The Presbyterian Church of Australia has banned its congregations from conducting Acknowledgements of Country at their services, deeming them “inappropriate” for worship.

The decision was made at the congregations’ General Assembly of Australia (GAA) in Sydney last week, in a move that has angered and saddened Indigenous Christians, who branded it as “extreme”.

John McClean, a spokesman for the church who attended last week’s meeting, told the GAA had a “long tradition” of determining what was “appropriate” to include in public services for all of its congregations.

“The church has a long tradition of saying what we should do in Sunday worship — that should just be what’s in the Bible and shouldn’t add other things,” he said.

“When you want to worship, our focus is on God and who He is and praising and celebrating Him.

“And it was decided an Acknowledgement of Country or welcome to country would not be appropriate.”

The decision extends to a Welcome to Country, a ceremonial act conducted by a traditional owner of the land on which the event takes place.

Although acknowledgments were ruled out for public worship services, Mr McClean said the decision did not ban them in “other circumstances”, such as ceremonies or meetings held at Presbyterian churches.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a ban, the assembly was clear in expressing what it considers would be appropriate in the Presbyterian church and is relevant to all congregations,” he said.

“But it’s not as if someone is going to be prosecuted because they do something different.”

Acknowledgments or and Welcomes to Country have become common ceremonial practice in Australian life, especially at major public events, to show respect for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and their ongoing connection to their land.

But the GAA found a number of reasons why the practices were “not appropriate in a worship setting” – including the “multiplicity of tribal traditions” and lack of “consensus” as to the significance of acknowledgments to Indigenous people.

The church outlined its reasons and how it came to them in a letter to Presbyterian congregations on Thursday, a week after the meeting, from Moderator-General David Burke.

The letter, a copy of which was obtained by, also noted that the “wording” of acknowledgements of country “almost invariably carries overtones of an Indigenous spirituality inconsistent with Christian belief”.

It also affirms: “as Christians, we have to avoid wording that suggests final ownership of land is vested in people rather than with the Creator”.

“The Assembly had a lengthy and serious discussion about the place of an Acknowledgement of Country in church life in light of our convictions about the Christian faith,” Mr Burke wrote.

The debate acknowledged the “unjust actions and violence by European settlers” against Indigenous people, and revealed a “common desire” for the church to “pray and work for reconciliation” with them.

But the decision came down to considering what is appropriate in worship. And an Acknowledgement of Country was deemed not so.

“That does not preclude a church from praying to the Lord about the history of our country and asking for blessing on Aboriginal people,” Mr Burke added. “That is to be encouraged.”

He noted that although acknowledgments of Indigenous custodianship were deemed inappropriate in public worship, individual churches may find a way to “use an Acknowledgement of Country which should be consistent with a Christian worldview” relevant to their local context.

“This would mean affirming that God, the Creator, owns all land as he gives it to various nations as stewards. The use and wording of an acknowledgment is to be decided at a local level and will be shaped by the local context.”

The debate at the GAA, which meets every three years, was prompted by an appeal from the NSW Assembly. Mr Burke said it was one of the “longest and most intense discussions” at the meeting.

He acknowledged the decision would not satisfy everyone, but encouraged members with concerns “to seek to understand the debate and the decision carefully, not to make the matter a point of division”.

But Indigenous Christians like Safina Stewart, who is the relationships and storytelling co-ordinator at the non-denominational group Common Grace, have expressed disappointment over the “extreme” decision

Ms Stewart, a Wuthathi and Mabuiag Island woman, told The Guardian Australia the church’s decision showed how Aboriginal spirituality was weaponised against Indigenous people.

“It is disappointing and rather extreme and legalistic,” Stewart said.

“It speaks of fear and misunderstanding about our oldest living continuous cultures in the world.”

She said an Acknowledgment of and Welcome to Country was not about putting Indigenous custodians above God but “it’s actually the opposite”

“It’s coming into alignment under the Creator as the hosts and the guests.”

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