Moderator's Comments - Posted 1 May 2017

If ever we could have considered the church to be a core part of Australian culture (and that’s not at all certain), the Christian church is now being slowly edged to one side. It is increasingly less mainstream.

Have you noticed though that there are key moments in the year’s calendar and certain elements of our culture where we’re let back in? It’s strange, but true. Consider:

  • the church continues to be offered chaplaincy opportunities in sporting clubs, emergency services and community-service groups – places where ‘the Rev’ is still respected;
  • Carols on the Lawn is making a come-back and churches are taking the lead and offering to gather on council parkland with singing and preaching at this significant pre-Christmas event.

And then … there’s ANZAC DAY, that’s just past – which is not going anywhere. In memorial parks and around town cenotaphs across this nation, the crowds continue to grow. ANZAC DAY memorial services mean something to the average Australian. And church leaders are invited to lead and speak into the occasion.

Why is this? Why are we allowed back into the mainstream when it comes to pain and suffering, to grief and mourning? Of course, it’s something to do with the rawness of it all. In that rawness, emotions are frayed and because of vulnerability there is a yearning for answers of spirituality … for the dimension to the discussion that’s beyond ourselves – outside and above our frailty.

Wartime brings heartache at many levels. For those who fought the battle and for those who died, the pain and suffering is obvious enough. But also there are families separated, loved ones waiting, friends and neighbours traumatised.

ANZAC DAY allows reminiscences, it allows senior members of the family to pass down the story. This is my family’s story.

My uncle David died in the war, drowned at sea in a RAF accident off the Norway coast. It was a terrible blow to my grandfather, the CoE parish minister at Longditton (Surrey).

David, the elder of two sons, college organist at St Edmund Hall, Oxford, was called up and joined the RAF Coastal Command. Along with hordes of other evacuees, during the second year of the war David Wilson was posted to Cambridge to learn to fly Tiger Moths.

He graduated to Lockheed Hudsons, and often confided in my father about his close shaves, along with the order: ‘now, keep this from mummy’. One day he came down so low to attack a ship that he had to lift a wing to clear the masthead. His plane was so badly shot up that it was U/S (unfit for service) for two months. He’d say that ships were nasty things to attack because they bristled with guns. One day he told my father that he was about to be commissioned as an officer, again demanding secrecy. On his next leave, he wanted to appear at home in his officer’s uniform as a complete surprise.

But it was not to be. A short while after, my grandparents received that dreaded telegram to say that he was ‘missing’, and this was followed by a letter from his squadron leader: ‘David is presumed killed during air operations off Norway, 20 April 1942.’ They had to wait a further three months before a letter came from the International Red Cross saying that his body had been recovered from the sea and buried in Norway. A photo of his grave was enclosed. King George VI sent a letter of condolence.

The period of waiting caused my grandparents much grief, and exacerbated a duodenal ulcer condition in Grandma. Grandpa found it difficult to express grief, having been brought up to control himself and to keep a stiff upper lip. But it had to come out somehow and one day a parishioner found him in Cinder Lane in the backblocks of Longditton crying his heart out.

The war years took their toll on my family, and when it was over, my grandparents were completely worn out. But when duty called, they rose to the occasion. In parish work, there were unprecedented opportunities. My father remembers going round during the air raids ‘with Daddy and Colonel Thompson’, visiting each shelter and greeting the people huddled there with the love of Christ and a Word from the Scriptures. The Colonel would say few words about the hope of the gospel, then they’d sing a hymn and my grandfather would pray. With shrapnel falling around them, this little mission team of three would then proceed on to the next shelter.

My father had a vivid recollection of mowing the lawn in the Rectory garden as a flying bomb suddenly appeared overhead, quite low, making a terrible noise. It cleared the Rectory and then cut its engine, diving right into a housing area two blocks away. My grandparents and my father went for their bicycles and rode to the disaster scene to see what they could do to help. A direct hit on a house had killed a mother and daughter. Damage to all other houses was severe, and an elderly woman returning to her home, on seeing the damage, collapsed into a fit. The man who’d lost his home and family came back from work and stayed the next few nights at the Rectory. The Bishop of Southwark came to church the following Sunday to preach on Proverbs 24:10 ‘If you falter in times of trouble, how small is your strength.’

My father told me this story in the context of his bigger message. Though he was saddened by what he saw, and his parents suffered so much, and his community in Surrey was traumatised, Dad passed this on to me to teach me about the sovereignty of God and to watch for what really matters. These were the twin perspectives I learnt from a man who dodged flying bombs, cheered the fearful and visited the bereaved. He said, ‘it’s not about our suffering.’ His twin lessons:

  1. World War Two wasn’t won because of superior might in battle, but because of the Lord’s higher thoughts and his sovereign will (and here Dad quoted Psalm 33) ‘No king is saved by the size of his army; no warrior escapes by his great strength. A horse is a vain hope for deliverance; despite all its great strength it cannot save. But the eyes of the Lord are on those who fear him, on those whose hope is in his unfailing love.’
  2. World War Two taught Dad about the sacrifice that really mattered. It was one thing for a soldier to lay down his life for another, BUT how much greater and how much more profound was it that the Son of Man laid down his perfect life for sinners such as you and me? On the back of war-time stories, Dad taught me, using Pauls’ oft used method of argument: “HOW MUCH MORE …”, that what really matters is that ‘Jesus was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.’ (Romans 4:25).

My father’s ANZAC DAY lesson for me was NOT to fear the one who could take this present life from me, but learn to fear the one who could take my soul forever (Luke 12:4,5).

So … are we mainstream or on the margins? Surely, it’s sometimes one, sometimes the other.

When we’re called into mainstream, let’s go for it and take the opportunity with both hands. We’d be wise to remember that every person is a spiritual being, created in the image of God. In every person there is a dimension, a capacity that we label ‘spiritual’. Here’s the opportunity for us, the Presbyterian Church of Australia to speak into this space.

Sometimes, it’s remembrance and memorial events. Sometimes it’s family feel-good moments like Christmas and Easter or Mother’s Day. But they are occasional. There’s also the continual opportunities such as ongoing community chaplaincy.

While we might be marginalised most of the time, that’s also OK, because then we know better who we are and what we stand for. But even then, when we least expect it, we can be called on by family, society or even our government. And we live in such a good country that permits free and open access to government lawmakers. For example, very recently, the State Moderator and I were given invitations to speak directly, on three distinct occasions, with the lawmakers of Victorian Parliament. We’ve enjoyed open and frank discussions with the Premier, the Leader of the Opposition and also with the Deputy Premier. Next month as Moderator-General I have the opportunity to speak with federal MPs in Canberra. In what other country does this happen?

No wonder Peter’s letter reminds us: ‘Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give a reason for the hope that you have’ (1 Peter 3:15).

John P Wilson

(Moderator-General, PCA)