When I was 15 and heard Malcolm Muggeridge speak at a Festival of Light event in Adelaide, my adolescent perception that the Christian Establishment had given up the ghost — that it no longer defended with any conviction its most ancient and sacred beliefs — was endorsed by a wry Cambridge-educated man of the world. His voice and visage seemed to convey in their sadness all that accompanied such knowledge.
Muggeridge would tell anyone who listened that the Church in the West had not been overrun or overthrown from without. Rather, its end loomed because it had opened the gates and invited its enemies into the very heart of the citadel. The world had triumphed by destroying the Church’s will to defend its traditions, sacraments and beliefs. I thought of this often during last year’s homosexual “marriage” campaign and again just the other day, on December 9, when the amendments to the Marriage Act turned one year old.
The rationalising of passivity in the face of the assault on marriage abounded in many churches and took many forms. We can readily acknowledge there is little in the Gospels that specifically lauds or encourages a devotion to the institution of marriage or the family. St Paul’s endorsement of marriage is notoriously half-hearted: a state to be preferred to that of being consumed with lust. The first millennium of the Church in particular was rich in asceticism and monasticism; even an existential believer like Soren Kierkegaard nineteen centuries later, in his mission to rescue Christianity from Christendom, was in no doubt that God recommends the single state. He said this, in his Attack Upon Christendom (1854):
Christianly one must say that precisely the fact that the priest takes part is the worst thing in the whole affair. If you want to marry, seek rather to be married by a blacksmith; then it might perhaps (if one may speak thus) escape God’s notice.
We are told by Mathew that Jesus, when seeing off a challenge by the Pharisees about divorce, not only reaffirmed all of the Mosaic teaching about the creation of the male and the female and about the man leaving his father and mother and cleaving unto his wife. Then He went further. He said that the union of men and women in marriage should never be broken asunder. Such matters didn’t need explication any more than the sun needs to explicate its warmth. For two thousand years they were matters that never required explanation. A belief in the sanctity of marriage, so understood, is one of the lineaments of Christianity’s face and identity.
When marriage was introduced to the civil law it was as an institution that was identical to that which been celebrated liturgically for centuries. The civil ceremony had a legal stature for the same reason that the religious ceremony had a sacred stature: it was the natural union of a man and a woman. That was the source of its inestimable honour. Whether a marriage was thereafter authorised by religious or civil authority, the significance of the institution inaugurated by the ceremony had precisely the same origin.
THE LEFT first embarked on a war to abolish marriage in the second half of the nineteenth century. By the beginning of this century it was the Left’s strident sexual-identitarian wing which had assumed strategic command of the campaign. In Australia, their determination to alter the legal definition of marriage in the Marriage Act had, by 2016 and with the connivance of senior Liberal Party ministers, finally delivered the sought victory, which was the defilement of traditional marriage.
The “marriage” ceremony that is left has been emptied of any remnant of juridical significance. A marriage de jure and a marriage de facto are now identical, save for some form-filling and a handful of mandated utterances. Fill in those forms, say those words and you may claim to be “married”. But please understand that the ‘married’ status is a cipher: without value or consequence.
For some years in Australia, whether two people are married or live together has been wholly insignificant to courts dealing with disputes arising from the end of their relationship and the legal criteria to be applied in determining them, whether such disputes relate to children or property. If the sex of the parties to the relationship is the same that is now beside the point.
If marriage no longer means marriage, what is called marriage can mean whatever anyone wants it to mean, however unnatural. Senator Bernardi was correct to say as much in Parliament. While some took immediate and loud offence, as is their wont, he was not being offensive. Provocative, yes, but the truth often provokes who wish not to acknowledge it. Long before last year’s final assault on marriage, the Left’s cultural hegemony had succeeded in radically diminishing the respect and esteem accorded the marriage ceremony. It has now succeeded in emptying that ceremony of any kind of meaning.
It is not possible, surely, to overstate the epochal significance of these events or of the pitiful response of the Church to them.
When the war on marriage began some 150 years ago, the Left was confronted by a Church still militant and determined to defend the holy nature of marriage. By the time of 2017’s plebiscite, a Church pusillanimous had long since fled the battlefield. Disarmed and in disorder, it was instead engrossed in parleying with its masters in the media and the academy about the terms of its capitulation.
The Australian Christian Lobby, on the other hand, constituted by individual Christians rather than their churches, actually turned up for the fight. In the teeth of a mainstream media staffed with shrill and illiberal rainbow warriors and despite a grossly intimidating atmosphere — remember, people were sacked for opposing same-sex marriage, and also that it was an ardent and crusading homosexual who detonated his car bomb in the ACL’s Canberra headquarters — Lyle Shelton’s organisation conducted a brave campaign. I played my small part as a volunteer in that effort. It gave me first-hand experience of how profoundly good for nothing the institutional churches (with few, very few, exceptions) had become. The recurring complaint I heard from ACL volunteers during the campaign was, ‘Why are our pastors and ministers and bishops saying nothing in defence of marriage, including even to their own congregants and parishioners? Why aren’t they telling them to vote ‘no’ and explaining why they must vote no?’
If you exclude the Sydney diocese of the Anglicans, the odd Catholic bishop and archbishop, and the Orthodox (the Greeks especially in my state) and a pentecostal pastor here or there, you can fairly state that the Church went in to hiding during the campaign. Actually, stayed in hiding is more accurate.
We long ago ceased to expect Church leaders to speak about any substantive public issue from the perspective of traditional Christian teaching. We never hear publicly from them at all, it seems, except on behalf of putative refugees and other favourite causes advocated and advanced by the likes of the ABC. In my experience that which actuates those clergy is more often leftist ideology and personal disposition than their faith.
The Left prescribes the causes and issues about which such clergy are permitted to declaim (and proscribes those about which they must always be silent) and those in charge within the churches simply do as they are told. It has been so in the West since the end of the Second World War. Thus in the Sixties the Church had much to say publicly about the “alienation of youth”, for example, and invariably what churchmen said and did served only to hasten the loosening of the ties of social custom on sexual and other modes of self-gratification among the young. No group in the last quarter of the last century hawked fashionable grievance, faux and otherwise, more assiduously than clergymen. It seemed that no modish or experimental leftist enthusiasm during the last fifty years — be it abolition of the death penalty, heroin injecting rooms or global warming — could be implemented without being accompanied by ecclesiastical benediction.
But how often in those years was abortion publicly condemned by a bishop or a minister of religion? Even as abortion changed from being a desperate and shameful last resort of the few to to the bloody feminist rite and cult it is now, who in the Church called it out for the evil it is? The answer: very few, and those that did spoke from the pulpits of moral authority sotto voce.
As television and radio and theatre were befouled with coarse and profane language, with portrayals of rutting men and women (and now rutting men and men), and as our public storytelling became hostile to all that was pure, self-sacrificing and heroic, our schools’ raison d’etre changed from that of impressing on young minds a faculty for discerning the good and the beautiful to perpetuating infantilism. While all of these things were happening in nations of Christian origin, such as Australia, the Church was silent and tractable and yielding.
Who of my generation (I was born in 1958) remembers their church, or anyone else’s church, being part of Faith’s redoubt in these long years of civilisational unravelling? The aforesaid Festival of Light rally with Muggeridge, which I wagged school to attend, was organised and led by lay people, just as the Australian Christian Lobby is today. It was Bob (“goodbye until next week”) Santamaria and his falange, whether in the form of the Movement or the National Civic Council, who took the fight to atheistic communists in the unions and the universities and the press. Elsewhere in national life, the fight was always left to organised individual Christians, as it is to this day.
When I refer to the Church I speak of the body of the faithful in Australia and each and every church and each and every believer within that church as it manifests itself in public life. Like any other collective entity it will be known primarily through those who purport to speak on its behalf — its leaders and those deputised to make its beliefs and principles known: bishops and ministers and priests and pastors and synods and councils. If the members of a congregation or a diocese were to say that their priest or their synod does not represent their beliefs, I would ask them what they have done to replace them with someone who does represent their views. If they have been too timid or indolent or busy with other matters to confront their spokesmen, their church will be rightly judged by those whom they have permitted to speak for them. It is the same for a church as for a political party or a company or a school.
OUR NATIONAL identity has been — still is — pro tem Anglo-Saxon, so naturally enough the Church has spoken in national life principally through the Catholic, Anglican and Uniting churches. And if those spokesmen have for the last 50 years been increasingly wet, wetter and wettest then that is inevitably how the Church is perceived by the nation as a whole. Children in the public education system have been sedulously quarantined from encountering the Christian faith since kindergarten and now know Christianity only through its public face. At home, they were likely denied any religious orientation. Imagine growing up with the impression that the Church is peopled only by folk like the homicidal vicars of Midsomer Murders, the species of clergy permitted by the ABC to appear on Q&A or, to cite a particularly gruesome example, of the churchgoing Kevin Rudd. That is the image conjured because the Church itself is too cowed and flaccid and spiritless to show them better examples.
The Church receives millions of dollars from governments to administer homeless programs and other causes, administering children-at-risk domestic violence initiatives, but such income has come at the cost of infiltration by the leftist spirit of the age. Kids would benefit more, I suggest, from the core teaching of the Church being proclaimed uncompromisingly and confidently to their parents and their households.
But the coming year will perhaps see the beginning of the end of the era of the Great Appeasement. That is my hope as we prepare to celebrate on December 25 — another and more ancient anniversary than the one with which I began this essay. It is clear as this year ends that the Left and Labor Party here and in Britain, the Democrats in the US, Greens in every Western country, plus Google, Facebook, Hollywood and Twitter, the UN, ABC, along with the GetUps and ActUps and ShutUps mean to do Christianity to death. By that I mean they will seek to persecute, bankrupt and legislate the Christian faith so far into the scribbled marginalia of our culture that it will never be noticed again. When a cleric stands up, expect a public burning and show trial even when conducted in camera. In Australia, the frenzied opposition of the Left to the wan Liberal initiatives to implement the modest Ruddock “protections” of religious freedom betokens what it will do in government.
The Church which has refused to defend its faith for so long will find it much harder to refuse to defend its people as their freedoms are taken from them.
Here beginneth the lesson — a lesson that will be administered good and hard if the Church does not rediscover and reanimate its militant spirit.