One of the best-sellers in Australia this year has been “The First Stone” by Helen Garner. So far over 50,000 copies have been taken off the shelves, a mammoth number by Australian standards, and an indication of the way in which the book has touched an important cultural nerve. A work by an Australian writer, Germaine Greer’s “The Female Eunuch”. gave an important boost to modern feminism. Now another Australian writer has called for a halt to some of the movement’s excesses.

In thinly disguised fictional form, Helen Garner tells the story of Dr Alan Gregory, the former Master of Ormond College, an elite Presbyterian foundation after the Oxbridge pattern attached to the University of Melbourne. After a valedictory dinner at which he seems to have been a little the worse for drink, Gregory was accused of sexual harassment by five female students. Three dropped the charges but two persisted. They claimed that Gregory had touched their breasts and made improper suggestions to them, allegations Gregory denied.

Ormond College lacked the procedures to deal with such matters and a sub-committee set up by the council made a mess of trying to settle the dispute. The two students took the issue to court. Gregory was found guilty but the case against him was dismissed on appeal. Despite his legal victory, Gregory lost the support of the college council, and had to resign as Master, and has so far been unable to find another job.

Helen Garner has not tried to produce a work of investigative journalism. She has not uncovered any new facts, and does not even attempt to judge whether Alan Gregory committed the actions of which he was accused. At the core of her book lies the belief that the whole matter was blown way out of proportion by a new wave of feminism, convinced that the only way to overcome abuse is to maintain the rage and not to let your anger abate. Garner herself is a feminist of long standing but against this modern trend she utters a warning: “I think anger is a very important part of the healing process – but if your stuck with anger for ever, that’s not healing”.

In a revealing comment, she tells us that when she began to investigate the Ormond College affair she had a “horrible feeling that my ethics and my feminism were speeding towards a head-on smash”. The two young women, who have never been named, and who refused to speak to Garner because she had written a letter of sympathy to Gregory, complained to the court that Gregory’s approach made them feel “worthless sex objects”. Garner finds this hard to understand. What sort of a world have we entered where women feel degraded if men find them attractive?

In essence, Helen Garner is trying to defend the erotic element that often enters into relationships between men and women, and to plead for a more forgiving, understanding attitude when it leads people to go a little further than they should. She is not defending rape or assault, only suggesting that the new feminism is too hard and unforgiving, too ready to find violence and abuse of power where none is intended.

“The Catholic Church”, observed a Jewish woman known to Helen Garner, “took centuries to achieve what these puritan feminists have managed in only a couple of years – take an idea whose purpose was to free people and turn it into something that strangles truth”.

Mention of the Church raises the question of what attitude Christians are taking to the new feminism. Alan Gregory is a practising Anglican, and the Dean of Melbourne, Bishop James Grant, appeared in court on his behalf as a character witness. Apart from that there has been silence.

Part of the trouble is that the churches themselves are deeply compromised by sexual harassment charges. A large number of cases has been brought against the Christian brothers and other Catholic orders, but all the churches face similar problems. In addition feminists are a powerful force in the mainline churches with the ability to set the agenda and to influence policy.

The title of her book might indicate Helen Garner found inspiration for her attitude to Alan Gregory in the New Testament. Modern feminist commentators, like Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, are more determined to challenge biblical presuppositions, than they are to allow New Testament insight to shape their own judgments. Fiorenza has the function of a critical feminist hermeneutic of suspicion as being to “unmask the ideological foundations of androcentric biblical texts and commentary”. Behind the text of scripture she sees, not the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, but a conspiracy of Patriarchal writers.

The reluctance of the churches to enter into critical dialogue with modern feminism is just as big a mistake as the failure of the World Council of Churches to condemn the repression of human rights by the former communist regimes of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Helen Garner has allowed ethics to challenge her feminism, and by and large her Australian readers, both male and female, have gone along with her. Is there any chance the church scan show similar courage?

Paul Richardson, the author of this letter, is Bishop of Wangaratta, Province of Victoria.