The exclusive Christianity of the Sydney Anglicans

Just about every day, I walk past Moore College. It is the theological nerve centre of the Sydney Anglicans, prominently located at the beginning of King Street Newtown, across the road from the residential colleges of Sydney University.

I've been walking past it for nearly 25 years. The college has been housed in a forgettable 1960s style red brick building. However over the past two years, the site has undergone the most remarkable physical transformation. The old building was demolished and replaced with a much larger structure that must be regarded as a stunning piece of contemporary architecture. The builders handed the keys to the Principal just last month.

Even after 25 years, my stomach churns as I walk past Moore College. I don't expect that to change, no matter how much I like the building. The 'low church' theology and attitude reflected in the Sydney Diocese is the bête noire of almost the entire worldwide Anglican Communion, and personally I'm absolutely prejudiced against Sydney Anglicanism as I perceive it (the movement, not the people, I should stress).

Broadly speaking, it has a strident emphasis on reading and studying the Bible over a traditional Anglo Catholic-style 'high church' ornate liturgy or Mass celebration. Low church Anglicanism has always been at pains to stress its Protestant (and non- or anti-Catholic) identity. So I guess, as a Catholic - a 'Roman Catholic' - I'm hard wired to dislike it.

But that's not what really irks me. Rather it's the attitude that appears to exclude those who do not accept its teachings. Its exclusivity.

Over the years, I have also walked past and observed the other Anglican presence in my vicinity - St Stephen's Church, in Church Street Newtown.

When I moved here in 1993, the parish was at odds with most of the rest of the Sydney Diocese in that it was regarded as liberal. It had a sign at its gates: 'We Support the Ordination of Women'. Around 2000, there was some kind of regime change, and the sign was removed in a symbolic action that was seen by locals as a regrettable u-turn in the hitherto inclusive attitude of St Stephen's.

My guess it that head office decided that Newtown, with its large proportion of non-believers and GLBTIQ and various other alternative lifestyle types, was ripe for evangelisation, and it had to conform to the norms of the Diocese. But the locals had felt at one with the inclusive St Stephens and it seemed to me that they did not care for the perceived changes under the new regime.

The exclusive style of Christianity that I react against is reflected in the attitude that you're either a Christian or you're not. It's similar to that of George W. Bush after 9/11: 'Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists'. It is just as prevalent in the [Roman] Catholic Church as it is among evangelical Protestants, and also within other faiths, most notably Islam.

If somebody attempts to herd me into one of the two camps, I will go with those who are against the so-called Christians. But the truth is that most of my values come from Christianity and I cherish my Christian faith. But it's a Christian faith on my own terms and my community of believers are those who accept me for who I am and are not interested in bringing me into their particular religious fold.

The Catholic Church and homophobic bullying and violence

There was media coverage this week of a Queensland move to repeal the ‘unwanted homosexual advances’ defence for murder, commonly known as the 'gay panic defence'.

What I think is most remarkable about this development is that it was a Catholic priest - Father Paul Kelly - who heroically spearheaded the campaign that has been instrumental in getting the law reform to this stage.

Traditionally, and up to the present time, many Catholic priests have seen it as their duty to stand in the way of of justice for LGBTQI people. Some have even positively encouraged homophobic bullying or acts of violence.

Josh from ABC TV Please Like Me
Last year The Age revealed that the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne Denis Hart had buried a 2007 report aimed at protecting LGBTQI students in Catholic schools from homophobic bullying. It was titled Not So Straight and written by then Jesuit priest Father Peter Norden.

The archbishop said that use of the report in schools would 'either blur the clear position of the Church or by the use of terms such as "natural behaviour" imply a suggestion that alternative sexuality should be accepted.' He expressed the long held view that it was important to draw a line between behaviour regarded as normative and what the Church teaches is 'disordered'.

It was, and largely still is, regarded as important for church personnel to actively maintain this distinction, though The Age report does indicate that Archbishop Hart has softened his stance since 2007.

I have a clear personal recollection from the mid 80s of a retired Jesuit preparatory school principal boasting of 'sending out' his students to bully peers who were homosexual. The context was the AIDS crisis which, in his commonly held view at the time, had made it more urgent that homosexuals remain marginalised.

This priest had obviously become more candid and eccentric as he aged, but that only makes his boast more credible. He'd made it clear that he'd considered it his duty to promote homophobic bullying. Other priests would be more discrete or possibly repentant.

I think that this kind of blatant church denial of human rights for LGBTQI people has now given way to a culture of widespread and insidious self-censorship, which I was part of until a year ago.

As editor of Eureka Street, I would refer upwards editorial content that promoted a view of the acceptance of homosexuality as normative. A California based Jesuit had written an excellent and potentially groundbreaking article offering a theological basis for affirming transgender identity (eventually published elsewhere). I weakened the article in an initial edit, then received suggestions for further softening after the upward referral. Subsequently it was my self-censoring decision not to proceed with publication.

That's why I'm pleased to see that my successors appear less bound by self-censorship, as is evident with the publication of today's lead. Titled Queering the airwaves for TV diversity, it is an affirmation of the currently screening LGBTQI themed ABC comedy drama Please Like Me (pictured). Today's article strikes a much overdue Catholic Church initiated blow against homophobic bullying and violence.

Brian Doyle's surgery for brain cancer

I'm writing this early Thursday in Australia. In Portland, Oregon, it's Wednesday, and about now, legendary writer Brian Doyle is having surgery for brain cancer. That was the very sad news that spread around my former colleagues at Eureka Street magazine yesterday.


Brian Doyle diagnosed with brain cancer


At least it was sad for us, and certainly for his wife Mary and their three children. As for Brian, he's very concerned for them, but not so much for himself. Characteristically he's very matter of fact.

'If all goes well, I could get a year or maybe even two. They can’t delete it or fix it or cure it. The doctor thinks that if he can reduce it and shoot chemo at it, then it may be suppressed for long enough for a few more years of reading and writing and being with my wife and kids.'

You always know what's on his mind because that's about all there is to his writing. He doesn't care what people think. His writing lacks style, and for the most part he doesn't even use paragraphs. His articles are full of untidy lists, and he rants.

He's an editor's nightmare, but a reader's joy. It shows in the web statistics and in the reader comments at the bottom of his articles. And such a fine mind that mixes authenticity with humour and imagination and religious faith and kindness and a social conscience and a disdain for the many shady characters in the Catholic Church. There's a list worthy of Brian himself!

I don't know whether they have larrikins in the US. Perhaps they don't and that part of him feels out of place over there. That could be why he's developed such a bond over the years with Australia and his Australian readers and friends.

In the article they wrote about his diagnosis in his university newspaper The Beacon, he tells his friends that he values their laughter as much as, or even more than, the hundreds of supportive emails and phone calls. 'You want to help me? Be tender and laugh.' If that's not enough, you can contribute to the Doyle Family Support Fund at gofundme.

New body to test Church resolve on Professional Standards abuse

Yesterday I watched last week's Four Corners episode 'Broken Homes' on the child protection system for children in residential care. The moment that stayed with me, and no doubt many others, was former Victorian children's commissioner Bernie Geary talking about the case that affected him the most - 'the child who said "I'm not special in the eyes of anyone"'.

The program was about vulnerable children who need to be removed from their parental homes for their protection. But Bernie Geary's words in particular were also relevant to children from loving homes whose care is entrusted to institutions, such as Catholic and other boarding schools.

In effect it established this as a criterion for determining whether a child is or was receiving adequate care in the institution, or whether he or she the victims of abuse. I believe that abuse does not have to be active interference with a vulnerable individual. To fail to make a child feel special is neglect and abuse.

This is relevant to yesterday's announcement of the establishment of Catholic Professional Standards, an agency set up to monitor and report on child and vulnerable adult protection standards.

The media release suggests that the new body's responsibilities are broad - 'the protection of children and vulnerable adults across Church entities particularly in areas where there are no current relevant standards'.

It does not indicate that Catholic Professional Standards will have a remit for redressing past non-compliance. But it is very encouraging that it acknowledges that the body will give particular attention to areas where standards are lacking. The lack of standards is effectively lawlessness and a significant source of vulnerability and abuse for many young people in the way that civilian populations are subject to the whims of warlords in Somalia, Yemen, and other failed states.

What I like most about the announcement is that the body's attention is not confined to sexual abuse because much, or most, of the abuse in Catholic and other institutions was not specifically sexual. Last week I wrote about my own experience of what I called the 'culture of disrespect'. I think that Bernie Geary's criterion of a child being made to feel special - or not - is the obvious gold standard that should underscore everything else in the new body's standards checklist.

My fear was that Catholic Professional Standards would have a remit to focus on sexual abuse exclusively. But it's much broader. However there's not enough in the announcement to reassure me that it is interested in institutional reform rather than merely eliminating the 'bad eggs'. In other words scapegoating pedophile priests who, in many cases, are just as vulnerable as the children they abuse. I've often felt that putting them in prison is akin to jailing those suffering from mental illness. A convenient distraction from having to take responsibility for the source of the problem.

Relevant to this is a post on the Child Sexual Abuse Royal Commission at John Menadue's blog. Catholics for Renewal Chair Peter Johnstone gets it right when he insists that 'the Church’s institutional leadership must publicly acknowledge that its dysfunctional governance was at the heart of its immoral response to the abuse of children in its care'. He compellingly spells out the nature of this dysfunctional governance and suggests that any attempt to address abuse in the Catholic Church will be a waste of time unless its dysfunctional governance is corrected.

The claim in the media release about the new Catholic Professional Standards body is that it is an 'independent' agency, operating at arm's length from the Catholic Church and its hierarchy. If that is really the case, we can expect that Catholic Professional Standards will comprehensively address the Church's dysfunctional governance, and do all in whatever power it has to correct this. Anything less than this and it will be plain for all to see that Catholic Professional Standards is about no more than window-dressing and the Church is not serious about ending abuse.

Constructive outrage

Outrage is on my mind. It’s not that I am feeling outraged. But I’m wondering if outrage can be constructive. Will it help to preserve the world that I cherish and want to see prosper?

The context is a mild mannered piece I wrote last week about the axing of John Cleary’s Sunday Night ABC specialist religious radio program and its replacement by comparatively bland lowest common denominator programming.

A friend emailed me saying that she was ‘outraged’ by ABC management’s staged dismantling of specialist religious broadcasting. What is at stake is a deeper understanding of the role religion plays in politics, culture, war and peace. This is necessary to counter the rise of religious fundamentalism.

I asked myself how I can be comfortable to sit by and let this happen.  

​I was also thinking over the weekend about the Rohingya asylum seeker who attempted to set fire to a suburban bank in Melbourne, injuring scores of customers. Many people will be citing this as a justification for Australia’s cruel policies towards refugees. In fact the incident in the bank is a result of the policies, and mental health issues caused by our treatment of refugees today will cause havoc in the future.

It makes sense. The 21 year old was anxious that he would be deported to Myanmar and his mental health had deteriorated. Refugee advocate Sister Brigid Arthur said of people in his situation: ‘They’re scared about the process itself. I know many who are just collapsing under the weight of it.’

My point is that we need such cool headed and rational explanation to complement the vocal outrage of others. Vocal outrage is useful in that it calls attention to the muted rationality that identifies the purpose of protest action. But vocal outrage alone achieves nothing constructive.

It resorts to name calling and character assassination without follow through. There’s no point in shouting ‘Turnbull is spineless’ if we don’t, acting together in an unthreatening manner, also provide a set of thought out policy proposals that might help Turnbull develop spine.

The demise of ABC Radio's Sunday Night with John Cleary

Yesterday I was catching up with a friend who spent many years in religious media. We discussed the week’s news of the axing of John Cleary’s Sunday Night religious talk program on ABC local radio stations. As an old timer, I was prompted to think back to the program’s early days in the late 80s.

John presented the program for much of its 28 years, though it did begin with a team of three presenters - ABC head of religion David Millikan, Movement for the Ordination of (Anglican) Women convenor Patricia Brennan, and Sydney northern beaches Baptist pastor John Hirt.

The program was a tribute to Millikan’s vision and negotiating skills. He had earlier been a key player in establishing the still existing Compass program on ABC TV, and now he identified the unloved late Sunday night timeslot on the metropolitan and regional radio network and persuaded higher management that a religious program belonged there.

As the program’s first producer, I was as inexperienced as the three presenters. It wasn’t long before it was thought that the veteran broadcaster and Sydney Anglican Kel Richards should be brought in, with John Cleary and myself both producing.

However it wasn’t going to work having a headstrong presenter in Richards and a headstrong producer in Cleary, especially with Kel wanting to evangelise and John seeing the program as a forum for intellectual debate. So within a month or two, John was the presenter and I was the producer, and we lasted together for most of the rest of my three or four years in the Religious Department, which I left in 1992.

As was the case with many radio programs at the time, it was the presenter who called the shots. I thought the program should have music and variety so that it would fit in better with other programs on what was the ABC’s popular network. John held sway with his commitment to a more serious intellectual discussion of a single topic for the program’s then two hour duration from 10:00 to midnight. I think he was right. It made for very stimulating listening, and it survived so long because management did not consider the ‘graveyard’ of late Sunday night worth worrying about.

I had mentioned to David Millikan the name of former Melbourne priest Terry Laidler, whom I’d worked with in my first ever media involvement, which was a religious discussion program with Melbourne University students on FOX FM Melbourne, that was actually not too dissimilar to Sunday Night. Terry ended up as presenter of Sunday Night before going on to present the Drive and Evenings programs on what was then 3LO in Melbourne. Later, ABC religious radio EP David Busch presented what was by then called Sunday Night Talk, for a number of years until the return of John Cleary.

The program gradually acquired more variety, including the much loved Inquisition quiz at midnight, which mirrored the 25 Question Quiz in the midnight timeslot on Nightlife on weeknights. But management seems to want much more homogeneity on the stations, and Sunday Night is finishing.

I have not tuned into to the program regularly for many years because I found it too stimulating and I could not get to sleep if I listened to it. I always listen to radio when I’m going to sleep, but I deliberately opt for much more bland content.

It was often said that the program was more suited to the more serious spoken word station Radio National, and indeed it was funded out of Radio National’s budget. But as far as I know, there were never any moves to shift Sunday Night from the local stations to Radio National, as had occurred with the long running documentary program Encounter, back in the early 1980s.

Instead of moving Sunday Night to Radio National, they are commencing a new program with the working title God Forbid and the very talented and engaging younger presenter James Carleton.

As far as I know, James has no specialist knowledge of religion, though he will ensure that, as much as it can be, it is a very good program (hopefully with a better title). There’s no doubt that effectively replacing Cleary with him represents not just generational change, but one of the final nails in the coffin of genuine religious expertise at the ABC and in Australia’s mainstream media in general.

The head of ABC Radio Michael Mason says the Nightline program that will replace Sunday Night will include some coverage of religion. But, as is the case with the press, where there are no longer any journalists specialising in religion, the lower level of expertise in those asking the questions will lead to less scrutiny of the fundamentalism that seems to be increasing in most areas of Australian religious life.


Sharing my story at the child abuse Royal Commission

Yesterday I had my private session at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. It was about 'Sharing your story' and open to those who felt they had something to contribute to the Commission's findings and registered before the September deadline. 

I'd always thought that my experience of sexual abuse was too slight to be considered at the Royal Commission, but a staff member I know encouraged me to participate, and it turned out that I had much to tell the commissioner about the aspects of institutional life that fostered sexual abuse, and he and his team were certainly interested listeners to what I had to say in the one hour that I was allocated.

I spoke about the 'culture of disrespect' of the institutions I attended as a child in the 1970s, and how it takes a lifetime to get over the poor self-esteem you can have when you emerge from the institutions. I was part of the culture, which means that not only was I was bullied, but I too bullied when given the chance. Teachers and fellow students alike participated in the intimidation. 

I noted that there was very little actual sexual abuse I knew of at my Jesuit boarding school, although the effects of the bullying and other disrespectful behaviour could be just as traumatic and enduring as those we hear about in the horrific stories in the media. That was my experience. I was the only student I know of in my class who was at the receiving end of what can be technically classed as 'sexual abuse', although I feel that I was much more affected by the non-sexual abuse I experienced at the time. 

Paradoxically my abuser - whom I feel inclined to call my 'so-called' abuser - was also the teacher whom I feel treated me more respectfully than any of the other teachers during my years at school. However I'm open to the possibility that I have subconsciously edited my memory of the (one-off) event because I liked the priest who abused me and at times I've felt he was treated harshly in action taken against him by his other victims and their advocates. 

But I can also accept that it's just as likely that I have let him off lightly because any sexual abuse is a serious matter that cannot be excused at all. I bought the line of the Jesuit official whom I first mentioned it to, who minimised the incident by calling it 'low-level sexual abuse'. However a few years later, another high-level Jesuit argued that there are not degrees of sexual abuse and that I should treat the incident as a very serious matter.  

I also told the commissioner about a Christian brother from my primary school years who is currently serving a prison sentence for child sexual abuse. I described my feeling of elation when I heard of his conviction, a sense that justice had been done for me as well as all the other victims of his sexual and non-sexual abuse. There was nothing sexual about what I experienced, but his cruel and sadistic behaviour towards me had diminished my fragile self-esteem, and I'm not sure that I have ever recovered from it.

The Commission is encouraging me and the hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of others who have shared their stories to write a brief account for a book to be placed in the National Library as a permanent memorial. I'm very much supportive of this, and I note that it flies in the face of the 2008 statement of the now Archbishop of Sydney Anthony Fisher, who castigated those who were 'dwelling crankily ... on old wounds' caused by sexual abuse in the past.