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NCCA President responds

NCCA President Rev John Gilmore, responds to the Indigenous Christian Theologians at the conclusion of the "Raising Tribal Voices" Conference:

Thursday 8 February 2024 

Raising Tribal Voices Conference

    Above, Rev John Gilmore at the 'Raising Tribal Voices Conference'


My name is John Gilmore, I am President of the National Council of Churches in Australia and a minister of Churches of Christ in Australia. I live in Naarm, on the lands of the Wurundjeri clan of the Kulin Nation. 

The National Council of Churches in Australia accepts the special place that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples hold within Australia and therefore acknowledges them as the traditional custodians of the land where we live and work. We pay our respects to the Elders past, present and emerging and we acknowledge the First Nations people who are present and meeting with us today. We commit ourselves to being reconciliation with them in this land.   

There are 18 member churches of the NCCA including church communities brought by the colonisers and others that reflect more recent arrivals.   

As I stand before you, I need to acknowledge with deep lament and shame that the churches in Australia have not always been communities of hope and life for many, many Indigenous peoples. You have been abused, hurt, dislocated and had your language and culture repressed or eliminated in the actions of the church and its peoples. Many of us have co-operated with the government programs of assimilation and the forced removal of children from families into missions. 

 Personally, I have been engaged with adult childhood sexual abuse survivors from the Missions run by the Churches of Christ. These survivors have helped me understand intergenerational trauma, the distress of isolation from community and family, the loss of language, spirituality, story and place in a context. There has been a failure of churches to listen to the pain and suffering of so many. 

Given all this we, the NCCA, are humbled to be one of the sponsoring bodies for this very special gathering of Indigenous Theologians. Thank you Aunty Anne for making this possible. 

I am captured by the word of Job in the Message version of Job 40: 3-5 

I’m speechless, in awe—words fail me.

I should never have opened my mouth!

I’ve talked too much, way too much.

I’m ready to shut up and listen.

 What have I reflected on as I have listened? 

That the white colonial construct of faith is alive and well and needs to be reshaped by a deep listening engagement with Australia’s First Peoples.  

That listening without questioning to the ‘what and why’ of something that is said is vitally important. We may not always agree, we may not accept what is said, however, we must listen to understand ‘how and why’ what is said is important to the other and so give up our need to have the final say. 

The New Testament challenges colonial control as to what is right and wrong, what can and can’t be done and who is in and out. Let me highlight three. 

There were tensions as to whether the Gentile Christians needed to be circumcised first, in order to be Christian. Paul, with passion, defends the uncircumcised gentiles as being fully Christian and not needing to become Jews first and does so to the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. No colonial circumcision for Paul (Galatians 2:1-10). 

Peter is confronted that if he is to minister and listen to people he must surrender his defining religious prejudice and practices about what is clean and unclean.  He is not told to change his personal preferences, however he is to no longer use them as a filter to limit meeting and embracing the other and so he can visit and sit with Cornelius. (Acts 10) 

An outsider, a Canaanite (indigenous) woman pleads before Jesus on behalf of her daughter. Matthew 15:21-28 says Jesus did not answer her at all. The disciples want to send – Jesus affirms the priority he has for the ‘lost sheep of the house of Israel and that it is not fair to waste the food he has. She replies that she would accept the crumbs (as a dog does) from the table of the dominant culture and in this, confronts Jesus. Jesus affirms her faith in doing so and welcomes her. His listening to her changes his ‘racist’ view of her.  

What do I hope for? 

I do not hope for reconciliation in the way that this term is generally used and understood. The ‘re’ in reconciliation assumes prior relationships that needs to be re-engaged with.  This is why Treaty is needed in Australia and must be a priority.  

Australia, and the church, has not had such a relationship with Australia’s first peoples. We need ‘conciliation’ – a process and pathway that lead us to understanding, respect, lament, confession and new relationships and will be the heart of a treaty. This is a tough journey, and in some ways, this conference is a part of us being conciled – moving into a deeper more respectful and sensitive relationship with each other. 

The importance of this is seen in the richness of the image used by Paul - the Body of Christ. When one part hurts – the whole body shares the pain. We must attend to the pain. Healing flows from pain being acknowledged and responded to. We can only be fully alive when we are fully alive together. 

Rev John Gilmore

NCCA President

8 February 2024


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