Giving up for Lent

A homily for Christ Church South Yarra (John 12)

Monday in Holy Week, 25 March 2013

This year I gave up two things for Lent: FaceBook, and chips.

When I say chips, I mean potato crisps out of a bag. Corn chips were forbidden, rice crackers were allowed. Biscuit-like snack crackers (baked not fried) were borderline but permissible on weekends. French fries were definitely out, but sauteed potatoes in a restaurant were acceptable.

As you can tell, giving up FaceBook was comparatively easy.

I have been reflecting in the last week on whether giving up something for Lent made any difference. I didn’t lose any weight, but I did recognise that my body is noticeably aging. I didn’t lose any friends – although, not having checked my FaceBook page, I don’t know if anyone has virtually dumped me.

So I beg your indulgence, at this late stage in the season, to question the whole practice of giving up things for Lent.

I think most of the things we give up seem incredibly trivial.

I don’t care whether you drank alcohol or not this Lent (though I do care if alcohol is destructive for you).

I don’t care whether you exercised more this Lent (though I do care if you hate your body).

I don’t care whether you put money in a mission-box this Lent (though I do care if you went hungry).

I don’t even care whether you had sex this Lent (though I do care if you feel unloved).

But I have noticed how deep-seated and profoundly ingrained are the great and weighty sins that we commit every day.

Why are people so profoundly horrible to each other, whether in the corridors of power in parliament or in church, or in the everyday interactions of friends and strangers?

Why do Australians find it so hard to even imagine giving up some unnecessary luxuries to make room for others to eat at the table?

Why are we twenty-first century Pharisees so obsessed with security, with compliance and with risk management?

So I come tonight to muse on what can cut through our apathetic, self-indulgent little sacrifices before the idol of inestimable wealth and unending plenty. Perhaps I am asking too much, but how do we stop the cycle of temporary purity, resumption of filth, to achieve real transformation?

Tonight John’s account of the gospel gives us three guides, Mary, Judas, and Jesus.

Mary pours out her dignity, her security, her money, her body on Jesus’ feet. It is costly, it is deeply embarrassing, and it is a sign of things to come.

Jesus responds in kind, knowing who and what he is, and pointing us to the value of the eternal over the immediate, while living completely in the here-and-now.

Judas is the reasonable one here. He objects to this waste. If Mary wanted to give up something of value, why not feed the poor?

The evangelist’s accusation that Judas was a two-faced, hypocritical thief seems unnecessary. Judas’s reasoned defence of the mortal world as it exists, poor and needy, warts and all, fails to take account of the world as it could be: the kingdom of God, where boundaries are broken, the dead are raised, and all are expected to come in to the banquet.

It’s still not too late to give something up this Lent. Give up your allegiance to your own thoughts, your hunger for affirmation, your desire for security. Open your heart to sudden change, mindful of the inestimable cost of Jesus’ call to true repentance.

Finally, as you truly deny yourself, welcome the transformation that will sweep across us all as we first stand at the foot of the Cross, then find ourselves crucified with Christ.

Postscript: To FaceBook friends, no I’m not on FaceBook, this automatically delivers to my feed 🙂


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The Courage to Celebrate

Sermon for an annual ‘Mass in Midsumma’

St Mark’s Fitzroy, Friday 1 February 2013 (Habbakuk 2:1-5, Hebrews 10:32-39, Mark 4:26-34)

But recall those earlier days when, after you have been enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to abuse and persecution, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. 

I offer my thanks to Fr Stuart for his generous invitation to preach at this eucharist celebrating God’s love of Gay and Lesbian Christians. 

We gather here in Melbourne at the end of the Midsumma festival, which, this year as for the past 25 years, has been a fabulous celebration of queer culture, in everything from sport to fashion to drama to pets to bodies to parties and beyond.

It is good to celebrate. We humans were made for celebration. Celebration is about coming together as a community to mark publicly an event, an idea, an identity, a person – to acknowledge who we are and what we believe with a mixture of joy and solemnity.

Carnivals such as Midsumma and Mardi Gras self-evidently draw on Christian festivals such as Lent and Easter, Advent and Christmas, festivals that mark the passage of time and recall significant events in our past. For Christians, celebration and festival are at the heart of belief and practice. The God who made us taught us to remember through celebration in diverse ways.

When Noah and his ark survived the great flood, God placed a rainbow in the sky as a mark of good faith, a joyful witness that never again would such devastation be inflicted on creation.

When Moses, Miriam and the people of Israel passed out of the land of oppression, God instructed them to observe the Passover feast for all time as a memory, a calling to mind, of the ancient drama of liberation.

When the woman washed Jesus feet to honour him for who he was, what he had done, and what he was about to do, he committed her deeds to eternal memory.

When Jesus and the disciples shared the Last Supper, Jesus commanded them – us – to ‘do this in remembrance of me’.

It’s no surprise that non-religious people seek celebrations, whether they be funerals, graduations, civil partnerships, baby showers.

For Christians, however, celebrations are not safe. They confront us, and are borne out of the experience of confrontation. After all, when was the last time you survived a great flood, surrounded by death? When did you last wash a stranger’s feet with your hair? When did you last survive plagues and disasters to leave a land of oppression? When did you last share a meal with loved ones who were about to betray you?

Celebrations are not safe, because we are human, all too prone to failure, to betrayal, to shame, to saving ourselves by persecuting and humiliating others.

When we come together to celebrate, it is all too easy to exclude others, to make our celebrations a ritual of unity that builds a barrier between us and them, us as we want to be seen, and them who do not come up to the mark.

Yet it is also good that celebrations are not entirely safe. How saccharine we would be if our rituals and festivals were solely about comforting ourselves as we are.

Christian celebrations are unsafe, are real, because they challenge us.

The challenge comes in many ways. It might be from the scriptures or from the interpretation of the scriptures in the context of a Christian gathering. Am I really meant to leave my family and all that I have and follow Christ?

It might be from a sound, sight, or smell, that opens one’s awareness to God and neighbour in a new and unexpected way.

It might be from the Spirit nurturing change in your heart, calling you to new ways, or calling you to raise your voice at protest against ancient wrongs.

It might be from truly meeting myself, naming my fears, worries, insecurities: confronting my manifold sins.

For many people inside and outside the Church, celebrations can be seen as triumphalist. Why are those Christians so confident, so cheerful, able to endure mockery and ridicule? How can they persist with such absurd visions and beliefs?

Well, there is a place for triumphalism, even for a little self-indulgent confidence of the kind mentioned in the Letter to the Hebrews, always provided that a celebration is not a Christian celebration if it diminishes others. For the only thing to be diminished in celebrating God’s love in creating us and saving us, is sin, that which makes us turn away from God or from our neighbour.

It is good and right that celebrations name and shame the sin in our midst, for God only knows the world is full of griefs and pains and wrongdoing and evil that need repentance and conversion to a new way of life.

We may come together and celebrate with confidence, where this goes against the accepted ways of the world, because we ourselves possess something better and more lasting than possessions, pride, or success.

* * * * *

I can see you thinking, what does any of this have to do with celebrating gay and lesbian Christians or homosexuality in the Church?

First, let me indulge in some nostalgia. I came out twenty years ago this year. It is hard to remember those first cautious days of making public acknowledgment of who I was. It was deeply confronting to reveal something both intensely private yet also bleedingly obvious to a friend, a family member, a stranger, a colleague.

It took a while to learn to celebrate who I was, and who I was called to be. Well, actually, I’m still figuring that out. But the most powerful realisation was that others wanted to celebrate with me because of who I was, because of who they were. A critical moment was one night after work, sitting in a wine bar with a friend who knew I was gay, but asked curiously, was I a Christian? She was pretty sure I was, and wanted to know how I held the two identities together. I gulped down my wine, and came out – as a Christian, and as the partner of a candidate for ordination. I am flattered to say that for her, this was good news, and cause for celebration (yes, she bought another round). It was a striking moment: the world wanted to hear the good news that gay and lesbian Christians have to proclaim just by celebrating who we are.

So very often, Christians who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and everything in between, so very often we Christians are trapped into being victims, railing against a church that will not change or does not know how to change, or standing passively by while others of our number are persecuted, or fearful of a future church dominated by young bearded male pastors with three kids in kinder and another on the way (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

I have been privileged to live a life in public in the church and academy largely without fear, and have been honoured by the responsibilities entrusted to me. There have been moments of grief, and doubt, and shame, but these sins have fallen away time after time in the moments of celebration.

Therefore, my message to you tonight is to embrace the spirit of the gospel, the spirit of Jesus, and, yes, the spirit of Midsumma. Have the courage to celebrate, unashamedly, that you are first and foremost a human being, wonderfully made in the image of God, and wonderfully loved by Jesus Christ, the man who kept the rules so perfectly the rule book had to be rewritten.

I do not exhort you to celebrate as a way of ignoring discrimination, or pain, or battles that need to be fought.

Most of you already know that true celebration is not cheap, for it requires honesty about ourselves, and an openness to risk and change.

True celebration requires faith – not much, just a tiny seed will do – faith that with God, anything is possible.

True celebration requires courage – not much, just a tiny seed will do – courage that you are not alone, and that others want to celebrate with you even in the midst of persecution.

True celebration requires humility – not much, just a tiny seed will do – humility to recognise that you do not have to do anything to be saved from sin except turn, however haltingly, however hesitantly, towards the risen Lord, Jesus Christ, who has already done all that needed to be done.

All we need to do, all the Church needs to do, is to scatter these seeds of faith, courage, and humility on the ground and wait, ready to act when the time comes. Be patient; as the boy scouts say, be prepared. If the fruit of the harvest seems to tarry, wait for it! It will surely come, it will not delay.

And so I say again, the most powerful thing you can do to contribute to the liberation of gay and lesbian Christians – the liberation of all people – is to come and celebrate around the table.

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Of saints and senses

This month I spent 17 days on holiday in Europe, mostly in Italy. Like most cultural tourists I spent a great deal of the few daylight hours in churches and galleries, soaking up the fine arts.

This trip, however, was different to earlier ones. Unintentionally, it came to resemble a pilgrimage, not from Leonardo to Raphael and back again, but from the shrine of one saint to the next.

I remember on my first trip to Venice in 2008 thoroughly enjoying the education I received in the symbols and motifs attached to saints in medieval and Renaissance images, enabling them to be identified and their theological and other virtues to be brought together into a narrative about a patron, a story, a scripture. Lucy, Jerome, Catherine, and of course Mark, as well as the now-forgotten Luke of Toloso or the displaced Theodore, could be seen and some truth dimly perceived in their relationships to the infant Jesus or the crucified Christ or the enthroned Virgin and Child.

This time, the saints came to life, their relics and shrines demanding attention, requiring touch, calling forth prayer.

It began in London where I had intended to stop for three days free from work or research. Yet I couldn’t help myself, and when I checked in at Westminster Abbey, I discovered there was an 8am service for the anniversary of the death of the Abbey’s resident saint, Edward the Confessor. I went along, and had the precious privilege of celebrating the Lord’s Supper with a dozen other workers and pilgrims at the Confessor’s shrine, with the opportunity to kneel alongside him and pray. Those who were there were remarkably unfettered by British restraint to touch the tomb, to kiss the saint, to talk to him, and with him, to pray to God.

It was an extraordinary experience. The spiral, twisting decoration on the shrine that had survived reformation, antiquaries, vandals, and time itself seemed to dance and spin with the dim light of seven hundred and fifty years.  I felt the dizzily real presence of the communion of saints, mostly hundreds and thousands of ordinary Christians with doubts as well as faith, who had come to this place of prayer and petition seeking the intercession of an holy man.

I left somewhat stunned, returning to the Abbey a couple of hours later as a tourist, trying to relate this intense prayer, this tearing of the veil between the natural and supernatural, with the unintentionally dumb hordes who thudded through the Abbey in search of a forgotten memory of cultural significance.

Perhaps I should have guessed that this was not the climax of my holidays (or perhaps, holydays), but only a beginning.

I went next to Rome where saints and their remains are embedded in the fabric of the city, presented as the rejects of the Roman empire who became cornerstones and bearers of Catholic tradition. This time, I had been organised enough to book in for the scavi tour which takes small groups of visitors into the remains of a second-century Roman cemetery under the Basilica of St Peter, and as close as possible to the original tomb of Peter himself.

I wanted to return to this site to understand better the strange world that theologians know as the early church, but that most others would see as a tale of Roman cultures of death and memory. Perhaps I should not have been surprised that the tour again led me to a saint, whose relics lie shrouded by a second-century wall, sixth-century and twelfth-century altars, a Renaissance basilica and Michelangelo’s dome. Here there was no opportunity for communion, at least not to participate fully, as the barriers which divide the Church remain too firmly in place in my conscience. But there was a moment of shared prayer, in which the twofold reality emerged. How did a fisherman from Palestine end up in this most grandiose of edifices, surrounded by the forgotten remnants of other memories, other traditions? And what does it say that the distance between Peter and Edward is as great as the time between the Confessor and me?

A visit to Rome is worthless to this former student of Ian Robertson without a day in Trastevere. Here again I had an unexpected living encounter with a saint. Cecilia, the Roman martyr, lies buried in Trastevere in a rather plain church that is distinguished by the historical interest of its crypt and the religious community which surrounds it. Maderno’s wonderful statue speaks against the power and authority associated with most saints, instead providing a classicist, spare narrative of death and burial, shrouded in saintly white. But best of all on this visit was the sound of music emanating from the woman practising the organ throughout my time in the building. Cecilia, patron saint of music, was present through sound as well as space and sight.

Next came Venice, which is a delight to visit in January when it is cold, damp, and relatively devoid of tourists. This allowed time to wander in San Marco, to breathe in the blurry glory of the golden mosaics, and to take time at the altar to remember St Mark. There’s no justifying what the body-snatching Venetians did in the ninth century, and there’s no attempt to do so with mosaics and pictures and tourist guides alike telling the story of how the saint’s body was robbed from Alexandria and smuggled out in the original pork-barrelling exercise of medieval ritual politics. But January gave more room for prayer, and the masses that were said with regularity spoke more strongly into the cavernous spaces of the church in the Italian version of Mark’s gospel account.

Finally I visited Munich, where the twin pillars of the Reformation and the War seemed to have destroyed the physical presence of the saints, and where I was caught off-guard all the more.  It was cold and snowing heavily, and pristine churches were a refuge from the weather as much as places of beauty and worship. Yet in St Michael’s, the Jesuit church, I stumbled upon the reliquary of Cosmas and Damian, almost as old as the Confessor, and linking the apostolic age of miracles with the high medieval world of commemoration and connection. And in St Peter’s, I walked into a well-attended mid-week mass where the priest’s eloquent reading of the tale of the rich young man’s central question of Christ, ‘what must I do to be saved’, was as comprehensible in German to my dumb Australian ears as it would have been in English.

How strange it is to return to Melbourne, where prayer is private, and where pilgrimage means ANZAC or Kokoda, and where dead bodies are buried deep in the earth or burned into dust and set well apart from the living, lest we sense the fragile separation of natural and supernatural and lose our modern ways.


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Living with contradictions

Homily for UFT Worship, Friday 16 March 2012 (Matthew 5:1-12)

I wish to begin by thanking Jan Gray and Jesuit Theological College for their generous invitation to deliver the homily today. As you may imagine, my mind has been preoccupied with giving up responsibilities at the United Faculty of Theology, and being burdened with new ones at MCD University of Divinity.

It has therefore been a gift to be asked to meditate on the Beatitudes, these sayings of Jesus to his disciples gathered on the mountain. This entails standing back from the immediate, from the next meeting or the next decision, in order to look down from the mountain and see the whole truth in all its incomprehensible complexity and simplicity.

To most of us, who live in an industrialised, resource-rich, and highly developed society that exists at a high price we are all too willing to pay in ignorance, to us the Beatitudes constitute what many preachers used to call a hard saying.

We are students of theology and ministers of the gospel: many would claim we are wealthy in intellect and well-formed in ministry. Yet Jesus tells us ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’ What is our place in that kingdom? Is it merely enough to recognise the poverty of our spirit?

We are here to celebrate our unity in Christ, to speak words of welcome and farewell. Some of us have just enjoyed lunch together, and we will soon move to celebrate a new book. Yet Jesus tells us ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.’ Should we then be sad, in order that we may enjoy comfort, or should we be afraid that celebration only comes at the price of tribulation?

We are lecturers and professors, yet we are told that it is the meek who will inherit the earth. I don’t know about you, but I’m not exactly meek. What then is my inheritance?

I do hunger and thirst for righteousness, although I’m about to get on a plane to a rather expensive holiday destination.

Mercy, purity, peace – surely we all admire these qualities, though they are difficult to maintain. As for persecution, well who in their right mind would actively seek it out?

Where do these words leave us? Full of guilt for our well-being? Newly conscious of the wisdom of others, born of harsh experience? Mindful in this season of Lent of the extraordinary earthly ministry of Jesus Christ, who somehow was fully human and fully divine? Who in the New Testament is illuminated as an exemplar not of earthly power or wisdom but of amazing grace?

When I hear this scripture, the Beatitudes, as a whole, I am struck by the apparent contradictions – contradictions between what we are meant to value, and things on which we set our hope. The Beatitudes seem to abandon our understanding of justice, excluding the included, and embracing the excluded.

Yet it is in these very contradictions that I find truth.

We human beings live in a state of constant contradiction.

We say one thing and do another.

We believe in mutually exclusive truths.

We criticise others but lack the will to reform ourselves.

We praise humility and simplicity but seek out power and wealth.

I make these claims not only as a Christian who observes sin at the root of our ills, but also as an historian trained in the sciences of human observation.

I frequently used to tell my undergraduate history students that history is the art of identifying and understanding the peculiar mix of contradictions that defined an individual or a community.

How, for example, could a Christian leader in sixteenth-century Europe who knew the scripture of Matthew chapter 5 intimately, persecute other Christians, meting out ill-placed punishment in the place of mercy?

When I hear this scripture, then, I am confronted by the contradictions in our world, in our society, and in my life. This is part of what it is to do theology, moving away from the neutral objectivity of logic to the apprehension of truth, away from the mere correction of error to the transformation of being.

What are the contradictions I see today?

Well, most obviously for me, I am completing my time with you as Dean, though it’s not quite a farewell and I’m not leaving altogether.

I am heading off to run a Specialist University, something I once thought an impossible entity. MCD University of Divinity, moreover, is coming to existence in a time and place when divinity, the mother of all disciplines, is largely seen as something oddly distinct from, not integrated with, other forms of higher education.

We are gathered here in this church to study theology and worship God together as one body, even though we are not one and are all too conscious of the barriers to our unity, both personal and institutional.

You continue to struggle with what it means to study theology – is it practical?; with what it means to be a theologian – is anyone in the church listening to you?; with what it means to be a United Faculty of Theology – is this unity?; with what it means to expend precious resources on advanced learning – is this purity of heart?

Each of you will carry your own and your corporate contradictions in your heart.

In this season of Lent, search out your contradictions and know them. Do not ignore them, do not suppress them. Examine them. Reread today’s scripture and let the contradictory Christ call to you.

Above all, as we approach Easter look to the cross and the empty tomb. Hold fast to Jesus Christ who lived out the greatest of all contradictions, dying at our hands to redeem us, and rising to new life to give us true hope.

Learn to see yourselves and your neighbours in the light of this God.

As you go forth today, take with you these scriptures that do not make sense, that do not conform to our human logic.

Let them be a source of comfort and challenge.

Allow their contradictions to shine light on our darkness and to lead us to hope.

Sing them in your heart, and share them with all you meet in word and action.

‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy!’

‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God!’

‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God!’.

‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven!’

Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

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Transforming Theology

A Vision for MCD University of Divinity

This text is based on a presentation given to MCD Council on 30 December 2011

In 2008 I was appointed Dean of the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne, in what was then known as the Melbourne College of Divinity. Over the past four years I have worked with UFT staff and students, offering course advice, developing curriculum, shaping research, and engaging with the churches and community. This has been a unique experience, as our staff and students come from a wide range of religious traditions, primarily Catholic, Anglican and Uniting Church, as well as some who do not identify with a particular faith.

Most of what I do in this role can be described as formation, whether academic, theological, personal, or relational. My job is to assist people to discover the Christian story of call and answer, of vocation and discernment, of knowing when to say no and when to say yes, of discovering who we are and what we will become. I am struck daily by the extraordinary fact that each and every human person – across and beyond particular faith traditions – yearns for this experience of formation.

As I prepare to become the foundation Vice-Chancellor of MCD University of Divinity from April 2012, the theme of formation sits uppermost in my thoughts.

Formation is not exclusive to theological education. The mission of all Universities is to shape a student experience bigger than a collection of individual subjects. Theology, however, has the longest and most vibrant tradition of thinking about teaching and learning, research and engagement, in terms of formation.

Formation is at the heart of MCD University. Historically, this is because most of our Colleges came into existence to train leaders for the churches and religious orders. Yet it is more than this. The study of divinity transforms not only the student but also the teacher and researcher. Such study compels us to pursue how faith in the sacred transforms practice and belief in the world.

It is for this reason that I believe passionately in the place of religion in public conversation. In contemporary Australian debates about religion in schools or same-sex marriage, I have argued consistently that a faith perspective, and in particular a Christian worldview, must be part of the conversation. I have also argued that religious arguments themselves should be free and open, with a variety of perspectives expressed, weighed and debated in search of truth and justice.

How does faith in the sacred transform practice and belief in the world? This is my starting point in beginning to imagine MCD University of Divinity, as we take up the extraordinary opportunity of being Australia’s first Specialised University.

We must become an institution that first and foremost fosters and creates informed public conversation about faith and belief. This means we have to equip our students – and our staff – with the rhetorical skills to communicate in a variety of ways in the twenty-first century world, from preaching and writing to blogging and tweeting. Students come to MCD University to learn theological content; we need to equip them to communicate theology, and to foster theological conversation and theological reflection, in academic monographs, sermons, blogs, opinion pieces, school classrooms, bible study groups, letter-writing, one-to-one conversation and more.

Our first task, then, is to develop new graduate attributes. What is the vision this University has for its graduates? Who do we want them to be, and what, consistently, do we want them to do in the world?

Alongside this task, we must foster public discussion of theology. We need to build a media profile. This could begin simply by putting a link on the front page of our website for journalists, identifying four or five faculty members who are available for interview. We might provide some coaching in communication for these faculty, taking up opportunities presented by recent initiatives such as The Conversation.

Public theology is not only about the media. My dream is to establish a Bachelor of Arts (Theology), or BA(Theol) at MCD University where students undertake a core group of units in Biblical Studies, Systematic Theology and Church History, but may include a major in Religious Studies, Psychology, History, or Journalism by taking units at other Universities, thereby broadening their capacity to engage in transformative public conversation.

The final area for action concerns MCD academic staff. We should focus on celebrating who we are as the staff of a unique University and embracing our many opportunities.

How, for example, do we recognise and maximise the fact that a large number of our teaching and research staff have fractional appointments, undertaking a wide range of other responsibilities beyond MCD? How might we rebuild the four ‘Fields’ of the old Melbourne College of Divinity as disciplinary clusters in the new University that encourage collaboration in teaching and research?

The future of MCD University depends on its academic staff, and as we become clearer about who we are, and what it means to be a staff member, we need to find ways to build up our future staff. We must seek opportunities to establish post-doctoral teaching and research fellowships for potential new staff, as we shepherd our senior staff towards winning ARC grants, especially linkage grants, where we demonstrate to the government, the churches, the public, and ourselves that we are equipped to do public theology that matters.

My vision for MCD University of Divinity in the next five years is to make it the leading institution in Australia for fostering public conversation about faith and belief with a view to transforming social, political, cultural and personal relationships.

To do this, I believe we need to create graduate attributes which shape all our teaching, to raise our profile in public media, with other universities, and with prospective students, and to be clear and confident about who we are as academics and who we will become as a distinctive university faculty.

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The Revival of Sectarianism

On 21 October 2011, in a stunning reversal of 140 years of campaigning for religious education in schools, the Synod of the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne defeated a motion which welcomed the provision for General Religious Education in Victorian State Schools made possible by a 2006 Act of Parliament.

Since 1872, when Victoria’s pioneering Education Act coined the phrase ‘free, secular and compulsory’, Melbourne Anglicans have fought for the right of state school children to receive religious instruction.

In 1958 this campaign led to the amendment of the Education Act to allow for Special Religious Instruction, by volunteers, during school hours, for no more than 30 minutes per week. Special Religious Instruction has been taught ever since almost entirely under the auspices of ACCESS Ministries (otherwise known as the Council for Christian Education in Schools).

Special Religious Instruction has always been a halfway house. Generations of Anglicans have asked, what if religious education could be offered to every single child in a Victorian state school, taught by professionally trained state school teachers, as part of an integrated curriculum?

Since the 1970s Anglicans have led the campaign for the legalisation and introduction of General Religious Education in Victoria.

This change was achieved in law, but not in practice, when the Education Act was amended in 2006. In 2011 the Australian Education Union announced it supported the introduction of a General Religious Education curriculum.

The unsuccessful motion was brought before Synod by John Baldock and Peter Sherlock as one response to the persistent controversy about SRI and the role of ACCESS Ministries in state schools. As the mover noted, ACCESS Ministries itself publicly supports General Religious Education.

The text of the motion was carefully constructed to ensure that Synod was not suggesting that General Religious Education should in any way displace or supersede Special Religious Instruction.

The Synod business paper was generously amended on the first evening, to ensure that another motion in support of the work of ACCESS volunteers and staff in Christian Religious Education and in school chaplaincy would be heard immediately following the motion on General Religious Education, despite being delivered too late to appear on the agenda.

The first speaker to the motion was, appropriately, Stephen Hale, an Anglican bishop and Chair of the Board of ACCESS Ministries. Contrary to the support for General Religious Education stated on the ACCESS Ministries website, Bishop Hale spoke against the motion, undoubtedly contributing to its defeat (the final result was 167 for, 204 against).

No attempt was made by the many representatives of ACCESS Ministries or their supporters present at the Synod to amend the motion to facilitate its passage, or in any way avoid a wholesale rejection by the Synod of its significant first clause that welcomed the introduction of legal provision for General Religious Education.

Meanwhile, a number of members of Synod spoke against the motion, alleging that government-accredited state school teachers were incapable of teaching General Religious Education in an engaging or fruitful manner.

The results of this decision are far-reaching. Melbourne Anglicans have now distanced themselves from the new legal provisions for General Religious Education. Synod has implied without censure that state school teachers are unable to conduct themselves in a professional manner in the classroom. The position of ACCESS Ministries in relation to General Religious Education is ambiguous at best and deceitful at worst.

The debate about religious education in schools has returned to the divisive and self-defeating sectarianism of the 1860s and 1870s.

* * * * *

The motion brought before Synod read as follows:

That this Synod:

a) welcomes the provision in the Victorian Education and Training Reform Act 2006 allowing for general religious education to be taught in state schools as part of the overall curriculum;

b) welcomes the Australian Education Union’s stated support for general religious education in all schools;

c) calls on the Victorian Minister for Education to facilitate the introduction of a program of multi-faith, general religious education into all Victorian state schools as soon as practicable;

d) and in so doing envisages that this would supplement and not replace Special Religious Instruction as provided for in the Education Act.

The website of ACCESS Ministries states that

‘Wisely, the Act makes provision for General Religious Education to be taught by specially trained school teachers who teach the history, belief systems and cultural mores concerning the major faith groups.’ (, published April 2011)


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iThink therefore iAm

One of the most significant achievements of the late Steve Jobs was the creation of the iPod.

The iPod embodies early twenty-first century principles of design, technology, and consumerism.  Owners carry their entire music libraries with them, and, using iTunes, create their own playlists and sequences.

As has been frequently noted, a consequence of the iTunes, iPod world is the death of the album. The creation of a coherent, multi-layered whole that is greater than the sum of its parts has died. Instead, we are left with episodic, fragmented, discordant soundbytes, where the individual whim triumphs over all. The playlist – generated by Genius or by the user – has replaced the album.

This phenomenon is being speedily replicated in the University world. The production of the academic monograph has been regarded as the pinnacle of scholarly achievement in the humanities. Yet few people read monographs from cover to cover. Popular, narrative-based works that repeat and reorder known information still sell well, but academic research is increasingly reliant on online journal articles.

These changes are perhaps emblematic of the postmodern condition. We can communicate more information to more people than ever before, yet we have less and less of consequence to say. We trawl the archives and create more and more inquisitive focus groups, yet have lost sight of a larger narrative that might save lives or simply make more people smile.

Yet before we give up on creativity, despairing the demise of the monograph or the album, it’s worth recalling the recent origins of these products. Albums as we know them are children of the 1960s, while monographs are a luxury, dating back no further than The Origin of Species.

Plenty of musicians, artists and writers have changed the way we think about ourselves in shorter pieces. Think the Communist Manifesto, or even Galatians 3:28. And the sciences have long recognised that the conference paper or research report has intellectual and practical significance that is not relative to length.

The rise of the online journal article, or the power point slide, will probably be eclipsed shortly by the blog, the wiki and the youtube broadcast. This is not a cause for despair (well, perhaps it is for educrats and the public servants charged with inventing metrics to govern research funding). What does matter is that humans do continue to think, read, write, communicate – stepping outside the predictable, the imaginable, and the individual into the cosmos of the unexpected, the unthought, and the reality of living and dying alongside billiions of other humans searching for something bigger than themselves.

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