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Why is it that while we are observing well documented decline in the life of the Church and more seriously of Christian adherence, we are hearing little or no conversation about an appropriately renewed shape for the Church this century? Are we simply going to keep doing what we have always done, accepting we are more and more irrelevant while the world gets on very nicely without us – or more truthfully languishes without proper Christian engagement? Or might we consider that our present structures, whilst serving us well in the past, no longer do so and that an entirely different way of being Church needs to emerge? Not only do these structures no longer serve us, but they are a burden that now prevent us from being a true witness in the contemporary world.
Those of us who undertook theological exploration in the 1960’s did so in the so-called death of God era. It was not simply John Robinson and Honest to God; it was also Dietrich Bonhoeffer and religion less Christianity; Paul Tillich and his proposition that God should be understood as being rather than a being - etc. Of course, none of this was about a genuine proposition of the ‘death of God’ in any real sense, less still of the demise of Christianity, much more about how one might more reasonably understand and practice religious or Christian belief in a contemporary world. I will always be grateful to my lecturers at that time, especially John Falkingham who taught theology and Gordon Griffiths who was my first Old Testament lecturer. At the age of 20 they helped me negotiate these ideas while at the same time retaining confidence in the fundamentals of faith, and love of scripture. Much later this early formation helped me chair a packed St John’s Cathedral in Brisbane who were there to hear Jack Spong in full flight, doing his best to discredit the biblical narrative, and then proceed to give us his own. His populous treatment of scripture had the same depth as the populous politics that now sweeps western democracies.
The Bonhoeffers and Tillichs of today are no less challenging and should be better known and read. They of course include James Alison, Miroslav Volf, Richard Rohr and many others. But I do not want here to engage in a theological discussion as such, but rather an ecclesiastical one.
Are we not currently facing the death of the (institutional) church and in our context, the beloved Anglican Church? I do not by this infer the death of ‘church’, the gathering of God’s people, nor am I inferring the death of Anglicanism per se, far from it, but the death of that institutional expression which no longer serves the contemporary age. Amongst other things I mean both the death, or radical redefinition, of entities like Dioceses, Parishes, and episcopates.
In the 1960’s I began my ministry in Inverell and Armidale in the Diocese of Armidale. Despite what I am sure were very imperfect ministries, it was almost impossible to get a seat on Sunday unless you were early. The Church was a lively and vital component of community life.
In the 1970’s and early 80’s I was the rector of Singleton in the Newcastle Diocese. Our Sunday school had 15 classes; one year there were 100 confirmation candidates; Christmas there were 1000 communicants; the men’s group had 150 members. All within a total population of well under 10,000 people. Many of you will be able to tell very similar stories.
Today the number of viable parishes in the bush have drastically reduced, while those in the city are able to remain viable because the population on which they draw is many times larger. We are maintaining bureaucracies and institutions at great expense as if they continue to have the relevance they once had. Everyone can recount stories (probably from one’s own children) of those who retain faith but find the parish ritual entirely unsatisfying and have dropped out. So many Parishes appear to have become chaplaincies to those who are members rather than agents of nourishment renewal, and transformation in the communities in which they are set. With a few notable and very refreshing exceptions bishops appear not to want to engage at all outside the narrow confines of their ecclesiastical lives.
So, what am I suggesting?
We need a wholesale reversal of the synod of Whitby (664)! You will recall that at that synod the Celtic Church lost and the Roman territorial, hierarchical, version of church through Dioceses and Parishes took its place (quite apart from the little matter of the date of Easter!) Now of course I am not meaning some nostalgic return to a past long gone, but I am meaning a rediscovery of a Church in tune with the rhythms of life in the contemporary world. Such a Church is likely to be far more contemplative. It is likely to connect digitally with most of its membership. Gathering together for worship on a seven-day cycle will continue but will not be the pattern for most of the membership. When gatherings occur, perhaps six to eight times a year, of which Christmas, Easter and Pentecost will clearly be three, they need to be celebratory, connecting to the life of the wider community and the rhythms and stories with which it identifies. Many or most will find regular fellowship discussion and energy from a variety of small groups associated with meals, conversation and prayer. These groups will be multifarious and not listed in the Sunday pew sheet!
We need to breed a very different style of episcopal leader, not one who sees himself or herself leading an old style Diocesan bureaucracy but a contemplative who is able to lead the Christian family into engagement with God, each other, and equally importantly with the world in which they live.
Such a bishop will not chair committees or boards, but will be the gatherer of spiritual leadership, ordained and lay, the one who identifies and gives permission to giftedness and grace. Bishop and clergy will not want to constrain spiritual exploration, least of all seek to define the atonement or other Christian verities but foster such exploration of God known to us as Trinity that ethical and other major 21st century challenges can be understood in its light – as well as the personal challenges that beset us all. Whether Parish or Diocesan boundaries and identities should remain I am unsure, but I am certain they require radical transformation and rethinking.
Western culture is decaying at the same rate that Christianity is diminishing in influence. It cannot be too arrogant to connect these realities. We need to be honest enough to recognise that continuing to do what has always been done will not lead to a different result. The world is crying out for wisdom, for insight. It is not in need of religiosity, dogma or canon law. It needs authentic Christian living, openness - not certainty, inclusiveness – not elitism, a healthy integration of heart, mind and gut.
These words are written, not to offer any solution – how could they, but to open a conversation that is desperately overdue. They are written to suggest that those who enter the episcopate behind us should be expecting to lead a very, very, different style of episcopate to the one which we led, and they should be given every encouragement to do so.
Are we observing the beginning of the end of Australian Democracy?
The Australian government is proposing to classify most major charities as ‘political campaigners’ allowing it to audit their advocacy work and sources of income. Political expenditure is defined as the public expression of views on an issue that is, or is likely to be, before an election, regardless of whether a writ has been called for an election. It is well established that parties most able to influence government policy are not charities but paid up self-interest groups like the gambling industry and the mining industry. The influence of wealth in setting public policy is well documented and beyond dispute, in this context, to penalise charities and public agencies who have no interest in profit, but a great interest in justice fairness and equity, is an attack on democracy itself.
Dom Hélder Pessoa Câmara, the outspoken Brazilian Bishop who in the 1970’s courageously took the side of the poor during Brazil’s oppressive military dictatorship famously said: "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist." Camara’s nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize was unsurprisingly blocked by Brazilian authorities, but the process of canonisation of him was reopened in 2015.
Australian governments of both poles are very happy for the Church to undertake welfare responsibilities on its behalf (to feed and clothe the poor), indeed to fulfil governmental mandatory obligation, but governments are increasingly reluctant to countenance public conversation about the deeper issues of justice and equity from the Churches or indeed from the growing number of social media networks like Getup.
It is ironic that the Church shows signs of increased acquiescence, it is allowing a view to prevail that welfare is the Church’s core business, whereas advocacy is not. Nothing could be further from the truth. Any reading of scripture, any examination of the life of Christ, any scroll through a list of those whom the Church has honoured over the centuries will show that ‘asking why the poor are poor’, is absolutely core business. To use an obvious example: William Wilberforce would today be a prime target of the Turnbull government. His movement for the abolition of slavery was not simply about human rights and dignity, although nothing could be more important than that; but it was also a root and branch challenge to the prevailing economic theory of the time that slavery was an essential backdrop to the maintenance of ‘economic growth’.
If the Church is not addressing issues of justice and equity, harmony and fairness, it is not fulfilling its Christ given mandate and is in danger of simply being a pious supporter of whatever happens to be the political whim and colour of the day.
The difficulty has become more acute in recent times because the conservative side of politics has branded issues of equity as ‘socialism’ and issues of justice as ‘left-wing’ politics. How on earth, or why on earth, has Australian politics followed American politics down this bizarre path: in the process making Christianity un-Christlike; and demonising issues that should sit hand in glove with being ‘conservative’, such as conservation, as a left wing or communist plot?
There are many issues that one could reasonably assume to be expressions of Christian discipleship in the 21st Century, likewise, issues that should be entirely compatible with ‘conservative values’..
Let me name three of the most obvious:
Democracy is sustained through the free articulation of opinion without fear or favour. It is empowered when the ballot box has more influence on national policy than favour gained through political donation. It is empowered when the poor and marginalised are empowered. It is empowered when ethical considerations bear as much weight as profit in decision making. Democracy wanes when policy is dictated by the wealthy, self-interested, and advantaged. A party that calls itself ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ has completely lost its way if the policies it espouses are the very antithesis of ‘conservatism’ or ‘liberality’. Such appears to be the state into which Australian public life has now fallen, but worse, democracy will experience an almost fatal blow if policy currently before the parliament should pass which gifts unfettered and unchallenged voice to the wealthy and powerful and demonises those who speak for justice and equity.
Tony Abbott’s recent attempt to drive a wedge within his side of politics (while the Prime Minister was overseas!) should normally be treated with the straight bat it deserves. But what if on this occasion he is right? What if he is right that an excessively large migrant intake is in fact harmful: socially harmful, environmentally harmful and in the long term harmful economically?
Let’s start with two positives. Unquestionably the great success of Australia’s migration policy over the last two or three decades has been its genuinely multi-cultural flavour. Migrants are drawn from almost all parts of the world ensuring that no single ethnic cohort dominates to cause racial or ethnic power struggles. The demonising of any single group (South Sudanese, Lebanese, Vietnamese) quickly loses steam. The foundation of the programme’s success has been the multi dimension of multi-culturalism. Secondly, despite the shocking and unresolved treatment of asylum seekers on Manus and Nauru, significant numbers of refugees have flourished in their new home, adding much to the life of all Australians.
Now to critique of the immigration quantum. Almost all political decisions have first an economic or self-interest rationale. Environmental, demographic, social, or moral factors lag well behind. For example, the Tasmanian government’s support for the gaming industry is an obvious case in point. The damage done to the less well off through poker machines is well documented, as is the fact that Tasmanian gaming profits end up with a family resident in NSW: but Tasmanian government gains ensure the industry continues to flourish.
So, what lies behind support for a big Australia? Scott Morrison gives a clear answer. It is economic. Australia is unable to maintain its unbroken run of 25 years economic growth without it. So, what is wrong with that? What is wrong with it lies in the ever-increasing groan that wages have remained static. The connection? Australia’s economic growth is somewhat of a cardboard house, it is quantitative rather than qualitative. The size of the economy is directly related to the size of the population. Standards of living do not increase without quantitative growth. The jobs record of the government has all to do with immigration, not productivity; unless or until there is a quantitative improvement in the economy wages will not increase. If the government can genuinely lay claim for jobs growth, look no further than the immigration policy.
But the problem does not end there. Dependence upon a big Australia is dependence upon a never-ending cycle of public infrastructure deficit that never really catches up. More roads, more airports, more public transport, more hospitals, more schools, mostly based around the nation’s state capitals. The deficit in each of these areas is a headline on almost a daily basis somewhere in Australia. Living in NSW I am most familiar with Sydney which has already reached a point of gridlock. Similarly, although immigration is biased towards a younger generation, thus helping to correct the burgeoning percentage of the population over 65, these newcomers will also grow old and their bubble will also need to be ameliorated with an ever-increasing flow of younger people sometime in the future. The current baby boomer bubble in Australia is directly related to post war migration.
To meet the challenge of infrastructure deficit the NSW government privatised its ‘poles and wires’. This has provided the state with a windfall enabling the construction of a massive motorway system linking the major parts of the city with each other and the airport. But there is a connection with escalating electricity prices. Conveying electricity from the point of generation to the place of consumption via poles and wires comprises a little under half of the total cost to the consumer, considerably more than the cost of generation itself. Thus, selling poles and wires to profit motivated private companies, to pay for the infrastructure necessary for a burgeoning population, has indirectly added to the cost of living of those already here. And so, the unaddressed cycle continues. Large immigration is an economic fix with very large strings attached.
While the immigration programme is touted as an economic positive, no such argument is put, indeed could be put, to argue an environmental positive. While Australia is a very large land mass, it does not follow that we can support an infinitely expanding human population. All land owners worth their salt know that every acre has a limited or maximal carrying capacity. Even with the population we now carry some aspects of Australia’s environment are facing disastrous consequences, none more so than the Murray Darling River system. The Murray Darling Plan which requires the sign-off of all eastern states and South Australia appears almost in tatters. One can only assume that as the population in each state increases then the pressures to draw water from the system for irrigation or human consumption will only increase. Economic considerations almost always override environmental ones. Water authorities on all states appear to bend over backwards to facilitate excessive use of water by irrigators. The rise and rise of Cubbie Station is just one example of a prevailing whole. The human foot print on the planet increases in weight year on year. Mitigation is implemented reluctantly and generally only occurs when the situation we have created is intolerable. Pictures of rubbish washing ashore on Bali’s Kuta Beach is in microcosm a picture of humans having well exceeded the carrying capacity of the earth.
Finally, let me say a few words about this from a Christian perspective. The biblical mandate is to live in such a manner that future generations will call on our name in blessing, because the manner of our living enhanced theirs. For the period covered in biblical history this meant having numerous children “fill the earth and subdue it”, for natural disaster and human sickness and disease meant human population needed replenishment to survive. Fast forward to today and we know an endless increase in global population, increases, not decreases, threats to human flourishing in succeeding generations on countless levels. If we are genuinely concerned about the flourishing of future generations we should be implementing policies that stabilise population, not increasing it.
So where to in the future? I agree with Abbott, perhaps for different reasons, but agree nevertheless, that the rate of immigration should be drastically reduced. For compassionate reasons the intake of asylum seekers or refugees should be maintained, indeed increased. Overall, we must find a way of flourishing sustainably on this continent with the population we have, rather than depending on the arrival of others to do for us what we should be able to do for ourselves. If we can engender a sustainable Australia, economically, environmentally and socially, we will then be in a good position to act generously and compassionately to those in the world for whom this dream is impossible.
It is said there are few certainties in life other than death and taxes: in this context carpe diem, seize the day, or pluck the day, is an appropriate antidote. But how do we do that? A biblical charge of similar nature is ‘choose life’. As we shall see, ‘seizing the day’ is seldom about the immediate, but about grasping an opportunity which makes even greater things possible. We are beginning the season of Lent which I want to argue sits appropriately apropos this, ‘plucking of the day’.
I am not sure that I agree with the whole ode in which carpe diem is historically set. “Seize the present, trust tomorrow e’en as little as you may” (carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero) is suggestive of “eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we die”.
The facts of the matter are that it is in seizing or ‘plucking’ the day that tomorrow and its possibilities become possible. Western hedonistic culture served by a populist politic appears to have morphed into a desire to maximise the present regardless of its impact on the tomorrows that will follow.
No one would knowingly act to diminish tomorrow. There is a pressing need for Australians to hear truth from the political class about the implications that flow from today’s choices and their impact upon tomorrow. Is that likely to happen? Not unless we move away from reliance on ten second grabs used to tell people what it is thought they want to hear. The nation needs a reflective rhythm, achievable only through bipartisan commitment, in which major propositions are put to the people with explanation as to the implications that flow from choosing or not choosing a certain direction.
The Church enjoys a season of reflection (Lent), of discipline, of clearing the decks, in the lead up to Easter in order that life (resurrection life) might be celebrated in all its fullness in all the tomorrows that follow. Resurrection belief is commitment to the notion that love conquers, forgiveness restores, sacrifice makes the impossible possible, that what is broken can be made whole once more. Lent, like Ramadan, is a commitment to a fuller life, if only a little space can be forged through the clutter and immediate demands of life.
I was recently deeply saddened to hear of the sudden and untimely death of Michael Gordon, the gentle, profoundly respected, and effective journalist of the Melbourne Age. Some years ago Margaret and I spent a fortnight in his company in a tour sponsored by the Hizmet movement in Turkey. Following his death there have been extraordinary pieces written about him, most notably that his motto could easily have been carpe diem, in that every day of his life he never lost an opportunity to serve the common good. As far as I know Michael was not a specifically religious person, but that he had a spiritually reflective side is clear. His plucking the day allowed for the possibility of tomorrow for many through the causes he championed.
What might happen if the nation developed a more reflective character?
We could ‘pluck the day’ in relation to environmental responsibility and climate change. We have the technology at our disposal. We know what needs to be done. In doing so we do not face a decline in our standard of living. We need to give up (Lent) our dependence on fossil fuels in order that tomorrow might be embraced in all its fulness. We are deciding not to because we have been convinced (wrongly) that now is not the moment, it will cost too much, climate change is not the problem it is being made out to be, and those who benefit from the status quo, mining interests, ply the political elite with funds that they find impossible to refuse.
We could ‘pluck the day’ in relation to ‘closing the gap’ with our indigenous brothers and sisters. We have apologised to the ‘stolen generation’, those taken from their birth families on the presumption that in doing so they would be ‘better off’. But we still have a lingering notion that if the gap is to be closed it will be closed because the indigenous community embraces the value set of the white community. We need to give up (Lent) this notion. ‘Indigenous Voice’ the proposal presented to the nation from the Uluru gathering is in all our interests, not simply the interest of the indigenous community. We all need to hear this voice. To reject the proposition on the basis that it would be an unworkable ‘third house’, without creatively turning the notion into an implementable proposition, is to choose to prolong the gap.
Barnaby Joyce could ‘pluck the day’ by resigning or offering to resign. Holding on to advantage and privilege in public office, which is a gift rather than a right, is to undermine the position held. Those in positions of power must always be prepared to give up (Lent) and return it to the people if there is doubt about their moral authority to discharge its duties. The people may well say, ‘we want you to continue’, great, but to hold on to a position of power out of self-interest or sense of self importance is to diminish both self and the office. Some respect might begin to return to political life generally, if it is clear that those who hold office understand it is not theirs but belongs to the people whom the office serves. To resign or offer to resign and then be asked to continue would return credibility and trust.
The nation could ‘pluck the day’ if the principle of supply and demand was not used by government as an immutable law. It is not. The economic world is far more complicated. Taxation is a major and very complicated form of intervention. Wages will not automatically rise and jobs multiply if a company makes more money. Indeed a reason why a company might make more money could be because there are fewer jobs and greater automation. Another reason could be that a listed company is far more beholden to its shareholders than it is to its employees. Trickle-down economics has proven to be a fallacy as more and more wealth is held by a shrinking minority who have the capacity to make profit through other’s losses.
As Christian influence continues to diminish, reflective rhythms that brought life and health to individuals also diminishes and with it the health of the nation as a whole.
Lent is about increasing capacity to ‘choose life’ or ‘seize the day’. This capacity increases in direct proportion to an appetite for letting go. All of us exhibit habits that can or should be changed if greater life is to be embraced. As a nation we are drawn towards immediate gratification regardless of its impact on tomorrow.
The 50+ percent of the Australian population that still claims to be Christian could serve the nation well by entering into the Lenten season with reflective intent, that the day might be seized and tomorrow’s legacy enhanced.
The announcement by the Prime Minister that he wants Australia to become one of the world’s top ten arms exporters demonstrates the level to which our government’s moral standard has fallen in the quest to make money, any money, from any source, at any cost.
Drugs and arms are two of the biggest global industries. Both trade in death and destruction. The announcement that our government wishes to become one of the ten top arms exporters illustrates the importance of the arms industry to the world economy. We apparently want a slice of this lucrative pie. Those who deal in arms have a conflict of interest in terms of war, it is good for business. Without conflict the US economy would be severely weakened. Australia is joined at the hip with the United States, which has been perpetually at war for decades. It is a very unhealthy if not dangerous alliance. We have been drawn into battles which were not ours to fight and which have caused grief to countless Australian families – for what purpose?
None of these wars have been ‘won’, indeed on what measure is war ‘won’ these days? Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan can hardly be described as grand military achievements that contributed to world peace and a better outcome for their civilian populations. But it is worse than that. The US and Australia are allies of Saudi Arabia which is the great exporter of terrorism. The Mujahideen, Wahhabism, the Taliban, Al Qaeda and ISIS are all creatures of a perverted form of Sunni Islam with roots in Saudi Arabia. The 9/11 terrorists were Saudis. Yet we have military ties with Saudi Arabia.
In turn, Saudi Arabia has ties with Israel out of their common hatred and fear of Iran. The Middle East combatants are Saudi Arabia and Iran, both seek to extend their power and influence. The reluctance of the US to do business with Iran has little to do with any realistic threat Iran might be to the US, or indeed to international terrorism, but it has everything to do with the position held by Saudi Arabia and Israel towards Iran.
Australia has signed a military agreement with Israel. Israel uses its arms and intelligence to subjugate and terrorise the Palestinian people. It suits Israel and its friend the US to portray Palestinians as terrorists who threaten harm to Israeli citizens, but the tragic reality is that the Israeli occupying army inflicts humiliation and terror on the Palestinian civil population on a daily basis. Occasionally a Palestinian at the end of his or her tether turns themselves into a human explosive and harms Israeli civilians. Such action is to be condemned. But unreported is that the home and livelihood of the Palestinian’s family is summarily raised to the ground. Daily attacks by Settlers on Palestinians go unreported and unpunished, Palestinian children are gaoled and every attempt is made to ensure that the Palestinian economy falters.
Not only do we wish to sell arms, we are in partnership with those for whom war has become part of their DNA, whose way of life is sustained through conflict and the subjugation of others.
Now, if that is not enough it is worse again.
At a time when we wish to export arms we have decided to cut overseas aid to the lowest level it has been as a percentage of GDP, since WW2. The morality of this should deeply shame all Australians. Not only do we refuse aid to those whose circumstances have become perilous through natural disaster, drought, famine, civil war, or simply through historical circumstance or underdevelopment; no, in addition to this lack of care we are prepared to potentially add to their pain through the sale of arms. To be on the receiving end of armaments fired in anger is to be made a victim, to become powerless, to be poor. Many countries who are big purchasers of arms (eg South Sudan, Somalia, The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Syria) spend more on weapons of destruction than they do on essential services to their own people. For many arms purchase is a primary cause of their indebtedness to first world countries.
Australia’s moral integrity is being called into question. Apparently our values are ‘fair go’, ‘equality’, ‘equal opportunity’. These values were again articulated by our leaders at the recent Australia Day celebrations. This decision to push for armament sales whilst and at the same time minimising overseas aid is a clear indication that these values do not apply outside Australia, and apparently are absent from the political elite of Australia.
Because 26th January is a painful day for most of Australia’s indigenous population, the nation’s first people, this is reason enough to change the date; but to what?
There is absolutely no need to argue for a national day which celebrates both what Australia has become and what its people dream of in a future yet to unfold. The question is not should there be an Australia Day, the question is when should it be held?
The Australia we know today is, as the Prime Minister frequently extols, the most successful multi-cultural nation on the planet. We are a nation that has wonderfully integrated diverse peoples for all over the world into a single, harmonious and peaceful civil society. We have done this by celebrating unity and diversity.
Being reminded of the first fleet adds very little to this extraordinary achievement and is not the primary focus of annual 26th January celebrations. Apart from the occasional re-enactment in Botany Bay or Sydney Cove, this is probably the least important aspect of the day. Australian Citizenship celebrations are important. Displays of diverse cultures and traditions that go to make up the colourful character of modern Australia are essential. Celebrations of indigenous history and tradition should take centre stage and enrich the lives of all Australians. A changed mindset is beginning to recognise that the culture of Australia’s first peoples is the longest, most enduring on the planet. Long after civilisations from which most of us have descended flourished and then faded, Australia’s first peoples have endured. There is so much to learn, celebrate and be proud of.
There was a time when I thought the logical thing to do was to make Anzac Day, Australia Day, because it sometimes feels it has become so, by default. But this would be a terrible mistake. Anzac Day celebrates one stream of Australian identity and history; it would be a great mistake to make military history our primary identity or somehow tie our values exclusively to the experience of war. The euphoric speeches of politicians on ANZAC day seem already to have made this mistake. .
So where should we go from here? There is one obvious day which in embryo celebrates what Australia has become. This is of course Federation Day. On January 1 1901 six British colonies federated to make the nation we call Australia. This achievement was hard fought. There was much that each colony had to forego, much more that each had to bring to the Federation, and much more again that each had to anticipate in the sharing of a common future. What could be a better symbol for Australia today?
All new migrants have to forego aspects of their lives in another place. Each new migrant has much to bring to this new place. And most importantly each new migrant has so much to embrace as a new Australian. As a migrant myself I know something of this journey. I have foregone ties and identities in the UK which I cherish and honour. I hope it is true that I have brought much to Australia. What I do know is that in Australia, in company with citizens from all over the world I have been immeasurably enriched, and am grateful. Being Australian is my primary identity, even in an Ashes series or at a Ruby World Cup!
I believe the analogy also holds true for Australia’s first peoples. First, they, more than any who have come in the last 200 years, have lost so much, not voluntarily, but by force. This fact needs to be in the forefront of the consciousness of all Australians because the consequence of the loss endures. But let us also dwell on the other parts of the analogy. The first peoples have the most to bring, if for no other reason than that their culture, song lines and connection with the land help all Australians to understand how living in harmony on this continent requires different levels of respect from life on any other continent. Also, the very long history of human life on this continent was the tale of many nations, tribes and languages living in relative harmony with one another. How did they do this? There is much to learn, but ‘welcome to country’, which is becoming a ubiquitous expression of ‘Australianness’ is a window into this reality.
Thirdly, Australian first peoples like the rest of us, have much to embrace in what Australia has now become. Opportunities exist for both individual professional advancement in Australia’s vibrant civil society and also for regaining, imagining afresh, core elements of indigenous culture in a 21st century setting. I understand one of the most encouraging current statistics is that there are now more first people youngsters in University than there are in gaol. It is grim to have to acknowledge that this is a significant advancement.
So, why not Federation Day? The loss of a public holiday, given New Year’s Day is already a holiday, can hardly be an adequate reason to stymie change. That it is New Year’s Day makes it a most obvious day. To start the year in this way would be brilliant. There is no reason why paper work and the administration required for official functions could not be prepared before the holiday season begins.
It is not right that we continue to celebrate a national day which excludes, for whatever reason, the full hearted engagement of Australia’s first people. What is more, January 26 did not establish a new nation even in embryo. January 26th was a foray by Britain for the purposes of new land and resources, but most particularly as a penal dumping ground.
January1 1901 heralded the beginning of a nation. This is a day worthy of honour, worthy of unity, worthy of diversity and most importantly worthy of the continuing unfolding of a dream for new life beyond restrictions, even hostilities associated with lands from which people came.
Recent polls indicate that Australians place high value on Australia Day but are not tied to a specific date. The self-righteousness inherent in many recent speeches from politicians making 26th January into a sacred cow are quite nauseating and out of step with grass roots Australia.
The debate does not need to be shut down; it needs to be opened up. Symbols speak to identity. Symbolism inherent in the 26th January speaks to an identity that does not serve modern Australia.
What has become of Israel? Why has a noble Diaspora reconvened to become one of the world’s pariah nations?
These are really hard, indeed offensive words, but how else does one describe actions such as those contained in the following story.
Most young Israelis are conscripted, (three years for men, two years for women). During this period all of them will commit or witness atrocities like these. What sort of a nation would form its young this way? What will become of their sense of moral rectitude in the rest of their adult lives?
It is tough to ask, but why has a people who have suffered so reprehensibly at the hands of a hideously cruel ideology developed characteristics that remind one of that hellish history?
Israel you might grind Palestine and Palestinians into the dust, off the pages of history, (but you won’t), but in the process what is to become of you as a people?
He has told you O mortal what is good;
And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justice, and to love kindness
And to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)
Defending Christianity is one of the goals Scott Morrison has set for himself in 2018. But is the brand of Christianity he wishes to defend the very reason why Christian faith in Australia is on the retreat?
When Christianity came to Australia with the early settlers its brands were shaped by the homes from which the immigrant population came: England (C of E), Scotland (Presbyterian), Ireland (Catholic), Germany (Lutheran). Adherence to the brand was by default loyalty to ethnic and cultural roots. (In the same way today Greek Orthodox congregations, Polynesian congregations, Sudanese congregations, Coptic Christianity etc are strengthened through similar identity commitment). On the other hand the older denominational brands now have very little relevance within Australian society, with the possible exception of Roman Catholicism whose future influence remains very much in the balance.
To put it simply, Christianity in Australia today has two brands; adherents of both can be found in most major denominations. The first is marked by a commitment to an individualistic spirituality, demonstrating a practical dualism in which matters of faith are corralled out of the public arena leaving space only for personal belief and morality. Unsurprisingly advocacy of this brand of piety and morality is met with indifference at best and vehement opposition at worst within Australian civil society. High profile promoters of this brand include Cardinal George Pell, Lyle Shelton - Australian Christian Lobby CEO, Senator Cori Bernardi, Brian Houston - Chief Pastor Hillsong and the leadership of the Anglican Diocese of Sydney. The second insists that dualism and Christianity are irreconcilable: adherents take seriously the fact that Christianity is an incarnate faith; that God’s intention in salvation is nothing less than the whole world and adherents are to be immersed in the world for its good, called to be salt and light. High profile promoters of this brand of Christianity include Pope Francis, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Tim Costello, Father Frank Brennan and Ted Noffs.
The first, the brand Mr Morrison seeks to defend is assumed by many or most secular Australians to be the only brand there is, partly because the media turns to this brand in its desire to paint Christianity as quaint and irrelevant in a complex, diverse and educated world. In light of this brand Christianity is perceived to have nothing of value to contribute, outside its platitudes, to the important debates that must be pursued in the public arena if major global issues are to be addressed. This brand is observed to be incurably moralistic, a characteristic which the majority of Australians found alienating in the recent debate on marriage equality in Australia. I am told by Christian friends (of the second brand) that because Christianity as a whole has been aligned in the public mind with a narrow and judgemental mindset, engaging secular friends in a conversation about faith has now been made so much harder.
Adherents of the first brand tend to a textual fundamentalism, be it of scripture itself or ecclesiastical tradition as expressed through authorities such as canon law. It is the case that those who adhere to this brand of Christianity accuse those of the second brand that they do not to take scripture seriously. This needs to be the topic of another blog, but I strongly contend the reverse. Those who insist on a literal interpretation of the creation narratives demean and belittle scripture and make Christianity a source of ridicule. Equally seriously (I will return to this) those who find in scripture an eschatology which justifies the cruel annexation of Palestinian land, homes and livelihood on the grounds that God’s ultimate plan is the sovereignty of Israel prior to the return of Christ, make a nonsense of the God revealed to us in Jesus.
Perhaps most crucially, adherents of this brand of Christianity voted Mr Trump into the White House and by all accounts continue to support him. They almost returned Roy Moore, the gun toting, and accused power abusing Senator of Alabama to Washington. Why? Apparently because he and they support a view that individual rights always trump social responsibility, a position that is the very antithesis of the Christian Gospel. This is a position which supports the minimisation of tax, unregulated financial markets, no universal health care and the ridiculing of environmental responsibility.
This is the brand of Christianity which it appears Mr Morrison wishes to defend, the same brand that wishes its freedoms defended in legislation following an enquiry headed by the current mayor of Hornsby, Philip Ruddock.
Well not in my name. I do not wish to be associated with this defence.
The second brand of Christianity, the one of which I am a convinced believer and advocate believes that not only is the nature of God revealed in Jesus but so also is the true nature of humanity. Eschewing power, not embracing it, let alone clutching to it no matter what the cost, is the way of the cross, is the way of peace, and is the way of salvation. So convinced am I of the truth of the Christian Gospel that I want to advocate it, as did the early Christians, as the Way, indeed without being imperialistic, the only way.
In this ‘way’ true leadership is the exercise of an authority (authenticity) that attracts trust and confidence, not an exercise of power. This kind of authority cannot be bought; it accrues in the lives of those who are sources of blessing and freedom to others. Onlookers asked of Jesus “How did this man get this authority”. Authority is hard won and easily lost. Very few leaders in the world today exercise true authority. The exercise of an office does not automatically endow the holder with authority (authenticity). Without authority the holder of the office has to resort to exercising power as most dictators do and sadly and tragically as Mr Trump appears to do. Without genuine authority political leadership in Australia is floundering.
The brand of Christianity with which I am familiar knows nothing of winners and losers in the conventional sense; winning is associated with lifting the lowly and losing is associated with exalting oneself.
It is a very great concern that the first brand of Christianity, known to many as the ‘Christian Right’ exercises enormous influence in the USA and appears to hold sway in the Australian Federal Coalition.
Why is it such a concern? I do not believe democracy as we have come to understand it can survive unfettered individual rights at the expense of equity and fairness in society as a whole. But this is the track the world, inclusive of Australia, now appears to have taken.
International harmony and well being is dependent on upholding international law, the defence of human rights and a commitment to the sustainability of the planet. None of these appear to be the priorities of the first brand of Christianity even though they are 21st century applications of scripture and the mind of Christ.
To return for a moment to the Christian Right’s unconscionable support for Israel’s annexing of Palestinian territory and the consequent impoverishment and suffering of the Palestinian people. Jerusalem in the Hebrew tradition is the dwelling place of the most high – God. The only interest Christians can have in Jerusalem is in a unique city which should host the spiritual longing of all nations. In the Christian tradition Jesus is Jerusalem, God dwells in him. (You will not worship on this mountain [Gerizim] or Jerusalem Jn. 4: 21). American support for Israel’s unlawful and cruel policy towards Palestinians is made politically expedient as much if not more by the American Christian Right and its misuse of scripture as it is by the Zionist lobby. This is a very dangerous alliance not simply for any possibility of peace between Israel and Palestine, but for much broader harmony and good will.
So what Christianity is Mr Morrison seeking to defend? Christianity as the ‘way’ needs no defence. It simply needs more folk to rise with authority (authenticity) in the living of it. Those who adhere to the first brand make this task so much more difficult.
What we see is in part determined by the glasses we have been conditioned to wear. Worldwide, 2017 has seen people looking for saviours in a context of insecurity, growing inequity, unfulfilled ambition, and fear of those who are different. In this context US voters mistook Donald Trump for a saviour. The self serving political establishment was a swamp needing to be “drained”. Trump would do this and all would be well again. Sadly what was not observed was a very flawed, probably psychologically unbalanced, human being; more self serving than ‘the swamp’ it was hoped he would replace. The desperate longing for a very different political reality blinded the eye (apparently still does) of GOP voters to the flaws. Australia is not immune to a similar phenomena, a phenomena now characterising democracies the world over.
2000 years ago the world was not very different. Sure, we have made huge technological gains and the volume of information at our disposal doubles every decade or so. But human nature has not changed much. Fear dominates the lives of many – some with very good reason, many out of their own paranoia. Those in power hold on to their positions with every fibre at their disposal. The wealthy seek to expand their wealth at the expense of the poor. The needy are expendable.
In this context a Saviour was, and is, longed for. What credentials would such a person possess to be convincing? Again, it depends who is doing the looking! Those in authority were not looking (are not looking) for a saviour, let alone a messiah, such a person would shake the status quo and be a threat. Jesus met opposition from religious and civilian leadership alike: High Priests and the ruling class amongst Pharisees and Sadducees; Herod the Great and his son Herod Antipas the client tetrarch of Galilee and Pontius Pilate the Roman Governor of Judaea, all of them found the very thought of a champion of the people very threatening. The last thing any of them wanted was a further threat to their authority and income raising capacity amongst the people.
Those who longed for political and religious autonomy were looking with conviction to a saviour who bore the hallmarks of religious and military leadership, someone strong enough to stand up to the ‘powers and authorities’ of the day. Jesus had these ambitions and hopes laid on him. That he turned out not to be this person, was a source of angry grievance. The religious right the world over still falsely lay this burden on Jesus, voting in overwhelming numbers for Trump in the US, Netanyahu in Israel, and Cori Bernardi, Malcolm Roberts and the Liberal rump in Australia.
Those who came looking 2000 years ago sans agenda, except the pursuit of further wisdom and knowledge, were the wise men from the east as recorded by Matthew. The wise sought, and still seek, truth that enlightens every moment and every place, but which also transcends every place and all time. These ‘magi’ seem unfazed by the ‘ordinariness’ of what they found. A baby, a stable, a family about to become refugees: they encountered vulnerability. What specifically they made of Jesus we are not told. What are we to make of him? If this is ‘truly’ God, if this is the divine nature and a priori the appropriate nature of humanity - would it be better that we did not know? It appears we would prefer not, for while the secular world considers such insight to be ridiculous, much language emanating from Christian hymnody not to mention its pulpits contradicts this revelation. Adjectives such as almighty, lord, king etc tend to predominate without being wrapped in the swaddling cloth of vulnerability, humility and service.
Truth about God is of course irrelevant if God does not exist - as a growing number of Australians contend. That those who do believe often seem to wrap the Christ child in a preconceived idea of what God should be like is even more serious, for it gives the first group a reason, if one should be required, for their disbelief. But what if both are wrong, both those who project their preconceived idea of what God should be like, after their own image, and those who contend this is all rubbish? What if the wisdom or insight that the magi were seeking is equally truth about the world and life itself as it is about divinity? For surely any truth about God has to be equally truth about the world, or it is not truth at all?
If insight into a genuine ground for hope and a strategy for peace is to be found in this nativity scene, then Bethlehem certainly deserves another look.
It is clear that the world at large is both tired and deaf to theological dogmatics, or canon law, however elegantly argued. We know Catholics and Protestants have differences as do Shia and Sunni Muslims, but we rightly care little about those differences. What we are more interested in are the values and priorities that are shared, qualities or characteristics that might be good news to the world. The world longs for truth about itself and therefore insight into the identity of a saviour, should such be even remotely a possibility.
That is why we should return to the magi. If the truth they discovered about God and the world was vulnerability and this vulnerability is, ironically, the world’s chief source of hope, then we are definitely looking in the wrong place if we are looking for a saviour in Donald Trump, or Kim Jong-un, or Vladimir Putin, or Benjamin Netanyahu, or company CEO’s on multi-million salaries or most rock stars. In the past we were looking in the right direction when we admired Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Junior or Rosa Parks. In more recent times we have been looking in the right direction when we have admired Rosie Batty, Jo Cox or Dean Smith. All of these people have brought about change and transformation through their vulnerability, humility and in Jo Cox’s case, sacrifice.
It is easy to be forlorn about the current state of the world and its paucity of leadership. It is equally depressing, even humiliating, to observe the Church in light of the recent report of the Royal Commission. But looking with the eyes of the magi there is no problem too great, no obstacle too immoveable, and no darkness that cannot be shattered by integrity, humility and a desire for the other’s good. The God revealed in the stable at Bethlehem gives the world a chance to see itself as it could be, reflected in a mirror. But let us not wait until another Mandela walks through the door of history, everyone of us can be that person, for all of us our weaknesses are potentially our strengths: from climate change to refugees we have it within our grasp to be agents of a more peaceful world, if we can but let go of the reins of power and allow the integrity of a vulnerable life to do its transformative thing.
A very blessed Christmas to all.
The findings of the Royal Commission have sent shock waves through the institutional Church and generated disgust in the wider community. Is there any good news, any reason to hope for something better?
The commission’s findings, to be delivered on the 15th December lift the lid on a darkness. The revelation that so many children have been abused was deeply shocking, (for me most shocking was case study 42 – the Anglican Diocese of Newcastle); but to learn that many in the Church’s leadership put the institution and its preservation before the safety and well being of the children was almost equally as shocking.
The commission’s work covered institutional abuse no matter its source, but rightly the focus has been on the Church.
The compensation claims that follow, that must follow, may send some institutions into bankruptcy, as happened to a Diocese in the Anglican Church in Canada following investigation of the historical treatment of its first peoples. At the very least the quantum payout will severely restrict the day to day operation of many Church jurisdictions, a restriction which may have a terminal effect on some.
There are some necessary and intended consequences as well as some unresolved issues left at the end of the Commissions work which I would like to reflect on before turning to what may be glimmers of hope
· Processes of compensation need to be proceeded with as quickly as possible and independently devised protocols (external to the institutional entity) must be uniformly applied and overseen.
· Speaking for the Anglican Church, long overdue protocols for the protection of children are now in place. Clergy and lay leaders are required to undergo regular child protection training to maintain their licence and are subject to police checks. Psychological assessment at the point of recruitment is also to be assumed. These protocols cannot guarantee there will never again be an instance of abuse, but they do mean that the community at large can have confidence that everything that can reasonably be done to keep children safe, is being done. Abuse in any form should be considered a criminal matter.
· Unfortunately child abuse will not suddenly stop because of the work of the Commission. As terrible as institutional abuse has proven to be, it remains the case that the vast majority of children suffer at the hands of a relative or friend, someone close to them, someone trusted. Many perpetrators were themselves victims in childhood. Intervention is necessary to break the cycle. Just as the Church has been shown to protect perpetrators, so families are reluctant to expose abusers in their midst. This mindset needs to change. Abuse or suspected abuse must be reported. The downside of the investigation into institutional abuse has been insufficient attention given to the pandemic of abuse emanating from homes across the social and economic spectrum of Australian society.
· While the Church as an institution is now genuinely engaged in dealing with the primary crime of child abuse, it remains deeply entrenched in the secondary crime of institutional protection at all costs. Whereas the victims of the first crime were innocent children, the victims of the secondary crime are now their own. In this fear driven desire to protect itself, the Church has not stopped at protocols for the protection of children or the alleviation of abuse. Provisions now in place make clergy vulnerable to complaint in any area of human failing, especially of a sexual nature. Their guilt appears to be assumed, requiring them to prove their innocence. The Christian Gospel focuses on grace, repentance, forgiveness and restitution; the new provisions appear to focus on retribution and punishment. This matter is covered in a recent book published by Muriel Porter called The Scapegoats. I am personally aware of several clergy who are victims of this new climate of fear. Several clergy and probably some lay leaders have fallen foul of a new Puritanism which is clearly not a standard expected in the public domain and should not be applied without grace in ecclesiastical circles. No one is without mistake, clerical or lay. To deny opportunity for amendment of life, forgiveness and restitution is to deny the fundamentals of Christianity itself. The Church still has a long way to go in waking up to the truth that protecting the institution takes many forms.
· For some time the Church has been increasingly distant from issues of public engagement, outside the sphere of personal piety and morality. The Commission and publicity rightly given to its work has accelerated this retreat. It is now extremely difficult to gain the focus of Christian leadership on matters of equity, social justice, the poor, refugees, indigenous affairs, affluenza etc. The Church has become an irrelevance, not simply because it has been found to have failed children in its care but because it has turned inward. This movement of irrelevance within Australian society has been further accelerated by the recent marriage debate. In the minds of many in the public, the whole Church was aligned with the no-case and being aligned with this case was incapable of understanding the simple truth that committed relationships honour not simply the couple concerned, but society as a whole.
So where, if at all, is the good news?
The Commission has hastened the end of the power and influence of the institutional Church. Yes there will still be bishops, dioceses and synods, but they will be of no interest to the wider life of Australian civil society. Is this good news?! Yes because Christianity as a truth, a way of life, a conviction worth living for, and a hope worth dying for is irrepressible. 500 years ago European Christianity experienced a revolution brought about largely because of the abuses of the institutional Church of the day. The revolution has shaped western civilisation ever since. The digital age, the way community is formed for millennials, the need for global answers to global issues, will reshape the human landscape and Christianity will be part of this reshaping. The need for a meta-narrative, a victim of the Enlightenment, will once more become pressingly apparent. Chrsitianity’s commitment to love, service and common good and its emphasis that life is to be celebrated in its relationships not in its acquisitions make it as indispensible to the understanding of the present age as it has been, despite the frailty of its leaders, to all previous generations.
What will this look like? I honestly do not know, any more than the jobs of the future can be known. People will meet together. The Bible will be read, hopefully cherished anew, freed from the fundamentalism that has diminished it. Hopefully many will come to say ‘Why didn’t you tell us that God is the energy that sustains life. Family and community units will be the places where thanks is offered, grace shared and life celebrated.
In the 21st century praise needs to be attributed, as it has in the past, where praise is due:
To all life thou givest, to both great and small
In all life thou livest, the true life of all.