David Chislett on A double act… and the media

Australians traveling overseas are often surprised at both the interest shown in church matters by the British and American media and their high standard of reporting and comment compared with that which generally prevails here. However, over the last few years, the local media have paid an enormous amount of attention to the churches as the shameful story of child sexual abuse and the inadequate response of church leaders has unfolded. Indeed, the media have sometimes become players in the news they report, as we saw in the demise of Governor-General and former Archbishop Peter Hollingworth.

During the same period reporters and commentators have been intrigued by the establishment of George Pell and Peter Jensen respectively as Roman Catholic and Anglican Archbishops of Sydney. Standing with conviction, as Pell once said, for ‘the two great Christian traditions’ of the west, they have become friends in spite of all their differences, and they don’t mind it being known that they pray for each another. In fact, it was Peter Jensen who launched the biography of Pell by Brisbane writer Tess Livingstone just after Pell had been cleared by an independent enquiry of sexual abuse allegations. During his speech, Jensen looked up at Pell, smiled, and, referring to the fact that Pell had voluntarily stood aside while the enquiry was being conducted (as is required of ordinary clergy), remarked with obvious sincerity, ‘It’s good to have him back’!

Pell, now a Cardinal, is still in the early stages of rebuilding a thoughtful, biblical, spiritual, intellectually credible and evangelistic ‘classical Catholicism’ (in contrast to the liberal version described so well over a decade ago by Michael Gilchrist in ‘Rome or the Bush’). He is an inspirer of young people who flock to hear him preach at St Mary’s Cathedral. Referring to the liberals he recently quipped to a reporter, ‘These days it’s hard to find a “progressive Catholic” under 50!’ Pell, once principal of a seminary in Melbourne, is a great inspirer of priestly vocations. Many believe that in the struggle for the soul of Australian Catholicism, he and those around him have begun to turn the tide.

Jensen, who in his sixteen years as principal of Moore Theological College, equipped hundreds of young Evangelical men and women to meet the challenges of ministry in a secularist age, is – incredibly – well on the way to achieving his evangelistic goal of ten percent of Sydney’s population being converted and incorporated into ‘Bible-believing churches’ during his archiepiscopate. Rock-solid in what he believes, and courageous in speaking out – however small the minority he represents on this issue or that – Jensen always manages to relate to his opponents with a genuine graciousness that is seldom noted by the media.

George Pell and Peter Jensen tend to be disliked by the same people – the ‘liberal progressives’ in their respective churches, and the relativistic secular humanists who resent the idea that any truth can be objectively true. Pell’s words to students graduating from Aquinas College in Ballarat go to the nub of the matter: ‘The Australian temptation is to tame Christ, not to crucify him; to trivialise his life and mission, not to grant them significance [even] by an act of repudiation … our society is pressuring the Church to abandon her claims to … revealed truth.’ Undeterred by trenchant criticism, both Pell and Jensen are bold in asserting the social, bioethical and moral implications of Christian believing, and both get headlines whenever they speak out on these matters in response to parliamentary debates and the pronouncements of secular ethicists. It is clear to ordinary people that they are driven by a genuine compassion for the casualties of our society as well as an infectious devotion to the real Christ – Jesus the Word made Flesh, the crucified Saviour, the Lord of glory.

Not surprisingly in the light of the archbishops’ stand for orthodoxy in the debate over women priests, the radical feminists (over-represented in the media!) perpetrate the myth that Pell and Jensen are somehow ‘anti-women’. The simple fact is that both men work with and depend on the insights of a matrix of professional women who exercise significant ministries. In particular, it is a striking tribute to Peter Jensen and his predecessors that throughout its parishes the Anglican Diocese of Sydney has more theologically trained full-time women ministers than any Australian diocese that has women priests!

That the media have become intensely interested in Sydney church affairs became obvious a few weeks ago when in its National News section the Sydney Morning Herald trumpeted the headline, ‘Father, Son and duelling bishops’. Primate and Anglican Archbishop of Perth, Peter Carnley, following the example of liberal Evangelical theologian Kevin Giles, accused the Anglican Diocese of Sydney Doctrine Commission of – wait for it – Arian Christology in order (in Giles’ words) ‘to permanently subordinate women to men in the church and at home.’ The news article outlines the issues in a few hundred words surprisingly well, quoting people on both sides of the debate. It’s not over yet. But who would have thought even a few years ago that this would be newsworthy!

My final example of the new media interest concerns the Australian Broadcasting Commission (the ‘ABC’). George Pell chairs the Vox Clara committee, a group of senior bishops from throughout the English-speaking world, which advises the Congregation for Divine Worship on the translation of Latin texts into English. Because Pell is a ‘Pope’s man’, there has been a degree of fear among liberal Roman Catholics that the theological elasticity they perceive in the Missal of Paul VI will disappear, and that the recommendations of Liturgicum authenticam, especially as they touch on the matter of inclusive language, will be implemented. The ABC managed to get hold of the most recent ICEL draft of the Ordo Missae, and in the Religion Report, Stephen Crittendon – seasoned critic of both Archbishops Pell and Jensen, and the original ‘conspiracy theorist’ – unveiled the ‘horrors’ of the document ‘… which will have an impact on millions of English-speaking Catholics, and fellow Christians, around the world.’

Crittendon, in fact, scooped the whole world. The draft document, meant for preliminary discussion among the bishops, was well nigh impossible to obtain. For a short while the leaked copy was available for downloading (as lots of jpg scans!) from the ABC website. It is no longer there, but a transcript of the critical discussion remains posted.

It has been said that because of its origins and history, Sydney out-does the other Australian capital cities in both sin and righteousness! Certainly the media have discovered just how newsworthy Sydney’s Roman Catholic and Anglican archbishops are, and that is a good thing, for it means that many ordinary Australians are thinking about the Gospel and the Faith.

David Chislett is Rector of All Saints’, Wickham Terrace, Brisbane.