Advocacy, the new prophecy

The Revd John Howells writes in defence of the right of parishes to protest on great public issues

Do we have prophets in our midst today, including in our parishes? asks John Howells.

By John Howells

May 11 2016The Law and the Prophets are the heart of the Hebrew Bible, which Christians somewhat patronisingly call the Old Testament. The Law of Moses, the Torah, and the “Thus saith the Lord” of the Prophets reveal the essence of Israel’s centuries-long encounter with the divine. The Law lent itself to the writing of rules and the designing of administrative procedures. It was orderly, and everyone knew where they stood. Prophecy on the other hand was uncontrollable. It could not be tamed and it wreaked havoc on policy formation and administrative decorum. And there were conflicting prophetic messages. How did one determine who was a true prophet and who was false? Better kill the more troublesome. So Jesus laments over the national capital, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those that are sent to it!” (Mt 23:37) However, with the wisdom of hindsight later generations identified the true prophets and carefully preserved their words, which reveal the mind and will of God, and wrote them down for us. So we have the great books of the Isaiahs, of Jeremiah and of Ezekiel and of many others.

There is evidence in the New Testament of the presence of prophets in the early church, but by the time the church’s administrative structures settled down in the third century, there were bishops, priests and deacons to provide its liturgical, pastoral, evangelistic, educational and healing ministries. But no prophetic ministries. Certainly prophets arose from time to time, but generally they were a problem and often misunderstood. I mention only one. Saint Francis of Assisi was the great prophet of poverty, but his followers could not cope with his message and after his death built a vast and luxurious basilica in his honour. How inappropriate!

Do we have prophets in our midst today, even here in Australia? Most certainly we do, although we tend to call them advocates rather than prophets. I think of Gillian Triggs, a former Professor of International Law and now president of the Australian Human Rights Commission. She declared that our treatment of asylum seekers and refugees was morally and strategically Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!, and that unless our policies were changed, the nation would one day pay a terrible price. Members of the Coalition government were outraged and picked up stones to cast at her, but she escaped with her life and continues to cry Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!

I think, too, of Frank Brennan, a Jesuit priest, social activist and public intellectual. In 2009 he chaired a national consultation for the government on whether Australia needed a Charter of Human Rights. His report strongly recommended that it did, but the nervous nellies in the then Labor government could not cope with what appeared to them a threat to orderly government and little was done. The Prime Minister at the time described Frank as “an ethical burr in the nation’s saddle”.

Again I think of Peter Catt, the present Anglican Dean of Brisbane, whose imaginative proposal for churches to offer sanctuary to mothers and their babies threatened with being returned to Nauru has added a new and symbolic dimension to the debate. While lawyers from both major political parties have declared that the scheme is illegal, no one really knows until such time as the High Court may make a decision. In the meantime the idea of sanctuary has moved many more to hear the prophetic cry of Gillian Triggs.

These advocates or prophets for asylum seekers and refugees do not necessarily have practical solutions to our problem. Clearly Australia cannot accept all who wish to come here and it has proved extraordinarily difficult to devise policies, which are both effective and humane. But devising such policies is not the role of the advocate–prophet. That is a role for the bureaucrat and the politician. The role of the prophet is to declare the mind and judgement of God, to perceive moral truth and to announce it boldly.

Finally, do we have prophet–advocates in our parishes? I believe we do in my parish of Saint John’s Camberwell, but I preface my remarks by noting a story about a previous vicar there who, when asked what he would do if he found a real prophet in the congregation replied, that he would seek another parish. Prophets are trouble.

I would suggest that a small Asylum Seeker and Refugee Support Group at Saint John’s is akin to the bands of prophets we read about in the Books of Samuel (1 Sam 10:2-5, etc). The members of this group do not share the wilder features of those ancient bands. In appearance they are indistinguishable from any other parish group. There is no ecstatic behaviour or frenzies to be glimpsed at their meetings. But they do have a fire in their bones telling them that our nation’s treatment of asylum seekers and refugees is Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! And like Jeremiah, they cannot hold it in, but must speak (Jer 20:7-12).

Well, what has this little band of advocate–prophets actually done? Perhaps not much in the scheme of things, but they have tried to be faithful to what they regard as the word of the Lord.

  • In March 2014 they produced a fact sheet which set out what was actually being done in and through members of their parish, what was being done at the diocesan and Victorian levels, and what was being done nationally and ecumenically by the churches. It was carefully researched, and was an encouragement to parishioners, some of whom feared the church was not doing much on this profoundly important moral issue. It also helped put the issue on the parish agenda for Saint John’s.
  • Later they prepared the ground to have a replica of the “Let’s fully welcome refugees” banner which hangs on the west spire of Saint Paul’s Cathedral hung high up on the north wall of Saint John’s. It proved over-ambitious and did not proceed, but at least members of the Parish Council had to think seriously about it.
  • In August 2014 the group arranged a private but formal meeting with its federal Member of Parliament. Three of the group’s members made presentations to him covering the processing of refugees, the detention of children, and the need for a regional solution. The Member responded to these concerns and a general debate followed.
  • Group members have met on at least two occasions with 12 young men, classified as unaccompanied minors seeking asylum, who were living in the Camberwell Uniting Church’s old manse. Friendships were developed and much learning occurred. Today there are six young women living there, who are seeking refugee status and escape from violence and abuse. The group is seeking ways to help.
  • In November last year, the group organised a meeting to focus attention on a Memorandum of Understanding just signed between Saint Vincent’s Health and the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, whereby the hospital would provide services for asylum seekers and the Resource Centre would provide training for hospital staff dealing with asylum seekers. It was an ecumenical occasion with strong attendance from Our Lady of Victories and the Uniting Church. A special feature of the occasion was the presence of a young refugee artist who displayed and explained one of his paintings, which had been used during the signing of the Memorandum.
  • Following this meeting, all who had attended then signed a letter of appreciation to the 400 doctors at the Royal Children’s Hospital who had collectively refused to send children back to Nauru.
  • The group has written to a succession of prime ministers, leaders of the opposition and other parliamentarians, drawing attention to particular matters of concern as they arose.
  • Members have tried hard to be well informed and to avoid making false or erroneous claims and statements. They have kept in touch with the Human Rights Law Centre, a secular advocacy body with a staff of legal experts, and with the Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce, an agency of the National Council of Churches, in order to obtain up-to-date and reliable information. The group has held an open parish meeting to hear an officer from each of these organisations.

How has the group fitted into the parish? How troublesome has it been? I hope it has caused sufficient waves to be noticed. I am aware that every now and then a non-member parishioner will sidle up to a member to ask a question or make a comment. I think the group is recognised and its role understood.

At its last meeting, the Vicar pointed out that Parish Council has administrative committees to cover all the principal functions of a parish church in the modern world, liturgy, pastoral care, education, communication, finance and so on, but the Asylum Seeker and Refugee Support Group did not quite fit any of them. He suggested that from time to time the group send a report to Parish Council so that its message may be more widely heard and its prophet–advocates, who are all long-term committed members of the parish, may feel welcome in their spiritual home. This was wise.

Let me conclude by slightly misquoting some of the great prophet Jeremiah’s autobiographical words, turning his plea as a boy into the plea of an old person.

The Lord God came to me saying, … I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak for I am old.”
But the Lord said to me,
“Do not say I am old; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and
you shall speak whatever I command you.
Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.”

(Jer 1:4-8 adapted)

The Revd John Howells is a parishioner at St John's Camberwell.