Friday, July 29, 2011

This is my body: what elements are essential in indigenous aboriginal communion?

I am on a research quest:

What are the elements used in indigenous aboriginal (Australian) communion? Is it bread made from wheat based flour? Or does it involve any indigenous food products? And what was the theology – specifically the initial theology – that shapes the elements?

When I asked the ACD librarian, she looked suitably intrigued and impressed. And then said she needed some time to think, and suggested I come back on Tuesday.

Why my question? Well, I am working on a paper for a conference in early 2012, “Story Weaving: Colonial Contexts and Postcolonial Theology

A number of thinkers have suggested that the eucharist is a key resource for living both Christianly and humanly in a post-colonial world. These include William Cavanaugh in Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire and Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ (Challenges in Contemporary Theology). The argument is that the colonial notions of global and local, universal and particular, are fundamentally disrupted in the eucharist. A similar, but even more tightly focused argument has been offered by John McDowell, in his exploration of the Narrative of Institution in 1 Corinthians 11 (“Feastings in God at Midnight: Theology and the Globalised Present,” Pacifica 23 (October 1010)).

This argument, that the eucharist is a key resource for a post-colonial world, stands in striking contrast to an example by Susan Dworkin in The Viking in the Wheat Field: A Scientist’s Struggle to Preserve the World’s Harvest. She notes that when the Catholic church arrived (colonised) South America, they brought the belief that in Christianity, wheat flour rather than the (indigenous) corn flour could be used to bake communion wafers. In other words, in practice, the eucharist becomes complicit in processes of colonisation, rather than a key resource in resisting globalisation.

What is intriguing is that Dworkin’s next paragraph, however, provide an example of a way in which colonisation can be deconstructed. She describes how in order to provide such colonial bread, wheat needed to be imported. It was grown around local churches. It self-seeded. Through natural processes of selection, the wheat that survived developed genes more uniquely adapted to local environments.

In the late 20th century, scientists realised that such wheat might have enormous potential in safe guarding food production. They began to search through isolated churches in Mexico, seeking genetic material, plants that had adapted and evolved. In other words, what was originally imported wheat was now highly prized indigenous wheat.

This raises a fascinating set of questions, not only around ecclesiology, eucharist and the Narrative of Institution, but around the very elements. What should constitute the very body of Christ? How is it’s composition, complicit in, or resistant to, processes of colonisation?

Hence my research question in the library this morning. Here in Australia, what communion elements did indigenous Aboriginal cultures employ? And was the underlying theology a colonial imposition? And how does this disrupt, or endorse, the work of Cavanaugh and McDowell? And how might the resultant practices, even if unintentional, contribute toward something that might in fact be a unique emerging indigenous gift for a hungry world?

So, I’d be grateful if any readers, especially Australian readers, might suggest any research leads. Because indigenous Aboriginal culture is wide and varied. And because both I and my librarian suspect that the search will be less that straightforward, but mighty, mighty interesting.

Posted by steve at 01:06 PM


  1. Hi Steve
    Scott Gyatt put me on to you. I am a UAICC minister in Tasmania. In pre colonial Tasmania did not use any grains or make any form of bread – if a staple food was to be used it would probably be some sort of shellfish(abalone or oyster)As dor drink other than water the only one I’m aware of is the partly fermented sap of the cider gum(now a rare highland tree) In our community here we do however use traditional grass baskets to serve the bread and the unfermented grape juice is drunk from limpet shells to show connection with shellfish as a part of the staple diet.Instead of an alter or communion table a kangaroo skin decorated with traditional symbols as well as christian ones is at the centre of the circle. On a visit to Arnhem land I was told by some elders of a remote comminity that the had once celebrated the eucharist using flat cakes made from crushed cycad nuts from which the toxins had been leached and a drink made from wild honey. Tim

    Comment by Tim Matton-Johnson — July 29, 2011 @ 3:22 pm

  2. I’m not contributing anything. I’m just sitting here and re-reading this piece, and I’m completely .. I’m lost for words. The sheer amazement and wonder of what I’m reading. I lament my world is suddenly revealed as being very small indeed.

    Comment by Bruce Grindlay — July 29, 2011 @ 3:54 pm

  3. Tim

    I’ve replied to you off line, and indicated I would love to know more – especially on what were the reasons why folk in pre-colonial Tasmania would have chosen shellfish. Was this out of necessity or out of a desire to be contextual?

    Thanks so much for commenting, it such a rich gift both your words and in what it hints at, a genuine indigenous connection with God.


    Comment by steve — July 29, 2011 @ 4:03 pm

  4. Steve, the Gogodala church used sago as their “bread” and coconut juice/water as their “wine”
    The Hulis used sweet potato as their “bread” and I can’t remember what they used for “wine” Will find out. Mum.

    Comment by Elizabeth Taylor — July 29, 2011 @ 8:45 pm

  5. Thanks Elizabeth. Do you know if there is anything written on why? Why these elements? What was the theology at work? How was local placed alongside global?


    Comment by steve — July 29, 2011 @ 9:06 pm

  6. For anyone who is interested (or if you want to ad a link to your original blog) the articule you mentioned on “Feastings in God at Midnight: Theology and the Globalised Present” is available online for free:

    Comment by Carl Gregg — July 30, 2011 @ 5:18 am

  7. Ross Weymouth (now at CLTC in Port Moresby I think) did his Ph.D on the Gogodala chgurch and its establishment snd he may have written about that. Don’t know where his Ph.D would be lodged now. He wrote this in the 70’s if I remember, and we used it a lot to help us re-establish the Gogodala Bible school at Mapodo. The first converts were baptised just before the missionaries were evacuated in 1942 and possible took communion then for the first time. The missionaries may have been forced to use local elements because there were no alternatives, as they were leaving. They did what they could to make it culturally relevant. E.T.

    Comment by Elizabeth Taylor — July 30, 2011 @ 8:45 pm

  8. The Warlpiri people at Lajamanu, at the top of the Tanami Desert in the NT use cold tea in billies and damper for communion, in preference to bread and juice/wine.

    In the Warlpiri Bible translation the word ‘mangarri’ is used which can mean bread or damper…can’t remember what word is used for the drink offhand

    You might want to look up books by Rev. Ivan Jordan, a Baptist missionary, for a discussion of how the Warlpiri came to that decision (Ivan has been working through the implications of Leslie Newbiggins model of enculturation of the gospel in his work for about 30 years now).

    Comment by kerry — July 31, 2011 @ 4:16 pm

  9. there’s a similar wheat story from South Australia actually – Pinaroo.

    Comment by craig — July 31, 2011 @ 5:33 pm

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