A voice to the church

On Saturday night I was invited to speak at Aunty Jean Phillips’ annual soup night. This night raises funds to support Aboriginal Christian ministry. It’s been running for decades.

Aunty Jean told me I could speak for 15 minutes about whatever I wanted. I spoke about why I think that we don’t just need a voice to parliament, but to be cultivating a voice (and voices) to the white church in Australia.

Here’s what I said.


I’m curious — and I just want you to indulge my curiosity a little.

I’m going to do something a little weird here — I’m going to suggest that we need to de-centre the white experience in our churches by doing what looks like centring the white experience for a minute — I hope what I’m doing is shining a spotlight on something.

So I want to start with two questions for white folks — first, I want to ask how many of you, if you have to give your ethnicity in some sort of form or survey would say “white”?

Second — how many of you could tell me five generations of your family story? And understand any way that shapes your life now?

Here’s my third question for everyone — if this is something people in our churches can’t do, how does that shape our churches?

This’s why I reckon we need an Indigenous voice to the church — it’s also why we need a whole bunch of voices to the church that aren’t just white men — and I’m standing here as a white man very aware of the irony…

Now, cause I’m a preacher I want to open the Bible for a second — if you’ve got your phone — I just want to read a snippet from 1 Corinthians 12, it’s a passage where Paul talks about the church as the body of Christ; he says we’re one body with one Spirit and the body has many parts and it needs all those many parts working together. All the stuff that’s divided people — like race — Jews and gentiles — is being replaced with this unity in the Spirit. Paul says:

Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.

Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.

He says all the body parts need each other to actually be the body.

Now — I want you to imagine the white church as a hand or a mouth — in our churches it’s often white folks doing the leading and the talking.

And this potentially creates the idea that to be valuable — even to be part of the church — you need to think and act like a white person, if not be one. It might leave feet wanting to be hands, or hands not recognising they’re hands because they’d do things differently.

I think sometimes we function in ways that make white expressions a default picture of what it looks like to be part of the body of Christ, and these hands and mouths need to do some listening, and we need voices to challenge our experiences.

I’ve been on the journey with Aunty Jean for a while now; I’m still learning, still listening — and I’m going to share my story — I don’t love doing this… but I’m told stories are more interesting…

My story of deconstructing whiteness as the ‘default’ in my life — cause it’s something we have to do in our churches — and something we need many voices to do…

My daughter asked me what an Anglican is this morning… and I had to talk about how we Presbyterians are Scottish, and Anglicans were English, and the Baptists… well… who knows… most’ve our churches are white institutions, where whiteness is the default.

If this is true, and I reckon it is unless church’s have done the work already, how can this blindness not lead to a hand saying to a foot “I don’t need you” — or a hand saying to a foot “be a hand” — how can it not rob the body of its richness, and its ability to truly be the body of Christ in the world united in the Spirit?

So my name’s Nathan Macleay Campbell — sounds Scottish, double-barrelled Scottish, right? And I grew up in the most Scottish little town in Australia, Maclean, my Campbell Grandparents lived in Inverell, which’s near Glen Innes — basically the Scottish Bermuda Triangle… my sisters did highland dancing.

With a name like Campbell you just assume your whiteness is of the Scottish variety — I’d heard someone at a family reunion of some sort saying something about how we were actually Irish — but I never really paid attention to that stuff, cause I’m white. I didn’t have to. That history does not define me…

I’m a Campbell in a Presbyterian Church as an ordained minister — My dad’s now the minister of Scot’s Presbyterian Church in Melbourne; I feel like Paul when he trots out his Pharisee heritage… this’s a pretty niche intersection of white (Scottish) church privilege…

I guess what I’m saying is this’s been a very comfortable default experience for me; and so much of what I think about the world is basically framed by this idea that my heritage is true, that white is right.

This’s a dangerous frame when you’re leading a church — or choosing a church — or choosing who to listen to — if you gravitate towards your personal status quo being true.

I did some trauma training recently where we were taught about intergenerational trauma — a traumatic event can embed itself in a family system for five generations and compound over time — like compound interest — and this’s particularly clear when we’re dealing with people whose land, wages, and children have been stolen over a number of generations.

To be white isn’t to be free from trauma in your family history — but it can mean knowing nothing about your family or cultural/ethnic history is normal. I didn’t grow up hearing stories connecting me to country. I’m 40 this year, and till January I had zero idea about my family before my grandpa. Trauma’s not the only thing that compounds in a family system — privilege does too.

The costs that compound for a people who have their land, wages, and children stolen, so do the benefits for the people doing the stealing. And in Australia, that’s been white people.

In my experience, being white means never needing to know the true story of our land, but just seeing your success as a product of your playing the default game well and working hard.

It’s easy to keep believing that — and it seems obvious — if nobody tells you otherwise, or prompts you to do the work.

And — just to remind you why we’re talking about this — this’s why white churches need to create ways to hear uncomfortable truths from people outside the default experience… or we all end up wanting to be hands, when the body needs a heart, or mouths when the body needs ears. It’s why we need a voice to the church…

Anyway, I told you my middle name is Macleay — it sounds Scottish, but it’s actually a family name — my dad and grandpa both had Macleay as a middle name, and now my son does too. It’s a nice tradition, but for me, now, it’s a reminder of my compounding intergenerational privilege.

In January took a family road trip… We stopped on the Macleay River — I’d started doing some family history because my wife’s grandma started dating a Campbell and he wanted to know if we were related. I’d tracked down the first Campbell of my family tree to settle in the Macleay River area — his name was William. He came to Australia in 1839, on a ship. He was a farm labourer.

His son James was born in Australia — from what I can tell from their death notices — James was the first of my family tree to own a farm; his death notice calls him a rural pioneer — he was an elder in the Presbyterian Church and the chair of the farmer’s co-op and the dairy company.

Wealth starts compounding pretty quickly when you’re farming on newly developed fertile Aussie land…

His son George Campbell moved to Inverell — where he farmed, and chaired the butter factory — and where my pa, Neville was born in 1909. My pa was an entrepreneur, he and his brothers ran a business, he had a piggery, and his son — my dad, so far as I can tell, was the first in our family tree to go to university in the city — studying engineering in Sydney…

That’s five generations of my family there — up to my dad — of compounding privilege and wealth. Not trauma. If my dad hadn’t chosen to embrace the Presbyterian ministry thing this story of compounding wealth would’ve continued. Unless I hear other stories, this’s how I understand the default life; it’s a white story intertwined with a very white church; the Presbyterian Church.

Now — I wonder what it would’ve been like if I’d grown up as a Purcell or Walker — Aboriginal families in my primary school, would I be a Presbyterian minister? Probably not. Would I feel valued, or even welcome, in this system where I have a position of privilege? Like my voice could be heard? Probably not.

Imagine a church if I thought this was normal and everybody should be like me… and… You’d pretty much get the Presbyterian Church. And that’s a problem — right — you get a body where value is — whether we say it or not — judged against this pattern of privilege. You get my spot if you navigate a system of training that requires security and the capacity to jump through academic hoops that are built from all these cultural norms; and then we don’t listen to other voices.

Unless we deliberately do — unless we say to the other body parts we need you.

Unless we commit ourselves not just to seeing the blindness in our own defaults; deconstructing our whiteness in order to understand our stories — our true history — and do this by inviting others to share their own stories.

Unless we listen to Aunty Jean, and the voices she brings together on nights like this.

Our stories become part of what we bring to the body of Christ — and listening to the multi-generational stories of others — inviting voices into our churches — will help us in that task better, just as a voice to parliament might help there.

But we need to deconstruct the default of whiteness at the same time — and that’s what I’d invite you to do tonight.

If you’re white like me, examine your story — and then take the time to hear stories that’re different.

Support voices — aboriginal Christian leaders and ministry — pass the mic, challenge the structures and culture of your churches…

If you’re not white — will you be this voice? Call us to repent. Call us to see. Call us to be the body of Christ — which needs you. Be the mouth, we’re all ears.

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