When it comes to racist apartheid in churches, Australia’s clearly a winner. Have a look at Australian Church hymnbooks. The official hymnbooks of all Australian Churches may have a token Aboriginal hymn (or two, or unusually, three). This token inclusion is often cited as proof that no racism exists in Australian churches. Indignant pastors, when accused of musical racism, may divert attention to the African or black American hymn repertoire, because they think of all coloured people as one homogenous group, and so they’re incapable of valuing our many Australian Aboriginal Church musics as unique repertoires. No Aboriginal psalm settings or liturgical chants are ever included in Australian Church hymnbooks, and to the casual overseas visitor, and to Australia’s large immigrant population, it’s obvious that those churches who have intentionally edited out the rich repertoires of Australian Aboriginal Church music, are deeply and selectively racist.
This ingrained racism has historical roots in the British Empire colonial mission era, when conversion to Christianity was linked with an all-pervasive campaign to civilize, enslave and assimilate the Australian First Nations populations that remained from the killing times. In the colonial era, Government bans on speaking and singing all Australian Aboriginal languages worked effectively to silence traditional Aboriginal music everywhere. That era has now passed, but malignant echoes of these inhumane bans on Aboriginal languages still infect many Australian State school language policies and curricula. Official over-promotion of English as the Australian lingua franca has, to a large extent, legitimized musical, conversational, and literary racism in Australian Churches. And paradoxically, immigrant languages are accorded privileged status in Australian Churches and schools, over Australian Aboriginal languages.
In 2017 the passing of the NSW Aboriginal Languages Bill opened a door to including Aboriginal languages in NSW school curricula. Revival of local Aboriginal languages such as Dharug, Wiradjuri, Gundungurra, Gambayngirr, Gamilaroi, Dharawal and Dhurga, on a large scale, suddenly became possible. Many NSW Aboriginal communities, inspired and encouraged by the example of the Aranda / Pitjantjatjara language Songkeepers Choir, are now reviving their languages and promoting their unique musical genres. New South Wales has led the way in changing the repressive legislation that banned Australian Aboriginal languages in our schools. If all Australian Churches follow this example, and begin promoting Aboriginal languages in parishes, and including Aboriginal hymns, psalms and liturgical music in their worship repertoires, the overt racism shamefully displayed in most Australian Churches every Sunday, may begin to recede.