Are clergy marrying the spirit of the age?

Margaret Rodgers

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer appears to be a well-read Anglican. In his Sir Thomas Playford Lecture, in which he raised important questions about the political interventions and utterances of Australian church leaders, Downer quoted two noted Church of England clergy and a French King.

William Ralph Inge was Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral from 1911 until 1934. Inge provided many pithy sayings, and probably the best known is, “he who marries the spirit of the age will soon become a widower”, the words Downer used.

Mr Downer also provided longish quotes from Bishop Graham Leonard, a former Bishop of London, who left the CofE and became a Roman Catholic when the CofE ordained women. Bishop Leonard said, “The Church today, having lost her nerve, shows at times an almost pathetic desire to be loved by the world”.

Leonard often criticised the certainty of some clergy when they talked on social matters, though they accompanied this with vague uncertainty on matters of faith. “Bishops and theologians in their public utterance are remarkably vague and uncertain about matters which their faith should teach them with certitude,” Leonard said. “But [they are] remarkably certain and dogmatic on matters of considerable complexity and ambiguity about which they have no particular expertise.”

Mr Downer spoke of ‘ecclesiastical post-modernism’. He said when “‘everything is relative’ is the best that many clergy have to offer on major moral questions, morality starts to become a matter of convenience, being seen to do the decent thing, what feels good at the time or what you can get away with.”

One amusing quotation Downer included was Louis XVI’s comment when the Archbishop of Toulouse was recommended for a higher church post: “Ah, no; the Archbishop of Paris must at least believe in God.”

What led the Foreign Minister to offer such stringent criticisms of clergy and theologians?

It’s clear he has been stung by statements by Church leaders, among them Anglican Primate Peter Carnley, ‘the head of my own church’ as Downer called him, and the then President of the Uniting Church, the Rev Professor James Haire. Professor Haire said, “egged on by both political groupings in the country, we as a nation had reached new depths of political depravity”. Downer said he found the accusation of political depravity “profoundly personally offensive as well as foolish”.  He called a media release Archbishop Carnley circulated ‘erroneous posturing’.

Mr Downer argued that ‘some church leaders have the tendency to ignore their primary pastoral obligations in favour of hogging the limelight on complex political issues’ and, he said, too often they seek ‘popular political causes or cheap headlines’.

That’s forthright and pretty tough on the church leaders. Though to be fair to him, Downer did say, “I will always defend the right of the Churches to enter the political debates of our time.” Was he correct in suggesting they should concentrate on pastoral matters and imparting the central tenets of their faith and most of the time keep out of politics?

There’s much to approve of in Mr Downer’s lecture and churches and church leaders need to reflect carefully on what he had to say.

However, we will all agree that the Christian voice should never be absent in major community and political debate. To allow that absence would be to evacuate the body politic of the biblical values and principles of Christian moral teaching.

Last month, Brigadier Jim Wallace, a former head of the SAS, addressed the NSW Council of Churches. Now retired from Defence Force life, he is founder of the Australian Christian Lobby, a political lobby grouping based in Canberra.

Since Downer’s lecture was very much in the media air at the time, Mr Wallace discussed Christian activity in political life.

One point he stressed was that the political domain ‘is a very professional area’ and that too often when the Church enters the political environment it does so with great naivety.

There’s the lesson. Church leaders should enter political debate with the professional expertise that comes from careful research, seeking advice from experts, and reflective engagement with the relevant political issues. There’s more to it than just bashing out a media release with an attention grabbing headline and engaging first paragraph.

A second lesson is to become acquainted with politicians, especially those who are committed Christians. Many are daily trying to infuse the values of their faith into their political contribution. They are thirsting for support and encouragement.

Has your congregation built meaningful relationships with your local politicians, State, Federal and Local Government? If not, it’s time to do so.