LETTER FROM AUSTRALIA

The Big Picture

 

HISTORICALLY SPEAKING, Australians have never been noted for their willingness or even their ability to stand back and study the big picture. But over the last couple of years there has been a fair bit of philosophising about our life as a nation, the quality of our national unity, and even the "need for a spirituality".

A SEARCH FOR IDENTITY

Back in the 1970s, the novelist, Patrick White, had said that it was foolish to speak of "an Australian culture". In his view all the ingredients had been gathered - ranging from the indigenous people to the British colonisers to the waves of immigration from almost every ethnic background since World War 2 - but the process of mixing these ingredients in the bowl had barely begun.

In the years leading up to the turn of the century, however, there was constant discussion about our national identity - discussion that was particularly focused during the republican debate. Political, civic, sporting, cultural and religious leaders drawn from across every conceivable divide interacted publicly on how we might build "a new and better Australia". This process flowed into the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. The millions around the world who watched the opening ceremony will remember how strongly that amazing kaleidoscope of antipodean symbols sought to affirm the "coming of age" of modern Australia.

SPORT AND SPIRITUALITY

The ceremony’s spiritual overtones have received wide comment. Writing in The Sydney Morning Herald, journalist Stephen Crittenden described the ceremony as "a kind of religious liturgy" expressing our "yearning for community. That is the true lesson of the opening ceremony and of those magical two weeks back in September. They gave us a glimpse of Australia as a spiritual home that we can all share, and reminded us of the utopian social experiment that Australia can yet be".

That might sound a bit over the top. But Crittenden is not alone. In his last Christmas message as Archbishop of Sydney, the Most Rev’d Harry Goodhew said about the games themselves that " . . . it wasn't just the attention of the world, or the excitement of the competition that made it special. It was the atmosphere - that special ‘something’ that made strangers talk to each other, people helpful and cooperative, and everyone smile. We cheered and applauded - not just the athletes, but those wonderful volunteers as well. For two weeks we all felt as if we belonged to one, huge, happy family. Goodwill was in the air. As one taxi driver remarked: ‘It felt like Christmas, every day for two weeks.’ We called it ‘the Olympic Spirit’".

OLYMPIC BLUES

Goodhew, however, went on to point out that "the Olympic Spirit" did not last. He was right. Sydneysiders often speak of a period of "Olympic blues" after the Games. This phenomenon was, in fact, felt in various degrees right throughout the country, with the Games and the achievements of that extraordinary fortnight becoming nostalgic memories faster than anyone could have predicted. It is probably just as well, for a serious analysis of the real spiritual message of the Games reveals an almost uncanny return to that strand of ancient Greek thinking which affirmed the possibility of immortality through sporting achievement.

"Heroes live forever" was an oft repeated theme-song, encouraging Aussies to continue affirming the athletes without exercising our usual inclination to cut achievers and leaders down to size .

THE FORCE BE WITH YOU

From the Games there does linger a feeling that it is not so "uncool" to "have a spirituality", and, indeed, that the acquisition of a spirituality may be a necessary step along the pathway to personal fulfilment, let alone our coming-of-age as a nation. (Even Philip Adams, the arch-Atheist broadcaster and commentator, who loves Byzantine icons, now speaks tentatively of "intimations of transcendence"!)

A kind of grudging respect has begun to be given to people who are able to speak in a unselfconscious way about "their faith", even if it is only "the force be with you" kind of religion. To be sure, Christian observers recognise that in this quest many people, young and old alike, have mistaken sentimentality for spirituality. But the fact is that right now the churches have the kind of opportunity to reach out with the Gospel that is seldom enjoyed in our land.

FEMALE BISHOPS AND ABSENT MEN

As might be expected, the Diocese of Sydney has many imaginative approaches to evangelism, including a special sports ministry designed to utilize the momentum of the Olympics. They are growing at 4% per year. Nationally, however, the Anglican Church is shrinking at about 2% per year. The figures have been like that for some time.

A few years ago, a one of "our" bishops returned home from the national meeting of bishops at Gilbulla, just south of Sydney. He was somewhat devastated by the length of time given over to discussing women bishops, and remarked: "All that time on women bishops; and NOTHING on how to get MEN back to church!"

The "big picture"? Can our leaders regain a sense of proportion about what really matters for the Church today, so that we can work hand in hand to proclaim the Gospel and teach the Faith?"

David Chislett, SSC is Rector of All Saints', Wickham Terrace, Brisbane, in the diocese of Brisbane. He is National Secretary of Forward in Faith, Australia.

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