The practices of ‘Welcome to Country’ (WtC) and ‘Acknowledgment of Country’ (AoC) have become used widely, to put it mildly, in recent years, but on 7 September 2023 the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Australia declared them out of order in services of public worship. A Christian AoC was, however, allowed outside public worship. For clarification, WtC is spoken by an Aboriginal person, while ‘Acknowledgment of Country’ (AoC) is usually spoken by someone other than an indigenous person. The GAA was not overwhelmed by a fit of racism, but considered a number of issues with regard to WtC and AoC.

Its Origins

 WtC has been turned into a money-earner, with hundreds, indeed thousands, of dollars being charged to perform a Welcome. But what are its roots? Michael Murphy asserts: ‘The Welcome to Country has its roots in thousands of years of Indigenous tradition.’[1] However, it seems that it was invented by Ernie Dingo and Richard Walley in the 1970s. Walley recalled that there was a felt need to welcome some visiting Maori and Cook Islander dancers to the University of Western Australia during a multicultural dance performance. Walley stated:

I asked the good spirits of my ancestors and the good spirits of the ancestors of the land to watch over us and keep our guests safe while they’re in our Country. And then I talked to the spirits of their ancestors, saying that we’re looking after them here and we will send them back to their Country.[2]

This was then embraced by the tourist industry, and many others.

God owns the whole universe

The earth and all its fulness belongs to the Lord (Psalm 24:1). Sometimes Christians regard Acknowledgement of Country as a useful way of recognising that ultimately it is God’s land on which we live. That, of course, is what is needed, but is mostly missing.


In 2017 the convener was set to preach at the end of year combined SRE Christmas service at a local public school when he was treated to an Acknowledgment of Country. The girl school captain, aged about twelve, gave the acknowledgment, and spoke of this land, ‘under this asphalt being forever the land of the Eora people’. It was all rather meaningless. The students were bewildered; the authorities were not giving back any land; the Eora people were not living there; and words did not mean what they purported to mean.

History is always a mixture of good and evil.

When history is romanticized, it is weaponized, and becomes a contest between the powerful and the victims. Tensions emerged on 10 September 2022 when the Australian Football Women’s League scrapped the one minutes’ silence for the death of Queen Elizabeth II, as the Welcome to Country could not be performed if the queen was honoured. Two months later it was reported that a student at Monash University was marked down in an engineering exam because it was compulsory for all students to include an AoC on their papers. The university was forced to back down.[3]

In reality, all people are corrupt and guilty. Brooke Prentis writes: ‘We have not dealt with stolen land, stolen wages, stolen generations’.[4] Clearly, there is much truth in this criticism, but reality is more layered than she allows. For example, Chris Goy, who served with the Australian Inland Mission from 1935-1939 before moving to Darwin as an army chaplain, considered that the Aborigines who worked on the cattle stations were the happiest and most contented that he met. Good intentions can have unintended consequences, and the press for equal pay for stockmen actually led to their losing their jobs on the stations, and to their drifting to camps outside townships where they often drank themselves to death.[5]

A similar story is told by Peter Sutton, an anthropologist and linguist, who has had first-hand and extensive experience at Aurukun.[6] One might also point to the appalling breakdown of any functioning society, notably in the Kimberley region in Western Australia and Tennant Creek near – comparatively speaking – Alice Springs.[7] The Opera House solemnly acknowledges the land of the Gadigal people who no longer exist, while Ku-ring-gai seems to have been invented by an amateur white anthropologist in the 1880s.[8] Recitations in the Darug language too appear to be tainted with a number of modern additions.[9]

The coming of the Europeans brought mixed blessings to the Aborigines, but the blessings of Christianity, medicine, and education were substantial indeed. Christian missionaries tended to support as much of Aboriginal culture as they could. For example, it was they who preserved local languages through translations of the Bible as well as various hymns and choruses. Admittedly, along with medicine came the spread of disease, and terrible Aboriginal depopulation. Yet without the work of the missionaries, the Aboriginal people would have remained in spiritual and moral bondage. All things are loaded with ambiguities; there are many reasons to give thanks and many reasons to lament.

The theology of WtC and AoC

Social justice raises some compelling issues; land and ancestor issues are far more problematic. All versions of a WtC and AoC tend to be lavish in their praise for past Elders (the capital letter is insisted upon in some circles). We must ask of WtC and AoC: Do they constitute unholy fire? (Leviticus 10) The common warning we hear about viewing Aboriginal dead persons is linked to disturbing their spirits. The Christian will be sensitive to this, but that does not mean that it is acceptable.

The much-cited 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart manages to be moving in its language, disturbing in its politics, and repellent in its theology:

This sovereignty is a spiritual notion: the ancestral tie between the land, or ‘mother nature’, and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who were born therefrom, remain attached thereto, and must one day return thither to be united with our ancestors. This link is the basis of the ownership of the soil, or better, of sovereignty.[10]

It is not altogether easy or convincing to divorce WtC and AoC from this theology.

Brooke Prentis identifies herself as an Aboriginal Christian Leader who is a descendant of the Waka Waka peoples, and as Aboriginal spokesperson for the organisation Common Grace. She has the laudable aim of wanting to bring Aborigines and non-Aborigines together, but writes that in the Indigenous worldview ‘there is no separation between human and non-human’, and ‘time is not linear but cyclical in nature’.[11] She refers to ‘this sacred land’[12] in a way that ought to be disturbing to the Christian.

One Aboriginal Christian, Anderson George Balang, was converted from drunkenness and witchcraft in 1998. He acknowledges that some Aboriginal Christians see a bridge to the gospel from the old ceremonies, but he does not. The honouring of elders is biblical (e.g. Ex.20:12; Lev.19:32; Matt.15:4), as is care for the land (Lev.25). But to Anderson, the Aboriginal ceremonies are not harmless acts, but rituals designed to send the dead spirit back home to his or her country. For this, some in his own family have criticised him as a white man, and he was refused government support to set up a drug rehabilitation place![13]

Jacinta Nampijinpa Price’s parents, David and Bess, are particularly put off by the respect to elders past, present and future without knowing who they are. David writes: ‘The word “elder: is much overused and never defined. I know of many who have been called that by an ignorant media who are in fact violent rapists and con men. I know some personally. Some, who have been ‘respected elders’ have recently been convicted of sexual abuse of children in their own communities. There are those I do indeed respect but you will never see them on camera in front of a microphone.[14]  

Indeed, A. P. Elkin – a liberal Anglican clergyman and Professor of Anthropology at the University of Sydney – asserted, with good albeit unpopular, reason that amongst many tribes, welcomes to outsiders were carried out by means of exchanging wives for sexual purposes.[15] The category of ‘victims’ in the Cultural Marxist creed can overlap in a way that undoes the whole approach.[16]

Reconciliation of any kind is a wonderful thing (Gen.33:10; Rom.12:18), but reconciliation in the full sense is through Christ (Rom.5:1-11; 2 Cor.5:18-21; Col.1:20). An ongoing and repetitive emphasis on the need for reconciliation may well militate against the gospel. Aboriginal Christians see this. One, Trevor Voltz, makes this point in questioning the need for Welcomes to Country: reconciliation is only through Jesus Christ.[17]

Overdoing is undoing

Apart from anything else, continuing WtC and AoC into perpetuity is likely to be counter-productive. Already, a kind of fatigue and detachment has set in, and Noel Pearsons has recently called for Australia to scale back use of WtC, on the grounds that a recital before every lecture at a meeting is tiresome.[18] The novelist, Anthony Trollope, called the preacher ‘the bore of the age’, but the practices of WtC and AoC have provided plenty of competition. One Aboriginal Christian woman commented that an occasional acknowledgment, spoken from the heart rather than ceremonially recited, touched her – but she had little time for the avalanche of acknowledgments being uttered by all and sundry now.[19]

In conclusion

An adaptation of an AoC from Bush Church Aid is printed below as one that could, in the right circumstances outside of public worship, be appropriate. It is framed more like a Christian prayer:[20]

We acknowledge the triune God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit), the Creator of heaven and earth and His ownership of all things (Psalm 24:1).

We recognise that He gave stewardship of these lands upon which we meet to the indigenous occupants of the land (Acts 17:26).

We recognise that in His sovereignty, He has allowed other people groups to migrate to these shores.

We pray for civil peace for all people groups in order that the gospel of peace would be freely proclaimed (1 Tim.2:1-2).

– Peter Barnes

[1] Michael Murphy, ‘The Welcome to and Acknowledgement of Country in the Australian Parliament’, in Literature & Aesthetics 29 (2), 2019, p.124

[2] Natsumi Penberthy, ’40 Years of the “modern” Welcome to Country’, Australian Geographic, March 3, 2016, p.2.

[3] Daily Mail, 21 November 2022.

[4] Brooke Prentis, Reclaiming Community: Mission, Church and Aboriginal Wisdom, Tinsley Annual Public Lecture, www.morlingcollege.com 2018, p.5.

[5] see Chris Goy, A Man is His Friends, Mitcham: Graphicset, 1979, pp.99-100.

[6] See Peter Sutton, The Politics of Suffering, Melbourne University Publishing, 2011, pp.53-54.

[7] See e.g. ‘Grog ban plea follows surge in family violence’ in the Australian, January 6, 2020, p.5.

[8] Personal communication from Malcolm Prentis, 3 November 2019.

[9] See Tony Thomas, ‘Brand-New Timeless Traditions’, in Quadrant Online, 22 April 2016.

[10] See Henry Reynolds, Truth-Telling: History, Sovereignty and the Uluru Statement, Sydney: NewSouth, 2021,p.viii.

[11] Brooke Prentis, Reclaiming Community: Mission, Church and Aboriginal Wisdom, Tinsley Annual Public Lecture, www.morlingcollege.com 2018, p.3.

[12] Brooke Prentis, Reclaiming Community: Mission, Church and Aboriginal Wisdom, Tinsley Annual Public Lecture, www.morlingcollege.com 2018, p.4.

[13] Anderson George and Rachel Borneman, ‘Anderson’s view on Aboriginal Christian Spirituality’, edited from Australian Pentecostal Studies, 20, 2019, pp.55-76, accessed from The Daily Declaration, 6 January 2020.

[14] Dave Price (email of 13 November 2020 to Peter Barnes).

[15] A. P. Elkin, The Australian Aborigines, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1943, 1968 edition, pp.160-161. Thanks to Mark Powell for this reference.

[16] The three main ‘victim’ categories in Cultural Marxism are people of colour, women, and those with heterodox sexual proclivities.

[17] Trevor Voltz (email  of 4 October 2019 to Peter Barnes).

[18] ‘Pearson’s caution over welcome to country’ in  The Weekend Australian, 9-10 September 2023.

[19] From an email dated 22 January 2021 to Peter Barnes, followed by a phone conversation..

[20] Bush Church Aid, Reconciliation Action Plan, provided by Rev. Neville Naden, 2021.