Re-Finding a Faith Identity Down Under

Steve Hollinghurst

Many roles in Christian ministry grant sabbaticals for those who have long service as times for reflection and refreshment. Having started working for Church Army in 2003, in Autumn 2017, I was given a sabbatical and chose to spend several weeks of it in Australia. Beyond never having been there and enjoying the sights of the small amount of this vast country, I could see in that time, I had wanted to explore how Aboriginal Christians were dealing with a difficult Christian legacy, and how their journeys of faith related to the wider Christian community of Australia.

My reason for this began at a meeting of those involved in innovative mission in Europe in 2009. There I heard of an Estonian mission working with Finno-Ugaric tribes on the Scandinavian/Russian border. Many of these had been Christianised during times of Russian rule and forced to abandon their language and culture. The Estonians, themselves Finno-Ugaric speakers, were working with these tribes to help them form expressions of Christianity within their original language and culture. Four years later, at an international gathering in Thailand, I met First Nation Christians from North America who were restoring their own culture within the practice of the Christian faith, having also been told to abandon it by white missionary settlers. I was aware Aboriginal Christians in Australia, were also seeking to reclaim an indigenous expression of faith.

Faithfully expressing Christian faith within a particular culture, whilst also potentially challenging it, is a tension at the heart of intercultural mission. Using traditional ceremonies as an expression of faith by First Nation Christians is controversial with those who view them as inherently un-Christian. Similarly, some Christians complain about pre-Christian elements in the celebration of Christmas, or the apparent naming of Easter after a Saxon fertility goddess. For some, a sharp divide exists between Christian culture and faith and the cultures and beliefs of others and indigenous cultures and belief need to be abandoned when becoming Christian. Others view God at work in other cultures and faiths preparing the way for Christ. This has been complicated by colonial views of the inferiority of native cultures clearly evident in the examples I have cited. Current missiology sees an incarnational principle in which Christian faith emerges within each culture and context as more faithful to the example of Jesus and the early Church. This is not however, a process of baptising each culture as already Christian, but one in which Christian faith will transform and also challenge.

I found these tensions reflected within the Aboriginal Christian community. For some, expressing faith in Aboriginal art and music were welcomed; use of Aboriginal religious stories and practices were not. Others however, were hearing their ancient religious traditions afresh within their Christian faith and finding that the God of Jesus Christ had been speaking in them all along. One of the highlights of my visit was a long day spent touring ‘on country’ with two generations of Aboriginal Christians, sharing stories of faith from within the landscape and traditions that had shaped their people’s pre-Christian identity. I also spent time with white Australian Christians who had worked with Aboriginals. They told me white Christians had an identity crisis over what it meant to be Australian and Christian. As I listened, I became aware that whilst distinctive Aboriginal and settler expressions of faith were appropriate, it would only be as they learnt to share faith with each other that any sense of an Australian Christianity was possible. Indeed, the white Christians needed a vibrant Aboriginal expression to find their own indigenous voice. But, Aboriginal Christians needed to find some way of helping the white outsiders become at home in a land they believed could only be exclusively connected to each local Aboriginal tribe.

Whilst such issues are clear in the specific context of the experience of those like Aboriginal Christians seeking to recover an indigenous expression of faith, we all in less obvious ways face these issues. In many ways political issues in Britain point to a crisis of identity, especially English identity. Within this, far right groups have sought to claim Christian identity as a marker of an English identity that is opposed to immigration and the presence of other faiths and cultures. I believe there is an important task of discovering a new British and English Christian identity that expresses our heritage of diversity both within and beyond the Christian population. I think there are lessons we can learn from the experience of Aboriginal and other first nation Christians but also the wider Australian experience of faith and identity. We too, may need to look back into our early heritage to the stories that formed our local expressions of faith. But we will also need to look outward to the many cultures that are now properly British and learn from them. We too, will find that it is only as each expresses faith within their own traditions, and shares that experience with each other, that a truly British or English Christianity for today, that reconciles us in Christ, can emerge.

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