Patronal Festival 2005
Wednesday, 29 June, 2005
Dr Tom Frame
Bishop to the Australian Defence Force
Acts 12:1-11; Psalm 87; 2 Tim 4:6-18; John 21:15-22
Can I begin by thanking Fr John for his invitation to be with you this evening and continue by saying what a delight it is to be worshipping in this magnificent Church. Patronal Festivals are important parish occasions because they ought to encourage reflection on the past, the present and the future, and oblige both priest and people to think about the life and witness of their patron saint and those who have shaped parish life through changing time and circumstance. In this address, I want to begin not with St Peter but another saint, Father Farnham Edward Maynard, who was vicar of Eastern Hill from 1926 to 1964. He was a remarkable Australian and an exemplary Christian who caused the wider Church to think and to act in ways that many had thought beyond its capacity. You can read more about him in Dr Colin Holden's outstanding parish history, From Tories at Prayer to Socialists at Mass. But of all the things Fr Maynard brought to Australian Anglicanism it was his advocacy of Christian socialism that I want to explore this evening, and to ask: how much of the Christian socialist vision remains a vivid interpretation of Christian faith and witness, and what might we actually observe of this in the life and leadership of St Peter?
Let me begin with a few general observations from the Bible to set the scene. The life of Jesus Christ embodied a radicalism that had to do with economic relations, social responsibilities and political aspirations. Christianity is, therefore, a radical religion. It calls for nothing less than the complete inner transformation of the individual through repentance and faith and a comprehensive renewal of society based on love and compassion. Christianity's founder lived and died to free individuals from slavery to sin and death, and commanded his followers to fashion a new community in which the promises of the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) were physically realised and the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-12) took concrete form. We know from the Scriptures that the early Christian Church practiced a primitive form of communism and was characterised by generous inclusiveness. These sanctified individuals and the prophetic community of which they were a part would stand, we read in the Acts of the Apostles, as a powerful witness to the power and purpose of God and speak Biblically against a world gripped by selfishness and material greed. The Christian message was never intended to be therapy for dispirited individuals but an invitation for sinners to embrace holiness in both their private and public lives. The Church's mission was not to enhance popular culture or improve the quality of political discourse but to destroy existing exploitative power structures and to replace them with relationships characterised by humility and sacrifice.
So I find it curious that in this country, Christianity could be regarded as a reactionary influence and the Church a highly conservative institution. Five reasons for this oddity come to mind. First, there is a widely-held but inaccurate belief that Christianity is interested only in personal morality and individual salvation. Second, there is a concern (partly an echo of the 1955 Labor split) that religious sectarianism inevitably fractures political constituencies. Third, there is the accusation that Churches obstruct social and economic progress out of selfish fear and self-preservation instincts. Fourth, some allege that the Church has responded to declining influence by turning its back on the world and in becoming a ghetto for the disappointed and despairing. Fifth, there is a growing optimism that, guided by human reason rather than divine revelation, humanity will be able to construct a universally accepted ethical code that will further corporate life. When taken together, these views have as much to do with a fundamental misunderstanding of Christianity among its critics as a failure to reflect core commitments among its adherents.
But what have the Christian socialists to say in all of this? From its origins in the 1840s, the Christian Socialist movement was concerned with predatory practices in society, and the need for cooperation in combating social problems, principally exploitation of the poor and collective indifference to poverty. In the early 20th century, the Christian Socialists protested against the injustices suffered by the working class. They championed the rights of labour, encouraged the formation of unions and guilds, and criticized the excessive individualism of the then prevailing social and economic views. Professor R.H. Tawney, the most significant British socialist thinker in the inter-war years, held an unashamedly Christian-ethical view of socialism. To Tawney, capitalism's great evil was that it flouted Christian values and promoted instead those of acquisitiveness and competition. Equally, he was adamant that a decent socialist order must create the conditions for the moral regeneration of the individual on the basis of fellowship and cooperation, as well as providing for the extension of democracy into all walks of life.
In Australia, the Great Depression of the 1930s revealed that many Christians had not grappled seriously or adequately with questions of social reform, let alone the possibility of restructuring society in order to eliminate the causes of injustice. The chief emphasis in the Anglican outlook remained essentially individualistic and highly conservative. Synod debates did not usually reveal an understanding of the differences and links between the symptoms and causes of poverty and material need. They assumed the neutrality of the political and social system, and were unaware of the ways in which their own way of life or political stances potentially and actually implicated them in the suffering of others. But the financial crisis also led to the emergence of a small group of theological dissenters. Fr Maynard was among its leaders. He was courageous and bold.
The movement championed by Fr Maynard believed the true Gospel was concerned as much with social as with individual regeneration, with social justice more than with charity. He argued against any separation of economic and religious life and felt that capitalism could be transformed by the direct application of Christian principles. Fearful of both the rise of communism and fascism, the Christian Socialists believed that the possibility of social regeneration in a re-configured democracy demanded the Church's complete involvement in political life. They implored all Australians to avoid the modern tendency to divide life into the spiritual and the secular, because social living was also a 'great act of worship'. These Anglicans had two crucial insights to share with the nation. The first was the spiritual nature and authority of the Church as a divine society, fashioned not by mortals but by God. The second was a sacramentalism which embraced, in its saving synthesis, not only what is commonly called "religion", but all life as well, making all life eucharistic, and every separate activity of men and women individual, social and political a eucharistic offering. Fr Maynard rejected the view that the church should remain out of politics and believed that every problem could be solved by the Spirit of Christ. If Christ was to have the final word in forming and maintaining individual, social and international relationships fear would be banished, faith recovered and confidence restored.
The Christian Socialists were right in addressing the condition of the individual and the state of the society in which they lived. And they went beyond thinking to acting on behalf of individuals and groups of people who struggled or suffered because they were disadvantaged or disabled. It was possible for the Kingdom of God to be experienced in this life, as a foretaste of what was to come. Of course, the individual needed to be taken out of the slum BUT the slum also needed to be taken out of the individual ... if the individual was to be transformed into the likeness of Christ and social relations were to reflect the reordering of all things in the Kingdom of God. There was no point addressing pressing social questions if the corrosive affects of sin were ignored. We would do well to rediscover both the ideas and the methods of the Christian socialists in our approach to being Christian at this time in this world. It is my firm conviction that both the State and the Church presently tend to promote a form of individualism that is unhelpful to democracy and civic life, and antithetical to Christianity and compassionate fellowship. Christ is my Lord and my Saviour, and what this means is worked out in my dealings with others, in the attitude I take to the community in which God has placed me, as much as it is worked out in my personal devotions and private prayers. I know this vision, enunciated first by Canon E.S. Hughes and elucidated by Fr Maynard, continues to motivate and inspire this parish under Fr John Davis warm embrace and insightful leadership.
The Gospel reading from the end of the fourth Gospel set down for the feast of St Peter is well-known. After Peter denied Jesus three times, he is invited by Jesus three times to declare his love for him. On each occasion, Peter is told to tend, feed or shepherd the sheep. It is noteworthy that this direction implies actions directed at individuals and a community as well. There is one sheep and there are many sheep. In being appointed a shepherd, Peter is to care for the entire community of people who follow Jesus. He is to ensure their collective well-being as well as their individual health. The instructions he received direct his attention at the entire person û body, mind and spirit û and the full range of their interactions. Jesus is also a realist. In commissioning Peter for leadership, Jesus foreshadows opposition and hardship. That is, and remains, the lot of the leader. He does not try to lessen their impact or minimize the pain. He simply says, 'Follow me'. This requires faith, hope and love. Faith in the Jesus who commissions, hope in the Jesus who sustains, and love for the Jesus we want to be near.
History bears witness to Peter's faithfulness and fruitfulness: his trust, loyalty and obedience. Having heard this word, you might ask: how is it reflected in parish life now; what might we do to make it more true, and how will we hold ourselves accountable, as a parish, to God's call to serve and be obedient? May this commemoration of St Peter's martyrdom and the celebration of the Parish's life, restore your sight, renew your vision and reinvigorate your commitment to following Jesus and serving those with whom you journey. Amen.
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.