Ending the Great Australian Silence

Rev Dr Geoff Broughton reflects on ministering alongside Waka Waka woman Brooke Prentis at this year's Surrender Conference, and ending the Great Australian Silence by listening and amplifying Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices.

Brooke Prentis and I were conducting the sound check for the second of our Indigenous bible studies at Surrender 2017 last weekend as more than 150 people gathered.

Brooke was too loud, apparently, for my friend and colleague Dr. Shane Clifton – from Alphacrucis College – who was about to deliver the giving disability bible studies in the tent adjacent to ours. 

Brooke Prentis and Geoff Broughton giving a bible study

I joked, spontaneously, “It's about time the Indigenous voice was the loudest voice”. A roar of approval erupted from a group of Aboriginal aunties seated in the front rows. Their response was not like the roar of the crowd after a goal has been scored at a football match, nor the roar of laughter after a funny joke at a comedy festival. This was the primal roar of people who know what it is to be ignored and silenced in Australia.

For too long non-Aboriginal Australians like me – and, I suspect, many of you – have not been listening to Aboriginal voices. Long before I was born, anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner spoke of the ‘great Australian silence’ with regard to Aboriginal peoples. That phrase was coined more than fifty years ago.

Aunty Jean Phillips has been a strong voice for Aboriginal Christians for much longer than fifty years. I first met Aunty Jean nearly twenty years ago and she has taught me how to listen to Aboriginal voices. I confess that I have been a slow learner and I’m still learning to listen well because the hurried, distracted and privileged church and university I inhabit allows me to ignore and forget. 

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Christian Leaders praying together

Recently I have discovered there is more I must do than simply listen – as fundamental as dadirri (‘deep listening’) remains. I am using my position and privilege, as a priest in the church and a theologian in the university, to amplify Aboriginal voices like Aunty Jean’s, Brooke’s and others. Last year Brooke and I shared the platform in local churches and international conferences, interpreting Aboriginal injustice theologically. It has been a privilege and pleasure to add my voice to hers: walking together and talking together.

There are so many Aboriginal voices that remain unheard – such as the softly spoken Harold from Moree or Allen from Cairns – my roommates for the Surrender weekend. Men who know what it is to be ignored and silenced by the Church. It was a privilege to hear their stories.

Listening can end the great Australian silence. Common Grace is enabling the Aboriginal voice to be louder. Will you join us in listening to – and amplifying – their voices in your church, workplace and neighbourhood?


Rev Dr Geoff Broughton is the Rector at Paddington Anglican Church in Sydney, and a Lecturer at St Mark's Theological College in Practical Theology. He is the author of Restorative Christ: Jesus, Justice, and Discipleship (Pickwick Publications, 2015).

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Justice