By Robyn Douglass
Cathedrals were made for didgeridoos. There’s something about the acoustics of a 19th-century, faux-gothic cathedral that amplifies the guttural groan of the Australian Aboriginal wind instrument magnificently. The reverberations are spine-tingling.
St. Peter’s Cathedral in Adelaide rang with the music of the didgeridoo earlier this year at the consecration of the Rt. Rev. Christopher McLeod as an assistant bishop with special responsibility for ministry alongside Aboriginal people in South Australia. The service included a smoking ceremony, a cleansing ritual remarkably similar to the use of incense. And there were Aboriginal dancers.
McLeod is not the first Anglican bishop in Australia who is Aboriginal, but the others are retired. Local Aboriginal leaders say it matters greatly to have someone who understands their people in a position of authority.
Bishop McLeod identifies as a Gurindji man; his mother’s and grandmother’s families were from central Australia. They were members of the “Stolen Generation,” the policy of assimilation that took babies and children from their families to be raised as second-class white people. It was run in all areas of Australia, from the early 1900s right up to the 1960s.
The 51-year-old bishop speaks about his mother’s “profound sense of pain at the loss of not just her family, but her culture, identity and language.”
“She could speak her language but the assimilation policy meant it was not allowed,” he said. “She lost it.”
As a “son of the Stolen Generation,” he seeks to recover those connections.
But the other half of the story is that his mother and grandmother were also committed Anglicans, who raised him as a member of the church.
His background embodies the spotted relationship Aboriginal people have with churches. On the one hand, churches are blamed because they were often complicit in stamping out Aboriginal culture in their missions and orphanages.
“The church was complicit in some of it. There was the best of motivations, but not the best results,” the bishop says. “The churches tried to do what they thought was the right thing.”
On the other hand, many Aboriginal people remain grateful for the grace of salvation and the Christian faith that sustains them in hard times.
The bishop has two roles: leader and listener. He is rector of a busy parish in a comfortable seaside suburb and, “where possible and appropriate,” he engages with reconciling Aboriginal and mainstream communities.
When I caught up with him, he was taking part in a two-day workshop for clergy and lay people, run by the Anglican welfare agency AnglicareSA, which funds part of the bishop’s work. The workshops help people face the racism that is ingrained, institutionalised, that we are blind to.
“The Australian Anglican Church is colonial, imported. We look overseas for a sense of who we are as Australian Anglicans and indeed as Australian people. We seek ‘over there’ for our identity,” he says.
Indeed, you could walk into most Anglican churches in Australia and not feel like you had left the Church of England: lovely buildings, hymnals, flower arrangements, candles, embroidery, and ubiquitous organ music. Come for Sunday morning worship and join us at the end for a cup of tea and a scone.
“We don’t celebrate where we are,” the bishop says.
The answer might be right in front of our faces.
“Aboriginal people have a spirituality of place, a connection with the land that goes back 55,000 years,” he says. “As an Anglican Christian I ask how we connect with that spiritual tradition, and how do we learn to be incarnated within that?
His vision is for a church that “would be more comfortable being Australian Anglican and was able to celebrate its Australian identity.”
That might change the way Australian Anglicans look and sound at church. There might be a few more didgeridoos and clear windows to the outdoors.
And it might signal that the church has come to terms with its part in alienating Australia’s first peoples from their home.
Image: Senior Kaurna Custodian Karl Telfer plays the didgeridoo, welcoming dignitaries to the consecration of Christopher McLeod as a bishop of the Anglican Church of Australia. • Brenton Edwards, Anglican Diocese of Adelaide