The Old Country and the New

Britain and Australia are ten thousand miles apart, but ever since I came to live here, I have been struck by the resemblances between them. Australians follow the sad saga of a royal family they still share with Britain with almost as much fascination as their cousins in the northern hemisphere. When an issue like the provision of religious services for divorcees stirs debate in the British press, it is only a matter of days before the same controversy surfaces in the Melbourne Age or the Herald Sun.

The shootings at Dunblane and Port Arthur are another tragic example of the same parallelism. Inevitably the question is being raised as to whether the killing of thirty-five people in Tasmania, and the wounding of another eighteen, was carried out in imitation of what took place in Scotland. The manner in which the media reports such events has come under the spotlight. News must be published, but is it possible to do so in such a way as to discourage others from copying what they see happening elsewhere? Like Britain, Australia is a secular society, but Port Arthur, like Dunblane, motivated people to turn to the churches in an event that surpassed comprehension. Some looked to the churches for hope and comfort in a time of wrenching pain; others, like a journalist in the Weekend Australian asked ‘Why?’. ‘If there is a God,’ wrote Cameron Forbes, ‘why did six-year-old Alannah Mikac die in terror behind that tree?’

The churches rose to the occasion, encouraged by the Governor General, who is a devout Catholic, and who lost no time in calling for ecumenical services. The Anglican bishop of Tasmania wrote a prayer which was used all around Australia and was quoted overseas.

One difference between Britain and Australia is that the gun laws in this country are less tight than those in the UK. The jealous determination of the States to preserve their autonomy will make reform in this area difficult, but the government in Canberra seems determined to strike while public opinion is aroused. Other issues that will be familiar to British readers like the availability of violent videos and the kind of care given to the mentally ill are also being aired. Perhaps a factor unique to Australia is that this seems to be a society that has never really reckoned with the evil that lurks in human hearts. There is a strong contrast here with America where the puritan tradition, eloquently represented by a figure like Jonathan Edwards, kept alive a sense of sin and of the need for redemption. In recent times this theme was given eloquent restatement by Reinhold Niebuhr, a prophet who was able to deploy theological concepts so that they influenced even secular thinkers.

Australia has always been a lucky country, full of wide open spaces and rich mineral resources. Those who have settled this continent have certainly had to contend with harsh climates, an unfriendly environment and the tyranny of distance, but they have often appeared to lack a sense of the evil within. Ordinary working people are known as ‘battlers’, a name that conjures up a picture of men and women who fight through to win against great natural odds, usually with the help and support of their mates.

The evangelical tradition has largely failed to point in a different direction. The Calvinist impulse, with its stress on human depravity has often been effaced by the influence of the holiness movement and its promise of ‘sinless perfection’. No theologian even remotely resembling Niebuhr has arisen, able to bring Reformed insights to bear on secular issues.

In the wake of Port Arthur there has been some discussion of the question of evil, prompted by the fact that this was once a notorious convict centre. Even the church building there was left unfinished and could not be consecrated because a murder defiled its precincts. Even so there is a danger that evil will be seen as an external force, the legacy of past misdeeds rather than as the product of a fatal weakness in the human will affecting the whole of society.

Inevitably there has been a community backlash against the man allegedly responsible for the outrage. However the prison chaplain has visited Michael Bryant and prayed with him at his own request. The Revd Eric Cave, an Anglican priest, told the press: ‘I recognise that I too have strayed, that we all have strayed. The identification for me with Michael is that I too stray and people still care for me.’

In Wangarratta Cathedral we heard a very moving sermon from a visiting bishop from PNG, Michael Hough, newly ordained to be bishop of the New Guinea Islands. But the dean recognised in the end that words alone could not fully reflect the complex emotions of he congregation. As the names of those killed were read, thirty-five candles were lit in their memory and a simple prayer was offered. As this happened, I recalled a remark of G.K. Chesterton that to scatter earth on a coffin at a funeral is to express in ritual what only the greatest poet can put into words.

Ironically all this occurred just as there are calls for the Anglican Church to move away from formal liturgy and ceremony in a bid to attract more people to its services. A report from the General Synod Task Group on Evangelism has questioned the use of liturgical robes and special dress in church. We do need to make our worship more vital and alive, but this does not mean abandoning liturgy or symbolism. As Alan Wilkinson showed in his study of the church in the First World War rituals and sacraments can communicate in ways that words cannot. The response to the tragedy at Port Arthur re-inforces that conclusion.

Paul Richardson is Bishop of Wangarratta in the Province of Victoria.