Film and Book Reviews

A capital perspective on faith's famous and flawed

BOOKSThis is a readable and perceptive reflection on some of the nation's prominent Christians, writes Mark Brolly.

October 4 2016In the small pool of specialist religious affairs reporters in the mainstream Australian media in recent decades, Graham Downie of The Canberra Times stood out for his longevity. His standing was all the greater because he has been blind since birth.

This collection of profiles of prominent Christians covers the almost 40 years Downie covered religion from the capital of a country dubbed by 19th century Presbyterian divine James Denney as “the most godless place under heaven”.

Covering faith from the centre of federal political life may seem particularly daunting, but Downie’s profile of the former Roman Catholic Archbishop of Canberra and Goulburn Mark Coleridge (the sad decline in their working relationship is duly recorded from Downie’s perspective) sheds some light on the distinctive view from the shores of Lake Burley Griffin. Asked about the differences between Melbourne and Canberra soon after taking up residence there in 2006, Coleridge replies: “This is village culture. Honestly, it reminds me of the Vatican. A little world with a huge outlook.”

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There are many people in this book familiar to Anglicans in Melbourne and elsewhere – the global, courageous figures of Desmond Tutu and Michael Lapsley, former Archbishops David Penman and Keith Rayner, national Anglican figures from Peter Jensen to Peter Carnley and Peter Hollingworth, and Australia’s first female diocesan bishop, Sarah Macneil, who served as an archdeacon in Canberra.

Bishop Macneil is one of the few women profiled in the book – only four out of 27 people profiled are women, its most glaring drawback.

Dr Peter Hollingworth’s travails as Governor-General, dating from what Downie describes as the “timebomb” he failed to defuse during his 11 years as Archbishop of Brisbane, are recorded with an air of sadness. Downie notes that Dr Hollingworth had always been courteous, good-natured and helpful, once carrying Downie’s recording equipment from the Archbishop’s office to Downie’s hotel after a lengthy interview for the National Library of Australia. But Downie expresses surprise at the importance the former executive director of the Brotherhood of St Laurence placed on a person’s social position.

“It was not what I expected from a social campaigner,” he concludes.

Cardinal George Pell, too, receives some sympathy from Downie, as well as a clear-eyed assessment of his flaws. The former Archbishop of Melbourne and later of Sydney, four times a witness in person or by video at national and state inquiries into child sexual abuse in the Church, “has been a soft target for much of the Australian media and some politicians”, he writes. Yet, at his first interview with then Archbishop Pell in 2001, Downie writes that “George Pell seemed to make every effort to sound gentle and caring, but the constraints of his understanding of his Church’s teaching made that task almost impossible”.

Perhaps the most candid critique of the Church’s role in public life comes from the only politician who appears in the book, former senior Coalition figure from the 1970s to 1990s, Fred Chaney. Chaney, a West Australian who served in the Senate and then, briefly, in the House of Representatives, says: “I have always thought the Gospel is a very poor guide to what is the right political decision for all circumstances.”

He goes on both to praise and criticise the interventions of some Christians and church bodies in political issues and is anxious to distance himself from any notion that being a Christian marks him out as more righteous than others.

“I think that some people actually hide their ideology behind a cloak of Christianity and I don’t respect that.”

This is a readable book, full of interesting – and, in some cases, compelling – characters, as well as perceptive reflections on individuals and the Christian presence in modern Australia.

Servants & Leaders: Eminent Christians in their Own Words, by Graham Downie (Halstead Press, Canberra, 2015, $28.95)