19 July 2024

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Where do we go after the Yoorrook Justice Commission?

Picture:iStock

Peter Sherlock 

22 May 2024

On 1 May 2024 the Yoorrook Justice Commission, as part of truth-telling about injustices against First Peoples in Victoria since colonisation, summoned five representatives of the Christian churches. This included Anglicans Bishop Richard Treloar and Bishop Genieve Blackwell, notably just two days after the Premier of Victoria’s appearance.  

This was an extraordinary moment: the first time the Victorian churches have been publicly held to account by First Peoples for our role in colonialism and the benefits we continue to enjoy today.  

All Melbourne Anglicans should read our submissions to Yoorrook and the transcript of the session. These highlight the lack of cultural competency, cultural safety, truth telling, or restitution throughout our church.   

The Yoorrook hearing might be summed up in two comments. Bishop Treloar acknowledged the “terrible legacy” of colonialism and the problem of trying to “preach the gospel on stolen land”. Meanwhile Commissioner North described the “shattering silence” from all the churches on the question of redress.  

Read more: Respect First People’s mental suffering, whatever Voice outcome: Christian leaders

While Melbourne Anglicans have made many statements about Aboriginal people, few actions have followed – a notable exception being the gift of $1 million to the General Synod for Indigenous ministry. 

Yet we can take great encouragement from the Yoorrook Justice Commission. The commissioners saw us as spiritual leaders, as people who claim to understand that at heart all matters are theological. How might we live up this ideal? 

“Yoo-rrook” is a Wemba Wemba word meaning “truth”. The first step for us whitefella Anglicans is to seek truth, by asking three questions. 

Is this stolen land? We have said so in the past through our synod. 

Do we agree that this is a spiritual matter? If so, it goes to the core of our faith in the God of Jesus Christ, the one who judges justly. 

What are we going to do about this? When we acknowledge country we say that we “pay our respects to elders”, but where is that respect evident? 

Yoorrook will complete its work in 2025. I’ve already heard suggestions that we should delay action until we have their report and recommendations.  

This is not good enough. 

For a start, I agree with trawlwoolway theologian and Anglican priest Garry Deverell, writing for the ABC, that “repentance is not only about naming the truth of one’s misdeeds … it is about doing all you can realistically do to undo the harms and heal the wounds that you have inflicted upon another”. 

This is now also a matter of public credibility.  

Read more: Australia must respect First Peoples’ by letting them speak

Victoria Police has not waited. In response to Yoorrook they have committed to some 79 actions by 2026, including an apology, cultural awareness training, how children are treated by the justice system, and prevention of Aboriginal deaths in police custody. 

A Canadian gold mining company, Agnico Eagle, has entered into an agreement with the Djaara corporation in relation to wealth sharing at the Fosterville Gold Mine on Dja Dja Wurrung country. 

What are we going to do about this?  

Surely the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne could agree on an immediate, initial response to the Commission’s work, including:  

· A full response from Archbishop in Council to the 2018 Statement of the Aboriginal Council of the Anglican Province of Victoria 

· Setting aside a portion of proceeds from the sale of church property for Indigenous redress 

· Creating a cultural awareness program to ensure every Anglican congregation is a safe and hospitable place for First Nations peoples 

·  An annual round table conversation between whitefellas and blackfellas to yarn about where we are, what we have learned about our responsibilities, and what our next steps should be. 

Peter Sherlock is a lay member of Archbishop in Council and Emeritus Professor at the University of Divinity. 

Yoorrook Justice Commission transcripts are available at: bit.ly/Yoorrook 

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