Jonathan Barrett, The Guardian, September 14, 2023
The Presbyterian church has banned congregations across Australia from conducting an acknowledgment of country at their regular services, in a decision described as “extreme” and saddening by Indigenous Christians.
The prohibition was made at the denomination’s general assembly in Sydney last week, amid a heated debate over whether the church needed to lament some aspects of colonisation.
John McClean, a spokesperson for the church who took part in the meetings, said the general assembly had authority over how worship services were conducted.
“The decision was to say churches shouldn’t include an acknowledgment of country as part of a worship service,” McClean said.
“Certainly for Presbyterians, the question of what you do in church as public worship is a particularly sensitive issue.”
The Presbyterian edict allows for the short ceremonies at other meetings held at their churches, but not at the main worship services which are typically held on Sundays.
The ban may also influence chapel services held at schools with direct ties to the Presbyterian church of Australia. Those Presbyterian schools that also have ties to the Uniting church won’t be affected.
More than 414,000 people identified as Presbyterian/Reformed in the last census, making it a sizeable Christian group in Australia, although only a portion of that number regularly attend Presbyterian services.
An acknowledgment of country is used to show respect for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and their ongoing connection to their land. The Presbyterian ban also extends to a welcome to country, which is conducted by traditional owners of the land where an event takes place.
Part of the debate at the general assembly, which meets every three years, focused on whether such ceremonies carry overtones of Aboriginal spirituality inconsistent with Christian beliefs, according to John Sandeman, a Christian writer present at the meeting.
The Presbyterian meeting contrasted with this week’s gathering of Anglican Diocese of Sydney representatives – also known for their conservatism – which included several Indigenous Christian speakers and acknowledgments of country.
Safina Stewart, a Wuthathi and Mabuiag Island woman who is the relationships and storytelling coordinator at non-denominational Christian group Common Grace, said the Presbyterian meeting showed how Aboriginal spirituality was often weaponised against Indigenous people.
“It is disappointing and rather extreme and legalistic,” Stewart said.
“It speaks of fear and misunderstanding about our oldest living continuous cultures in the world.”
She said her faith was enriched by her cultural values, which are concerned with kindness, welcoming and giving hospitality and safety to those who need it.
“The acknowledgment of country and the welcome to country do not place a particular race above God, the creator. It’s actually the opposite. It’s coming into alignment under the creator as the hosts and the guests.”
Presbyterians are part of a Protestant denomination with Scottish links and a highly conservative theology in Australia. More progressive Presbyterian congregations helped form the Uniting church in Australia in the 1970s.
As a denomination with male-only ministers, there were very few women at the general assembly and a very small number of female elders.
Brooke Prentis, an Aboriginal Christian leader, said the Presbyterian decision was saddening, and showed how there needed to be deeper relationships between the denomination and Aboriginal people.
“If we can’t take this first step, which is a step of truth-telling and relationship-building, then how can we take other steps?
“Jesus called us to be with the lost, the last and the least, and that is Aboriginal people in these lands now called Australia.
“The church should be standing alongside us.”