Tension over church stances on Voice

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Church leaders are being urged to prove their support for the Indigenous Voice despite the political risk of taking sides in the closing weeks of the referendum, amid concerns that some leaders are “hedging” after strongly backing the change earlier in the year.

The new call highlights questions over whether the nation’s peak faith groups will throw their active support behind the change to the Constitution when early voting begins next week, as some of their communities campaign for the Yes side.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Liberal MP Julian Leeser (left) visit the Uniting Church in Ashfield for a service by Bill Crews before the launch of the Uniting Church’s Yes23 campaign on Sunday.Credit: Edwina Pickles

In a sign of the challenge in gaining agreement, the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils has not agreed on a position despite the support for the Voice from many of its member councils, as well as the Australian National Imams Council and the Grand Mufti of Australia, Ibrahim Abu Mohamad.

While the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference has backed the Voice in writing, a key church leader said he wanted the bishops to put that support into action before the referendum closes on October 14.

“This is not a time for being delicate – this is a time for leadership,” said Francis Sullivan, who led the Truth, Justice and Healing Council within the Catholic Church to address child abuse allegations against senior figures.

“If the Catholic bishops think their position should be No then they should say so, and if they think that it should be Yes they should say so.

“This is not a time to sit on the fence.”

Anthony Albanese meets supporters ahead of the launch of the Uniting Church’s Yes23 campaign on Sunday.Credit: Edwina Pickles

Sullivan said he feared that the legal debate over the change to the Constitution was clouding the issue for church leaders when they had made “definitive and clear” statements in favour of the Voice in the past.

“Ultimately, this is a moral question for the church – it is not a legal question,” he said.

“A number of bishops I know have been confronted directly about what I call equivocation.”

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese joined Uniting Church leaders in Sydney on Sunday for a service and the launch of the church’s Yes campaign, where he promised to set up a joint parliamentary committee, with co-chairs from Labor and the Coalition, to oversee the law to set up the Voice if the majority vote Yes on October 14.

One of the Uniting Church ministers at the event, Simon Hansford, said the case for Christians to vote Yes was based on Christian teachings about supporting those on the margins of society who need care.

“In terms of Australia, it’s quite clear that our First Nations people are the ones who are most, as a group, marginalised and pushed to the edges and traditionally and historically ignored,” he said.

“What people of faith would want to say is that where we would find Jesus is most likely to be with those who are most in need.”

Asked for his argument for a Yes vote from a person of no faith, Hansford said: “If you want to shift the world in which you live, do you find yourself shifting the community by punishing or neglecting or by ignoring, or do you find it by creating and offering hope?” He said a Yes vote was the response that offered hope.

A public letter supporting the Voice was signed in February by the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, the Anglican Church, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, the Australian Sangha Association, the Hindu Council, the National Sikh Council of Australia, the Uniting Church Assembly and the Australian National Imams Council.

The Australian Christian Lobby has not taken a position on the issue.

While the Voice has support from Anglican leaders, one rector said the “view from the pew” was against the Voice or wary of the change.

“I think the bishops will find that they have been singing in their own bathroom on this one,” said Father Peter Macleod-Miller, the rector of St Matthews Anglican Church in Albury.

“The day after the referendum may be another unwelcome epiphany for some of them.”

About 44 per cent of Australians identify as Christian and another 10 per cent say they hold another faith, highlighting the potential influence of faith leaders.

In a sign of the way some peak groups are speaking up as the vote nears, the Executive Council of Australian Jewry issued a public statement on September 5 to endorse the Voice after a vote by councillors, adding to earlier support for the Uluru Statement.

“There is a clear moral imperative for constitutional recognition of Australia’s First Nations,” said council president Jillian Segal.

Yes23 campaigner Shireen Morris, who helped co-ordinate the statement from faith leaders in February, said the most productive action was happening at the “grassroots”, and included public events to talk to voters.

“Sometimes it’s those at the top who are slow to act, probably because they get tied up in bureaucracy, or they worry about what some people will think,” she said.

“But with less than three weeks to go until the referendum, there is a moral imperative now for all to take action.

“I say to all Australians of faith, and all Australians of diverse backgrounds, feeling empathy for the plight of Indigenous peoples is not enough. Saying you’re supportive is not enough. You need to take action in solidarity with Indigenous people.”

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