8th March 2024

At Ashburton Baptist Church, Melbourne, where Margaret and I worshipped and where I preached five Sundays ago, the worship leader announced: “We acknowledge the Wurundjeri and Bunurong people as the traditional custodians of the land on which we gather.” This happens in many Australian churches. Australians are still coming to terms with how European settlers took over the land, as if by right. It wasn’t always a violent process. But displacement of the indigenous people took place without a treaty being made with them. The legacy is still apparent, as seen in the failure last year of a government proposal to create the means whereby, within the Australian constitution, the particular concerns of indigenous communities, still experiencing inequalities and deprivation, could be registered at the highest levels. Of course a statement can just become a cheap slogan (you can see similar ones in public places, even shop windows) but including it in an act of worship deepens its significance immeasurably as a pointer to God’s justice.

It’s not just for the benefit of the indigenous, but for all Australians. If the indigenous are excluded from full recognition and equality, white Australians are themselves deprived of the social and spiritual benefits that the indigenous tradition brings. It was for example never a question of who ‘owns the land’: the  indigenous never claimed it belonged to them, rather they felt they belonged to it for life and nourishment. They were, as the Ashburton statement puts it, the ‘custodians’ of  the land, loving and preserving it as a gift for all people. In our search for an ‘ecotheology’, how much we might learn from such as them!

Keith Clements