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Indigenous bishop slams the “doctrine of discovery”

Posted on: August 17, 2017 7:08 AM
Bishop Mark MacDonald (second left) with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Anglican leaders
Photo Credit: Celia Kemp / Anglican Board of Mission

The “doctrine of discovery” – the idea that indigenous people need to be discovered and westernised – has been criticised by the national indigenous bishop of Canada. Bishop Mark MacDonald made his comments during a visit to Australia where he attended a number of events, including a retreat for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Anglican leaders retreat in central Australia. “The doctrine of discovery describes a habitual way of thinking that continues to marginalise, dehumanise and downgrade Indigenous people,” Bishop Mark said.

During a forum in Adelaide, Bishop Mark was asked to nominate the “blind spots” of the Australian Church in relation to reconciliation. He spoke of the experience of Canadian Anglicans in unveiling and seeking to repudiate the doctrine of discovery.

“At the heart of the doctrine is the idea that Indigenous people are a primitive form of human life who are therefore discoverable,” he said. “This hidden assumption causes us to look at indigenous people as people who need to be updated, who need to be westernised or civilised in order to have any sort of happy life.

“It doesn’t look at indigenous people as people of a distinct and worthwhile culture. It doesn’t value their gifts and talents and ideas.”

The bishop said that the doctrine of discovery was at the heart of the mistreatment of indigenous people that is historical and ongoing.

MacDonald had been invited to the retreat by the Anglican Church of Australia’s national Aboriginal bishop, Chris McLeod, with the support of the Anglican Board of Mission’s reconciliation project.

Indigenous churches were growing, Bishop Mark told the Melbourne Diocesan Ministry Conference, and he said that the Western church “has much to learn from Indigenous wisdom – especially when facing the task of incarnating and inculturating the Gospel for younger generations.”

At the retreat for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Anglican leaders, the group and two bishops spent time in prayer, story-telling and “sitting together in country and prophetic imagining about the future of the church,” the Anglican Board of Mission said. “The retreat ended in an evening around the campfire with local Arrente elders and other Alice Springs residents, sharing stories of land and spirit.

“It was a fitting end to a very moving time characterised by shared grief and laughter, and a marked spirit of unity in diversity.”