Reflecting on the Voice
Romans 12:9-20 | Luke 4:16-21
When I came to think about this service, reflecting on the Voice referrendum, I realised that the choice of Bible passage wasn’t going to be obvious. The Bible obviously has little to say, directly, about the wording of the Australian constitution, but that’s not really the problem: the real problem is that the Bible is written, almost entirely, from the perspective of the marginalised, the excluded, the refugee, the exile.
For most of the history of the people of God, that is who they were. Even the stories of the Kingdom of Israel were written, most scholars agree, while the people were in exile, after that brief golden age had come to an end. And of course the New Testament was written under Roman rule, and even within Israel Jesus and his first followers were not the powerful.
Not realising this has been the cause of many of the worse misuses of the scriptures – when the powerful read words spoken to the powerless (that God will raise them up, defeat their enemies, and the like) and claim them for themselves.
In the context of the relationship between first and second peoples of Australia, we, the second peoples, are not the excluded or marginalised or disempowered.
So I went with Romans 12, simply for its beautiful description of life – extend hospitality, live in harmony, live peaceably. A way of living I think Christians both for and against the referendum would agree is greatly to be desired.
And of course Jesus’ words in Luke 4, proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favour. That might be used powerfully in this discussion – for if, as many think, the year of the Lord’s favour referred to the year of Jubilee, then we might note that in that year all land was to be returned to those families who had orginally owned it. You could make a case that this lends weight to the words of the Midnight Oils – ‘it belongs to them, it’s time to give it back’.
Except it’s more complicated than that. Because the land was to be returned in the year of Jubilee to the family of the people of Israel to whom it had been allocated. Not to the nations they dispossessed when they entered the land…
Which is to say that I don’t believe the Bible speaks directly to the issue we face as a nation. It does, of course, paint a picture with many values – generopsirty, hospitality, grace, reconciliation, to name but a few – which are very relevant, but how they apply is a question with which we struggle.
So why is it that the Uniting Church has taken such a clear stance on the forthcoming referrendum? It’s not a matter of us being a bunch of woke lefties. I do remember at a previous Church being told that I was an ‘only partially reformed Marxist’ – it wasn’t intended as a compliment, but I chose to take it as on – but in this case there’s a much better reason.
The Uniting Church is speaking in favour of an indigenous advisory voice because have one, and it’s worked really, really well for us.
In the Uniting Church we have the UAICC – the Uniting Aborigial and Islander Christian Congress (or the Congress, for short). The UAICC has a status within the Uniting Church which is remarkably similar to that proposed for the national Voice: it acts as a mechanism by which the voice of our indigenous sisters and brothers can speak into discussions happening within the Church, especially at a national level. It does a lot more than that, but it’s that aspect of the congress I’m reflecting on.
When the Church gathers for the triennial national assembly, there are rules around the way that we have our conversations and make our decisions that ensure that the voice of congress is included whenever the indigenous members feel that the effect of decisions on their community needs to be given attention.
When I first attended assembly I was dubious about the idea of having a special set of rules for one group – one of the objections raised to the Voice. But what I quickly realised was that our whole default decision making process, those of us from a anglo-influenced background, reflects our cultural approach. We have proposals, and ammendments, speeches for and against, discussion of wording, and the like – Robert’s rules of order and the rest.
Within the Church, we do those things in a framework of concensus, but it’s still very much a structured process governed by rules of order.
And that’s good. I like that. I like the clarity of decision making, the seeking of compromise, the respectful hearing of dissenting voices that our Manual for Meetings encourages. Terrence Corkin, the former General Secretary of the UCA is at the Assembly of Christian Churches in India at the moment teaching the process: the world Council of Churches adopted it decades ago.
But its not the way that decisions get made in other cultures. And applying the same rules to everyone isn’t treating everyone the same.
So we have rules within our system – the system is still the western one, with the clarity of rules and decision making, but it makes space to allow the voices of those who work in different ways, in particular our indigenous siblings, to be heard.
And it’s worked really well for us.
In the debate on marriage equality one issue for the Uniting Church was that, broadly speaking, indigenous Christians are more conservative than the anglo majority. How would we respect the calls of the marginalised rainbow community and those of the marginalised indigenous community?
The answer was by listening to their voice. The UAICC was able to reflect in their own way, and to speak into the conversation, and be heard; and being heard, they were also able to accept the decision of the wider Church with grace, recognising that though we differ, their voice had been heard.
The proposed voice to parliament has so many similarities: it can speak, but not veto; it can expect to be heard, but not necessarily to prevail. In the end the decision making remains with the democratic process, governed by the rules with their clarity and precision of outcome.
But within that process space is carved out for another process, one which doesn’t follow our cultural norms.
And it’s worked out well for us as a Church. The Uniting Church is now the third or fourth largest denomination – much smaller than the Catholic and Anglican Churches – but amongst indigenous Christians we are the largest denomination. The UAICC is the biggest indigenous Christian group by a significant margin. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we are the one denomination that has chosen to incorporate a way of listening to our indigenous siblings into our processes.
So the Uniting Church can speak in favour of the Voice because we have experience with something very similar.
And we also speak in favour because, having that voice within us, we have chosen, on this matter, to listen. The national Church decided that our approach to any proposal coming from any Federal government in response to the statement from the heart would be determined by our indigenous members. We would enter into conversation together, but on this question we would give the decision to the congress – which has spoken passionately in favour.
In the end, that means that for me, whatever questions remain in my mind, I can listen to the indigenous voice within our Church.
And hearing the clarity of that voice on this issue, I cannot imagine how I, a relatively recent arrival (as we all are, by the standards of 60 thousand years!) would tell the congress that I know better than they do what is needed for the next step in our national reconciliation.
That’s why the Uniting Church is speaking in favour, and it’s why I’ll be voting yes.