In the wake of the verdict about Pell …

There has been a lot of media discussion in recent days about the convictions handed down against Cardinal George Pell. Articles that I have read have ranged across the validity of the sentence, the quality of the evidence provided, the rhetoric of the defendant barrister, and the perception that Pell was targeted in a “tall poppy syndrome” or as part of a wider vendetta against the Church.

I have been thinking, not just about this particular case, but about the various elements of our culture that are involved in these discussions. There are many elements that deserve attention and careful consideration.

Fundamental to these discussions, should be the basic principle of respect for another human being. If an alleged victim raises an accusation, that person deserves to be heard with respect and integrity. It is not fair to label or accuse such a person, especially if the claim has not yet received measured and fair consideration in the courts. Disrespectful descriptions and negative labelling of victims should never be published by any media outlet.

Second, I sense, is a concern about the way that we demonstrate trust in institutions — whether those institutions are the justice system, religious bodies, or leadership in society. It is clear that, in modern Australian society, any institution is “fair game” for suspicion and distrust. That might well be justified in some instances—the banking and finance industry, for instance; or political parties, when it comes to “jobs for the boys” and (as we have seen lately) “goodbye to the girls”. But should it be the default setting when considering any institution in society?

A factor that I see running through all considerations relating to sexual abuse, is the pernicious influence of secrecy—whether that is secrecy by church leaders, concerned to maintain the good name of their church; or secrecy by perpetrators, seeking to quieten the noises made about their alleged activity. Perpetrators are particularly good at impressing the need for secrecy on their victims. That’s one of the main warning flags in a sexual abuse scenario. It is not a healthy trait.

Of course, there is a different between when something needs to be held as confidential, and when it has become a secret. Knowing the difference between secrecy and confidentiality, is an important process of discernment. Some matters do need to be held in confidence, while further investigations are undertaken, for instance. And knowing when it is inappropriate to hold on to a secret, is also important to discern.

The discussion raises questions, for me, about styles of leadership within our society. Cardinal Pell exercised a particular style of leadership. It may well have contributed to the surge of opposition to him, both in his role as a leader of the Roman Catholic Church, and as a person in the spotlight. Certainly, while his style of charge-through-and-win-at-all-costs, might have garnered him support from those who agreed with his ideological stances, it also generated a mountain of opposition to him. Is this really the best way to exercise leadership in society?

Of course, the recently-concluded Royal Commission has shone a spotlight in the culture and ethos which has been dominant in a number of institutions in our society, including the Roman Catholic Church, other church denominations, and other institutions dealing with children. The Roman Catholic Church has been carefully scrutinised and a number of the commission’s recommendations do deal with changes that need to be made, to create a more healthy culture with an ethos that values integrity and transparency above arcane processes and secrecy.

I found myself, again and again, coming back to the priority that should be shown (but which often has not been shown), to demonstrate authentic care and compassion for victims. There are too many examples, that I am aware of, where people who have been victims are saying that the way the issues are discussed in the public arena provides a trigger to their hurts and fears, to their anxieties and depressive feelings. We owe them more than this; we need to prioritise a way of discussing matters that does not replicate past abuses and reinforce negative emotions.

That leads to another matter; the importance of language. Nothing demonstrated this more, than the unfortunate and ill-chosen rhetoric of the defence lawyer representing Cardinal Pell. It carried an inference that the kind of sexual assault experienced by the victims in this particular instance, was a lesser grade of assault. The swift apology and withdrawal of the terrible phrase that Robert Richter used, is a clear indication of the power that is carried in the words we use. I know this from my experience in leading worship and interpreting texts, within my church roles. It is something that needs to be recognised in people right across society, in the public discourse.

In terms of my faith, the message that I hear pressing on me, again and again, is that the Gospel call to faithful discipleship is far more important than the matter of preserving the institutional reputation. The deeply sad fact at the heart of so many instances of sexual abuse by priests, ministers, and pastors, is that the Gospel call has been subordinated (and ignored) in favour of protecting the institution. That is completely wrong.

I guess that the culture of “let’s stick together”, “this is not who we are”, “don’t criticise us, we do lots of good things”, must have been strong within the Catholic Church. That explains why there was such a concerted effort by many, to protect their fellow priests. The same went on in the Anglican Church, and there are indications of it in other denominations and organisations.

There is something positive in looking out for your fellow priest, or minister, or believer. (Although I really dislike it when someone says to me—as they do, from time to time—“ah, but you Ministers always stick together”.) But, sadly, this sense of a priestly brotherhood, all looking out for one another, has contributed to this distorted culture. It is clear that the culture of the Catholic Church has actually fostered misogyny and secrecy in relation to abuse. The sense of belonging to “a brotherhood” has contributed to that culture.

I have noted a tendency, in some faith-based commentary, to look for conspiracy theories about the criticism of churches that is abroad in society. I don’t think it is helpful to become defensive in this way, and I certainly don’t think it is at all useful to label those who criticise the churches as demonic or guided by the devil. Such negative, condemnatory language is completely unhelpful. The church needs to be able to defend itself through reasoned argument, and not resort to judgemental stereotypes.

A final point needs to be made. There is a need to distinguish “The (Roman) Catholic Church” from other church denominations. There are things about the Catholic Church which are distinctive, and which set it apart from other denominations, such as the Uniting Church: the all-male priesthood, the lack of females in leadership, the power of episcopacy in setting the culture, the requirement of celibacy amongst the priesthood, the centralised bureaucracy in Rome, and the strongly bonded nature of “the brotherhood” amongst religious (men). These factors have contributed to create the kind of culture that has protected, and also fostered, abusers. The Catholic Church needs to work hard to dismantle that culture. And all denominations need to be on the alert for signs that secrecy and protection of abusers is continuing.

There is a fine prayer for the current situation, written by my colleague Avril Hannah-Jones, at https://revdocgeek.com/2019/02/27/prayer-for-the-survivors-and-victims-of-child-abuse/

This is a well-argued piece which focuses on the damage done by a Pell, to an individual as well as to the church:

https://www.smh.com.au/national/history-will-judge-george-pell-the-cardinal-who-sought-to-crush-me-20190227-p510ma.html

Frank Brennan offered this analysis immediately after the verdict:

https://www.eurekastreet.com.au/article/truth-and-justice-after-the-pell-verdict

However, Daniel Reeders has provided this careful critique of Brennan, and of others seeking to vindicate Pell:

https://badblood.blog/candle-lighting-the-catholic-response-to-the-pell-conviction/

Called to discern new ways of relating

The General Conference of the United Methodist Church (UMC) is currently meeting in St Louis, USA. This is a gathering of nearly 1,000 delegates, elected by annual conferences of the Methodist Churches from around the world. Half of the delegates are laity (non-clergy members), half are clergy. A description of this body can be found at http://www.umc.org/who-we-are/general-conference

The Conference is meeting in Special Session, for the specific purpose of discussing (once again) human sexuality. There is a report from the Commission on the Way Forward, which specifically considers the way to maintain the unity of the church in the face of the polemical disagreements that have been occurring with regard to marrying people of the same gender.

Continue reading “Called to discern new ways of relating”

Living with Heatwaves

We know that climate change is a reality, and we are seeing more frequent and more intense extreme weather events (floods, fires, heatwaves). This is a blog from a guest blogger, Vivian Harris, on how to cope with heatwaves.

Vivian blogs from Bega on the south coast of NSW, where she writes the Climate Action Blog (Sharing our journey to a low carbon future and fighting for climate action) at https://climateactionbega.blogspot.com/2019/01/climate-migration.html She was previously an active member of the Queanbeyan Uniting Church, which recently reposted this blog.

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We have just sweltered through another heatwave with climate change making them more frequent and more intense. It can be tempting to retreat to our house, turn the air conditioning (if you have it) up full bore and binge watch on Netflix.

However, the extra load on the electric network not only increases the amount of carbon emissions, thus making climate change and heatwaves worse, but the heat emitted by your air conditioner increases the heat experienced by your neighbours and the electricity network can be overloaded leaving people without any electricity.

Heatwaves need to be taken seriously. They kill more people than any other natural disaster in Australia (including bushfires). They kill older people, children, people with chronic diseases, outdoor workers and bush walkers.

So how can we keep ourselves cool without contributing excessively to even more and worse heatwaves?

There are immediate, medium-term and long-term solutions. We all need to start putting the long-term solutions into place because this summer is only the beginning of the new normal.

Immediate

Pay attention to heatwave warnings and prepare with salads and plenty of ice blocks and ice cubes.

Close up the house in the early morning. Close windows and curtains/blinds in the entire house.

Turn off lights and any appliances that don’t need to be on. All electric appliances emit heat as they work (including televisions). Plan not to cook anything because that puts a lot of heat into the house. Put boiling water in a thermos for later.

Close off all rooms you don’t need be in, particularly those on north or west side of the house. Minimise the space you need to cool.

Don’t put air conditioning (if you have it) on until it is uncomfortable and when you do set it to 25 degrees Celsius not 18. Turn it on for short burst only rather than all day. Evaporative air conditioners are much cheaper to run and these work more efficiently by turning them on low early on the days that are forecast to be hot, than running them on high and trying to bring the temperature down.

Put off doing anything that requires you to go outside in the hottest part of the day.

Use fans and wet clothing to cool yourself.

Don’t have cold showers. Cold showers close down your surface circulation which is how your body cools the core temperature. Have a warm shower it will cool you better long-term.

Drink lots of cold water. High sugar drinks actually pull water out of your body.

Ice packs on your neck can help drop your core temperature.

Open up the house at night to get air flow and cool the house down. Open windows, curtains, leave doors on screen doors.

Find public places, like libraries, public buildings, movie theatres and shopping centres with air conditioning to spend the day in.

Move mattresses to the coolest part of the house to sleep.

Sleeping with a wet tea towel on you and a fan can drop your core temperature enough to get you to sleep.

Check on vulnerable people without air conditioning and invite them to spend the day with you if you have air conditioning.

Medium-term

Stop the heat getting into your house by blocking it before it gets to your windows or walls. Use greenhouse material in front of windows/walls.

Long-term

Plant more trees. We have all felt the drop-in temperature when you walk into a park with old mature trees on a hot day. Plant non-deciduous trees on the western side of your houses and deciduous tree on the north (we still want to get heat in in winter). Planting trees is the best way to reduce the urban heat island effect that can see temperatures of 70 degrees Celsius in areas with lots of concrete and roads.

Build a pergola with a deciduous vine on the north side of the house.

Insulate the walls and ceiling. Install a ceiling fan.

Don’t build a house that depends on air conditioning to keep it cool. Houses can be built that use insulation and air flow to keep them comfortable in heatwaves and winter.

Put on solar power so you can turn on air conditioning without contributing to further heatwaves.

Campaign to get your local council to plant more trees along your street.

Heatwaves are here for the long term. We need to learn to adjust our behaviours and houses to cope with it.

Vivian Harris

https://climateactionbega.blogspot.com/2019/01/living-with-heatwaves.html

Our capital city circular street naming system: stability, structure and symmetry

I’m enjoying the learnings that I am being exposed to by living in a new city (Canberra).  Alongside the ubiquitous roundabouts right across the city, for which Canberra is so well known, there seems to be an interesting set of road naming protocols at work. There is a clear hierarchy involved.

Continue reading “Our capital city circular street naming system: stability, structure and symmetry”

“They stood like Statues, without motion, but grinn’d like so many Monkies.”

As a sign of respect for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, the first inhabitants of this continent and its islands, we need to change the date of our national day.

Since the colonisation of this land in 1788, white Australians have consistently and regularly demeaned and dishonoured the original inhabitants of the land, who had cared for the country over millenia. This isn’t “black armband” history, this is simply the reality of the early decades of white colonisation of the continent.

Continue reading ““They stood like Statues, without motion, but grinn’d like so many Monkies.””

“We never saw one inch of cultivated land in the whole country”

As a sign of respect for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, the first inhabitants of this continent and its islands, we need to change the date of our national day.

Early encounters between the inhabitants of the continent we know as Australia, and seafaring explorers sent by imperial European powers, set the scene for what took place when the British colonised the continent.

These early encounters failed to develop a deepened understanding of each group by the other. Journal records show instances of failed encounter, misunderstood communication, and skewed interpretation (on the part of the journaling explorers) of “the Natives”.

Continue reading ““We never saw one inch of cultivated land in the whole country””

“Endeavour by every possible means … to conciliate their affections”

As a sign of respect for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, the first inhabitants of this continent and its islands, we need to change the date of our national day.

On 26 January 1788, the commander of the First Fleet, Arthur Philip (pictures), placed the British flag into the soil of Sydney Cove. Journals of the time record that the British had already set foot on the land a week or so earlier, at Botany Bay. However, because Philip couldn’t find fresh water there, he sailed further north. In Sydney Cove, he found fresh water in the Tank Stream, and this determined the site of the first British settlement.

At the time, this settlement was an expression of colonial expansion, claiming a new colony as “Britannia ruled the waves”. Today, we can see that it was an act of colonial imperialism, with inherent violence at its heart and aggressive marginalisation of the inhabitants of the land.

Continue reading ““Endeavour by every possible means … to conciliate their affections””

The profound effect of invasion and colonisation

This Sunday, 20 January, Uniting Churches around Australia will be holding services which focus on a Day of Mourning, ahead of a day later in the week (26 January) marked in many calendars as Australia Day.

These churches will be doing this in accord with the decision of the 15th Assembly of the UCA, held last year, “to request members to support a Day of Mourning to occur on the Sunday prior to 26th January each year, and to engage during worship services in activities such as reflection and discussion of the profound effect of invasion and colonisation on First Peoples” (see https://uniting.church/28-day-of-mourning/)

Continue reading “The profound effect of invasion and colonisation”

As the old year passes, we cry for our struggling world. A hymn for the new year.

Thanks to David MacGregor for this hymn for the new year:

1. As the old year passes we look back, reflect:

times of joy and promise, times we’d best forget.

God of the ages, help us walk your way.

Help us greet your future, seize tomorrow’s day.

2. As the old year passes sorrow wells within:

loved ones no more ‘round us, all that could have been.

God of compassion, heal each ailing heart.

Guide us to your future where new life may start.

3. As the old year passes we cry for our struggling world.

Climate ever-changing, fighting too-often heard.

God, you have called us to cherish all you give.

Call us to your future where all in peace, might live.

4. As the new year dawns now we would give you praise.

Faithful God, come lead us onward in new ways.

We’ll love and serve you in the faith of Christ,

in your Spirit’s future; people of new life.

Words: David MacGregor © 2007 Willow Publishing

Music: Noel Nouvelet – TIS 382

The depth of God’s presence in our midst

Today (in the Eastern Church) is designated as the Feast of the Holy Innocents. (It was celebrated yesterday in the Western Church.) This festival day commemorates the story of “the Slaughter of the Innocents”, reportedly ordered by King Herod, and recorded in the opening chapters of Matthew’s Gospel (and nowhere else). It is a tragic story, a myth which is filled with pathos, and it resonates with events in the world we live in today. It is a story with great power (as are all myths).

But this story is strikingly absent from the usual array of carols that are sung at this time of the year. Sugar-coated reminiscences of the cute li’l baby Jesus (“holy infant so tender and mild”, “the little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head”, “but little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes”, “gentle and lowly lived below”) take us well away from the murderous acts of the tyrannical ruler.

Most of the traditional carols really want us to focus on Jesus the exalted Lord, resplendent in glory, coming to earth from heaven, so they move us quickly away from the vulnerable infant, and especially from the grim political and social realities of the time.

Some of the traditional carols take us to the edge of the story of violence and repression, and then leave it unspoken, or rather, unsung. “Unto us a boy is born” refers to the fury unleashed by Herod in slaughtering the baby boys, but fails then to go on and narrate the flight undertaken by Joseph, Mary and Jesus. In “The first Nowell”, the three wise men see the star in verse 4 and come to find Jesus in verse 5, but nothing further is told of the ensuing events of Herod—slaughter—flight into Egypt.

A similar dynamic happens in verse 4 of “O come, all you faithful”, verse 3 of “Angels, from the realms of glory”, verse 3 of “Silent night, holy night”, and in verse 3 of the rollicking calypso carol, “The Virgin Mary had a baby boy”. “Brightest and best of the stars of the morning” spends one verse describing the cradle scene and two verses reflecting on the gifts brought to the infant Jesus, but nothing more as to how the visitors had come to him via Herod.

“As with gladness, men of old” devotes three verses to the story of the men of old seeing the star and bringing their gifts, but then dovetails into a pietistic plea to Jesus to “keep us in the narrow way”. No mention of the scenes of slaughter of the innocent infants and the fearful flight of refugees in these carols.

The star and the visitors from the east get prime billing; the murdered children and the hastily-departing family of Jesus, seeking the safety of refuge in a foreign country, are passed over very quickly.

Why is this state of affairs so? The lack of reference to the murderous acts of Herod and the fearful flight of the family of Jesus indicates that our Christmas carols sanitise and sanctify this foundational story, gilding the lily, reshaping our perspective on the story. They completely omit any references to a part of the story that has gained such traction, and that occupies such attention, in the minds of carefully critical contemporary Christians. Children continue to be sacrificed today, in the course of jingoistic warfare waged for ideological reasons. The tragedy continues today …

A number of contemporary hymn writers have turned their attention to this story. Shirley Erena Murray is right on the money when she highlights the violence and fear at the heart of the story, claims that the infant in the story has “come to plead war’s counter-case”, and articulates the hope that “goodness will outclass the gun, evil has no tooth that can kill the truth.”

Summer sun or winter skies, Christmas comes —

shepherds, angels, lullabies, words recorded by the wise:

read it in the book — take another look . . . .

Shadows track the hawk in flight; Christmas now —

children born in fire and fight, silent night a violent night,

hawks are in control of a nation’s soul.

There where terror plies its trade; Christmas now —

children learn to be afraid, minefields of distrust are laid,

evil is in force on a winning course.

Child of peace, God’s human face, Christmas now —

come to plead war’s counter-case, bring the dove a nesting place,

though her wings are torn, though her blood is drawn.

Winter skies or summer sun, Christmas comes —

still the threads of hope are spun, goodness will outclass the gun,

evil has no tooth that can kill the truth.

That is why the ancient story retold at Christmas resonates so strongly with our situation today. Not because “it really happened, exactly like this”, but because it takes us to the centre of our humanity and reveals the depth of God’s presence in our midst. We ought to sing more about it!

See also https://johntsquires.wordpress.com/2018/12/28/the-counter-cultural-alternative-narrative-impact-of-the-person-of-jesus/#

https://johntsquires.wordpress.com/2018/12/26/ye-who-now-will-bless-the-poor-shall-yourselves-find-blessing/#

https://johntsquires.wordpress.com/2018/12/24/resonating-with-christmas-a-story-of-restless-travel-and-seeking-refuge/# 

and https://johntsquires.wordpress.com/2018/12/25/away-in-a-manger/#