Tradition: Adelaide Congress

Posted in Faith

An article in the June edition of New Times explores the role of traditions within the life of faith communities across the Uniting Church in South Australia.

When asked about tradition in relation to the Adelaide Congress congregation, a Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress community located in Salisbury North, Rev Dean Whittaker provided extensive responses. A shorter, edited version of his comments was printed on page 10 of the June edition (available here). The full, minimally edited responses are featured below.

How does tradition play a role in the life of Adelaide Congress? 

Tradition has four elements in my thinking:

  • Tradition is owned by some kind of a community
  • Traditions of various communities centre on each individual and sometimes compete, and sometimes build on each other
  • Tradition is passed down from one generation to another generation in a community
  • Tradition includes stories, histories, practices, beliefs and understandings

Adelaide Congress Ministry intermingles a number of traditions:

We have people who come from a variety of backgrounds.

Some come from one of the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Land communities, which were both based very much in culture and in the establishment of the Ernabella mission – with their own church history and background. Some are children of pastors up there, others are children of the people who began the church in their community. These people have a strong connection back into their language and cultural traditions and a close connection to the struggle to establish and develop the church in their country. This connection to language and their culture was also strongly encouraged by the original missionaries up there. Some of these folk have also had contact with other Christian groups. So, in summary, while many of these folk really treasure their cultural traditions, others would say they have nailed that tradition to the cross and received a new tradition from Jesus through the church.

Some of our folk come from Aboriginal missions closer to cities and more impacted by invasion, with a loss of cultural connections, but a strong connection to the mission’s history and effects. They often have been in cities much longer than the Anangu. These people often have some words in language but do not have the ability to speak fully their language. Often their connection with and knowledge of cultural stories is also less than full. In a number of cases, both language and cultural stories are being revitalised through personal or organised projects, which seek to bring back knowledge through historical documents and old peoples’ stories. Often there is a mix of embracing and rejecting different aspects of mission life and mission traditions. There is often a stronger more profound sense of the injustice and oppression of invasion.

Our church is on Kaurna land, but usually has no Kaurna people within it. In that sense, our church itself is a refugee or exile church – people of this country, but in exile from other land that is theirs and now on land that is not their own, yet on land that is in contact with their own land. Many of our folk therefore own both a sense of being the first people and being invaded, and of being exiled from their land and occupying other people’s land. There are significant complexities in this.

In terms of our own church life, we seek to value singing and prayer highly. We encourage people to sing in language and to sing old mission songs, as well as newer songs and songs they have written themselves. We also encourage and use action songs. Action in song has a strong cultural, traditional history in what are often called “corroborees” and in mission traditions. Action songs are also important in that they involve the body in the song and can help people understand what is being sung in a nonverbal manner. 

Prayer is seen as so important! We have prayer before the service, on each Tuesday night and once month on Friday nights. Prayer is also encouraged in language in every service. We very rarely use pre-prepared, written prayers. Most of the time, prayers are made up (or some might say given) as they are prayed. Some of our folk also have dreams and visions in which God comes to them and speaks or shows things.

We also have a significant number of first and other people in our congregation who have strong connection and involvement with more Pentecostal traditions. We have people who blow the shofar, wave flags, pray in tongues, emphasise the importance of honouring and praying for Israel, pray prophetically, pray for healing, make declarations and expect miracles. These things are significant and important in our congregation’s life!

Most of our congregation believe that Australia has great calling in God, and that when God brings revival and renewal in this country it will be through and with the First people. Many believe that the leadership of the church and of the nation need to lift their vision and honour Australia’s First people and enact that honouring in real ways, if Australia, and the church, wants to really have a future in God and truly be the great Southland of the Holy Spirit. The Australian nation and the Australian church’s attitude to, and treatment of, the Australian First people will determine the future of the Australian nation and its churches. The current situation does not bode well.

Our congregation seeks to exercise good stewardship of God's resources, which have been entrusted to us.

We also seek to show trust in our members and not act as though they are irresponsible or incapable. 

How important is tradition to the members of the congregation?

I tend to think of tradition in terms of the living practices and beliefs which the congregation and its members live out and express their life and faith in. In this regard tradition is vitally important both to individuals and to our congregation. Dead tradition which is removed from the core life and faith of the church and its individuals is a different thing - our congregation is not interested in dead religious tradition or law.

What are some of the traditions that Adelaide Congress regularly draws on?

We draw on the following traditions:

  • that God is alive and present in our midst – speaking and acting
  • that singing, prayers and praise bring us into God’s presence and open heaven to us
  • that speaking, praying and singing in our own ‘heart languages’ releases something in us and about us
  • that God’s love, presence and healing are released as we repent and acknowledge God as Father, as we repent and acknowledge Jesus as Lord, and as we are open to the Holy Spirit
  • that we want to be open to God and receiving from God what He has planned for First people in this country, not bound up in a theology and practice of the Uniting Church that asserts itself, or imposes itself, separate from the Lord Jesus Christ
  • that similar to God’s servant Isaiah, First people seem to be robbed and ridiculed, suffering and damaged, sick and dying – and yet it is through First people that God will bring repentance, reconciliation, healing, hope and glory to this country and beyond, whether Australia’s leaders and churches recognise and respond, or not
  • that our prayers for the nations of Australia and for justice are significant
  • that our prayers for repentance and renewal in ourselves, in our families, in our churches, in our first nations, in the Uniting Church, in the wider church, in Australia and in the world are significant and will bear healthy fruit
  • that a positive response from the leaders and churches to First people will lead to repentance, reconciliation, healing, hope and glory for this country and beyond
  • that hospitality and sharing a meal together are important expressions of faith – we have many folk who are diabetics and on dialysis so we believe it is important to provide food
  • that the worship service takes as long as it needs to take – we rarely see the worship service finish before two hours has passed!

How are new traditions created and integrated into the life of the church community?

In terms of practice, new ideas are suggested or just done. If there is a strong sense of it being right and well accepted, then it may become a continuing practice.

In terms of content, words and ideas are shared and various folk will offer comments or critiques. It may be included if people have a strong sense that it is from or of God. 

Our Church Council includes most key leaders. They raise ideas, directions and concerns, and decide what is appropriate in responding to them. Much of their wisdom and discernment arises out of their own journey and life experience, and their desire to be open to God’s leading.

How do new and old traditions interact and sit alongside one another in Adelaide Congress’ gatherings?

I’m not sure that “old and new” is the best terminology. Traditions are either alive and active or inactive and dead. Live traditions may be old or new – the key element that matters is that they have some living capacity to move, inspire or teach people. If they just become rules or practices, divorced from the living God and the inner life and faith of the congregation, they become lifeless and de-energised law.

Of course, amongst a group of people, there can be a diversity of responses, and it is important to be sensitive to the range of feelings and views. At times, Church Council and individual leaders have to make choices that they believe are called for by God and in the best interests of the majority of the congregation and its target group. Certain individuals can be left feeling excluded, marginalised, even judged or rejected, but we seek to be as open as possible.

The above responses were sent via email by Rev Dean Whittaker. If you have any questions or concerns, or would like further information, please contact Dean on Turn on Javascript!


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