LETTER FROM AUSTRALIA

Good Friday on Thursday

IT WAS C.S. Lewis who said that just as getting divorced cannot return a man or a woman to virginity, so becoming "post Christian" cannot enable us a to be as if we had never known the Christian Faith. This is true of individuals; it is equally true of whole cultures. Missiologists tell us what we already know: that evangelism among the affluent post-Christian cynics of our leafy suburbs is far more difficult than reaching out to cultures and societies which have never been touched by the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Many who teach anthropological cross-cultural studies (and the new "women's studies") regret the coming of Christian missionaries to the South Pacific. They speak of the destruction of indigenous cultures in the name of Christianity. Yet over twenty years ago in Vanuatu, I encountered a visiting English priest with these views - a real liberal - who was treated with some amusement by the islander clergy. "Some cultures ARE better than others", protested an indigenous bishop that day. "Surely a culture in which people fear being eaten by their neighbours in the next village is not as good as a culture in which cannibalism no longer exists!"

My experience of a number of island communities is that local leaders believe the coming of the Gospel to have been a crucial factor in the PRESERVATION of their culture. Most believe that without the missionaries - many of whom exhibited such sanctity and love as to become legends in their own lifetime - the opportunistic imperialism of the nineteenth century super powers would have destroyed whole peoples and their natural resources. Some missions made mistakes, and today things are done differently. But in the south Pacific, at least, Anglican and Roman Catholic missionaries (and especially the Anglo-Catholics, motivated by their incarnational theology) approached the evangelistic task with great respect and reverence for the islander cultures into which they went.

On a par with Christmas and Easter for Torres Strait Islanders is their "Coming of the Light" festival on 1st July when they celebrate the arrival of the Christian Faith into the late nineteenth century melting pot from which arose the various island cultures between the tip of Queensland and Papua New Guinea. The "Coming of the Light" is celebrated with great pageantry and enthusiasm, not just in the Torres Strait, but among those many Islander families who have settled in mainland Australia. In spite of the views of liberal Christians and secular humanists who often react with great embarrassment to this festival, the indigenous people themselves remain grateful for the Gospel.

Nowhere was this more apparent than at the start of National Reconciliation Week in 1997 when Islander leader Father Dave Passi (now a bishop in the Church of Torres Strait) preached in S. Paul's Cathedral, Melbourne. Having said how important it was that little children in the Torres Strait grow up knowing their own culture, he went on to say that "all the spiritual aspirations of the culture of my people find their fulfilment in the Catholic way of being Anglican".

Today the Torres Strait diaspora in northern mainland Australia faces the challenge of secularism and the breakdown of their old ways, with many young people unemployed and turning to drug and alcohol abuse. In the actual islands of the Torres Strait, however, this is ameliorated somewhat by the conscious desire to continue as a Christian society, with great respect being given to the bishops and clergy, and with lay political leaders boasting that they trust only in God, making sure that they begin their local government meetings with heartfelt prayer.

I grew up in the working class western suburbs of Sydney (sometimes called the "wild west") in a society that still regarded itself as broadly Christian, but in which only a tiny minority was involved with the life of the church. Robustly secular (in a way that cannot really be appreciated by the English or the Americans), the community gratefully accepted the holidays of Easter and Christmass, and out of respect for a faith believed by very few, but which everybody knew was responsible for the holidays in the first place, was happy enough with the idea that shops were closed, and football and cricket were not played. After all, Good Friday gives us the opportunity of an extra trip to the beach or beer drinking around the barbeque at home.

In the weeks leading up to this year's Easter, a surprising increase of entrepreneurial activities - rock concerts, large scale football games etc - put well-intentioned community leaders in a difficult position. Two state premiers - in Victoria and Queensland - publicly deplored the organization of such activities for the day set apart to remember the death of Christ. Both premiers are practising Christians. In the case of Mr Bracks of Victoria, his government banned the screening of THE EXORCIST on Good Friday, saying that practising Christians in the population had a right to some respect on that day. Mr Beattie of Queensland objected to the rock group KISS (a group whose music he normally enjoys) staging a "Friday 13th" concert on Good Friday. This startled many news commentators into attacking the two premiers. Apart from their incredulity that otherwise intelligent and popular state leaders could be practising Christians, they claimed that this was an example of the Christian religion being imposed on all and sundry. What about the Muslims or the Rationalists, they asked.

Early in Holy Week, I was driving through the CBD of Brisbane with the car radio tuned in to a local talk-back program. A Roman Catholic priest who admitted to being a devoted fan of a certain football team considering a Good Friday match, suggested that it would be better for everyone in our post-Christian society, Christians included, if we got rid of the public holidays that relate to the Church calendar. The Federal Government should work out a handful of public holidays of national significance, and the Christian community would celebrate its festivals like any other religious group in multi-cultural Australia. Not surprisingly, a number of Christians phoned in support of what the good father said ("wouldn't it be wonderful to celebrate Holy Week in our parishes without large numbers of regulars `going away for Easter!"')

One man rang in, however, to complain about these "bloody wowser Christians who now want to take our Good Friday holiday from us". It was hard to believe that he wasn't being a caricature of himself. In an instant the conversation had moved well beyond the point of rational debate, recalling Ronald Conway, a well known social commentator in this country who thirty years ago described Australia as "The Land of the Long Weekend". Perhaps the average Australian would be more offended at losing a public holiday than to be reminded of its true significance by a slightly truncated range of things to do on that day.

Our society is no longer specifically Christian (if it ever was). But neither is it exactly non-Christian. It tries hard to be post-Christian, and the difficulties it experiences on all sides give credence to C.S. Lewis' remark. One thing is certain. The churches must find new ways of relating to this situation, and effectively proclaim the Gospel in a secularised society. Maybe one starting point is to show how so many of our present ills are signs of the failure of mainland Australian culture's attempt to behave as if it had never known the Gospel of Jesus.

David Chislett is Rector of All Saint's, Wickham Terrace, Province of Queensland


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