Search This Blog

Thursday 31 October 2019

All Hallows Eve (Halloween)

It is October 31 and I've just been out for an evening walk. Along the way I encountered a great many gouls and goblins, witches and warlocks, ghosts and zombies, along with many a house decorated with cobwebs, spiders, and jack-o-lanterns.  The festival of 'halloween' simply did not exist in the Australia of my youth. The evening before November the 1st passed by simply as the evening before November the 1st. For a Baptist family in an almost entirely Anglo-Australian rural town there was, quite simply, nothing to be celebrated.

But 'Halloween' is now quite a big thing. Even in my home town. The change has come because of the power of global capital. There is a great deal of money to be made out of annual celebrations. And so the festivals of other countries - in this case, the USA - have now implanted themselves in the Australian psyche alongside the consumer festivals that were already here: Christmas and Easter, Mother's Day and Father's Day. The annual spend in richer countries around all these festivals is said to be so large that it is able to keep flagging economies going pretty much on their own. 

Of course, 'Halloween', just like Christmas and Easter, has its roots in a Christian festival that began early in the 4th century as a twin commemoration of 'all saints' and 'all souls'. Today, in the more liturgically catholic Western churches, All Saints is celebrated on November 1 and All Souls on November 2. 'All Saints' invites believers to remember and give thanks for the dead who have most clearly and consistently followed in the way of Christ, those who have most inspired others to imitate Jesus. 'All Souls' invites the same believers to remember and give thanks for all the baptised faithful who each, in their own very ordinary ways - and with varying quality! - also sought to follow Christ. 

The Christian festivals of the dead assume, following the teaching of St Paul, that the dead are really and actually dead. Their bodies have ceased to function, their hearts and brains have stopped entirely, and there is no longer anyone to talk to or communicate with. There is no surviving 'soul' or 'spirit' that has slipped into another metaphysical room or dimension, for the spirit - the essential character or personality - cannot survive without the body. All that is left of a dead person is the objects they possessed, their representation in word or image or textile and, most importantly, the precious memories of their loved ones and of God. But the person is simply no more. She or he has ceased to exist.

The consumer festival of halloween apparently finds this sober Christian realism just a little too dull. A more exciting story is apparently necessary to sell all those costumes and sweets. The halloween marketers have therefore revived certain northern European ideas about the dead still being alive in some sense: dwelling, perhaps, in another realm or dimension which can be accessed via certain rituals or on certain days (especially at halloween). One can therefore pretend to be such a dead person - a ghost or goul or zombie - or else one can pretend to be one of those who can help the living access the dead: a medium, a witch, a pagan shaman, priest or priestess. On the other side of the transaction one may pretend to be an ordinary representative of the living who is terrified of what the dead may do if they are not placated or bought off: you can offer a 'treat' - in pagan mythology an 'offering' or 'sacrifice' - to buy the dead's favour. In either case, the usefulness of this revived Celtic metaphysics to marketers is twofold. You can sell the appropriate costume to represent the unfriendly dead. And you can sell the remedy for encountering the unfriendly dead: lots of lollies and other forms of sugary candy. Genius really. And incredibly lucrative.

As the tiresome bore I probably am, I tend to avoid the consumer festival of halloween (along with those associated with Christmas, Easter and Valentine's Day). I am not inclined to fall for the consumer trick of creating a problem that buying a product will solve. Nor am I inclined to import a metaphysics of death that is entirely redundant to the Christian faith I hold dear. For me, and for Christians everywhere, the dead are dead. They survive only in our memories and in the memory of God. We can mourn their loss, we can give thanks for their influence in our lives, but they are no longer alive in any individuated sense. One day we shall all be resurrected, of course, the dead will be reanimated not as we were but as God intends us to be. We shall be different. The whole cosmos and we ourselves will no longer be ourselves in several crucial ways. The old will have gone and the entirely new will have arrived. We will have died to ourselves and become Christ. So whether it makes any sense to talk about being 're-united with our loved ones' except in the most general of senses remains an open question.

May your Hallowtide be blessed by the knowledge that God's love cannot be bought but is simply given, unconditionally.
Garry Deverell

Tuesday 22 October 2019

Garry's speech to the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne's Synod in Oct 2019

Mr President, I seek leave to speak to the motion now before us, Motion 20, ‘Next Steps for Reconciliation’.

The Anglican Church of Australia is a quintessentially colonial church. As the colony of Port Phillip Bay was being carved out of Kulin country in the mid 1830s, the local colonisers as well as those who set colonial policy back in London were overwhelmingly Anglican. Lord Melbourne, after whom this city is named, was Prime Minister. William Buxton, George Grey, Charles Grant and James Stephen, key policy-makers regarding the colonies, were also Anglicans. Collectively they were the kind of Anglicans, though, who assumed that genteel Britishness and Anglicanism were pretty much the same thing. Buxton’s Select Committee on the Aboriginal Tribes consistently conflated the promotion of British civilisation, including its newly commercial thirsts and desires, with the missionary spread of Christianity. 

Of crucial influence in the deliberations of the Select Committee were accounts of the Tasmanian frontier wars of the previous decade from Governor George Arthur and the soon-to-be bishop of Australia, WG Broughton.  Despite having little experience of Aboriginal life outside of Sydney, Broughton had presided over what historian James Boyce has called one of the ‘great whitewashes of Australian history’: the Van Diemen’s Land Government Inquiry of 1830 to consider the ‘origin of the hostility displayed by the black natives of this island’. This inquiry had infamously concluded that ‘acts of violence on the part of the natives are generally to be regarded, not as retaliating for any wrongs which they conceived themselves collectively or individually to have endured, but as proceeding from a wanton and savage spirit inherent in them.’ Against all the evidence to hand, the Inquiry reported that it was bad people – Aborigines and convicts – who caused the conflict in Tasmania. The more genteel classes were portrayed not as perpetrators but as victims, even though it was clearly their thirst for land and wealth – Aboriginal land and wealth – that caused the war.  Broughton repeated these conclusions in his evidence to the Select Committee on Aborigines. And the strategies of Swanson, Batman, Lonsdale and the many colonists that followed them here into Kulin country – a great many of them formally Anglican - were demonstrably inspired by Broughton’s plainly false assertions regarding my truwunnan ancestors.

What followed was nothing short of an apocalypse for the Kulin peoples on whose land we meet today. In the Victorian frontier wars that unfolded over the next 15 years, Kulin peoples were raped, murdered, shot, and poisoned in vast numbers. Their lands and seas were stolen. Their complex land-management systems and agricultural riches were destroyed, along with habitat and wildlife, by the arrival of sheep and cattle in their millions. And, when the wars were over, the survivors of this Armageddon were herded into church-run missions where they were forbidden to speak their languages, to practise culture, or even to work for a living.  The damage to this country and to those who had cared for it for upward of 80 thousand years, was nothing short of catastrophic, and Anglican policy-makers were at the heart of both why and how it happened.  

The ongoing effects of colonisation are now regularly reported by the Commonwealth’s Productivity Commission. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people remain in every way the sickest, poorest, and most disadvantaged people in modern Australia. The statistics make for horrifying reading. But I would like to remind you that we, the Aboriginal members of your church, are these statistics. We, like the apostle Paul, wear the marks of crucifixion in our hearts and in our bodies.  We, like Christ himself, are the scapegoats outside the camp who bear in our very flesh the sins of the nation.

This Synod has visited the question of justice for our people, and Anglican culpability in the destruction of our way of life, several times before.  The last discussion, in 2013 and 2014, issued in the creation of a Reconciliation Action Plan. At the request of the Archbishop, the RAP Group reviewed that plan at the end of 2017 and concluded that the RAP was unfortunately doomed to failure due to the vast gap between what it said it would do, and the resources allocated to actually do it. The Report of the Review  – tabled with AiC in February 2018 and now made available to members of Synod – argued that the diocese had entered the RAP process prematurely. Instead it asked that AiC consider how a mature Aboriginal voice might be appointed to the senior leadership of the diocese. For it remains the case, after all these many years, that there has never been a secure or tenured Aboriginal voice within the senior leadership of our diocese, nor in its schools and agencies; nor even in its theological colleges. Without a voice, we cannot call for mercy. Without a voice we cannot call for justice. Without a voice, matters of truth and reconciliation will remain a distant, and increasingly forlorn, hope.

When there was no response to the RAP Group’s report, Glenn Loughrey and I decided to convene a meeting of the Aboriginal clergy of the Province. Chris McLeod, the National Aboriginal bishop, agreed to chair the gathering.  Our discussions, which took place in August 2018, were very fruitful. We formed an Aboriginal Council of the Anglican Province of Victoria and prepared a Statement to Provincial Leadership which Glenn tabled, in person, at the meeting of the Provincial Council in November of 2018. In this statement, which has now been shared with the members of Synod, we outline clearly and concretely our aspirations towards a modest form of justice and gospel healing for our people. We also invite the bishops and other leaders of the Province into an ongoing conversation with us about how that might happen.  To date we have not received any formal response to our invitation from Archbishop in Council.

This motion therefore seeks the Synod’s support in eliciting a nuanced and considered response from AiC to both these documents. Apart from that response, reconciliation is effectively on hold in this diocese. The motion is before you. I so move.

The motion and the reports referred to in this speech can be downloaded in pdf form from