It has taken many years since European settlement, but Australia is slowly learning ways to give public recognition to its indigenous people. Governments require Welcome to Country rituals as a prelude to many public gatherings and major sports events. They highlight the cultural significance of the surrounding land to the local aboriginal clan and must be performed by a recognized group elder.

Welcome to Country rituals are often accompanied by music, dance, and traditional smoking ceremonies. In smoking ceremonies, an ancient custom, native plants are burned to ward off bad spirits, acknowledge ancestors, and pay respect to the land and sea of country. The smoke is believed to have healing and cleansing properties.

The Synod of the Diocese of Sydney found itself knotted in disputes when its Religious Freedom Reference Group proposed banning uses of church property “for purposes which contravene the doctrines, tenets, and beliefs of the diocese.”

It wanted to give the diocese sweeping powers to ban same-sex marriages and celebrations, meditative yoga, and smoking ceremonies from church properties.

The attempt to ban smoking ceremonies prompted protests, not just from indigenous voices but heads of elite church schools, experts in cross-cultural mission, and local rectors. In the end the committee said it had not done its homework or consulted widely enough and backed down, withdrawing that section of the proposed ordinance.

The proposed bans on yoga and gay celebrations remain — “same-sex marriage ceremonies, receptions, or ‘advocacy’ of any form of sexuality that is not a man and woman in marriage.”

Pressed about the source of advice on smoking ceremonies a diocesan spokesman said it was “based on advice from a senior Aboriginal leader.”

The Rev. Ray Minniecon, another senior aboriginal leader, was pleased the proposal had been dropped. “At first I thought you meant banning cigarette smoking and I thought, ‘Oh yeah, that’s good.’ Then I saw [the policy] and was disappointed,” he said. “I don’t think it was well thought through and discussed appropriately with our mob, our people.”

Phillip Heath, principal of Barker College, one of Sydney’s elite Anglican schools, said he was relieved to hear the proposal had been shelved. His school holds several smoking ceremonies every year. The ban had come “out of the blue,” he said, and he was “shocked, distressed, and mystified” by it.

“I was not aware there was anything pagan about them; quite the opposite. It’s becoming a common practice in Anglican schools.” He said the ban would have been an “unloving gesture,” particularly “when a number of us are trying very hard to reach out to Aboriginal folk and learn from their vivid spirituality about the land, creation and who we are.”

In 2016, Heath and the Darkinjung Local Aboriginal Land Council established an Indigenous school at Yarramalong on the central coast of New South Wales. It is achieving a high level of academic attainment.

The Rev. John Harris, the author of One Blood: 200 Years of Aboriginal Encounter with Christianity, a seminal work on the relationship between Indigenous people and the Australian church, said people often misunderstood the nature and meaning of smoking ceremonies. The origin of the ceremonial use of smoke, he said, “was related entirely to its disinfecting properties. Smoke was in fact the only large-scale disinfectant available to Aboriginal people.”

Harris, who has lived in indigenous communities for many years, said smoking had survived as both a welcome and cleaning ceremony. “The people who must decide about smoking ceremonies on church property are Christian Aboriginal people,” he said. “Only they are qualified to assess whether God is being honored or not.”

John Martin

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