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Sydney diocese puts out fire over proposed smoking ban

23 October 2018


Aboriginal Terry Olsen carries burning gum leaves as he performs a smoking ceremony to mark the start of National Reconciliation Week for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in Sydney on 28 May

Aboriginal Terry Olsen carries burning gum leaves as he performs a smoking ceremony to mark the start of National Reconciliation Week for Aboriginal a...

A PROPOSED ban on Indigenous smoking ceremonies on any diocesan property in Sydney has been withdrawn following outcry from Aboriginal leaders and a scholar of Aboriginal history.

The ban, along with comprehensive bans on all aspects of same-sex marriage and a range of other events and practices, was included in a property policy put before the Sydney synod, but was withdrawn before the synod debate on Monday.

During the debate, the chair of the diocese’s Religious Freedom Reference Group, Dr Michael Stead, a Sydney regional bishop, apologised to the Indigenous community for the “clumsy” way the matter had been addressed. Claiming that the ban would have affected only smoking ceremonies “with a spirituality inconsistent with Christianity”, he said that the group now realised it needed to consult more widely.

The former inaugural chair of the Sydney Anglican Indigenous Peoples Committee, Pastor Ray Minniecon, said that he was disappointed when he learnt of the proposed ban. “I don’t think it was well thought through and discussed appropriately with our mob, our people”, he said.

The Revd Dr John Harris, author of a seminal history of the Aboriginal encounter with Christianity, said: “The people who must decide about smoking ceremonies on church property are Christian Aboriginal people. Only they are qualified to assess whether God is being honoured or not.”

The synod, however, approved the proposed bans on same-sex weddings and receptions, events advocating same-sex marriage, and yoga classes involving Hindu practices from all Anglican church property in Sydney.

The bans, which also include advocacy of abortion, undertaking stem-cell research, and manufacturing weapons of war, apply not just to churches and church halls but also to schools and rental properties — a total of 900 properties.

The move comes at a time when the diocese and other conservative Churches are calling for religious-freedom legislation to protect churches’ right to discriminate, particularly in areas concerning LGBT issues.

Bishop Stead told the synod that the property policy “arose in the context of the same-sex marriage debates last year, and the realisation that the changing legal landscape had put our Anglican institutions at risk of anti-discrimination complaints and other adverse action”.

To rely on existing anti-discrimination exemptions, religious institutions had to demonstrate that their actions conformed to the “doctrines, tenets or beliefs of that religion”, which needed to be clearly articulated, he said.

The policy states that the diocese of Sydney maintains that there are only two “expressions of faithful sexuality” — marriage between a man and a woman, or abstinence in singleness. It bans advocacy of human sexuality contrary to those two “expressions”.

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