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White Christ Black Cross: The emergence of a black church.

White Christ Black Cross: The emergence of a black church

Noel Loos 2007

Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, x+216pp, ISBN 9780855755539


On 13 October 1985 Arthur Malcolm was welcomed back to his north Queensland home community of Yarrabah. The previous day he had been consecrated in St James Cathedral in Townsville as the first Aboriginal bishop within the Anglican Church of Australia. Arthur Malcolm's parents, both born around the larger Kowawama region of Cape York, were brought to Yarrabah under the Queensland policy of family removals. Arthur, born in 1936, left Yarrabah at the age of 16 to attend the Church Army College near Newcastle. Nearly 50 years later he returned as an Anglican bishop with an Australia-wide responsibility for Aboriginal Anglicans.

In his book White Christ Black Cross: The emergence of a black church, Noel Loos describes the history and background to the Anglican church's 150-year relationship with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples within Australia. Anglican missions were established under the umbrella of the Australian Board of Missions, and were among the first Christian missions to operate within Australia. Loos is an academic who has grown up in northern Queensland and is well suited to write this book. After spending his early working life as a teacher, he returned to further postgraduate studies at James Cook University. While sympathetic to Anglican mission history and culture, he also offers a critical eye on how we might better understand that history and culture.

Loos's contact with Aboriginal peoples, and a resulting doctorate in 1976 (Aboriginal-European relations in north Queensland, 1861-1897), has caused him to be intrigued by phenomena within the Aboriginal-Christian history and relationship (p.14):
 It was not for me to try to explain how
 Aboriginal people had come to understand
 Christianity and were continuing to do so.
 The fact that this happened under the worst
 circumstances imaginable began to interest
 me more.

Many times Loos describes the colonisation of this country as 'a holocaust'. What all missions exposed, particularly in relation to government and White settlers, was 'the catastrophic consequence of deliberate aggression, benign indifference, and calculated neglect' towards the colonised (p.42). This was not to suggest that all missionaries regarded Aboriginal persons as their equals. Loos believes that most regarded Aboriginal culture with contempt. However, 'given their totally inadequate resources and personnel, the missions often achieved surprisingly positive results' (p.37). What remains a fascination to Loos, as it might be to most readers, is why so many Aboriginal persons accepted the Christian message that was offered to them in so clearly authoritarian and, often, harsh and racist ways.

Loos notes a comment by John Harris (1990) that, since the 1930s, there has been a higher percentage of Aboriginal persons who have identified as Christians than there has been within the whole Australian population. While the 2006 census suggests that the percentage of both categories who identify as Christian is roughly the same (around 66 percent), an historical acceptance by many Aboriginal peoples of Christianity deserves careful attention. As Loos points out, there continues to exist a complex relationship between Aboriginal persons and their memories of mission life (p.2):
 With its joyous memories and its bitter ones,
 mission life is inextricably part of the lives
 and history of Yarrabah as it is of so many
 Aborigines throughout Australia. For some
 Aboriginal people, it is not an aberration in
 their historical experience; it is as central as
 the Dreamtime).

Not all Aboriginal persons would support the notion that the missions positively shaped their identities and experiences of the sacred. Loos argues well in this book for a much-needed and clearer understanding of the role that early Christian missions and missionaries played in Aboriginal persons' lives.

Arthur Malcolm's elevation as an Anglican bishop in 1985 may not have brought much media attention, but it did evoke much emotion within his home community and from many other Aboriginal peoples, Christian believers or not. Loos comments (p.9):
 In an increasingly secular Australian society
 in which the Christian churches had long
 been marginalised, it may seem surprising
 that so many Aboriginal people were witnessing
 to the Christian faith, or at least saw it as

It is here that some of the complexities in this history and mission relationship become gradually revealed. While 'like their contemporaries, missionaries were also prisoners of their own culture' (p.10), some suffered because they challenged the dominant and acceptable White culture of their times. No mission history of northern Australia would be complete without mention of Ernest Gribble and his Aboriginal colleagues James and Angelina Noble.

Ernest Gribble arrived to establish Yarrabah in 1892 after his father, John Gribble, had withdrawn due to ill health. He remained there until 1909 and then went in 1913 to help establish Forrest River Mission in the Kimberley. in 1926 Gribble heard from local persons that a massacre had taken place. His reporting of the massacre led to the establishment of a royal commission and charges against two of the policemen alleged to have been involved. While no one was ever sentenced for the crime, Gribble's actions brought national and international attention to the culture of 'punitive expeditions' and White settler behaviour in remote Australia. While, to some, Gribble was 'arrogant, paternalistic, autocratic, bullying, [a] sometimes violent missionary' (p.108), in the royal commission the lawyer for the defence criticised his relationship with Aboriginal persons: 'he treats them as the equal of whites' (p.103).

Gribble's relationship with Aborigines was far from simple. His encouragement of local leadership within the Yarrabah church community led to James Noble being ordained as the first Aboriginal deacon in the Anglican Church in 1925. There was not to be another Aboriginal ordained for nearly 50 years. Expelled from Forrest River in 1928 as being unsuitable as chaplain and superintendent, Gribble went to Palm Island in 1930, where he remained for another 27 years. Regarding this missionary, Loos concludes, 'although Gribble's authoritarian rule was at times harsh, he was held in great respect, even loved and revered by those who remained part of the mission community at Yarrabah, and later at Forrest River' (p.62).

What Loos offers in this book is more than the history of the Anglican Board of Missions, the establishment of Anglican missions across Australia and the tangled relationship they each had with the governments and the church leaders of their times. He opens up a much-needed conversation about our Australian Christian and mission heritage. Not only have strong and committed Aboriginal believers emerged from various Christian missions, but some have become significant ministers, teachers and theologians. At the same time, as Loos says, 'there is no nice way to rob a people of their land' (p.111). Although missions largely acted in concert with government policies, some missionaries acted with insight, passion and a commitment to justice. This book makes an important contribution to our understanding of those many complexities of mission history in this land.


Harris, John W 1990 One Blood: 200 years of Aboriginal encounter with Christianity: A story of hope, Albatross Books, Sutherland, NSW.

Reviewed by Dr Brian McCoy, Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, La Trobe University < au>
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Author:McCoy, Brian
Publication:Australian Aboriginal Studies
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Sep 22, 2008
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