Wednesday, December 19, 2007


It is common at this point in the year for the religious to beat up on secularism, commercialism, over-consumption and so on, including making uncomplimentary references to the portly gentleman in the red suit. If this has become an important part of the season for you, I aim not to disappoint, but hold that thought for a moment.

First let me suggest that those of us who are trying to prepare for Christmas as a joyful celebration of the incarnation are not the only ones who are up against it. Spare a thought even for Santa. The Santa Claus of the early- to mid-twentieth century and earlier was a kind of good-hearted moralist, who was at least interested in who was naughty and who was nice. Convention meant he was allowed to drop lumps of coal into some stockings – at least this is what I have been told, so feel free to press senior members of your families on the truth of the rumor - and economic necessity meant that even the rewards were more like sugar plums (whatever they are!) than the latest excesses of Harry Potter merchandizing lying in wait for us at Toys R Us.

Not every aspect of this tool of soft social control for the children of decades past was so edifying, it must be admitted. Yet now even Santa has been thrust a different script for the season; even he has to pretend that our children, and of course we ourselves, are all always nice, and that we not only deserve everything conceivable, but that we deserve it NOW. A story whose meaning and power, such as it was, depended on attention, readiness, a moral response, and the reality of judgment as well as that of hope, has evaporated. The story has simply been lost.

Feasts like Christmas need fasts to make any sense, just as judgment and hope need each other; and this society having lost the story, has no means to distinguish feasts from ordinary time except by superabundance. Since the privileged already live in superabundance in any case, there is a kind of crisis of festivity, overconsumption laid over customary excess, a kind of desperation to mark celebrations with still more and more of everything in a hopeless exponential expansion.

Our Christmas crisis is not, then, about Christmas – it is about the rest of the time. The loss in Western culture of spiritual disciplines such as fasting is not, I suggest, an accident, given the global reality. The gross disparities between rich and poor are a perverse parody of the rhythms of fasting and feasting, and of judgment and hope; feasting and “hope” always for some, fasting and judgment for the rest. The permanence of need for most in the world, and abundance as the norm for the few, brings with it not only the obvious suffering of the poor but a deep spiritual cost and moral damage to the privileged.

So some, especially in communities of faith, are calling us to reflect on how we celebrate Christmas, with simplicity as well as joy. There’s a lot to be said for this.

Yet it not a completely adequate response. We need to do more rather than less. The answer is not to level off celebrations to make them more like ordinary time; rather ordinary time itself must be lived differently, and we have to recover fasting as well as feasting, judgement as well as hope.

So I hope we all celebrate heartily, with whatever means are at our disposal, in the days ahead (all 12 – and it only starts on the 25th, by the way!). And I hope that afterwards we take opportunities to reflect on ordinary time, our ordinary lives, consider our patterns of consumption, and what stories of hope and judgement they tell about us, and about our world.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Matthew, Mark, Luke, John...and Terry.

(Comments at the Launch of Terry Eagleton Presents Jesus Christ - The Gospels [Verso, 2007] at the University of Melbourne, December 7 2007)

In the book trade, it has been a better year or two for Jesus than for God. God has suffered the indignities of forays into pulp non-fiction by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and others. Jesus has had wildly different treatments at the hands of everyone from Pope Benedict XVI to Jack Spong, or more locally from Peter Jensen to John Carroll, but Jesus’ reviews are uniformly glowing.

It might seem God needed Terry Eagleton’s attention more; in fact his review of Dawkins The God Delusion in the London Review of Books has become the stuff of legend – I can’t resist quoting the opening line:

“Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology”.

There is something intriguing about the fact that transcendent or ultimate being itself – God - theoretically far more capable of being moulded to suit and please the imagination of the beholder, proves more controversial than a quite specific and controversial personality.

Professor Eagleton’s presentation of Jesus in Verso’s new edition of the Gospels is part of a series on Revolutions, and is therefore almost certainly an attempt on the part of the publisher – who quotes Hugo Chavez warmly commending Jesus as “the greatest socialist in history” – to stir a little controversy.

This might be the only sense in which the book is likely to disappoint. Although it sets out to ask the question of whether Jesus was a revolutionary, the form as well as the content of Eagleton's introductory essay rather subverts the question. His Jesus is not “more or less a revolutionary” but “both more and less”. This judgement, which the essay, comes in part because he knows more about history and New Testament studies, not just than Richard Dawkins knows about theology, but than most of us know about anything much.

Although there is an almost impossible diversity of portraits of Jesus, as recent publishing reminds us, the excesses of conservative and liberal wishful thinking that turn Jesus into every thing from a garish holy picture into a new age guru are to be resisted, and here is a pamphlet for the resistance. Although fundamentalists could be relied on to disagree with its presuppositions utterly, and no scholar will agree with every detail of another’s judgement, this essay is counter-cultural largely by being a piece of work about Jesus that is intellectually sound and scholarly, lively and accessible, and likely to sell some copies.

Terry Eagleton’s Jesus is, however, not merely a result of judicious enquiry, but the product of some passion. The Jesus depicted here is at times a strange and difficult figure, amenable neither to doctrinal strait-jackets nor glib pop-psychological strictures. He reminds me a bit of Albert Schweitzer’s classic treatment, just over a hundred years ago, where Jesus stripped of romantic accoutrements remains an elusive but powerful figure.

Jesus is both more and less revolutionary, we are told by Eagleton, because he did not seek an overthrow of political structures – nor, by the way did he reject the Jewish Law or seek to create a new religion - and yet he envisaged a reign of peace and joy more radical than that of Marxism and more discontented with any pretended substitute. It is a compelling, but not exactly an attractive view; it amounts, to quote from theologian Herbert McCabe in a line used in that review, to the view that if “you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you”.

But most of this book is the Gospels, not Terry Eagleton. I will avoid any claim to be launching them, which would certainly get me into trouble, if not quite killed. But it might be an even more remarkable thing than finding such a good essay about Jesus, to have these published and read by a different critical and appreciative audience. I hope it may be one of the consequences of this volume. Jesus is too much the preserve of all the wrong people.

To quote a last time from that storied review, Eagleton refers to Dawkins’ work as predicated on “a vulgar caricature of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince”. It is one of the difficulties of our time that there are too few first-year real Theology students – none at this University for specific reasons – or others who will read these documents with the measures of passion and rigor necessary either to appreciate them fully or, for that matter, to critique them adequately. Terry Eagleton’s revolutionary alliance with Jesus might well consist in allowing this to happen.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Seven Theses on Eucharistic Origins

(Prepared for the Meals in the Greco-Roman World Seminar of the Society of Biblical Literature, November 2007; see the two previous posts on "Rethinking Eucharistic Origins)


1. Drinking accompanied or preceded (rather than following) some early Christian meals, apparently following some versions of Jewish custom.


2. Food and drink in early Christian meals varied beyond the familiar bread and wine, largely in relation to ascetic and sacrificial concerns.


3. “Lord’s Supper” was not a name for early Christian banquets.


4. The “institution narratives” (stories of the Last Supper, used as prayer texts) were not the original forms of Eucharistic prayer but were interpolated in the 3rd century or after.


5. “Agape” (Love-feast) was not a distinct meal separate from the Eucharist, but a term applied to Christian banquets in some communities.


6. The Eucharist remained a substantial meal into the third century.


7. Diversity of early Christian meal practice was real but limited, its variety largely determined by ascetic concerns.

Bibliography on Eucharistic meals

“Eating People: Accusations of Cannibalism against Christians in the Second Century,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 2 (1994) 413-42.

“‘First Regarding the Cup’: Papias and the Diversity of Early Eucharistic Practice,” Journal of Theological Studies n.s. 46 (1995) 569-73.

“Naming the Feast: The Agape and the Diversity of Early Christian Ritual Meals,” Studia Patristica 30 (ed. E. Livingstone; Leuven: Peeters, 1997) 314-18.

“‘Is There a Liturgical Text in this Gospel?’: The Institution Narratives and Their Early Interpretive Communities,” Journal of Biblical Literature 118 (1999) 77-89.

Ascetic Eucharists: Food and Drink in early Christian Ritual Meals (Oxford: Clarendon, 1999).

“The Inordinate Cup: Issues of Order in Early Eucharistic Drinking,” Studia Patristica 35 (2001) 283-91.

“Marcion's love of creation,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 9 (2001): 295-311

“Discipline and Diet: Feeding the Martyrs in Roman Carthage,” Harvard Theological Review (2003), 96: 455-476.

“The Meals Of Jesus And The Meals Of The Church: Eucharistic Origins and Admission to Communion”, in Studia Liturgica Diversa: Essays In Honor Of Paul F. Bradshaw (ed. Maxwell E. Johnson and L. Edward Phillips; Portland, Oregon: Pastoral Press, 2003), 101-115.

“Rethinking Agape and Eucharist in Early North African Christianity,” Studia Liturgica 34 (2004), 165-176.

“Food, Ritual, and Power,” in A People’s History of Christianity, Vol. 2: Late Antique Christianity (ed. Virginia Burrus;
Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005), 145-64.

Rethinking Eucharistic Origins (II)

(The second of three posts related to my presentation at the SBL Annual Meeting in San Diego in November 2007)

If the conventional account of eucharistic origins is inadequate, what will be needed to construct an alternative? I suggest three necessary elements or assumptions.

One is diversity. Following Paul Bradshaw’s lead – and more distantly Walter Bauer’s – I think the evidence reflects an early diversity involving locale, as well as connections that amount to other traditions or “trajectories”. Relevant evidence includes the supposedly eccentric, heretical or simply inconvenient. However, the discernable elements of diversity in ancient practice are not infinite in number or merely whimsical in kind. They are fairly specific and reflect fundamental choices and controversies about group identity, conformity and resistance in that milieu.

Second is what might, following Clifford Geertz, be called a “thicker” approach to evidence drawing on both wider historical knowledge and an eclectic mixture of tools related to social theory, employed piecemeal and heuristically. This also involves critical questioning in terms of (other) economic and social realia including gender. In this year of her death I acknowledge the particular contribution of Mary Douglas to revealing this possibility of implicit meal-meanings – in this case, encouraging the thought that Eucharistic rituals can be treated as meals, whether or not they involve large amounts of food. Thus foods themselves, issues of order, questions of time, and not only the stated theologies but other aspects of discourse such as nomenclature, as well as forms of utterance prove of interest.

This kind of approach also needs to be pursued further into areas such as gesture, posture, space, and participation including leadership – and some of these explorations are indeed taking place. This means to some extent assertion of synchronic interpretations, in resistance to the diachronic or teleological one. Yet I remain interested in seeing what different diachronic picture (or rather pictures) are possible when piecing together “thicker” evidence.

Third is what, following Levi-Strauss, we might call bricolage of the available “thickened” data. Instead of subjecting the evidence to a single grand theory, this means seeking smaller-scale patterns of practice, and drawing links between texts and other elements that may be either synchronic or diachronic, thus allowing the beginnings of reconstruction. Instances where the same names or foods or other characteristics appear in the meal invite comparison and interpretation.

And the results? My own reconstructions suggest that here are not two food rituals in early Christianity but many meals comprehensible as a loosely-unified tradition, out which the familiar sacramental ritual emerges and becomes initially somewhat distinct – in the later second century I believe – before general separation in the third.

I want to finish by pointing to one area which I think warrants further attention in this seminar and this field generally. This is sacrifice. I believe we tend to underestimate the significance of sacrifice for culinary and dining practices generally, perhaps under the influence of our own constructed categories of religion and ritual. Sacrifice was a culinary practice, and dining was a religious practice. The question of whether and how Eucharistic meals evoke, enact or reject sacrificial ideas and practices needs to be engaged with far more thoroughly and with attention to Greco-Roman sacrifice and not merely to the teleological narrative that runs from Israelite religion to Paul to later normative liturgy. I regard this category as a great and still largely unmet challenge for students of Christian meals, and one where issues of wider theological and theoretical significance meet exploration of meal traditions head-on.

Rethinking Eucharistic Origins (I)

(from a presentation at the 2007 Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in San Diego)

Thank you for this opportunity to think with you about my work or the issues it raises. Looking at the program for this Society of Biblical Literature meeting it seems one usually has to be far more distinguished a scholar than I am, or somewhat more dead, to have an entire session devoted to discussion of one's work. It may be that my colleagues’ judgement is that College presidency is in scholarly terms somewhat akin to being dead.

Given that the procedure of this Seminar on Meals in the Greco-Roman World has been to encourage reading in advance some published and unpublished material, I am not going to concentrate on summarizing the “what” of my various suggestions about early Eucharistic practices. The seven theses circulated can do this more succinctly. I would like to open the conversation by saying a couple of things about “why” and “how” instead.

The most fundamental question of the history of early Christianity is arguably this. How did a renewal movement within Judaism originating in Galilee become, in a space of a few centuries, the religion of imperial Rome?

My interest in the history of Eucharistic meals is an approach to that larger question, in the realm of liturgy, or of meal. Many have argued for essential continuity of practice between the first and fourth centuries, from models and understandings suggested by Jesus and/or Paul, at least of a core – sometimes of words, sometimes of theology, and famously of “shape” to the developed “normative” liturgies of the fourth and following centuries. On the other hand, and especially recently, some scholars prefer to present the significant changes in the conduct of Christian meals as a kind of “fall”, from diverse egalitarian commensality into uniform hierarchal ritual.

Neither of these narratives is quite as amenable to caricature as that summary might suggest; but I am unconvinced about both, just as I am unconvinced by either of the traditional paradigms about early Christian change and development generally, i.e., of either early and immediate orthodoxy, or of a post-canonical decline into enforced institutionalism.

However the historical consensus about Eucharistic origins at which, as Dennis Smith puts it, I have been “chipping away” for some years, has to a significant extent been shared regardless of whether interpreted as development or decline. It goes something like this: that while the earliest Christian communities celebrated their sacramental ritual in the context of a communal meal, the two were always conceptually distinct, the sacramental aspect involving uniform token use of bread and wine, celebrated in memory of the Last Supper of Jesus, with recitation of the institution narratives as the central prayer text. From a very early point these actually separated into two events, Eucharist and Agape. The resultant Eucharist was a morning sacramental ritual, with a universal order or structure, the remaining Agape a secular communal supper.

I accept none of this account as just stated. It simply omits too much evidence of early Christian meals altogether, and relies on forced interpretations of other parts, in its enthusiasm to narrate the evolution of normative liturgy. This account is teleological in an unjustifiable sense – it is liturgical history's version of "intelligent design" theory.

By implication, alternative approaches need to involve a series of alternative assumptions.

(to be continued...)

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Martinmas: Remembrance as Redemption

When the year 1918 was drawing to a close and the Great War in Europe likewise, the signers of the proposed Armistice scheduled that immensely significant event for November 11th. It was not a random choice, or just a cute idea about a conjunction of elevens. They, less than a hundred years ago, were immersed in a culture of feasts and seasons that we have largely forgotten. They knew that Martin was patron saint of soldiers, and in Europe St Martin’s Day – Martinmas - was a sort of second Mardi Gras of the year, a widely observed feast prior to the Advent fast. The signing of the peace agreement was timed to evoke these remembered images of courage and of celebration.

There was always a degree of irony about Martin being patron of soldiers, because he had actually laid down his arms after his conversion. Even though the Roman Empire had Christian emperors by this point, and many felt Roman wars were Christian wars, Martin actually saw the vocation of a soldier as incompatible with his faith. This was, even then, a reminder of the quickly-receding era of the martyrs, whose peaceful witness to their true king was a paradoxical victory over the swords of their executioners. Martin has been seen as the first Christian saint who was recognized as such despite not having been martyred himself.

Martin’s consistent stand against sanctioned violence was pursued into a quiet different area of conflict, after he became first a monastic leader and then bishop of Tours. The Church in the newly-Christian empire of the fourth century found itself able to use the tools of the state against religious dissenters as well as external enemies. Some bishops leapt eagerly at this opportunity, wanting the state to fight Christian heretics within as well as pagans outside.

A Spanish bishop named Priscillian, accused of promoting excessive forms of self-denial, was the first victim of this enthusiasm. Martin, although not actually sympathetic to Priscillian, urged that the state not involve itself, and that violence not be the means to overcome such theological conflicts – but he lost, and Priscillian and six companions were executed, the first of many thousands of Christians to die at the hands of Christian authority. Martin was dismayed, and protested against the acts of the emperor and the conniving of his fellow-bishops who had caused this crime. It was a tragedy from which he never really recovered.

Both these stories, Martin the young soldier laying down his arms and Martin the mature bishop opposing judicial violence, amount to his jolting the memories of his contemporaries, with less than full success, to something fundamental about the use of power and the centrality of peace in Christian tradition.

Redemption, as Christians understand it, could be seen as a form of remembrance. The human state of alienation and loss, characterized by violence towards creation and one another, reflects a loss of memory. Faith likewise is the personal pursuit of a thread of remembrance, remembering Jesus, remembering Moses and Miriam, remembering Abraham and Sarah, tracing the thread of faith back to God’s originating love. Human beings called to live creatively and powerfully and lovingly with all of creation, caring for the world and for each other.

Sin is, so to speak, a form of amnesia. It is our collective forgetfulness of our origin and our call. Our condition, our failure to act peaceably, is a kind of forgetting who we really are and what we are really for.

There is another aspect of remembrance even more important to religious faith. During another great conflict, the English Civil War of the 17th century, an officer is said to have prayed thus before a battle: “O Lord, thou knowest how busy I must be this day; if I forget thee, do not thou forget me”.
The need to recall a story of original peace is based on the faith that there is one who remembers us. The call to remembrance is ultimately about recollecting this ancient and present and future hope.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Unholy Matrimony?

(from the Anglican General Synod in Canberra)

The General Synod yesterday voted to explore the possibility that people other than baptized Christians could be married according to Anglican rites, in Anglican Churches.

In some ways this is a startling development. Anglicans have always hitherto considered marriage in Church as a matter between Christians, and regarded it as one of those “commonly called sacraments”. Marriage is not of the same universal scope of baptism and eucharist, but has distinctive meaning for members of the Church in relation to the relationship - a "mystery" as Ephesians puts it - between Christ and the Church (cf. Eph 5:32) .

Mover of the Bill, Bishop Glenn Davies of Sydney, argued that marriage is a “creation ordinance” common to all human beings, rather than a “redemption ordinance” specific to Church members. He pointed out that the Church only began insisting that couples marry in Church about a thousand years ago.

Some support for the proposal came from those who like Bp Davies do not see marriage as a sacrament. Others were motivated by missional concerns, seeing enquiring couples (among whom gradually fewer were baptized as infants) as prospective Christians who should be welcomed, rather than deterred because they are not Church members already.

I myself raised in debate the basis of more sacramental understanding, which actually goes back at least to Augustine of Hippo around the year 400. Augustine saw the “creation” and “redemption” aspects as concurrent and cumulative for Christians, and hence spoke of marriage as sacramental, using "sacramentum" to translate the "mystery" of Eph. 5:32. In subsequent theology this was developed to suggest that all those married participated in a sacramentum vinculum – a sacramental bond – while Christians also participated in a sacramentum signum – a sacramental sign, echoing and making real for them the union of Christ and the Church. So this kind of theological reflection is more ancient than the actual liturgical celebration of marriage – sacraments were not always liturgical, it seems, and a wedding and a marriage are not the same thing.

The mechanism for change proposed to Synod was abolition of any mention in Church law of baptism as a requirement for those (or at least one of those) coming for marriage. The problems with this blunt legislative instrument are numerous. Existing Anglican rites, which would then be open to all, assume specifically Christian theology. There would be a great risk of encouraging cynicism and dishonesty, were those unable to affirm these beliefs encouraged to affirm them ritually.

It was pointed out that many baptized as infants and who come seeking marriage may not be more knowledgeable about or sympathetic to that faith than others without that sacramental connection. Christians however recognize baptism not as a meaningless act, even if one who underwent it does not remember or even respect it. Baptism is the means of incorporating members into Christ’s Church – and the importance of our recognizing it, even in such marginal circumstances as the marriage of nominal Christians, is fundamental. Abolishing the requirement of baptism would therefore have implications for understanding baptism and Church, as well as the sacramentum signum that Christians have traditionally seen in marriage.

In fact the decision made by the General Synod was merely one to talk further around the national Church. An attempt to have the motion actually passed at the Synod was clearly lost. The “Provisional Canon” process adopted instead sends this proposal to all Dioceses for their discussion and review, but requires ¾ of the Dioceses to agree, including all the metropolitan Dioceses. This seems unlikely.

It is not impossible that these future discussions give rise somehow to a workable model including distinct rites that can be offered to couples other than Church members, respecting their status as seekers. Yet such measures will also have to satisfy Anglicans that the sacramental character of marriage – its capacity to be a sign to and for Christians themselves – can also be preserved.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Praying for Rain

(From the Anglican General Synod in Canberra)

In a General Synod so far dominated by procedural and legislative concerns, one large and pressing issue has made its presence felt – water.

At the time of writing, Synod was waiting to deal with scheduled motions addressing the environment, and an unscheduled proposal to give a large slab of the national Church’s financial reserves to Dioceses affected by the drought.

Local delegates from the Canberra-Goulburn Diocese have made clear their own concern and struggles arising from the drought. A bus trip from Canberra to Goulburn was also a visible reminder of the challenge facing rural Australia. One leader at the opening prayers was visibly moved, choking on the words “God, send the rain”.

The need to place an issue so wrenching in words of deep, even desperate, prayer is real. The Psalms reflect the same deep honesty of those who suffer deeply from natural or human causes, and who call out to God seeking relief and even challenging God, asking why they have none.

The yearning for God’s intervention is profound when it is “doxological” – in the immediate context of prayer, as the transparent statement of our deepest longings and hopes. Yet praying for rain does not have quite the same significance when made “systematic” – as a general statement of Christian belief about the world and its relation to God.

The Church cannot afford to make it seem that praying for rain is the major, let alone the sole, form of Christian response to this crisis. The risks are various. First there is the danger of a crudely mechanistic view of God’s activity, as though divine presence consisted in otherwise unexplained alterations in natural patterns and processes. Second, there is danger of a transactional view of God as a sort of cosmic concierge who fixes things when asked properly, or often enough.

Faith is deciding to make sense of life from the perspective of the ultimate. Droughts as well as storms, and everything in between, are capable of being signs, and not just when they are either surprising or yearned for.

Christian faith in particular places the cross at the centre of history. It is a sign of God’s triumph, but a paradoxical one. To see God in Christ is to acknowledge that God’s solution to human suffering and crisis is not as easy – for God or for us – as pulling meteorological or political strings. God’s response is first that of solidarity with us, of sharing in our sufferings and our hopes.

This does not have to mean that fatalism is the preferred alternative to the cry of hope for rain. Much of what we suffer – including, it seems, climate change – is the result of our exercise of freedom, and the consequence of our failure to use it properly. To expect that relief should come from the clouds without significant change in our patterns of life is as much impious as naïve. The Church must change its own practice, partner with those most deeply affected, and challenge the whole community to treat the gift of creation with reverence.

And then, still, pray: “God, send the rain”.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Drudgery Divine

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in the British Colonies, a triumph associated with the name of William Wilberforce.

Christians have been quick to celebrate not only the fact but the motivation; for Wilberforce was a convinced evangelical Christian, whose abolitionism was grounded in his belief in the created dignity of the human person and the necessity of freedom and security as the basis for a free and full response to the Gospel itself.

There is then a modicum of embarrassment or confusion when we encounter biblical texts clearly upholding the institution of slavery:

Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything, not only while being watched and in order to please them, but wholeheartedly, fearing the Lord (Col 3:22).

This is not an aberrant passage to be brushed aside as in conflict with the rest of the NT witness; there are parallels in Ephesians, Titus and 1 Peter, all of which urge slaves similarly to obedience, thus not only assuming the fact of slavery but also advocating its smooth operation.

What are we to make of this? Many scholars question the relationship between the Letter to the Colossians, the similar Ephesians, and the other letters of Paul. One obvious reason has to do with the approval Ephesians and Colossians seem to offer slavery, which is in some apparent tension with Romans and other letters (nb. Philemon). Whether the contrast between these positions is to be sought in the development of Paul’s own thinking, or by suggesting another author, a later follower writing in Paul’s name, is a matter for judgement. In either case, we must still account for this tension within the canon of scripture.

We could in fact say that this is a tension not just about one issue, but about how we are to face and grasp reality, whether nature, or society, or of our own existence.

On the one hand there is a visionary, prophetic Gospel that sees deeply and painfully the contrast between the broken world and its divine calling, and looks for change. This world-challenging message is a Gospel of redemption and judgement, of transformation and renewal. On the other hand, there is a Gospel that discerns faithfully and joyfully the beauty and goodness of God’s purpose despite the difficulties of human existence. Such a theology of wisdom and blessing does not despair of finding God’s good purposes in any society or system. This world–affirming message is the Gospel of creation and wisdom, of celebration and blessing.

In Paul’s unquestioned letters like Romans, we encounter an author preaching the need for judgement, redemption and transformation, and wrestling with things the way they are. He writes of creation itself as “subjected to futility”, “in bondage to decay”, “groaning with labor pains” and now “awaiting with eager longing” the revealing of God’s redemptive purpose (see Romans 8).

Colossians, however, exhibits the second, gentler and more conservative type of theological reflection, employing tools of wisdom and blessing, closely and positively tying God’s presence and purpose to the existing social order and the cosmos. In Colossians the creation itself is not struggling to come into being – it exists in Christ: “all things were created through him and for him...[and] in him all things hold together” (See Colossians 1).

Colossians asks how its readers are to live in their world. The answers are undoubtedly conservative. The author is not answering the question “should there be slavery” – this was not really a viable question. This author was not addressing the mass abductions often accompanied by slaughter which were the 18th century slave trade from Africa. The slaves of an ancient household envisaged here were often as comfortable, or more so, than the free poor. Many sought to escape or leave it, but the end of the institution was not an option. The question being addressed here was how to make sense of the status and role of a slave, if it were one’s own. The answer is, to work as though serving God. How so? It is not just because I, the apostle, told you so, or because obedience is always good – it is because, for this author, God’s presence and purpose suffuse everything, and can be found everywhere.

If the result seems unpalatable, this way of thinking is still familiar. The same theological principle and this same scriptural passage lies behind the beloved and apparently more benign poem “The Elixir” by George Herbert, where the poet asks “Teach me my God and king in all things thee to see”, invoking the same idea of finding God in all one’s experience. Herbert then states that “a servant with this clause makes drudgery divine”. Many of us who would want no truck with justifying slavery have been willing to accept this principle of dedication, which seeks the divine in all things.

But there are limits. You can make drudgery divine, but you cannot make oppression divine. That perhaps thin theological line is the line between truth and falsehood, between the Gospel and a gross parody.

The difficulty is illustrated by Wilberforce himself, who while deeply and sincerely committed to the abolition of slavery also opposed the extension of suffrage beyond the propertied classes, and supported the suppression of trade union activity. He did not see the abolition of slavery as a form of social transformation but as the removal of a hideous aberration from a divinely-ordered good society.

Ironically then, Wilberforce sought the abolition of slavery for reasons similar to those for which Colossians urges obedience within it; for both sought the best conditions under which the Gospel could flourish, and both viewed a benign but strongly hierarchical society as the best answer. The limits of this view are, I hope, obvious enough.

Each response the Church and its members make to the pressing issues of our day – war, human sexuality, treatment of refugees, indigenous interventions - will involve some interplay between the two principles of judgement and blessing, of critique and affirmation. These are not merely a paradox, or a basis for making complexity an excuse for inaction.

In our own public and private dealings the question that the Paul or Pauls of the New Testament, and the Wilberforces and Herberts, pose is whether we ourselves are prepared to look for what is most deeply true and most deeply necessary in our present and our future. To follow the message of scripture most deeply we may therefore have to look past its letter, as Wilberforce certainly did.

Saturday, August 04, 2007


These are extracts from a sermon preached at St Stephen's Church, Richmond, on August 5th.

We are more familiar, and yet less comfortable, with the word “martyr” than just a few years ago. “Martyr” and “martyrdom” now appear most often in discussion of terrorist violence – although the occasional football coach given the drop mid-season seems to count. Yet whether literal or metaphoric, we know that martyrdom is about death.

It was not always so. “Martyr” is the Greek word for witness; in ancient as in modern times, this idea can refer specifically to appearance in a court, where some matter of truth or justice must be determined. But what characterizes a witness is speech, rather than suffering. A martyr, a witness, is at heart a teller of the truth.

In the New Testament a number of characters are called witnesses; they include God, and Jesus himself is called “the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead”. There are also references to people dying as a result of unswerving discipleship, but these two were not originally the same thing.

“Martyr” gradually became a technical term related to the persecution and suffering of Christians under a hostile empire, but still referred to the witness of the living, rather than the fate of the dead. In the first few centuries of the Church, a martyr was someone imprisoned or persecuted for their faith, and thus given the chance to make public witness to Jesus, but who might have survived the ordeal and continued to speak the truth about him among the living.

In time this changed, as the number of Christians killed for their faith mounted and that ultimate form of faithfulness became so important a sign to others. This gave rise to the now-familiar usage, where a “martyr” is characteristically and inevitably dead.

That characteristic – not faithful truth-telling, not even willingness to speak dangerous truth in the face of oppression, but dying – is what has stuck to the word, in its present and more varied uses.

When Islam emerged 6 centuries or so after Christianity and in the same region, it inherited that later version of "martyrdom". In its own view of the progress of God’s reign through conquest – often shared with Christianity of course – martyrdom became primarily a matter of laying down one’s life in military struggle. Within contemporary Islam there is a debate about whether suicide bombers can aspire to the title, since according to sayings of Muhammad suicide is forbidden. But in any case, Christianity’s own history bears an odd responsibility for providing Islam with a view of martyrdom that emphasizes death above life.

Insistence on truth and life may still be what gets Christians and others into situations where life and liberty are threatened. The anxiety to which our own society is now prone, and for which Islam is made something of a lightning rod, is perhaps driving us also into a fear of the truth. Events such as the story of Mohammed Haneef show us how Australians’ reasonable fear of violent parodies of martyrdom may encourage us to our own unreasonable conniving with falsehood and oppression.

Any Christian response to these issues must claim the real meaning of faithful witness – not death, but life lived in the service of others and of the truth.

Monday, July 16, 2007

On being a "proper" Church (II)

A recent statement from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (“Responses To Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects Of The Doctrine On The Church”), and especially an accompanying commentary reported in L’Osservatore Romano, contain some disturbing reminders about divisions among Christians.

Aggrieved reports on these statements often focussed on how they addressed what it means to be “Church”, at least “in a proper sense”. This seems not to have been well-understood. British coverage about the offence to Anglicans or others seemed rather twee, along the lines of a “proper” cup of tea or a “proper” game of cricket not being recognized.

The issue of being “Churches in the proper [strict] sense” has, according to the documents, largely to do with the presence or absence (and recognition) of the historic ministry of bishops. Only Orthodox Churches are credited with this characteristic outside Roman Catholicism – even then, the more florid L'Osservatore commentary suggests there is still a "wound" of sorts.

Other groups, “ecclesial communities” of various kinds emanating from the Reformation, are still more "wounded". The commentary is here rather more lucid (and more offensive) than the formal “Responses” document, wondering “how one could attribute the title ‘Church’ to such a community”.

It is easy to forget that this position is (still) the most generous in a millennium. The official CDF "Responses" document, its spiritual parent the papal encyclical Dominus Iesus, and their predecessor, the Vatican II Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), all acknowledge that there is more to the Gospel and the Church than Roman Catholicism. They all claim, however, that the Church of Christ “subsists” in the Roman Catholic Church, which is uniquely adequate or legitimate, but that other elements of what Church “is” can potentially be found elsewhere.

While this Roman Catholic teaching may nonetheless seem ungenerous, it is worth remembering that Anglican and Orthodox Churches do also maintain that Church order and sacramental practice are important to being “Church”. Without some such emphasis on real practice and on the actual characteristics of the Church as historically-formed community, the Church is either an invisible company of the like-minded (which is an equally exclusive view, depending on whose mind you like), or a sort of catch-all, along the rather glib lines of the World Council of Churches statement from its 2006 Porto Alegre Assembly, that “Each church is the Church catholic and not simply a part of it”.

In fact each Church is just a part of it. And the same goes for the Roman Catholic Church too. The character of the one holy, catholic and apostolic Church is deeply compromised by disunity, by indifference to the characteristic practices of that one Church, but above all by failure to manifest love, which no claim to “subsistence” can mitigate.

For the real pathos of the statement from the CDF is how it ironically manifests the wounded character of the Roman Catholic magisterium. We are all wounded by our division, and more. As the Congregation strains at gnats of illegitimacy and swallows camels of uncharity, it unwittingly shows us all how much we need each other, and how badly we do when we claim not to.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

On being a "proper" Church (I)

Last week there was considerable fuss about a document, “Responses To Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects Of The Doctrine On The Church”, released by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, theological watchdog of the Vatican.

According to the article signed by Richard Owen and Ruth Gledhill that appeared in many news sources, this “Responses” document stated that Protestant groups were “not proper Churches”, and the “wound” present in them meant that it was “difficult to see how the title of ‘Church’ could possibly be attributed to them”.

These phrases do not, however, appear in the document. The most tendentious of these comments all appear in a quite separate commentary published in l’Osservatore Romano – the Vatican newspaper (which, by the way is very hard to find - but see now the link above for the Italian text). While its appearance in what is certainly the party organ means that the commentary has some weight, the confusion between this commentary article and the official document is remarkable and unfortunate. While more interesting – precisely because it is ruder – the commentary is much less definitive.

The actual “Response” is something of a non-event – it is a re-statement of elements of the encyclical Dominus Iesus. The closest equivalent to the more inflammatory statements quoted in the wider press is the line that Churches lacking the apostolic succession of bishops “cannot, according to Catholic doctrine, be called “Churches” in the proper sense”. The Latin text is “…secundum doctrinam catholicam Ecclesiae sensu proprio nominari non possunt”. This means something like “cannot, according to Catholic doctrine, be called Churches in the strict sense of the word”.

There is no more to like or dislike in the “Response” than in other recent Vatican documents about the Church. It is something of a shame that subsequent journalistic commentary has not been more accurate or fair – since the necessarily frank response required to the “Responses” document and especially of the L’Osservatore commentary needs to be well-grounded. On that, more soon…

Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Christian Condition (Tom Wright and Andrew McGowan 2.0)

This is basically a re-post of the entry entitled "Christianity and the Postmodern Empire", from an event on March 24th 2006 when N. T Wright and I spoke to an group in Melbourne. ABC Radio National have just broadcast an edited version, Sunday, June 24 2007.

The transcript, which includes N. T. Wright's presentation, parts of mine as actually given, and his and my conversation with each other and the participants, can be found here. You can also listen now or download for later (right-click on that link and choose "save target as" or "save link as".

Putting Tom Wright and Andrew McGowan together may well seem the ultimate in postmodern relativism, but it is good to be here. I found much to agree with in Bishop Tom’s comments, but perhaps in looking for a few things to disagree about I may invoke that principle, that to be really orthodox it is necessary to preach one heresy one week and the opposite one the next.

In this spirit I would like to say one or two things in apparent, if not profound, disagreement with Bishop Tom, about the relationship between Christianity and postmodernism the movement or tendency, and postmodernity the broader social and economic and intellectual reality. To the extent that postmodernity seems to involve a mere collapse into relativism, I of course would agree with Bishop Tom that a cacophony of conflicting voices and agendas does further the agenda of the global "empire" – when truth may seem unobtainable, people may shrug and move along, rather than work to find and do the truth – and the Church must speak differently.

Yet if that sort of relativism is common in our postmodern world, or in the West, that is not really postmodern-ism. And whether the different way the Church must speak is ‘rivalry’ however, I doubt; and I will return to this. And while I think one could make an intelligent case for any of the three alternatives (rival, ally, coping mechanism) that today’s topic offers for constructing the relationship between Christianity and postmodernity, I want to focus on the notion of postmodern and the Christian as allies, both for good and ill.

I actually take the central themes of postmodernism, while notoriously elusive, to include suspicion of absolute truth claims, and the consequent suggestion that the meaning of speech, language, discourse, or a story, is not separable from the speaker and the hearer and their interaction. Meaning is thus not completely stable; it depends on context. We don’t just learn new things about Paul's letters from N. T. Wright, New Testament scholar, because he a better scholar than Calvin or Aquinas or Augustine; the circumstances are different and we see different things in the encounter with the text. But this is not the same as relativism, in which any one voice or opinion or reading is as good as another. Rather, postmodernism tends to ask who is speaking, who has power in a given situation, and what interests are being served by what is said.

Although Christians will continue to narrate a story that claims to explain all other stories, the suspicion that postmodernism displays towards all attempts to create a grand theory is arguably a useful ally. For one thing there is a certain affinity between the postmodern suspicion of absolute truth claims and the many and varied ways in which Christian theology insists on the provisional character of truth claims, from the polemic against idolatry to the theology of the cross – not least as presented in the stark and confronting terms of Mark’s Gospel which those of us who use the discipline of the Lectionary are reading this year. Systems and structures that claim completeness, order and comprehensiveness, including and perhaps especially ecclesiastical ones, are to be viewed with suspicion. Although we may ask how effective such an incoherent set of suspicions may be in our circumstances, I think we cannot dismiss them. This is just one way in which postmodernism may inform and challenge and refine a Christian theology that takes its origins in the cross seriously, as Bishop Tom seeks to do, and confronts the "empire", not merely as a competing ideology, a rival, but as something perhaps altogether different.

But I do not think that the Church has quite earned the right to play the prophet to a postmodern empire, even if it has an inescapable responsibility to do so. Here I am not referring merely to the paradoxical need to say that the Church, like its members, is simultaneously sinner and sanctified; I mean specifically that the discourses and practices of power that characterize contemporary Christianity might be said to pay little more than lip service to any alternative configuration of power presented in the cross.

So I think we must take both what you yourself say Tom, and what postmodernism suggests, seriously enough to apply a hermeneutic of suspicion to the Church and its practices relative to that empire, both in its subtle cultural manifestations and in its more blunt political forms. We can’t simply say that the claim of the Church to have a story that explains and relativizes all others makes us exempt from a searching examination of our uses of power.

In suggesting such a critique I am not speaking primarily of the Christianity of cathedrals and choirs, which, with all due respect to its practitioners and advocates (of whom I am one at least part of the time), is rapidly passing into the place of interesting cultural undercurrent or quirky counter-cultural nostalgia.

The Christianity or Christianities which are emerging in the postmodern reality are often very true to the nature of the empire, however much it suits them to denounce some aspects of it. (I leave, reluctantly, to one side the indications of the emergence of a real and powerful religious right in Australia which are now, I think, unmistakeable.) Postmodernity – meaning here the set of social and political realities of our time rather than the self-conscious intellectual movements or tendencies of postmodernism - is market-driven and consumer-oriented, more so than previous versions of capitalism; and we are seeing, almost inevitably, Christianities that provide for the pre-existing and preconceived demands of prospective consumers, rather than seeking to form members in a common set of practices as the ancient Church did.

The very diversity of these Christianities may in some ways be their saving grace, for they are so different that they cannot all be making the same mistakes. So “fresh expressions of Church” as they are being called, are characteristically post-modern; and while they are producing creative and authentic worship and service and witness, they are also producing self-serving and crass forms of life, of necessity: for the existing needs of the spiritual consumer are paramount here.

It is interesting to note that in Australian Anglicanism this very fluid and consumer-focussed approach is often linked to a strident dogmatic Calvinism that maintains very “modern” sensibilities about truth; the Bible is absolute, although of course interpreted in a very specific and sometimes quite idiosyncratic way, and this defensive Biblicism is linked to a startling indifference to the concrete elements of ritual and other practice – apart from a form of conservative morality – that characterize the historic Christian community. One might even claim that the most dynamic and successful Churches are often taking the cross – and even Tom Wright’s powerful paradoxical articulation of the cross – and then turning it into the ideological content of a quest for power.

Rivalry? What I fear is that the most stridently dogmatic forms of Christianity are saying exactly what the Empire needs them to say – and by their claims to a certainty that wraps moral conservatism in the arms of personal fulfilment provides exactly the ideology – or an ideology – the Empire needs or wants. They are not, in fact, nearly rival enough, but exactly the coping mechanism that suits the Empire. But whether “rivalry” is what we need instead of this sort of unholy alliance I am not sure – the Christian answer may actually lie in a refusal to compete. For surely the power of the cross is emptied in quests for power.

Monday, June 04, 2007

On the election of Bishops

(for the Archbishop Appointment Process Review, Melbourne 2007)

For when all the brethren had assembled to select by vote him who should succeed to the episcopate of the church, several renowned and honourable men were in the minds of many, but Fabian, although present, was in the mind of none. But they relate that suddenly a dove flying down lighted on his head, resembling the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Saviour in the form of a dove. Thereupon all the people, as if moved by one Divine Spirit, with all eagerness and unanimity cried out that he was worthy, and without delay they took him and placed him upon the episcopal seat (Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 6.29)

Doubtless there is some appeal in the story of Fabian, third-century bishop and martyr, who attained episcopal office at Rome by means of an open window and a bird’s landing on his head. Today the realities of ecclesial polity are more complex and elections necessarily more convoluted. Yet some elements of this story are still relevant, and it underscores the fact that the Church has experienced quite different processes to obtain its bishops from those now known.

In what follows I will seek to identify some key qualities for bishops, and for the episcopate itself. I believe it is difficult to reach very clear conclusions about the ideal process for episcopal election on the basis of our understanding of the office, but we must be able to reflect on how our existing processes reflect or embody our understandings of the office.

Here I use the four “marks” of the Church identified by the Creed as starting points for this reflection on the bishop as a leader and representative of that Church in one place. For reasons that may become apparent I work backwards, from apostolicity to unity.

Apostolicity – the Historic connection
The Church regards the bishops as “successors of the apostles”. We need not reduce this quality to literal continuity with a family tree of predecessors, whether to support or dismiss it. Historical continuity is important, not because it gives the Church all it needs, but because it connects us with the living tradition of the historic community that is “one, holy, catholic and apostolic”.

This quality may not have much impact on the actual form of election, but more on the criteria for election (is this person committed to that one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, or merely to an idea of Church that they will serve at the expense of the people of God?), and on the ritual of episcopal ordination.

Catholicity – the Universal connection
Bishops lead a “local” Church but are also the links between one Church and another, and need to recognize and actively to seek the bonds of communion with others (this imperative has an ecumenical dimension, and cannot be reduced to participation in Anglican structures).

In our current (Australian Anglican) election processes this quality is reflected largely passively, in consent by provincial bishops, and through the participation of a good number of bishops in the ritual itself . It might also be expressed through active consultation by electors with wider groups of bishops (and other Church leaders). This may often be done, but has perhaps been seen merely as a way to generate lists of names, rather than as a means to embody part of the character of the episcopate.

One of the failures of catholicity in our current situation is the general inability of the Australian Church to identify and form leaders in any intentional way. Our concerns about elections might be lessened if we had a clearer set of understandings and practices about continuing education as something the Church itself fosters and expects. Higher degrees in theology, and specialized professional development in various aspects of ministerial practice, ought to be more widely undertaken. Electors might feel less concerned about processes and alternative candidates, were their qualifications and expertise less in doubt.

Holiness – the Gifts of the Spirit
Perhaps the crucial dimension of election is actually discerning the personal qualities necessary in any bishop, and in the bishop currently being sought. Some of these are general, and expressed clearly in the ordinal (based on scriptural prescriptions – 1 Tim 3, Tit 1). Others must be specific to the realities of a particular Church and time. At present we know that the requirements of "Professional Standards", etc. must be met, not simply to meet “risk management” criteria, but because these are the current form of a concern the Church has always had.

Ensuring that these qualities can be identified and tested is a technical question more than a theological one, but any technically inadequate process is theologically inadequate too. I would venture that under current conditions, an election process – such as a synodical one - without prior diligence such as is only possible through a Board or Committee would be inadequate.

I would also suggest that any role a Synod has in an election process is very unlikely to add much to this fundamental aspect of discernment. It is simply unworkable for a large body to gain real knowledge of the character of an individual or of their working style. Individuals may have such knowledge and share it, more or less adequately – but if this might assist consideration of one candidate, it is a very poor basis for distinguishing between candidates.

Unity – the people of God
Anglicans in Australia are used to a variety of synodical processes for their ecclesiastical government. As St Fabian’s story reminds us, the participation of a wide group (at least representative of the whole Church, if it is no longer possible to gather it all in one place) is actually characteristic of Christian practice. In our context, like others of past and present, this dimension should have a recognizable place in the process.

As the variety of Australian diocesan processes reminds us however, the participation of the whole local Church has a great many expressions. A board or committee that reports to a synod may well exercise the responsibility of the synod, and represent the needs of the diocese, far more adequately than the larger group. As already stated, some more focussed process such as this is inevitable for current circumstances, whether or not in conjunction with a synod election.

Even where a committee undertakes the election, it is worth noting that this does not exhaust or preclude the involvement of the wider body of the local Church. In fact the episcopal ordination (or installation) itself is a very underestimated element of the 'election' (remembering that 'election' does not mean voting, but choosing). Despite the common assumption that a synod vote or a legal declaration finishes the process, it is only when the bishop is welcomed into the Cathedral Church and acknowledged by the assembled people that the election process is really complete.

I believe that our episcopal ordination rites are underestimated in this regard – in Melbourne, what some may be thinking can only happen at Dallas Brooks Hall really only happens at St Paul’s. There a larger form of the local Church can effectively add its voice to the real acceptance of one candidate, carefully chosen, far more than it could add to the actual discernment between the gifts of different candidates. Any synodical election process which insists on a very high level of consensus in distinguishing between candidates confuses the proper unified voice of the Church acclaiming one bishop, with the inevitable diversity of views within the Church about different candidates. The real consensus of the Church can only be expressed at the Eucharistic table, with the new bishop – unless perhaps there happens to be an open window, and a dove nearby.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Other at Easter: The Paradox of Christian Anti-semitism

Late on a Saturday afternoon in October last year, a busload of football players from Ocean Grove who had been at the Caulfield races was driving through Balaclava in the suburbs of Melbourne. Locals, families with children, were walking home. Some of the occupants of the bus leaned out and yelled words including “Go the Nazis”, and motioned as though they were machine-gunning the children. When the bus pulled up at a red light and one man remonstrated with the men on board, they knocked off his hat and punched him in the eye.

Two weeks ago one of the offending footballers – one of the name callers - was convicted and fined for his actions, although those accused of assault are yet to come to trial. Oddly enough the convicted man’s family name was “Christian”. The victim was of course Jewish.

The appearance in suburban Melbourne of that ancient and deeply-ingrained form of prejudice is a reminder of the paradoxical place that Christianity has in the history of the particular form of intolerance that is anti-Semitism. Of course the Church condemns anti-semitism and other forms of racism, but before the mid-twentieth century and the revelations of the Nazi final solution, the level of commitment to such opposition could not be taken for granted. But Christian failures in this regard were not due solely to lack of information; they stem from the history of relations between Christians and Jews.

To state the obvious, Jesus was Jewish and his followers were Jews. He did not found a new religion as such, but questioned the real meaning of allegiance to the God of Abraham and of Moses and of David. The impact of his teaching, and the experiences of his followers in those events we have commemorated and continue to celebrate through Easter, led them to proclaim him as Messiah and Ruler, Son of God and Saviour. When they became convinced that non-Jews could share in serving and worshipping Jesus of Nazareth, the message was too radical to contain within the bounds of their own religious tradition. Yet this process did not happen instantly or easily, and tonight’s readings illustrate that fact. The readings this evening (Rev 3:1-13, Acts 12:1-16) give some clues to the ancient sources of Christian and Jewish difficulty with the mere fact of each other’s existence.

The elder John, visionary author of the Revelation, conveys messages from a divine figure who must be identified with the ascended Jesus. These are directed to Churches in cities of western Asia minor, through their guardian angels. To the Church of Philadelphia – the modern Turkish town of Alasehir – John is commanded to write various high-sounding words of encouragement, but also that “I will make those of the synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are not, but are lying - I will make them come and bow down before your feet, and they will learn that I have loved you”.

The clearest thing about a “Synagogue of Satan” is that you don’t want to be part of it. It may be that those who “say they are Jews and are not” are exactly those whom you and I would call Jews, and that John’s embattled friends in Philadelphia are locked in a dispute about the scriptures and traditions of Judaism. They did not yet think they had created a new religion called Christianity – they thought they had recreated Judaism itself, and then found themselves locked in a deep conflict with those who, understandably, disagreed.

In the Acts of the Apostles, which depicts Christian life in the first few years after the first Easter but was written some further decades later, the Christians are now literal victims of religious violence. King Herod Agrippa I has James, one of the twelve apostles, executed, and then arrests Peter – who in this narrative is miraculously freed. This could all be political intrigue rather than ethnic or religious conflict, but we are told that James’ execution had “pleased the Jews”. And the miraculously delivered Peter the Jew proclaims (somewhat awkwardly) "…I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hands of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting."

In this document Jewishness is not a disputed term, but has been abandoned by the Christian author - even though many of the original readers were Jews, not the mention all the characters in the events depicted - as incapable of redefinition in the radical terms their claims would necessitate; Jews are now someone else – “other”.

Although the Ocean Grove footballers did not know it, their abuse of Jews in suburban Melbourne was a further episode in two millennia of Christian misconstrual of this “otherness”. Jews were quickly to become the embattled minority and the objects of Christian violence, and their identity not merely contested, but denied its value altogether. The results we know too well.

Otherness is among the greatest gifts and challenges of human life. Otherness can make a man named Christian yell at a man who called Jew; it can put another man on a cross. Yet it can also be that which allows us to value those human beings with whom we are called into relationship as precious to us, able to enrich our lives, to provide what we may not know in the tasks of growing as individuals, and as a human community.

The ability of the Christian Church to deal with the otherness of Judaism in particular is test of our authenticity; not just one high moral demand among others, but something that goes to the heart of the Gospel and the meaning of Christianity. The Church that was coming into being in the late first century and stands two thousand years later, was and is a means by which the heritage of Abraham and Sarah, of Moses and Miriam, of Ruth and David, is made available to a wider community, without specific ethnic origins and in a variety of cultural forms; but without the heritage of Judaism and even its present witness, that tradition is meaningless.

This history is as great and terrible an irony as Easter could present. The mere possibility that the emergence of the Christian Church could carry with it a great burden of wrongdoing is a reminder that the cross and resurrection are not God’s imposition of a theologically-correct world order. Easter is God’s invitation to us all to love beyond safety and to be assured not that God will now make us what we ought to be, but that we will be free to become so; and that God is with us in our deepest struggles, on the cross, and on the footpath in Balaclava.

Monday, February 19, 2007

The (Other) Idea of a University

Debates about the nature of a University usually involve the “liberal” model represented by John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University, and a more pragmatic ideal that emphasizes the needs of society and training for the professions.

University education usually needs both (the Growing Esteem strategy for the University of Melbourne establishes a place for each. Its new undergraduate degrees will emphasize “breadth and depth”, including requirements for interdisciplinary study, while professional and research degrees, geared solely to graduates, will serve for vocational outcomes).

Yet an alternative pair of “ideas” of the University offers particular challenges in the Australian context. In Newman’s era, there were two quite different aspects of the University. One was the experience of “going up” to Oxford or Cambridge, living as a member of a College and reading particular subjects. The other was examination and attainment of a degree, which not all students sought or were even eligible for. This measure of accomplishment assumed and did not replace the fundamental experience of being a part of the University and its life.

When Newman asked the basic question “What is a University”, he emphasized community rather than curriculum; the University is “the assemblage of strangers from all parts in one spot”. Australian Universities, however, have tended to assume the reverse, thinking of the University as defined by examinations more than experience, by curriculum more than – or even without - community. Educational achievement, and University degrees in particular, are supposed to reflect the examination of knowledge or skill but not the educational experience that might have led to the degree. The degree itself has become supposed guarantee of a standard, a mechanism to indicate the parity of widely (or even wildly) different experiences, rather than symbol of one held in common.

One reason for this separation of examination from experience has been geographical isolation. Australians have been particularly adept at finding ways to deliver – literally – information across great distances, long before the internet ushered “distance learning” or “flexible delivery” into the vocabularies of educators. The need to organize and recognize these forms of teaching and learning added to the distinction between experience and examination we inherited from the English tradition.

Another distinctive Australian factor is the unevenness of Collegiate or community life. Since the forms of common life that distinguished Colleges once seemed necessarily religious, they provided a means for the “sandstone” Universities to assert their essential secularity, dealing with religion in a “co-curricular” fashion. The cost of this approach was the marginalization of community life and the emphasis on experience that Newman and the other great figures of nineteenth-century University theorizing, such as Alexander von Humboldt and Charles Eliot, took for granted.

For Australians, University education became the inculcation and examination of a body of knowledge, not the experience of being a community of learners. To an extent that would not so readily have been countenanced in the UK, the USA or Europe, University education in Australia came to be seen as focussed on the lecture hall alone and on the absorption of a canon of knowledge, rather than also on the dining hall and the exchange of views across disciplines and perspectives.

Recent developments in Australian Higher Education have underlined the problem. I myself went through undergraduate education, about twenty-five years ago, without the benefit of a Collegiate experience. I did have access to community life through an active Student Guild, and I was also in the Honours program of a relatively small department where students knew one another, and the most senior academics as well. Now, increases in class sizes on the one hand, and the gratuitous VSU agenda on the other, have threatened the broader forms of community life as well as the narrower academic collegiality necessary to the formation of would-be scholars.

The recent controversy about English standards among international students in Australian Universities was revealing on this issue, as much for what it did not say about student experience. The research itself and the press reporting that followed raised questions about standards – of examination and inculcation of knowledge – but not about the enormously varied experiences of those international students.[1] A system that encourages the creation of storefront campuses accredited by distant Universities is certainly not focussed on student experience. We must even wonder whether it is still possible to speak meaningfully in general terms of “University education” in Australia.

American poet and teacher John Ciardi said that “a University is what a College becomes when the faculty loses interest in the students”. In the American context these words have a slightly different meaning, but there is a message for us here too. A University that does not understand what educational community provides has lost more than just an interest in students. Colleges may yet be part of the answer.

[1] Bob Birrell, “Implications of low English standards among overseas students at Australian universities”, People and Place 14/4 (2006)