The Presbyterian Church of Australia has banned its congregations from conducting the Welcome to Country ceremony in their worship services. The General Assembly of Australia (GAA) deemed Acknowledgement of Country practices as “inappropriate for public worship where the call to worship centres on God.” The decision extends to the Welcome to Country, a ceremonial act conducted by a traditional owner of the land on which an event takes place.
Moderator-General David Burke outlined the decision in a letter to Presbyterian congregations this week, noting the wording of Acknowledgments of Country “almost invariably carries overtones of an Indigenous spirituality inconsistent with Christian belief.” He added that: “As Christians, we have to avoid wording that suggests final ownership of land is vested in people rather than with the Creator.”
John McClean, a spokesman for the church, said: “The church has a long tradition of saying what we should do in Sunday worship. That should just be what’s in the Bible and shouldn’t add other things. When you want to worship, our focus is on God and who He is and praising and celebrating Him.”
Although acknowledgments were ruled out for public worship services, Mr. McClean said the decision did not ban them in “other circumstances,” such as ceremonies or meetings held at Presbyterian churches. He told news.com.au: “I wouldn’t say it’s a ban, the assembly was clear in expressing what it considers would be appropriate in the Presbyterian church and is relevant to all congregations,” he said.
Mark Powell, pastor of Cornerstone Church Hobart, told Sky News the problem with Acknowledgement of Country protocols is that they’re both “tokenistic” and “syncretistic”, and are, therefore, “fundamentally incompatible with Christian doctrine.”
The decision has angered and saddened Indigenous Christians like Safina Stewart, who is the relationships and storytelling co-ordinator at the non-denominational group Common Grace. She told The Guardian Australia the church’s decision showed how Aboriginal spirituality was weaponised against Indigenous people: “It is disappointing and rather extreme and legalistic. It speaks of fear and misunderstanding about our oldest living continuous cultures in the world.”
She claimed an Acknowledgment of and Welcome to Country was not about putting Indigenous custodians above God but “it’s actually the opposite. It’s coming into alignment under the Creator as the hosts and the guests.”
In his letter, Mr. Burke wrote: “The GAA had a lengthy and serious discussion about the place of an Acknowledgement of Country in church life in light of our convictions about the Christian faith.” The debate acknowledged the “unjust actions and violence by European settlers” against Indigenous people, and revealed a “common desire” for the church to “pray and work for reconciliation” with them.
While the church insisted acknowledgments of Indigenous custodianship was “inappropriate” for public worship, it said congregations can conduct their own acknowledgments, for example, through prayer. Mr. Burke conceded the decision would not satisfy everyone, but encouraged members with concerns “to seek to understand the debate and the decision carefully, not to make the matter a point of division”.