LETTER FROM AUSTRALIA
The Silly Silly Season
By the time this LETTER is read, most Australians will be back at work
after the long summer holidays.
The antipodeans silly season goes from the week before Christmas until now. To understand this fully, readers in the Northern Hemisphere have to imagine what it would be like to celebrate Christmas at the beginning of August, because on the last working day before Christmas, the whole country grinds to a halt for the longest holiday period of the year. The partying, barbequing, surfing and camping begin, and people travel vast distances to gather with family and friends.
Although Australia is the most secular of English speaking countries, post World War II immigration has made it the most multicultural as well. So, in spite of all those who ignore the real meaning of Christmas, it is possible to find almost every kind of Christmas celebration taking place amongst our friends and neighbours. Anglicans are not the only ones to have imported slightly unsuitable aspects of Christmas from cultures in the northern hemisphere, although it's probably hard to beat singing ‘In the bleak mid-winter, frosty wind made moan …’ as a communion hymn at Midnight Mass while the sweat runs down your back and legs, and the very old and very young alike are in danger of passing out in the summer heat!
As well as that, the widespread roasting of lamb, turkey, geese and pork, with traditional English Christmas pudding continues (in spite of a minority movement favouring barbeques or sensible cold seafood platters), sometimes eaten outside in the hot wind with blowflies buzzing around, because such an extended use of the oven has made the house even hotter than the great outdoors.
The clement and the inclement
The holiday period from which we have just emerged was characterized by the hottest and most humid weather experienced in Queensland since 1913. In contrast, some of the mountainous parts of Victoria had snow on Christmas Day. In-between was New South Wales, devastated by bush fires more fierce than anyone could remember, cutting the roads to Sydney, and threatening the outer suburbs of that great city. Thousands of volunteer fire fighters, paramedics, welfare workers, relatives and friends rallied to the assistance of the new homeless. Daily, the national media treated us to reports of real heroism and self-sacrifice. The Churches were involved in supporting, housing and feeding people who had lost everything.
Fire is part of the cycle of life, death and rebirth in this great land. It is an aspect of the eco-system that scientists are only now beginning to understand. When a particularly hot summer follows a dry winter, fires do spontaneously combust. However, the most difficult thing for Australians to come to terms with this time round is that between half and two thirds of the fires raging around Sydney were deliberately lit, mostly by teenage arsonists. Public debate has centred on how to bring home to these young people the enormity of what they have done, and how to deter others from copy-cat behaviour.
Low season religion
Most Australian parishes find it difficult to maintain their momentum in January. Clergy are away, choirs, Sunday schools, youth groups and other organizations are in recess, and congregation numbers are down. We are lucky at All Saints' Wickham Terrace, for we are in the heart of a great city, right on the tourist beat, and January visitors more than compensate for those of our people who have disappeared.
But what stories our parishioners tell when they return! Some shock us with descriptions of extremely well-attended Sydney parishes where Sunday ‘Meetings’ resemble those of the Open Brethren. Others describe Sundays spent at one of the small handful of Anglo-Catholic ‘shrine churches’ in other capital cities which, alas, tend not to be supporters of Forward in Faith. On the whole, though, our returnees paint a depressing scenario of life throughout the Anglican Church of Australia, confirming what we say about the terminal decline of liberal Anglicanism around us.
Many of the clergy and laity our people meet give them the impression that mainstream Anglicans do not really care what is taught, believed or practised (that is, so long as it is not too Evangelical or too ‘Roman’!), and that what is true for me might not necessarily be true for you. The average Australian Anglican outside the Diocese of Sydney seems to be more than comfortable with Frank Griswold's ‘MY truth and YOUR truth …’
Our people returning from holidays speak of the ‘spiritual deadness’ of Anglican parishes up and down the land. This is obviously not unrelated to the fact that so many good priests who still love and care for their people have nonetheless drifted from the Gospel itself and they have missed the dynamism of the full Catholic Faith. They are neither Evangelicals nor Catholics. They have absorbed the contemporary liberal outlook of our leaders and seem content to preside over rapidly shrinking communities of ageing people defined by a nostalgic attachment to the Englishness of Anglican culture and family ties, but not much else. It has been wickedly suggested that for them salvation is no longer by faith, not even by good works – but by good taste!
Just recently, I myself have visited relatives in different parts of Australia and have gone incognito to a handful of parishes I'd not been to before. In one place I sat through a 35 minute sermon preached by a well known liberal to a small group of elderly people who probably thought that they were going to be nourished by the Word of God before receiving Holy Communion. After congratulating himself and his hearers for not being so intellectually immature as to be like the Diocese of Sydney or certain extreme Anglo-Catholics – that is, in thinking of truth in absolute terms – the clergyman launched into the most amazing attack on anyone who claims to have sought and found! The search for God is commendable, he said. Only the arrogant claim to have found him. The holy Name of Jesus was not mentioned once.
In another place, a woman priest processed into the midst of a small congregation sitting in concentric circles around a free-standing altar and started the service: ‘Hello, everyone. We have come together today to experience a deeper sense of community than we've ever known before’. Now, that's OK. That's what should happen at Mass. The point is that in her introduction, there was nothing about the community's encounter with the risen Jesus in Word and Sacrament. He didn't get a mention. I got up and left. On my way to the car one of the few men present asked why I was leaving. I told him I had mistakenly gone to the wrong church.
Across town I found a perfectly orthodox and inspiring celebration being presided over by a young Polish priest of another jurisdiction!
And they say we don't need Forward in Faith!
David Chislett is Rector of All Saints’ Brisbane in the diocese of Brisbane.
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