It was my priviledge and honour to compose and read the citation for the conferral of the degree of Doctor of Divinity on Aunty Denise at the Adelaide College of Divinity celebration of graduations on the 2nd of November 2020. This is the text.
The Reverend Aunty Denise Champion is an internationally respected theologian, author, teacher and speaker. A daughter of the Adnyamathanha Nation, she is the first South Australian Aboriginal woman to be ordained for ministry in the Uniting Church in Australia. For decades she has been a key leader in the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress, within both the South Australian Regional Council and the National Council of Congress. She has exercised pastoral ministries at Port Augusta, Quorn and Salisbury North.
Aunty Denise is best known to the academy for her ground-breaking book Yarta-Wandatha: The Land is Speaking, the People are Speaking (2014) which showed the way the ancient wisdom of the Adnyamathanha Nation is a wisdom “full of God”. In this book she started a theological conversation that quickly went national, then ecumenical, then international. We wait with excitement for the publication of the new book she has recently completed.
Aunty Denise is an accomplished teacher, not only in formal settings like Uniting College or Augusta Park Primary School, but especially in the “classroom” that is Ikara–Flinders Ranges. She has taken several generations of theological students Walking on Country there, as well as many church and community leaders from all over Australia and the world. Walking on Country with Aunty Denise, you learn to listen to the land through the ancient stories of the Adnyamathanha Nation, as it tells its people who they are, where they’ve come from, how they are related to each other, how they should behave, and what they may hope for.
Aunty Denise is in great demand as a keynote speaker at events as diverse as the triennial National Council of Churches Forum (Melbourne 2013), the triennial Assembly of the Uniting Church in Australia (Perth 2015), the Charles Sturt University Graduation (Sydney 2015), and the World Council of Churches Indigenous People’s Spirituality and Theology Conference (Darwin 2016). And her wise voice is sought out in innumerable consultations, symposia, workshops and meetings.
Aunty Denise is being honoured with this degree in recognition of her accomplishments as a Christian scholar and leader, and her life’s work in reconciliation, rural and remote advocacy, and inter-cultural dialogue. Her nomination for the award was accompanied by letters of support from an international panel of scholars and church leaders.
One church leader wrote, “[Aunty Denise] has offered a gentle but courageous example of leadership that has reminded the Uniting Church of the commitments it has made to relationships with First Peoples. Through her organisation of walks on country she has challenged people to really relate to this land and its people, and has contributed to reconciliation. She has been an important model for young leaders.”
Another church leader said, “Denise has been able to encourage other First Nations leaders to reflect from their own embodied ancient wisdom. She has mentored and encouraged a younger generation of First Nations Peoples to think, reflect and engage in a contextual way which has given value and meaning. Her work and the way she engages with others has been and continues to be, significantly important in the reconciliation movement, both within the Church and more widely the community.”
One scholar concluded, “[The ACD Council’s decision to confer this award on Aunty Denise is] a fitting recognition of her original, substantial and sustained contribution. Through her writing and education, Aunty Denise has made a significant contribution to theological education, initially in Australia and now in Aotearoa. This is testimony to the substantial contribution she has made in Adelaide, Australia and internationally. Her originality is clearly evident in the way her work has become a resource for further scholarship, providing indigenous hermeneutical resources to enable non-Western theological dialogue, indigenous scholar to indigenous scholar.”
Another scholar affirmed that, “Aunty Denise is a scholar looking to the horizon by reclaiming the ancient past of her peoples – a stance that makes her a thought-leader among First and Second Peoples in an Australian Church profoundly influenced by colonial missionary theology, and an important indigenous contributor internationally. Granting her a Doctor of Divinity (Honoris Causa) would be a well-deserved honour for a deeply intelligent, wise, generous, and faith-full woman.”
The recommendation that Aunty Denise be awarded the degree of Doctor of Divinity (Honoris Causa) was endorsed unanimously by the Adelaide College of Divinity Council.