniting Church focus on what is expected of the Congress as part of the Uniting Church in Australia. Rather, the Uniting Church , if it is to be truly and Australian church, must be willing to open itself up to the influence and shaping of the First Peoples of this land, to their way of coming together to meet, to their worship, and to their life in the spirit. Only then will we be converted from a European church to one that can validly claim Australia as its location in time and history. For me, this is one of the most exciting possibilities that covenanting with Congress offers.

Such an openness will mean that we have to change who we are in order that the partnerships so formed are authentic and mutually sustaining.

Only with such action will the Uniting Church define itself as having a Covenanting heart.

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