Australia Day Service
28 January 2018
Over this holiday weekend it is timely to reflect on what it means to be Australian, and especially what it means to us as people of faith.
Goodbye to privilege
We can start by acknowledging that the days of privilege are past.
While religious faith continues to be protected and respected in our society, Christianity no longer enjoys the status that it once had. That is especially true of the Anglican Church, as social changes have necessarily meant that our percentage within the total population would decline.
We now find ourselves as one church among many, and one faith among several.
That is no bad thing as monopoly feeds arrogance, and privilege tends to corrupt.
We have seen the dark side of that privilege revealed in the plain light of day by the careful work of the Royal Commission into the sexual abuse of children in church institutions. That religious institutions were not the only places of abuse is no consolation. It reminds us deeply we failed to bring our distinctive Christian values to bear on the important caring ministries in which we were involved.
We share and reflect the failings of other individuals and institutions.
But we also claim a different set of values, and we aspire to a higher level of genuine care, modelled on the practice of Jesus himself.
So let’s set aside any hankering for past privileges, and focus on how our faith might inform and shape our citizenship now and in the future.
What does it mean to be in this place, rather than somewhere else in the world?
Every place is both beautiful and special, but this is our place.
It is an ancient and distinctive land, with animals and plant life that are quite remarkable in their own right.
The challenge of the Jewish exiles in ancient Babylon becomes ours as well: How do we sing the Lord’s song in this strange land? But we reframe that slightly, so it becomes: How do we sing the Lord’s song in this ancient and unique place?
How do we express our faith with an Aussie accent, crafting words that come from our experience rather than words borrowed from ancient Palestine or Medieval Europe?
This is essential work, but it will not be easy.
One aspect of the challenge is seen in our religious calendar.
We observe Christmas, a celebration of the coming of Light at the darkest point of mid-winter, in the middle of summer. And we wonder why everyone is at the beach and not in church? We sing of dashing through the snow, as we head to the coast and slap on the sun screen. Here in the Great South Land, we are singing the Lord’s song in words that derive from the northern hemisphere. Category error!
Even more out of sync is our celebration of Easter, the ancient Spring festival, in the middle of Autumn. We have mortgaged our copy of the Lord’s song to the calendar of another place, and our lyrics clash with the reality of what is happening outside the window. We talk of new life, as the leaves turn brown and fall to the ground.
The reality is that we cannot change the dates for Christmas and Easter, but perhaps we can make sure that we observe them with an Aussie accent.
Much as I love and identify with the geography of Palestine, that is not our land. As Palestinians—whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim—have needed to find ways to speak of God and faith in their own accent, so we need to learn how to speak of God in ways that will resonate with our neighbours, our children, and our own inner self.
And what does it mean to be among the people who share this place with us?
Who are these people?
First of all, we acknowledge the indigenous people of this land. We share this land with people whose ancestors have been here for 60,000 years. Let that number sink into our consciousness. 60,000 years.
When literalists engage in the folly of adding up the genealogies in the Bible to calculate the age of the earth, or the dates of Adam and Eve, they come up a number of around 6,000 years. On the same timeline, they place Abraham—the so-called father of the faith—around 2,000 BCE, or 4,000 years ago.
While such numerical games are meaningless nonsense in a universe that is 15 billion years old, there is a lesson to be learned.
Christian fundamentalists claim with pride that our faith goes back to the time of Abraham, yet we live in a land with a human history stretching back 60,000 years and more.
We have much to learn from the oldest continuous human culture on the planet. Yet we rarely pause even to consider what we could learn from them about singing the Lord’s song in this strange and marvellous land.
That is going to change.
The Cathedral will now be working with indigenous theologians to provide a space for what the Revd Lenore Parker, a local indigenous priest and poet, calls ‘big river theology’. I have no idea where that will take us, but I catch a glimpse of it in the art that transforms the Baptistery of this Cathedral Church. For sure we have much to learn about speaking of God in this place and among these people.
Apart from our indigenous people, and similar to many of us, there are a great many other people around us whose roots lie in other places and other cultures.
What an incredible blessing to live in such a diverse and multicultural community.
As people of faith, when tensions arise between different cultural and ethnic groups—as they always will from time to time—we will celebrate diversity, encourage openness, and refuse to join those politicians and other xenophobic forces that seek to promote fear and hatred so that they can divide and conquer our community.
We celebrate the diversity of God’s creation, including the diversity of humankind.
As church we seek a unity that goes beyond ethnicity, race, social status or gender. We value those differences, but we refuse to allow them to divide us from one another in the Great South Land.
At least that is theory.
The reality may be different as we look around and wonder why the faces inside this Cathedral are so similar to one another, and so unrepresentative of the diversity seen outside the Cathedral.
This too must change. And it will.
Towards a brand new day
As I wrap up these brief reflections on being people of faith, Christian people, in this ancient land, let me quote part of the beautiful prayer by Lenore Parker that we shall use as the preface for the Great Thanksgiving Prayer this morning:
God of holy dreaming, Great Creator Spirit,
From the dawn of creation you have given your children
the good things of Mother Earth.
You spoke and the gum tree grew.
In the vast desert and dense forest,
And in cities at the water’s edge,
Creation sings your praise.
Your presence endures
As the rock at the heart of our land.
The sunrise of your Son coloured the earth anew,
And bathed it in glorious hope.
In Jesus we have been reconciled to you,
To each other, and to your whole creation.
Lead us on, Great Spirit,
As we gather from the four corners of the earth;
enable us to walk together in trust
From the hurt and shame of the past
Into the full day which has dawned in Jesus Christ.