Inner Life

A Scot's take on Indigenous spirituality

By Stephen Cauchi

June 7 2019

Revd Glenn Loughrey and Revd John Bell

Church of Scotland minister, hymn-writer and renowned theologian the Revd John Bell visited Australia on a speaking tour in May, which included a discussion on Celtic and Indigenous spirituality with Anglican priest the Revd Glenn Loughrey.

Mr Bell and Mr Loughrey – a Wiradjuri man from New South Wales – held their discussion at St Oswald’s Glen Iris, where Mr Loughrey is vicar.

Celtic spirituality can be hard to define. Historically, it usually refers to the early Christianity brought to Britain when it was part of the Roman Empire.

It developed its own independent traditions, including an emphasis on monasticism, a different calculation of Easter, a unique tonsure and a distinctive form of penance.

However, these were gradually subjugated by the Roman Church from the seventh century onwards.

In the 19th century the Celtic Christian faith enjoyed a revival and, while somewhat different to its early history, it continues to have its own special character.

Mr Bell quoted the British theologian Michael Mitton, who wrote: “as I explored the [revived] Celtic faith, I discovered an evangelical love for the Bible. I discovered a depth of spiritual life and stillness. I discovered a radical commitment to the poor and God’s creation. I felt connected to my roots for the first time.”

Mr Bell said he discussed these characteristics when he spoke to a conference of Catholic priests in Melbourne about 35 years ago.

One of the priests told him that “the things you said seemed to strike a chord within us as if we always knew and believed this, but now [it] was being articulated for the first time.”

Mr Bell said the early Celtic Christians had a love for the land, similar to that of Indigenous spirituality.

God communicated via the “small book” of the Bible, but also the “big book” of creation, he said.

“Like the Australian Aboriginal people, the Celts believed that God percolated and communicated throughout the whole of creation.”

The downside of churches, he said, was that they “shut out the outside world”.

“We’ve erected a barrier which, for the Celtic people, was just not there. They lived in the open air, they lived next to the earth … there’s no division between the sacred and the secular.”

According to Celtic Christianity, “every stone in the river and every rock in the shore is imbued with the goodness of God. There is no tiny bird which flies above which does not praise its maker.”

Celts would often retire to a quiet, private spot to feel the “deep silence which is underneath and percolates through the voices of nature”.

Mr Bell said elderly people would venture to the seashore to “join their voices with the waves and their praises with the praises of the ceaseless sea”.

“Creation is praising God and through that, people,” said Mr Bell. “God’s goodness percolates to us through our environment and not just through churches.”

The beauty of nature, such as gliding ducks or sunlight breaking through the clouds, was “nature worshipping God”, he said. “Theologically, the primary function of the creation is to serve as a revelation of God.”

Mr Bell said the favourite Gospel of the Celts was John’s Gospel and its emphasis on the incarnation, the Word becoming flesh.

“They saw the incarnation as something which was astounding because the God they worshipped previously – as Druids or Picts or whatever – was a God that was above everything, a God that spoke through thunder or through sunlight.”

Life in the Scottish Highlands at the time was risky and infant mortality high, which made the incarnation story very meaningful. “What they saw in the incarnation was God taking an incredible risk in coming to Earth to be flesh above flesh,” he said.

“For them, the risk of God coming to Earth and engaging with people was the thing that won them to Christianity.”

Mr Loughrey, in talking about Australian Indigenous spirituality, also stressed its connection with creation.

Aboriginal people “are a geo-spiritual people. They are connected to the ground around them”, he said.

“The ground holds for us all of our lore, all of our law, our language, our ritual, our ceremony, our kinship. Everything is dictated by what’s in the dirt beneath our feet,” he said.

Aboriginal people who have died take their life experiences back into the ground and “add it to the repository of wisdom and knowledge and spirituality”, said Mr Loughrey.

“That’s why we don’t like mining. Don’t dig us up.”

Mr Loughrey likened mining to ripping the middle pages out of the Bible. “You’d say I don’t have a complete Bible,” he said.

“Our spirituality is fully engaged in this sense of country. The country comes first and the people second.”

Mr Loughrey said that, as with the Celts, “deep silence” was important. “My main bedroom overlooks High Street … noisy, noisy, noisy. But I try and play a game when I go to sleep of listening to what is underneath the noise, which is a deep silence.”

Mr Bell spoke at St Oswald’s on 12 May. The following day he spoke at the Australian Catholic University on the challenges facing worship in the modern Church.

“A congregation has to determine whether the [church] building is dictating and therefore limiting developments in worship – or [does] the congregation determine the narrative,” he said.

He added that congregations “fulfil the rumour which they believe about themselves”.

“If it is negative – we are an ageing congregation, we don’t have enough money – that is hardly an incentive for newcomers to join and feel comfortable.”

Mr Bell was Rector of the University of Glasgow while still a student and a past convenor of the Church of Scotland’s Panel on Worship. He is a member of Scotland’s Iona Community, an ecumenical Christian organisation.

He has also written numerous hymns and songs, including The Summons (Will You Come and Follow Me). He is the co-founder of the Wild Goose Worship Group and the Wild Goose Resource Group.

His visit to Australia was sponsored by a number of groups, including the Anglican Parish of Mount Macedon/Gisborne, the Anglican Parish of Glen Iris, and the Wellspring Community.