The Water Ceremony

On Easter Sunday I attended the Awakening Easter March and Festival outside Parliament House in Hobart.  The march is an annual event, and I was pleased to walk with one of our donkeys “Petal” through the streets of Hobart, as part of the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Prior to the march a festival gathering of Christians from many denominations was held. I wanted to share a part of that gathering with you, a solemn time of Aboriginal Reconciliation – the Story of the Water Ceremony which was conducted by The Revd Grant Finley of the Uniting Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Christian Congress. The text below is the Story of the Water Ceremony, and the details of the ceremony itself.

In 1988 when the Awakening Movement was first born and 50,000 Australian Christians from all affiliations and all states and territories, came together (in Canberra) to pray at the opening of the new Parliament House, it felt right at that time, to talk with our indigenous brothers and sisters about first steps towards reconciliation.

We asked, “What action can we take that has integrity?” Indigenous Christian leaders at the time said, “We want you to understand the past and move on with us, from it”.

And they said “Maybe this will help. When you white fellas first arrived you would have died of thirst had we not shown you where the waterholes were. Throughout this land of ours, time after time, we showed you where the waterholes were. You did not understand. We were welcoming you as brothers and sisters into our homes – but you poisoned our waterholes because you wanted our land to grow your stock”.

Here in this group of islands and our local history of Van Diemen’s Land, there are stories of some early cooperation but more often than not there was conflict, even warfare and the Black Line, and later the fiction that Truganini was the last Tasmanian Aboriginal person.

Through that first water ceremony in 1988, was born a powerful and simple symbolic action.

This action and response has been repeated year by year in Easter Marches, as part of the Pilgrimage to Uluru, and is now framed by the national apology to our Indigenous brothers and sisters, the walk over the bridge for reconciliation, the transfer of some land, the beginnings of a conversation about recognising Indigenous people in a new preamble to the Constitution of Australia, and just recently, the dual naming of some places.

What remarkable and profoundly moving steps were taken in the apology as we said Sorry as a nation – to acknowledge the profound pain of our past and to pledge to close the gap and walk together into a new future.

So now we invite our Indigenous brothers and sisters, and our church leaders, to once again offer water, as was done in the past, with a generous spirit of hospitality and like the first water ceremony we will again respond differently to the response of many of our colonial ancestors – we will respond with gratitude and thanks, with commitment to a new future.

We now invite all those who would be Ambassadors for Reconciliation to participate in this simple ceremony of the giving and receiving of water.

We invite Peter to once again offer the water which the Creator God gives, without which there is no life.

We invite you who are here today to accept it with understanding and thanks. Will you commit yourself to reflect on, and understand the past, link hands with all Australians in a new way and with God’s strength move forward together in ways which respect this land, which honours our Aboriginal and Islander heritage, and provides justice and equity for all, for our children and for generations to come?

When you receive the water, I invite you to just hold on to it for a moment, don’t drink it just yet, but take time to reflect on some of the stories of this land and what the waters of healing might mean in your life.

Peter and Bernard will offer a jug to each of the church leaders and then they and the church leaders will share the water with those who come forward.

If you are now willing to accept this offer to begin again, respond, by drinking it gratefully and committing yourself to work together for a better future for Australia and the world.

I (Bishop John) then led with the following response prayer:

Lord God, bring us together as one, reconciled with you and reconciled with each other, and especially we pray for reconciliation here in Tasmania between the Indigenous population and the latecomers.
You made us in your likeness, you gave us your Son, Jesus Christ. He has given us forgiveness from sin.
Lord God, bring us together as one, different in culture, but given new life in Jesus Christ, together as your body, your Church, your people.
Lord God, bring us together as one, reconciled, healed, forgiven, sharing you with others as you have called us to do. In Jesus Christ, let us be together as one.  Amen.

Adapted from a Prayer for Reconciliation, “A Prayer Book for Australia”, 1995, Broughton Books, p.203.

See also, Speech at the launch of James Boyce’s ‘God’s Own Country?’ – by Bishop John Harrower, 2001.

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