The Methodist mission and the emerging Aboriginal church in Arnhem land, 1916-1977

  • John Kadiba

    Student thesis: Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) - CDU


    This thesis is an investigation of the missionary enterprise of the Methodist Overseas Missions (MOM) in north east and west Arnhem Land and the resultant emerging Aboriginal church. After earlier mission attempts elsewhere in Australia had been abandoned (1821-1855), the MOM concentrated its missionary efforts for the next 60 years in the Pacific and India (1855-1915). The Methodist work in Arnhem Land therefore represented the resumption by the MOM of the missionary endeavour among the Aboriginal people of Australia. By historical coincidence the MOM work in Arnhem Land was also carried out for 60 years (1916-1977).

    The history of Methodism in Arnhem Land is diachronically and missiologically connected to the global Christian and colonial expansion. In the Arnhem Land context, these various segments of history converged and in one way or another interacted and impacted on the Aboriginal people. The impact of these Western histories on Aboriginal people forms an important part of the investigation in this thesis. Besides its own ecclesiastical history, the Methodist Mission, as alluded to above, is connected to the global missionary movement and missiological developments. The investigation of the MOM work in Arnhem Land in this thesis, therefore, takes into account the global historical and missiological perspectives.

    This study employs selected missiological models of contextualisation to analyse the process of Christianisation of Aboriginal people in Arnhem Land. In the first 30 years of the MOM work (1916-1946), the evangelisation of the Aboriginal people moved from a noncontextualised to a contextualised approach. The pioneer stage (1916-1925) was characterised by a lack of concerted effort to contextualise Christianity to Aboriginal cosmological frames of reference. From the mid-1920s the MOM adopted a policy of 'non-interference' and the 1939 mission policy affirmed Aboriginal culture and Aboriginal people's capability in appropriating tenets of Christianity. This marked a shift to contextualisation, although this did not represent authentic contextualisation as the Aboriginal people were not involved in this process.

    In the second 30-year period of the MOM work (1947-1977), some missionaries and Aboriginal Christians attempted authentic contextualisation. This involved relating Christianity to Aboriginal cultural, social and political contexts. This was in parallel with the international missiological trend in the 1960s and 1970s. However, this study argues that during the missionary era, the contextualisation and noncontextualisation approaches existed in juxtaposition.

    During the missionary era, while there was no Aboriginal church structurally, theologically an Aboriginal ekklesia had begun to emerge within the structure of the Methodist Mission. This emerging indigenous church, however, was absorbed into the mainstream Uniting Church of Australia (UCA) in 1977, at the end of the missionary era. The MOM did not adopt a policy for the development of a separate indigenous church.

    The binding thread of the investigation in this thesis relates to the prolonged absence of a policy on training of Aboriginal church leadership, with concomitant tardiness in developing an ordained Aboriginal leadership. This study argues that in the first 30 years of the MOM work in Arnhem Land (1916-1946), there was a conspicuous lack of policy on training of Aboriginal church leadership. In the second 30-year period (1947-1977), however, a policy on training on Aboriginal church leadership was developed. This failure to encourage indigenous leadership meant that by the end of the missionary era there was only a limited number of Aboriginal clergy, after 60 years of Methodism in Arnhem Land; and no Aboriginal church was established. The thesis nevertheless acknowledges that the mission developed a core group of outstanding lay Aboriginal workers in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Some of these leaders could have been ordained. However, missionaries' lack of faith and high expectations prevented the Aboriginal people from becoming candidates for ordination.

    A number of issues are covered in the study. They include the investigation of: missionary pragmatism, paternalism, racial beliefs and missionary ambivalence; issues dealing with the establishment of mission stations and mission institutionalism, with related industrialism and commercialism; alien contacts with Aboriginal people; the encounter between Christianity and Aboriginal cosmology; and issues emerging out of political, social and economic changes impinging on Arnhem Land, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s, as a result of policies adopted by the government.

    The MOM developed its own policies, separate from government policies, in order to keep abreast of and respond to the changing situation in Arnhem Land. However, while the purpose of these policies was argued in convincing terms, this study contends that they created a diversity of priorities which competed with the missiological task of specifically training Aboriginal church leaders. This resulted in a small number of clergy at the close of the missionary enterprise in Arnhem Land, and no indigenous church was established structurally.
    Date of Award1998
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorSuzanne Parry (Supervisor)

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