Monthly Archives: December 2013

Christmas where?

I was going to try to write something, to sermonise a little, but this says it.

Christmas where?

… and so does this:

Finally, in considering the situation of migrants and refugees, I would point to yet another element in building a better world, namely, the elimination of prejudices and presuppositions in the approach to migration. Not infrequently, the arrival of migrants, displaced persons, asylum-seekers and refugees gives rise to suspicion and hostility. There is a fear that society will become less secure, that identity and culture will be lost, that competition for jobs will become stiffer and even that criminal activity will increase. The communications media have a role of great responsibility in this regard: it is up to them, in fact, to break down stereotypes and to offer correct information in reporting the errors of a few as well as the honesty, rectitude and goodness of the majority. A change of attitude towards migrants and refugees is needed on the part of everyone, moving away from attitudes of defensiveness and fear, indifference and marginalization – all typical of a throwaway culture – towards attitudes based on a culture of encounter, the only culture capable of building a better, more just and fraternal world. The communications media are themselves called to embrace this “conversion of attitudes” and to promote this change in the way migrants and refugees are treated.
— Pope Francis. Message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees, which will be held on 19 January 2014


In the midst of an usually-too-hectic work life, this is a favourite story I used to tell my colleagues

While visiting the University of Notre Dame, where I had been a teacher for a few years, I met an older experienced professor who had spent most of his life there. And while we strolled over the beautiful campus, he said with a certain melancholy in his voice, ‘You know … my whole life I have been complaining that my work was constantly interrupted, until I discovered that my interruptions were my work.’ —Henri J. Nouwen, Reaching out: the three movements of the spiritual life. London: Collins, 1976, p52.


The Church Times (6 Dec 13) is disappointed by The Report of the House of Bishops Working Group on Human Sexuality. How unsurprising.

The Pilling report, The Report of the House of Bishops Working Group on Human Sexuality, adds a shade more civility to the gay debate. It talks of repentance for homophobia, and begins its findings and recommendations with a statement of welcome and affirmation of the “presence and ministry” of gay people in the Church of England. And at various points in the report we can feel the group’s members, or rather most of them, yearning towards a greater liberalism. Its concession, however, that same-sex partnerships might be “marked” in church has been construed as the very least that the group could have recommended. The C of E, if it has the stomach for it, now faces the prospect of two years of facilitated conversations, “conducted without undue haste but with a sense of urgency”, about a move that will be moribund unless it encompasses same-sex marriage, and will do little to convince the gay community, and society at large, that the Church really knows the meaning of the words “welcome” and “affirmation”. The report was always likely to be disappointing. When it was set up in 2011, the Pilling group’s task was to reflect on the post-Lambeth ’98 “listening process” and merely “advise the House [of Bishops] on what proposals to offer on how the continuing discussion about these matters might best be shaped”. In other words, it was not being asked about policy, only about process. Even this modest goal of directing how future talks might be modelled proved too difficult, damaged by the fact that one of its number, the Bishop of Birkenhead, the Rt Revd Keith Sinclair, queried even the continuation of the listening process on the grounds that no further discernment is necessary. His dissenting statement, which, with his appendix, takes up more space than the group’s reflections, is a key factor in the report’s ambivalence. If evidence were needed on the brokenness of the Church on this matter, here it is. A narrow brief and internal disagreement have made for a tame report, one that is hardly likely to enliven further consultation. Bishop Sinclair does his best to portray it as dangerously radical, but his description of it as undermining the Church’s teaching about homosexuality is inaccurate. The undermining has already happened: the report’s most radical act is to reveal in an official document what is already widely known: that a significant proportion of churchpeople regard that teaching as flawed. Faced with this gulf between conservatives such as Bishop Sinclair and, say, almost everybody under the age of 30, it is easy to see why the majority in the working group latched on to the concept of “pastoral accommodation” with such enthusiasm. But this merely takes the Church’s ambivalence into a pastoral situation, saying to a couple, in effect: “We agree with what you’re doing, but are too weak to prevail against those who disapprove of you.” This is hardly a convincing response to the missiological challenge that the Pilling report identifies.

The churches are weary with the whole business; they have no heart for any more arguing and wish it would all go away. It might “go away”, if we could (a) agree on how to decide what is right and true on a matter that is not essential to the faith and the Gospel, (b) decide accordingly, and (c) all abide by the decision in good conscience.

That’s not possible, at least not this millenium.

So the sooner we agree that debates about sexuality are not important and that we can live with disagreement and difference of practice, the better it will be for ourselves and for God’s service. Otherwise these tediously endless debates will not go away. If we cannot agree to differ on sexuality (and other things), we risk permanent distraction from the work of the Gospel and from God’s presence.

Labor’s UNAA report card: good overall, but two serious failures

The United Nations Association of Australia publishes a periodical United Nations Report Card, which details Australia’s performance and participation in the UN. The 2013 Report Card, edited by Professor Alex Bellamy, focused on the performance of the Labor Government 2007-13. Each author assessed Australia’s performance across a number of specified criteria and awarded a grade from A to F.

The Report Card overall paints a positive picture of the past Government’s performance. The great failure, concerning Refugees and Asylum Seekers is all the more stark. The authors write:

We have given the Australian Government an ‘F’ on the topic of refugees and asylum seekers due to the serious questions that remain about the compatibility of government policy with our domestic and international legal obligations. The Australian Government also scores poorly on the issue of climate change given our dependence on fossil fuels and the uncertainties over our commitment to reducing emissions compared to many other developed countries.

2013 Report Card Grades on the Australian Government’s performance in the United Nations

UN Security Council and General Assembly


It was significant, and a credit to Australia’s diplomacy, that
we were elected to the Security Council on the first ballot with 140
votes in October 2012.
Human Rights


Australia has been a strong advocate across a broad range of issues.
Humanitarian and Development Aid


Australia’s record on overseas aid is very mixed.
Climate Change


Australia must raise its mitigation ambition, increase its share of international climate finance and develop a transformative national energy policy.
Peacekeeping and Peacebuilding


Australia has demonstrated a clear preference for deploying forces outside the UN framework.


Australia has had a mixed history with nuclear weapons and has
demonstrated a lack of consistency both internationally and
Indigenous Peoples


Some positive steps have been taken toward implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. 
Gender Equality


Australia is an active participant in UN Forums on gender equality,
including the Commission on the Status of Women and the Convention.
Refugees and Asylum Seekers


Australia’s response to asylum seekers has been marked by increasing hostility and a near-total absence of any concern.

The United Nations Association of Australia’s goals are:

  • to promote among Australians greater awareness of the purposes of the United Nations, and
  • to ensure that the Australian Government fulfils its obligations as a member-state of the UN.

Australia’s representatives were amongst the most committed participants in negotiation of the UN Charter at San Francisco in 1945 and Australia was one of the founding members of the Organisation. The preamble to the UN Charter says that “We the peoples of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war . . . to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights . . . to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained, and to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom, . . . have resolved to combine our efforts to accomplish these aims.”

We will decide?

Sadly, all too current …

We will decide
Who comes into this country-
And the circumstances
In which they come. [Prime Minister John Howard, Liberal Party election campaign launch, 28 Oct 2001.]

Like a piece of poetry it was,
the toughening iambics,
those sharpened ‘c’s, like angled pikes,

the two-beat lines that got us going –
except line 3 which had its extra
fist banged on the table.

Note the subtle half-rhyme, too,
‘country’ matched with ‘come’
and how the preposition ‘in

assumes its proper place.
Like most great poetry, of course,
it’s mainly made from echoe

the glorious Three Hundred Greeks
who held Thermopylae
and Winston Churchill roaring still

“We shall fight them on the beaches . . .”
Like all such deathless works of art
it’s shivering with myth:

the golden hordes who spoil our sleep
across two centuries,
the bard far back with lyre and smoke

declaiming his alliterations,
the ancient battles of his race
with dragons, gods and men.

No wonder, then, that those who might
have shown us something else,
defeated now by poetry.

had nowhere left to turn.

Geoff Page. Overland 181:92, Summer 2005

An obligation of equality

Amist all of the present hullabaloo concerning same-sex marriage, one might recall that Australia is signatory to international human rights agreements prohibiting discrimination against gay men and lesbians.

2.1 Each State Party to the present Covenant undertakes to respect and to ensure to all individuals within its territory and subject to its jurisdiction the rights recognized in the present Covenant, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. — 26. All persons are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to the equal protection of the law. In this respect, the law shall prohibit any discrimination and guarantee to all persons equal and effective protection against discrimination on any ground such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. — International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Articles 2.1 and 26.

Alastair Nicholson, recently retired as Chief Justice of Australia’s Family Law Court wrote in the The Age of 20 September 2004, describing that year’s Australian legislation to prevent same-sex marriage as “one of the most shameful pieces of legislation that has ever been passed by the Australian Parliament”.

It was clearly intended by the Howard Government to constitute a pitch to the religious right and mirrored a similar attempt in the United States introduced by President George Bush for the same purpose. Unfortunately, it was more successful here than there.

The reason for its success reflects no credit on the Latham Opposition, which abandoned principle for pragmatism rather than hand an election issue to the Government.

[…] What the Government, with the help of the Opposition, has succeeded in doing is to turn back the clock nearly 140 years. They have done so at the expense not only of the gay and lesbian community, but quite possibly the transsexual community as well. They have passed one of the most discriminatory laws that could be imagined. They have ridden roughshod over the legitimate rights and aspirations of these citizens.

Hearing the prophet: a sermon for the second Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 11.1-10, Psalm 72.1-7, 18-21, Romans 15.4-13, Matthew 3.1-13

On August 28th this year the people of the United States celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the 1963 civil rights march on Washington, when Dr Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to a huge gathering.

“I have a dream today,” he said.

… I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed … that all men are created equal. …

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

“Let freedom ring,” he said. That is the voice of the prophet.

The world is saddened by the death of Nelson Mandela. He said of himself, “I stand before you, not as a prophet, but as a humble servant.” Yet, he spoke with a prophet’s voice and brought forgiveness and reconciliation to his nation.

In today’s reading from Isaiah, the prophet speaks of a future King, descended from Jesse, the father of King David.

The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.

This is not a divine king, but a man who would rule wisely under God’s guidance.

Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela each spoke to the political and social circumstances of their day, yet they also spoke for all time.

The prophecies we read from Isaiah were spoken to the political and social circumstances of ancient Israel. Yet today, Jews and Gentiles alike read this text as a prophecy of the Lord’s Messiah. From earliest time, we Christians have understood it to be about Jesus, the one who is Immanuel, God with us.

Read it all &hellip.

Digested reforms?

Perhaps the everlasting church squabbles about ordination of women and about gay and lesbian people boil down to this:

It is a question of making conflicts more visible, of making them more essential than mere confrontations of interests or mere institutional immobility. Out of these conflicts, these confrontations, a new power relation must emerge whose first temporary expression will be a reform. If at the base there has not been the work of thought upon itself and if, in fact, modes of thought, that is to say modes of action, have not been altered, whatever the project for reform, we know that it will be swamped, digested by modes of behaviour and institutions that will always be the same.

—Michael Foucault, Politics, philosophy, culture (New York: Routledge, 1990), 156.

Grace and peace

Al Hsu writes about his collection of autographed books and the many differing inscriptions the authors use. His favourite was inscribed by Michael Card, who used the apostle Paul’s expression: “Grace and peace.”, found in some form in all Paul’s epistles.

What many don’t realize is that Paul coined a new phrase. “Grace” or “Grace to you” sounded like the standard Greek greeting, but was infused with theological meaning. On the other hand, “Peace” was a Jewish blessing that sounds weightier in the Hebrew: “Shalom.”

Paul knew that many of his congregations were torn by factional strife. But he didn’t say, “Grace to you Gentiles, and shalom to you Jews.” Grace is not just for Greeks, and peace is not just for Jews. God’s desire was for the whole community to receive his grace and experience his shalom—not merely the absence of conflict, but the fullness of well being, harmony, wholeness, and life.

So Paul said, “Grace and peace to you.” Paul addressed Gentile and Jewish believers together, as members of one body. He wrote in continuity with their cultural and ethnic backgrounds, yet pointed to a new, countercultural reality. He combined a Greek greeting and a Hebrew greeting to create a distinctively Christian greeting.

Paul did not neuter the cultural particulars of the church’s constituents. Nor did he emphasize identity politics or pit categories against each other. Instead, he affirmed the communities’ distinct identities, then transcended them to forge a new identity in which the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. He modeled unity amid cultural diversity, as experienced in the church’s birth at Pentecost. …

The church embodies a radically peculiar social order that incorporates vastly dissimilar people. In Paul’s day, the world was divided between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female. But he dared to imagine a Christian community that not only included all of these, but also enjoyed interdependent relationships. The power of the church’s witness was due, at least in part, to the compelling alternative this new society offered to the world around it. &hellip

Paul would argue that our common identity transcends our differences. He would plead with us to treat one another charitably, to extend grace, and to make peace with one another. …

When signing books, letters, and e-mails, “Grace and peace” has become my customary benediction. It has also become my prayer for the church, that we would truly bestow grace and peace on one another and, in so doing, offer a prophetic witness to our world. May it be so.

Seems like an excellent suggestion. But I wonder whether I would seem pompous or condescending if I bestowed ‘grace’? Isn’t that, perhaps, something for God to do? I’m not an apostle. Yet, if Paul could offer grace, surely I can too?