Oodgeroo of the tribe Noonuccal, Custodian of the land Minjerribah, Peace Prosperity and Healing, Sacred Treaty Circles

Fr. Peter Kennedy, Bejam Denis Walker and Sam Watson on the St. Mary’s treaty

Posted in Aboriginal, Australia, Church, history, indigenous, reconciliation, sovereignty, spirituality, treaty by John T. on December 17, 2008

Photo – Nunukul Kunjeil ceremony at the treaty signing service at St. Mary’s 30/11/08. Photo by Tony Robertson who has many more photos of the ceremony here

See also The Roman Catholic Church – Common Law Notice of want of jurisdiction

Fr. Peter Kennedy – But now with this treaty we feel there’s a oneness there now which has been signed and is incumbent upon us as a community to really embrace the Indigenous people.

Bejam Denis Walker – Well the treaty is a recognition of our sovereignty under God in country. Something that the Australian government hasn’t realised or recognised, and it fulfils law. Without it, I maintain, people are behaving unlawfully. Essentially it creates a oneness between the Indigenous peoples and the non-indigenous peoples.

Sam Watson – If the Catholic hierarchy could have been there on Sunday just to see the number of people who were there to share in the energy and the devotion of the moment, to feel the euphoria that swept through the entire congregation during the signing of the treaty, it was just incredible.

Transcript from ABC Radio National’s “Religion Report” 3/12/08

David Rutledge: Welcome to the program.

This week, as fingers point to the involvement of Pakistan in last week’s Mumbai terrorist attacks, we look at the likely fallout for religious communities in India. That’s coming up later in the program. But first: reconciliation and an uncertain future for St Mary’s Catholic Church in South Brisbane.

David Rutledge: The opening of last Sunday’s ‘Sacred Treaty Service’ at St Mary’s, where the Aboriginal flag was raised, the Brisbane Gay and Lesbian Choir sang, and the parish priest signed a sacred treaty with an indigenous elder, recognising Aboriginal sovereignty over the land on which the church stands.

St Mary’s is not a conventional Catholic church; it’s ecumenical, inclusive, committed to social justice, and given to innovation in matters of ritual and liturgy. And that’s got the church into trouble with Rome. Earlier this year on The Religion Report, we heard how the Catholic Archbishop of Brisbane, John Bathersby, has been under pressure from the Vatican to bring St Mary’s into line. In August he wrote a letter to the parish, saying that ‘The question for me is not so much whether St Mary’s should be closed down, but whether St Mary’s will close itself down by practices that separate it from communion with the Roman Catholic church.’

Well this week the church’s response to that letter was given to Archbishop Bathersby. It’s a seven-page document that essentially outlines all the ways in St Mary’s considers itself to be in full communion with the church, and that it’s not going to stop doing what it’s doing. So the stage is set for a confrontation; excommunication has been mooted as a possible outcome for the priests, and traditionalist Catholics and liberals alike will be watching very closely to see how things unfold. Unfortunately Archbishop Bathersby is overseas this week and was unable to speak on the program.

The church has also been working closely for many years with the local Aboriginal community, and Sunday’s ceremony was, as much as anything else, a recognition of that ministry.

I’m joined now by Sam Watson, an Aboriginal community worker and political activist from Brisbane; Dennis Walker, an elder of the Noonuccal people of Stradbroke Island; and Father Peter Kennedy, the parish priest at St Mary’s.

Gentlemen, welcome to the program. And Sam Watson I’ll start with you: the area of the parish of South Brisbane is rich in Aboriginal lore and culture. Can you tell us about that? What significance does the area hold?

Sam Watson: Well since time immemorial Aboriginal tribes from that entire South East Queensland area have gathered in places like South Brisbane, and the immediate area around the Brisbane River, to celebrate particular ceremonies. Where St Mary’s church stands, that is the living place of the Kuril dreaming story, which is the dreaming story of the little water rat. And further down the river towards West End, is the beginning point of the Kabul dreaming story, which is the great carpet snake dreaming. And so this area that St Mary’s is actually built upon is an area that’s quite sacred to Aboriginal people from right throughout South East Queensland. So Aboriginal people come from right across Brisbane to worship at St Mary’s and feel close to the family at St Mary’s because the people at St Mary’s also minister during the working week to our homeless people, our people in the parks and on the riverbanks. And they take care of our people; and we firmly believe that because of that work that’s being done with our people, that’s also taking care of country.

David Rutledge: And all brought together under this sacred treaty that was signed on Sunday, and Dennis Walker, I’ll ask you, tell me about the treaty. What does the treaty actually say, what does it establish?

Dennis Walker: Well the treaty is a recognition of our sovereignty under God in country. Something that the Australian government hasn’t realised or recognised, and it fulfils law. Without it, I maintain, people are behaving unlawfully. Essentially it creates a oneness between the Indigenous peoples and the non-indigenous peoples. It is the only mechanism that can make a lawful agreement between both the parties. The situation that has happened in the past is for 200 years we’ve had a doctrine of terra nullius, we didn’t exist legally. The law took over 200 years to discover us.

Having discovered us, they put in a Native Title regime which does not recognise our sovereign rights. We say we want to share that sovereignty and the treaty mechanism is the way in which we share.

David Rutledge: And that’s what that treaty is doing, it’s enshrining that shared ownership of the land?

Dennis Walker: Well I’m saying under God’s law, and under man-made law there can be no other way of conducting business in a lawful fashion, except by that way. And in terms of the St Mary’s church and Father Peter Kennedy, have been involved in trying to hang on to whatever remnants are there to keep it together under this treaty mechanism, we’re hoping to – well, we know that by creating the oneness that that treaty does and the recognition of our sovereignty, we can then begin to get into real peace, real healing, and real properties, and being able to develop our communities in conjunction with the St Mary’s community.

David Rutledge: Father Peter Kennedy, you said at the ceremony Sunday that St Mary’s church has ministered to the Aboriginal community in many ways over the years, but you also made the point that the Aboriginal community has ministered to the church. Tell me about that; in what ways has that been the case?

Peter Kennedy: Well in the sense of partaking in religious ceremonies with us over the years in all sorts of different ways. But now with this treaty we feel there’s a oneness there now which has been signed and is incumbent upon us as a community to really embrace the Indigenous people.

David Rutledge: Well the signing of the treaty is a powerful gesture of solidarity. In what way do you see it as also being something that speaks to this present dilemma for St Mary’s church?

Peter Kennedy: Well in the sense that we face dispossession I guess, the religious authorities might decide that we’re no longer part of the Roman Catholic tradition, but we of course deny that, we believe very much we are part of that Catholic tradition, but we do face, in a sense, a dispossession of our Catholic heritage. And to me there’s no stronger symbol or sign than the Indigenous people who initiated this treaty with us, because of their concern that we might be dispossessed, that they have come to us and stood with us at this time of crisis.

David Rutledge: Well Sam Watson, how can the community help the church in this situation, in the event that the Catholic hierarchy tries to discipline the priests or in some way take charge of what goes on at St Mary’s, what would the response of the Aboriginal community be under this treaty?

Sam Watson: Well now that we’ve signed the treaty, and now that we’ve done ceremonial and ritual, we’ve also planted a Bunya pine in the forecourt of St Mary’s, and the Bunya pine is a very sacred tree to Aboriginal tribes from right across South East Queensland, because we believe that the Bunya pine holds memory, holds images and holds within it the echoes of rituals that have been carried on for many thousands of years. So now we’ve actually planted a Bunya pine in the forecourt, and we’re flying the Aboriginal flag on the church, so more or less through ceremony and ritual and the coming together, we’ve more or less declared St Mary’s to be a very sacred site to Aboriginal people from right around this area, and we will now defend that. Of course I’m not talking about picking up guns et cetera, that sort of thing, not talking about defending it that way, but we will be there, we’re a part of St Mary’s family, part of the St Mary’s community. If the Catholic hierarchy could have been there on Sunday just to see the number of people who were there to share in the energy and the devotion of the moment, to feel the euphoria that swept through the entire congregation during the signing of the treaty, it was just incredible, if I could replicate that right around Australia. And we as Aboriginal people regard that as being the first step in our joint commitment, the first step in a healing of self and country, and the first step in this reaching up towards the divinity, so if the Catholic church could just have seen that and been a part of it, I’m sure they would have a deeper understanding, not only of what St Mary’s stands for and believes in, but their own standing as well in this entire debate.

David Rutledge: Well Dennis Walker, you read a statement at the ceremony, a very interesting statement, that questioned the lawful authority of the Roman Catholic hierarchy to call the shots at St Mary’s. Now that was a statement with moral force. Are you looking into ways in which to give it legal force as well?

Dennis Walker: I’m saying it does have legal force. In order to be lawful, surely you must adhere to your own statutes, your own laws. And part of the framework of the laws of the Catholic church is a 16th century papal bull by Pope Paul III, and I don’t know whether you’ve got that on the tape, but I read out a particular paragraph in that papal bull, if you like I’ll read the last sentence of that papal bull, just to give you an idea what the law, what the church statutes is. ‘Notwithstanding whatsoever it may have been or may be said to the contrary, the said Indians and all other peoples who may later be discovered by Christians, are by no means to be deprived of their liberty and/or possessions of their property, even thought they may be outside the faith of Jesus Christ, and that they may in short freely and legitimately, enjoy their liberty and possession of their property. Nor should they be in any way enslaved. Should the contrary happen, it shall be null and have no effect.’

Now in terms of the Catholic church and the government of Australia’s history in Australia, I would say our liberties and our possessions have been severely affected, and that any incursions upon them, until some sort of arrangement by way of a treat is made, shall be null and have no effect. Now given that St Mary’s church and Father Peter Kennedy has lawfully fulfilled their role, what I’m saying is that we are bound up in that treaty process and when the Archbishop or the Catholic church moves on St Mary’s and Father Peter in any way, they are infringing on me too, because we are joined by way of treaty. And because of that, I challenge their authority in my country, to do what they do.


David Rutledge: More music from Sunday’s sacred treaty ceremony at St Mary’s Catholic church in South Brisbane.

Well let’s speculate for a moment on what may happen over the next few weeks and months. Peter Kennedy, I understand that Archbishop Bathersby wrote to you last week, expressing his regret that he wouldn’t be able to attend the Eucharist on Sunday, and you told me that you felt there was a positive significance there in his use of the term ‘Eucharist’. He’s in some sense recognising the validity of what goes on at St Mary’s. Do you get the sense that he’s something of an unwilling participant in this business, and that he’s being pressured by Rome to take a harder line than he really wants to take?

Peter Kennedy: Well definitely. Rome, or various congregations in Rome, have pressured him to act. But the reality is that for many, many years since he’s been Archbishop, we were there before he became Archbishop, but over the years he has in many ways, supported us. I think Rome is so controlling, and I think you know, the Archbishop is sort of between a rock and a hard place. It’s not easy for bishops to stand up to Rome. I have sympathy for the Archbishop and I understand the situation he’s in, but I feel that it’s time for the bishops to stand up and say ‘Enough is enough’, and I really believe that Vatican II talked about collegiality, and I think what’s happened at St Mary’s over the last 20-odd years, we’ve tried to be a Vatican II community, and we tried to in a sense, hand the church over to the people and the priest take a back step and to encourage the laity to take control of the church, and they do. And the problem with today is that under the present pope, they’re very concerned about returning to this idea of church as a priest-centred church, and that the priest has all the power, and the people have none. It has to change, if there’s going to be any hope for the future of the church in Australia, because unless we return the church to the people, there’s not much chance of it surviving in this country.

David Rutledge: What about your own survival though? I mean the letter that the community sent to Archbishop Battersby this week is quite uncompromising, and effectively says ‘We’re not going to stop doing what we’ve been doing.’ How concerned are you that you’re forcing a confrontation with Rome that you’re unlikely to win? I mean ultimately the Archbishop can close the parish down, or he can move you somewhere else.

Peter Kennedy: Well we can’t win against institutional church, of course. But we have to remain faithful to who we are as a community, and to sort of compromise on the issues that the Archbishop puts to us, would be as if we were denying the whole 20-odd years that we’ve been this sort of community. What’s our future? I don’t know really. The Archbishop will have to set in train a process I guess, a formal process, of looking at the issues that he puts before us. It’s possible of course that he might accept this letter, but if not the formal process will go ahead and what would we do? Well, we’ll try and stay there, we will try and stay at St Mary’s. We’re not going to easily move from there. I know that sounds confronting but it’s happened overseas in Boston; people didn’t leave the church, they slept there. If we have to, we will do that.

David Rutledge: I guess what I’m getting at here is that there is a hierarchy of authority in the church, and that’s what you signed on for when you became a priest. If push comes to shove, how prepared are you to step out of that hierarchy and exercise your ministry in other ways that might be free from these kinds of institutional strictures. I guess I’m talking about leaving the church.

Peter Kennedy: Well we won’t leave the church but there’s plenty of people over the centuries have been pushed out of the church. I don’t think we’ll be excommunicated but there’d be plenty of people before us, like Mary McKillop, who actually taught at St Mary’s in South Brisbane. She was excommunicated by the Bishop of Adelaide because she wasn’t prepared to give up her authority over her order to the bishop. And I would like to say this I think, that the church seems to be stuck in its orthodoxy, but orthodoxy must change, given orthopraxis, so right practice changes as the world changes. And so practice informs your right belief. But the church seems to be stuck in its doctrines and dogmas and doesn’t seem to be able to get out of that.

David Rutledge: Sam Watson, I’ll ask you: what do you think of this idea that the community and the people are the important thing, and that there are ways in which to be community that have nothing to do with the institutional Catholic church and its traditions. Why stick with the church, if the church doesn’t welcome what you do?

Sam Watson: I think St Mary’s and what they stand for, is very, very close to the way in which Aboriginal people worship, and the way in which we connect with each other. We’ve learnt a great deal from Father Peter and the rest of the community at St Mary’s, and particularly as I said, in the way that we use our worship and our coming together, our friendly, communal regard for the higher things in life. We use that as a way of healing ourselves and through that, healing country. And we do that through coming together at St Mary’s and joining the worship family, joining the community and joining the rituals and ceremonies that are practiced at St Mary’s.

David Rutledge: So it’s important to you to remain within the institution in some sense?

Sam Watson: Yes, certainly in some sense, but also like Father Peter and Dennis also believe that we must stand for what we believe in and as an Aboriginal person, and as an Aboriginal political activist, I look at other struggles we fought for in South Brisbane. And St Mary’s has been able to reach out to disenfranchised and displaced people right across our community. We have people there who have lost family members to deaths in custody; we have people there who are members of the stolen generations; we have people there are displaced from their traditional homeland. So they come in to South Brisbane and around that area there to try to survive in some way. Without St Mary’s and the programs they run, they would die, they would die in Musgrove Park, they would die on the river bank. So St Mary’s is very, very important to us and we would fight very energetically to preserve St Mary’s. We have lost so many places, so many sacred sites over the years, but the great battles, I mean Dennis and I are foundation members of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra that was set up on January 26th, 1972, and it’s still there, you know, 36 years later. The Aboriginal Tent Embassy is still there. Sunday 30th November was Day 1 of that sacred treaty circle signing, and we will stand, we will defend that. In 36 years time we can ask the question again whether or not we have been able to defend what we believe in.

David Rutledge: Well maybe we’ll get you back on in 36 years time and see how things have gone.

Sam Watson: Oh yes, we’ll be here mate, no worries about that. And we’ll still be at St Mary’s too, just quietly.

Peter Kennedy: I don’t know about me.

Dennis Walker: Before you go, I’d just like to make it clear that in terms of what I’m doing by way of treaty, I’m saying it has force of law and that my complaint to the Archbishop about him not fulfilling their statutes seriously questions their bona fides in being able to do what they do on St Mary’s and that until they do get themselves lawful by way of treaty, that they can’t move on it. Should they move on it, then that will incur a liability by whoever does that move, and we will be presenting a bill for any damages incurred or any inconvenience incurred.

David Rutledge: Dennis Walker, elder of the Noonuccal tribe, and signatory to the Sacred Treaty signed at St Mary’s Catholic church in South Brisbane on the weekend. We also heard from Aboriginal activist, Sam Watson, and Father Peter Kennedy, the parish priest at St Mary’s.


5 Responses

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  1. […] See also – Fr. Peter Kennedy, Bejam Denis Walker and Sam Watson on the St. Mary’s treaty […]

  2. […] Fr. Peter Kennedy, Bejam Denis Walker and Sam Watson on the St. Mary’s treaty […]

  3. Cyril+Methodius said, on January 13, 2009 at 8:36 pm

    Jesus’ solemn words to Peter the first “papa” are: “Whatever you bind on earth is bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth is loosed in heaven.” The words “whatever” encompasses all, including historical Christly concepts Jesus instituted, which Father Kennedy and his breaking away flock find distasteful.

    Jesus’ solemn words: “That they may all be one” means that Father Kennedy and company should be one with the universal “Katolikos” flock of Jesus Christ.

    Father Kennedy should just put a new tag on his breakaway cult distancing itself from Jesus’ flock. Give it a new name and run with it… all the way to perdition.

  4. John Tracey said, on January 13, 2009 at 11:54 pm

    Cyril and Methodius (or the person who hides behind these names)

    Perhaps you have forgotten the story of Cyril and Methodius, who were summoned to Rome by Pope Nicholas I because they had broken with the tradition of the Latin Mass and presented it in Slavic.

    Nocholoas1, a defender of orthodoxy, died before Cyril and Methodius got to Rome, They were embraced by the new pope Adrien II who sanctioned the Slavonic liturgy.

    Who was the custodian of the true faith – Nicholas or Adrien? Were Cyril and Methodius heretics or saints when they deliberately flaunted the Roman orthodoxy regarding the presentation of the mass?

  5. Rebekah Copas said, on January 29, 2009 at 1:55 am

    What even most Australians tend to ignore, is the simplicity of the fact that: whilstever Terra Nullius is still in existance, every part of Australian legislation is conditioned by that in spirit, and therefore, will always have loose ends which can be tugged on and so it unravelled. Our work in the Sacred Treaty Circles therefore, is in the best interests of every Australian child and citizen, without a doubt; since it is high time that Australians woke up to why it has been all criminals of every colour of skin, whom have wanted to lean upon the indigenous politics, for the benefit of criminal activity.

    Terra Nullius was always what enabled them to hide behind the knowledge of the illegitimacy of Australian legislation. The Sacred Treaty Circles place the story within a different paradigm in which law and order can be truthfully honoured within the real law traditions of both the invaded and invaders, (ie remember that all the laws of Great Britain began as the combination of common law of the land, and Canonical law derived from Kabbalah).

    Curiously enough, our original traditions as indigenous custodians of this land, have more in common with the Kabbalah tradition than in any other, yet we also always enabled more individualised and distinctly flavoured variation within our interpretation of Kabbalah type law abidance.

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