Sacred Journey: Embracing a Passion for Life

Posted on | April 12, 2017 | No Comments

Sacred Journey: Ghosts from the Past

 sacred journey

Sacred Journey that Shaped my Manhood 

sacred journey

Searching for the sacred – for new … iterations of holiness in thought, word, deed and materials – was an increasingly challenging prospect and major preoccupation across the long 20th century. – The Architectural Review

Sacred journey is the binding theme of this recollection.  ‘The sacred journey is a human journey, lived with other people in an environment that shapes your either-or decision-making.’

The story that holds this was written almost 60 years after the events it attempts to describe.  Collecting and shaping these memories has been an unsettling experience with long-forgotten people and places flooding into my mind.  Many ghosts from the past have quickened my imagination. But they have also reminded me that death has claimed most of those ordained contemporaries. Five only I think are still living and several are frail. So, I must add gentleness and respect to memory.

My own life has been rich, full and without regrets. Life has not been solitary but always in community. It has teemed with people and challenging experiences. Even the false starts and mistaken choices have shaped a pathway of discovery.

In latter years at Moore College, Principal Broughton Knox once quipped that my intimate knowledge of generations of staff and students must die with me. ‘You know too much about us all’. So, as I write this memoir, I am taking care to heed that advice.   This account mustn’t be an excuse to settle old scores or to disclose what ‘confession’ has sealed.

This reflection is not planned as a history of past days nor is it autobiography. This is memoir, memories of the human-sacred journey that has shaped my manhood. In this story I must often be the actor standing off stage. The man is sometimes secondary to the journey.  I want to touch something inward and very personal, yet still open for exploration.

I am not taking my wounds with me. I am taking my awareness with me. I am taking that discontent and allowing it to help me choose something more in alignment with where I am now.’ – (David Ault recorded conversation with Ian Lawton).

Perhaps here is the best place to add that I have written frequently about aspects of my life on this website.  The highlighted dates that follow quotes will take the reader to several sites that explore the sense of ‘the sacred’ that has touched my life.

Some themes are here that I have never before spoken of.  Some theology also remains unexplored at depth so this site may yet go through further incarnations.  It will quickly be apparent that ‘God’ is for me a slippery unresolved notion.  My comments then are often in tension with my emotions and experiences.  I live with many charming and thoughtful elderly companions.  Small friendships have emerged but conversations rarely move beyond weather and arthritis.  Just occasionally conversation captures someone’s depth of life experience. All around, there is an undiscovered passion and purpose that shaped their human-sacred journey. So I ask for more than your indulgence.  I ask that you will challenge my meandering thoughts.  Please hold me in the passion of a friendship that can speak its truth.

When the heart is open to another, I am my true self and part of the great divine everlasting ‘whole’, the Ground of Being that unites our humanity. –  6 January 2015

When the heart is open to another is what I intend by the word ‘sacred’.  A long-ago encounter with the ideas of Rudolph Otto – The Sacred offered me a meaning for ‘sacred’ as being more about experience than about God.  I recall that Otto was speaking about religious experience.  That word ‘religious’ begs most of the questions.  My own life as priest has been ‘religious’. It was coloured by  distinctive liturgical and pastoral experiences.  These were always experimental.  They were ways of listening and responding to questions about life.  This was sacred journey into the heart and spirit of another.  And as a man who celebrates his humanity, it all folds together. Privilege and position open pathways for the priest but the signposts are in living one’s humanity. In learning to live with and for others you join with them in sacred journey.

The pointer on this pathway is self-realisation.  This shapes one’s sense of destiny.

Don’t be satisfied with stories, how things
have gone with others. Unfold
your own myth, without complicated explanation,
so everyone will understand.

The Essential Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks

This is best explored in community. To use the term that features in this text, we find our true selves in relationship with ‘the other’.  Philosopher Emmanuel Levinas taught me to cherish ‘the face of another’.  I understand by this, their living presence.  In such a context, the quality of life in relationship is vulnerability.  The other becomes present to me.  I learn to see the other as mirror of who I am and what I might become.  I and the other person are exposed to each other, we become vulnerably present.  This is the essence of what I mean by ‘sacred journey’.  I do not limit it, as Durkheim did, seeing sacred as separate, marked off, from the profane.  Instead as a profane man I live in a profane world. My destiny is bound always to ‘the other’.  In that relationship of vulnerability and responsibility I meet ‘the Other’.  Whatever else the word ‘God’ may mean, this connection is sacred journey: the ‘trace of God‘ is in the presence of ‘the other’.

Instead of promoting the disclosure of the sacred in the negation of the profane; [the Christian faith] makes dramatic the movement of  the sacred towards the profane. Instead of orienting us to the recovery of the eternal, it directs us more deeply into process and change. – Jose L. Gutierrez, ‘Thomas J.J. Altizer: On the Death of God Theology’.

Sacred Journey is Face-to-Face Encounter with the Other

Through face-to-face encounter with the Other, we learn to sense the sacred in people and situations.   This means we deal gently with ourselves and with those we meet.  We are on sacred ground where who we are and what we search to become is on display.  So, we learn to listen with imagination and compassion. 5 August 2015

Just weeks ago, I scribbled this reaction to a preacher’s words on ‘the narrow gate’ of entry into God’s kingdom:

The sacred journey follows the pathway of repentance.  Shorn of its sectarian limitations, repentance expands our perception of other people’s experience and circumstance. It opens up life’s most fundamental questions about how you see the world around you, how you listen to others and what value you place on them … As we practice repentance we cease allowing the people of the shadows to stay on the margins of our religion or our society. The Narrow Gate to the Sacred Path

Repentance is the ‘on-the-ground’ quality of what I intend by the term ‘sacred journey’. Repentance is more than denial, more than the hand-maid to holiness . Repentance is a pathway that sets us in close proximity to others. We regret our avoidances, our apathy to others’ circumstance, our irresponsibility and our self-centredness. Repentance bonds our destiny to ‘the other’. And the other in turn mirrors our hopes and anxieties.

Passion, impulsion and embrace are all border-crossings into another’s life and circumstance. They awaken in us an inner, deep listening and quiet still awareness. Beyond words, we name the nameless in ourselves and in the world we share. We are enlivened by ‘a renewal of our imagination, a transformation of the way we see the world’. Reflection written 2 February 2017 for those who will conduct my funeral.

This sacred journey has been my almost lifetime fascination. I sensed its outskirts as a small child.  I tried to focus my feelings when my family world seemed so chaotic. A while back, I wrote a recollection of emotions that overtook me when I was ten years old. I have told that story elsewhere but its refrain seemed worth re-stating here: there awakened in me a sense of hidden beauty and human possibility. Even at such a young age, I began to explore my own potential for discovery.

This book launch photo captured for me Stuart’s mazing and impressive dinner parties where on one occasion Gough and Margaret Whitlam were also in attendance.

School, with its violence and contempt, shaped a sense of despair. It was a profane world of loss. I accept that I am pressing the term ‘profane’. But school, certainly primary school, underscored for me that our childhood world was not just pro fanus ‘outside the temple’. There was no temple or sacred in view.  Primary school’s whole purpose seemed intent on subverting our sense of self.  It consigned me to failure and withered hope of achieving.  Even so, it could not diminish the sacred journey. One shining interruption of its High School tedium inspired my life with meaning. I met the sacred in another.  I pledged myself to be a man on his own search and surrender to the sacred.  This was a Jesus-story mediated by the 1950’s man of my hour, Stuart Barton Babbage, Anglican Dean of Sydney.  The sacred journey is a human journey, lived with other people in an environment that shapes your either-or decision-making.

Sacred Journey and Re-Aligning God

Believe me, it takes a lot of unlearning for most people, to unlearn the negative voices. That’s why human love and divine love really and finely operate together. They really do. They’re the same love at the end, they really are. You’re not ready for the shock and the elation of divine love if you’ve never let one person mirror you and believe in you and gaze at you.  (Richard Rohr recorded conversation with Ian Lawton)

I need to speak carefully here lest I distract from my meaning.  When I speak about re-aligning God I am not attempting to suggest one more ‘-ism‘.  I look back over my long life where sacred journey has explored commun-ism, calvin-ism, anglican-ism, the-ism, athe-ism.  And many other -isms than I need mention here.  Some of them have been grand awakenings. They have been signposts on the sacred journey.   Most of them have not lasted life’s distance.

When I speak here about re-aligning God in my sacred journey, I am not using the term as a way of either avoiding God or resiling into agnostic-ism.  The shadow of death’s tent falls larger every day.  There is no longer time for -isms or for game playing between atheism and theism.  To be absolutely honest, I have no interest in either.  What I do know is that the God-language I hear around me makes no relational sense.  I do not know how its slogans open life and guide vulnerability to the neighbour. In this stage of life I have no option but to realign my own engagement with God.

It does seem quite clear that within the early Christian “spectrum” there was an exceptionally wide range of traditions and practices. This diversity was not only tolerated but encouraged and embraced. Christianity was not a single, monolithic tradition handed down from one leader to another in succession; it was diverse and multi-faceted with many dispersed centres of power. Robert Black, The Gospel of Judas Revealed

Mostly I avoid defining myself – but if you pushed me very hard I would call myself a Jesus-person. Push me a little harder around some of the assertions I have been making in memoir. You will get the drift that I am very uncomfortable with God language. I feel the need here to be open and to say plainly that I do not believe in God.  I seek to live in God.  I am not trying to be shocking or heretical.  I certainly am making no commitment to atheism. The Bible story is about God-in-action not about some ancient punitive sky God.   The Bible story is a conversation aimed at capturing human imagination. Its energy is about the divine life that works in us and in our relationships.  Read with that focus, the heart-beat of the Jesus story is about vulnerability to ‘the other’.  As soon as I see this, I am committed to ‘re-aligning God’.

Back in the 1960s I received an invitation to speak at a parish house party. As we gathered for conversation people opened up experiences they had of a mysterious inner sense of family and neighbours either dead or distant. Instead of offering a rational explanation I listened.  Then we each listened to one another. Slowly we came to ‘see’ that what even then had happened to all of us in this conversation was a new sensitivity to life. We shared a group mourning for what each individual had lost. The seeing was our moment of enlightenment.

I recall those same experiences with street people. It would have been easy to analyse their failings and offer judgments on their life styles. But when we listened, we saw something fresh, beautiful, courageous – something enlightening. And yes, let me now say this to you, this was our moment of seeing God. And it was an awakening to resurrection.  For me, these were profound moments of re-aligning God.

The face of God is passing shadow.  The face of neighbour is mirror to my uncovering. – from scattered thoughts of 28 March 2017

The words we too easily overlook in our Bible reading are the verbs ‘to see’ and ‘to touch’. Their meaning is part of our everyday experience. After struggling to understand something, the patient persistence of another leads us to suddenly say ‘I see’. No we didn’t just look at something, we saw it for the first time. We were enlightened, awakened to fresh possibility.  Our inner sensitivity was charged with new understanding.  Life took on a whole new direction: we see. We reach out of our isolation and loneliness and feel the presence of someone. We carry that presence with us and sometimes we sense the smell of hair, skin and clothes. They are a fresh reminder of care, consideration, love, compassion: we touch and are touched.

The late 1950s were my beginning years in ordained ministry.  In a sequel to this chapter I write my memoir of that first ministry at St Philip’s Church, Eastwood, NSW.  By the 60s I was teaching on the staff of Moore, Sydney’s theological college.  I was also entering marriage and new family life.  The religious culture of the times spoke of an intimacy with God that anticipated personal growth in holiness and revival.  But death and genocide in the years before and since speak only of bodies maimed and life treated as valueless. How could we trust a universal abstract loving among generations of universal tragedy?  The death of the God of covenant and election after Auschwitz’ is a persistent challenge in the face of almost constant genocide.   The devastation wrought by genocide demands our re-aligning God.  Maybe for a generation we should press other terms to our use and language.  Judaism and its forebears have done this successfully since biblical times.

Here is the voice of the Nameless. ‘Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”  God said to Moses, “I am who I am (or I am what I am, or I will be what I will be אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה).  And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I am has sent me to you.’”’ – Exodus 3; 12-14

Sacred Journey has a Radical Edge

The sacred journey has a radical edge.  It leads you into uncertain territory.  We meet truth and see beauty where we never expected it.  If, like me, your life has been shaped by Christian teaching, your sacred journey is inspired by the values of Jesus.  Here is some of his central teaching: ‘I am the way, and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’.  I am not trying to second-guess your beliefs or interpretations of bible themes. These words may have provided you with a lifelong conviction about the centrality of Jesus in your life. Indeed that sentiment is central to my own sense of being Christian. But do you perhaps share with me an awkwardness when you see beauty and hear truth from other sources?  Implicitly you face life’s radical edge.

We had moved with our three small children into a tenement in a back street of Newtown. Opposite, the parents and children lived in a derelict house, the electricity long ago disconnected. Two teenagers, the girl heavily pregnant, were renting just below us and regularly brawled in the street – he chasing her with threats of a beating.   Two doors the other side, the neighbour could remember the Les Darcy bare-knuckle fight and the dairy in King Street and the creek that still ran under our house. I was leaning over the fence – as you used to do in those inner city days – tut-tutting about last night’s very dramatic brawl. She responded quietly ‘To know all is to love all’ and changed the subject. But the words changed me from critic to carer. She had spoken the truth to me.

You could multiply that story. You could tell me a hundred ways about people who have shown you opportunities and truths that added to your life. And because, like me, you bring a huge experience of life’s variety, you have seen and followed the way of other religions, values and human endeavours. You have taken to heart the insights of gurus, scientists, historians, poets and artists.  They have awakened you to actions and values that, for want of any better word, you call the truth. The sacred journey for each one of us has been a discovery of life’s richness.

I am not urging anyone to abandon Jesus’ words.  Focus with me on where they are found in John’s Gospel text.  He reminds us that ‘to dwell in the Father’s house’ is to live by the commandment to love each other. We should acknowledge the spirit that links us to God and each other. What more is this than to honour the human face? With all my own awkwardness about God talk, this is a text with a radical edge. In his lifetime, Jesus claimed to do the works of God. In our lifetime the spirit of life awakens us to the works of God. None of these are miracles or religious busyness. They are the everyday seeing and honouring the human face.  Whatever else we may wish to believe about God, the works of God are where we meet God.

God is not so much present as presence itself, the infinite space of presence that includes all possibilities. (Richard Rohr recorded conversation with  Ian Lawton)

Sense the meaning of God as embrace, God as generosity, God as compassion. Then add the human face, always add the human face. When we talk about God we are not dealing with abstractions. Jesus said, if you want to see God, then do God’s works, just as I have done God’s works. When you see and follow me, said Jesus, then you see way and truth and life in action. These actions are our sacred journey into God.

Lead us there where step-by-step we may feel
the movement of creation in our hearts.
And lead us there where side-by-side
we may feel the embrace of the common soul.
Michael Leunig

Sacred Journey as Either-Or Decision Making

The sacred journey is a human journey, lived with other people in an environment that shapes your either-or decision-making.  It has taken me a long, long time to reach this conclusion.  The journey – my sacred journey – sometimes stumbled through the changing times of the post 1950s.  These were years when God was on trial, not by the forebears of the new atheists like Hitchens and Dawkins and Harris, but from leadership in theological institutions.  The very sense of belonging in the Christian community seemed under threat.  But, at the same time, it also signalled release.  We learnt then to think in new ways.  The sacred journey was about either-or decision-making.

The religious press of the 1950s was a mixed bag of belief in progress and fear at the threat of renewed warfare. There was a strong sense that we were standing on the edge of social change. Some of the articles in the 1950s religious press anticipate that the 1950s were not an end but a beginning.  This certainly affirmed my own sense of entering a new world of ideas and challenging decisions.

By the 60s, a theology of the death of God was beginning to make its impact. God died in and for the Godself at the crucifixion.  The words are mine.  They shape around a vast post-Bonhoeffer theology. They are explored more competently than this memoir or my capacity can manage in the radical ideas of scholars such as Jürgen Moltmann, Slavoj Zizek and Thomas Altizer.  Zizek and Altizer push me towards a radical-ism I can read with appreciation – but this is not my sacred journey.  I do not need the conflict between the-ism and athe-ism.  I does not any longer interest me.

Inwardly and emotionally I am left with Jesus – Jesus only, the man who would die and by that death tell us that life can be lived courageously with and for the other.  If I am to know God then I must somehow touch the God presence in my daily journey with ‘the other’.  Experience keeps pointing to ‘the other’ as the place where I might discover, beauty, hope, courage, love and faith of sorts – all qualities and actions of God.  But the world in which I live will not allow simple decision-making.  Ethical alternative complicates every day.  This marks out the best days of my life’s sacred journey.

In this either-or sacred journey I am compelled by a sense of transcendence.  This demands a fresh search for words to describe emotions, relationships, experiences, belonging.  I feel fortunate to have embraced religion, in its various manifestations.  It offers words and images that themselves are part of the long history of humans searching for transcendence. These words conjoin with art and ritual. They link me to other people and to my environment. They teach me that life is always and has always been about intersecting with ‘the other’.

It is the nature of religions to decay and become limiting, fixated with context and tribe. This is their presage of death. The very violence they portray demonstrates their fallibility. But we go on, searching not for ‘God’ as dogmatic abstraction but for fresh words, rituals and relationships that open us again to transcendence.

Sacred Journey Celebrates the Labour of Human Hands

What holds us is a sense of ‘otherness’. Sometimes I reflect on the many hands, the variety of people and circumstances, the labour and change that shape the life I live.  Daily experiences of life remind me that I belong with that ‘other’.

This is the social reflection of what ritual and words demand of me when I share Eucharist. Here is bread and wine, symbol of the basic substance of life. I say of them ‘body’ and ‘blood’ not because of some distant exchange at the hands of the priest but because priest and I, in this experience of memory and ritual, celebrate ‘the labour of human hands’.

We take bread made by many people’s work,
from an unjust world
where some have plenty and most go hungry.
At this table all are fed and no one is turned away.

We take wine made by many people’s work,
from an unjust world
where some have leisure and most struggle to survive.
At this table all share the cup of pain and celebration
and no one is denied.

These gifts shall be for us the body and blood of Christ,
our witness against hunger,
our cry against injustice,
and our hope for a world
where Justice is fully known
and every child is fed.
Brian Wren © in Robbins, Wendy, ed., Let all the World, London: USPG, 1990.

Transcendentally, I link dramatically with a universal ‘Other’. My private sacred word for this is God, not as person, not up there, but in and with every ‘other’. When I think of God, which is more often than when I speak of God, I sense not noun but verb – not name but action.   ‘God traced in the face of another person that testifies to God’s having passed this way.’  In my struggle to realign God, I sense not God’s death so much as God’s trace.  God is absent as every day life tells us.  But the trace of God remains.  Emanuel Levinas puts it this way:

‘To be in the image of God does not mean to be an icon of God, but to find oneself in his trace … He shows himself only by his trace as it is said in Exodus 33 “You will see my back parts, but my face you will not see while my glory passes by”.  To go toward Him is not to follow this trace which is not a sign; it is to go toward the others who stand in the trace of illeity‘ (Totality and Infinity, p359).

Faith is a return response, as discovered in learning to celebrate difference, multiplicity, connection and growth in relationship. This is the sacred journey.

Sacred Journey is the Human Journey

Much of what I have written here runs deeply in my being. Some, I acknowledge, is later reflection. That means aspects of this were written as a first attempt to be honest about what faith means to me. Some of the conclusions have surprised me. A word captures my imagination. A  memory awakens. I am running a race along a rocky path. I am dabbing a canvas with paint, not sure which face will emerge.  Each time I have returned to this text I have felt driven to sharpen its content.  Every hint of fudging over this sacred journey has demanded radical redress.  This assessment of the long human journey has compelled me to see life and death and the ‘other’ more openly.  And in writing this, dogma, prejudice and uncertainty about the ‘self’ peel away.   It is like watching the ‘scarlet vesture of the morning’ from within ‘as the beginning of life‘.

At this very point of reflecting and writing, the phone rang. The voice at the other end introduced himself. He spoke about long past connections. And then he added these words, recalled and written down from the 80s when he was theological student and I a lecturer at Moore College:

We have nothing more precious to give than a willingness to see the best in one another, to speak words of affirmation and gratitude, to lend a helping hand, to look out for each other, in other words to extend grace – to offer where we can, yet another experience of that beautiful biblical word so full of acceptance and promise.

sacred journeyIt surprised me that he had remembered and recorded this. But it confirmed for me that the root of ideas I have been here expounding were already germinating thirty, even forty years before. And this drove me back to a parish teaching series I had given at Christ Church Gladesville in the early 70s. The same concept was there, just hanging not developed. What was it that charged this, brought this to the surface? I think it must have been the stint with the Bush Church Aid Society in the Gascoyne district of Western Australia. It dawned on me that memory of events and ideas from so long ago had more substance than whimsical imagination.  So long back, the priest had to discover his manhood and make manhood his sacred journey.

Those decades have offered such variety in values, lifestyle and belonging. And over those decades I had been steadily absorbing them. At the same time, I had been immersed in the culture and way of belonging that classic forms of Christianity offered. Every Sunday Matins we celebrated in Quadruple Chant our community with ‘the glorious company of the Apostles … the goodly fellowship of the Prophets … the noble army of Martyrs … the holy Church throughout all the world.’

It was truly another world.  It sang the melodies and desires of another age. How profoundly I miss it. But its regular rhythms passed with that generation. Only a perverse stretch of imagination could link this with the radically changing world of politics, values and social cohesion. It left me a man in turmoil, living the changes of the post 50s but hesitantly searching for self-affirmation in religion. Liberal Christianity was urgent about social action. Even in the small parish world I was about to enter you could not miss the impact of Alan Walker’s Mission to the Nation. Subsequently in the 1960’s Walker was instrumental in founding Lifeline. Here was a form of religion deriving from ‘W E Sangster and Leslie Weatherhead … and the influence of William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury’.  It caught my attention but only for a short while.

Walker offered mission on the grand scale but it translated awkwardly into local church relationships. In Eastwood, that tiny speck of Christian ministry I was about to enter, the local Methodists ‘owned’ Walker and made much of being ‘occasional conformists’. At Easter and Christmas they were willing to break their pattern of isolation and join in the Anglican Communion Service. Beyond this, there was limited interaction. The Methodist youth group developed the church’s long musical tradition and into the 1960s settled into stage productions. This was a universe away from the evangelistic focus of the Anglicans and the Baptists. By 1959 the Billy Graham Crusade ensured local denominational isolation and incoherence in relationships.

I was both fascinated and repelled by the Graham Crusade. At Bishop Loane’s suggestion I joined him in the tally room to listen to Graham and then to assist in collecting details of referrals. Just watching was an overwhelming experience. I had never seen crowds like this at a Christian gathering. The singing led by George Beverly Shea was uplifting and infectious. People came forward at the appeal in breathtaking numbers. Graham’s address seemed so ordinary and so sentimental – but his energy, his persona was immense.

This evangelistic interlude took me by surprise and made me reconsider a plan begun and then abandoned. The new intake at Moore after the Crusade had many Graham converts. I loved teaching them and so settled into my role at Moore for the next three years.  But talking with those students revealed their difference.  Christianity was new to many of them.  Graham was their first serious Christian contact.  Anglicanism – well Church of England – was their best boat to fish from.  They were Evangelical but not pietist.  Perhaps it is better to simply call them Gospel men and women.  They brought a fresh spirit to Moore and a fresh energy to evangelism.  And many of them thought outside the square.

Moore College saw an unprecedented 44 male enrolments in 1960, and a record 104 total students in 1961. Every female student enrolled at Moore in 1961 had either attended or been converted at a Billy Graham Crusade. Doris LeRoy, ‘Anglicanism, Anti-communism and Cold War Australia’, p.374.

There is an interesting 2009 Guardian article that sets the Graham Crusade well into the context that I have been describing:

Harvey Cox and Gabriel Vahanian, began from the belief among sociologists at the time that an inevitable process of secularisation was at work, leaving religion on the margins of the social structure. Cox embraced the prospect of a “secular city,” one infused with a renewed Christianity, freed from the dogmatic and institutional trappings of churchiness. Vahanian, in his 1961 book The Death of God, decried the bland religious revival that the likes of Billy Graham and Norman Vincent Peale had carried out in the 1950s as “domesticated” and its God, as actress Jane Russell then put it, “a livin’ doll.” He sought a new kind of faith that would tolerate no such impostors.

I do not need to subscribe to the interpretation set out here.  I simply acknowledge that the Graham Crusade changed the internal structure of Sydney Anglican theological teaching.  The College became more open to alternative theologies and praxis.  At Principal Knox’s urging I read Karl Barth’s multi volume Dogmatics and everything I could find by Emil Brunner. I started on the smaller studies by Tillich and stayed my own piety with Helmut Thielicke and Barth sermons.  And then there were those amazing and challenging theological and liturgical studies from the Church of Scotland.

Donald Robinson, Vice-Principal urged on me (us) Oscar Cullmann’s Christ and Time and C H Dodd‘s interpretation of Christian history.  There was also that challenging and deeply disturbing study onsacred journey Ekklesia (Church) by K L Schmidt.  For our entire time in College we wrestled with his ideas. I agonised through their application to Sydney Diocese.  Broughton Knox pumped our imagination with Gustav Aulen’s Christus Victor and Anders Nygren’s Commentary on Romans.  This was Swedish Lutheran insight into atonement and justification.  Its radical teaching stays with me to this day. It excited me so much that I learnt by heart the first 8 chapters of the Greek text of Romans.  And yes, we read Calvin’s Institutes along with much of Luther.  We moved out of the Synoptic problem into Form Criticism.  And all the while I was being encouraged to finish my London BD and to think forward to research – yes at Princeton – with Bruce Metzger on the text and canon of the New Testament.  All this kept my sacred journey focussed on discovery.  And Moore College was at the heart of this.

If reading this looks menu-like, just another list of obscure books and ideas, then take a moment to awaken the coloured cross-referencing. Each note will take you to the original source and sometimes explanation. The essence of what I am saying here is that the Moore College senior staff of the late 1950s and early 1960s were researching biblical theology outside its traditional narrow pietism. We were being taught to be interpreters. We were encouraged to look beyond the accepted and conventional. In those years I embraced Broughton Knox as friend as well as mentor. When I strayed into the extreme, tighter world of Reformed theology Broughton lent me his own studies on those themes.  Yes, he also changed through the 70s and 80s. Increasingly brittle. His Platonic method of teaching faltered because he couldn’t invite student response. But by then he had set me on a different path.  When his own loss of position was confirmed, he spoke his heart to me.  To say more would be to transgress a 30 year closed conversation.

This recent comment by a student of eighties confirmed my recollections:

The first two years were especially precious. These were the final years with DBK and I found him playful and stimulating. I most appreciated the diversity he encouraged on the staff – and your presence was key. It gave students like me permission to think outside the box. You felt free to articulate reservations about substitutionary atonement and ‘being tired of Bible study’. I felt very free to roam and to read widely. – 24 April 2017

When the contemporary so-called disciples of Broughton Knox, celebrate his memory and his final reactive years as their teacher, why does no-one write about this?  I mustn’t turn my comments into diatribe, but these were years of celebration.  Yes, yes, I recall walking out of a Knox organised public address by South African Prime Minister Dr Malan.  I remember vividly my outrage at Donald Robinson’s Zionism and his support of the visit to Sydney of the Fred Schwarz Christian Anti-Communist Crusade.  But the Evangelical Union at Sydney University also had some irritating speakers – two whistling evangelists whose names slip my memory.

All this was Evangelical authority figures locked into the political backwash of their parents’ generation.  When you sat under these people, and then worked closely with them, you learnt to divide their past from the present.  No, you do not forgive or forget their stances on apartheid, their support of Zionism and their fixation with patriarchy. But they were not alone in this – read the archives.  Indeed, simply trawl through the relevant pamphlet boxes at Moore College and shape your own judgement.  They suffered the prejudices of their age just as we do.  I sat close by and shared their excitement of exploring the fascinating new world of ideas.  My sacred journey has taken me in another direction but I value their companionship on part of it.

In a way Billy Graham was an inspiration.  He broke totally with this backward looking Christian triumphalism.  The excitement of the post-Crusade caught me by surprise.  When finally the God is Dead movement hit the pages of the popular press, a crowd of us could step into this new world and discover new energy for mission and evangelism and pastoral care.  We were released from the drudgery of theological repetition.  We were men and women forging our own sacred journey.

All this makes clear that what had dropped from my view was the prospect of joining the Benedictine Order.  Perhaps for reason of contrast a brief telling may more dramatically highlight the sudden changes of those years.  During 1957 I had promise of a house in Surry Hills. I only needed another postulant for something to get moving. But the plan whimpered out. Still, some Sundays I slipped away from the parish church and joined the rearguard Catholics at Christ Church St Laurence. What carried from here to later years as teacher at Moore was an emphasis on Incarnation.  This may have temporarily been distracted into Calvinism but the story of God in the flesh and human encounters with Jesus kept relationship with ‘the other’ fully alive.  The sacred journey would remain a human journey expressed through social action.

sacred journeyAs soon as I heard of the Rector’s illness and his incarceration somewhere in the Blue Mountains, I put up my hand for St Saviour’s Redfern. In those ancient days high rise had not invaded Young and Morehead Streets.  Houses in various stages of collapse signalled the old Redfern.  Many of the residents were elderly and remembered their equally older days at St Saviour’s.  It had been Anglo Catholic on the grand scale. Some of the service was in Latin. An Italian marble aisle drew the worshippers movement and eyes to the church’s dominant East end and reserved sacrament. There the altar was a grand structure atop seven marble steps – a very high altar indeed.  It was one of the last chasuble churches in the Diocese of Sydney.  The priest cassock dressed visited the houses opposite.  Many remembered him and many remembered the diocesan destruction after his death.  Today the interior of the church is a shadow of what it was. The inner wreckage is still evident – or was when I last visited there for John McIntyre’s funeral.

When I arrived, the famous organ was groaning its last sounds.  Water damage finally ended its life.  White ant riddled the woodwork and the pulpit in particular.  Someone told me that the Rector used to lock the doors and preach to name cards where parishioners might have sat.  On some evenings he was reported as shooting at the inside nesting pigeons.  I never tried to find the truth of this.  Certainly however the white ant pulpit invasion was so intense that Evening Prayer had to be held outside under the footpath lamp post.

This long reminiscence re-awakened in me the commitment I felt back then for face-to-face ministry. As priest and cassock dressed I visited door after door the houses opposite and in Baptist Street.  The cassock was a willing concession to the ancient past.  I gave communion to the elderly and dreamt of this becoming my parish. Numbers were growing, mainly from the Graham Crusade. They were young and anxious to win their neighbours for Christ. Despite the white ants, the conversations were electric and spiced with colour.  Everything could be talked about.  The language of their sacred journey had a large touch of their racy other-world. You could sense Jesus in the streets of his time and their’s. St Saviour’s Redfern offered a modern priest an opening for his own sacred journey.  It was the Benedictine dream dressed as contemporary search.  There were stirrings overseas about new ministry in the inner city.  I wanted the 1950s experiments about a new world of discovering hope and transformation to allow me to be part of that change.  The diocese had other plans.

But perhaps this is the moment to finish the Benedictine story.  It was last gasp from the past. The Benedictine scheme was locked into fear of where Sydney Anglicanism was heading.  It was old Catholic shock at newly re-emerging Calvinism.  As such, the plotting and planning showed that it was about offering an inwardly looking Catholicism as challenge to an inwardly looking Evangelicalism.  The unnamed financier of my Benedictine move had made this clear. The end of the Benedictine dream underscored for me that sacred journey began not in church but ‘outside the temple’ – not just pro fanus, but where the very sense of self often seems subverted. This is the world of Incarnation and Cross, the world of the ordinary and desacralised, where God took flesh and died (Giorgio Agamben, Profanations, Zone: New York, 2007, p.74-76). As I gained confidence, I would steadily bend my teaching at Moore to see history and theology through the lens of anthropology. I would expound the world of the ordinary as the place where the sacred journey must be explored.

The sacred journey is a human journey, lived with other people in an environment that shapes your either-or decision-making. ‘Outside the temple’ is where you make hard and ambiguous choices. There were three particular areas that challenged this beginning journey to the sacred.

The Sacred Journey: Viewed from the Left

Marx House

I remember watching police and federal officials ransack Marx House then at 695 George Street just by Ultimo Road. I felt passionate about the succession of political events that had led up to this. Back in the 40s, my mother’s brother Jim (James Murdoch) – on his account, a member of the Communist Party since 1917  (perhaps he intended 1920) – read me selections from T. E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom and encouraged my reading basic Communist literature including sections of the Tribune. I remember buying it at the local newsagent.  He extolled Soviet collective farming and exaggerated Stalin’s proletarian leadership. I became an admiring follower. By 14 I had my own small left-wing group at school.

We were living at Stanmore and I had recently started at Fort Street High, so I must have been 15. Thinking back over events, the date I want to focus on was the Federal Election, 10 December 1949. My mother’s eldest sister Norah and her brother Jim were both standing on opposite sides of Trafalgar Street, just by Stanmore railway station. Norah was handing out how to vote leaflets for the Liberal Party. Jim was on the other side of the road by the railway entrance, handing out how to vote leaflets for the Communist Party. They caught each other’s eye. I was standing alongside Jim when he shouted across the road ‘When the revolution comes, you’ll be first against the wall, my girl.’

Despite all the other dysfunctional aspects of my home life, politics was always close to the surface. My mother was outspokenly republican. At the Saturday movies, even in war years, she demanded we both stay seated while God Save the King was being played. No usherette with shining torch could move a woman who would shout back, ‘You and what army will make me stand’. Sigh! why can’t she be like everyone else’s mother. My father’s mother was Irish Catholic – and dad lapsed, but still when drunk, able to verbally fight the republican cause with a fair bit of anti-Semitism included.

I should add in passing that my mother’s second sister Truda (Gertrude) who also lived with us – as all the family did at some time or other – was a Catholic covert. She dropped my way a copy of J. Faà di Bruno’s book Catholic Belief  – a book I saw as by a bigot from a bigot. She pointed me to the Creed of Pope Pius IV, which repelled me even more than this aunt did. And yes, by then I was only 17 and just starting a journey with Anglicanism. I think she may inadvertently have helped me stay the distance.

This is all intended as more than rambling reminiscence. When I started church-going at age 17 – and not once in my life before that – this was the social baggage I carried with me. And what more contrast could there be than a Sydney suburban Oxford Movement-influenced parish church. The Rector lent me the Clarendon Bible series, Percy Dearmer’s The Parson’s Handbook and Herbert Wilson’s Haggerston Catechism. On 13 set times each year as a congregation we recited the Athanasian Creed.  I learnt by heart the Prayer Book psalms, the Collects and the Catechism and had my own copy of the Anglican Missal.  This was my total experience of Anglicanism. With no awareness of alternatives, I became a left-wing Anglo-Catholic, with the emphasis very strongly on left-wing and Catholic. Moore College, which I entered at not quite 21 years of age, initially came as a traumatic shock.

sacred journeyWhat settled in me then, and remains now, was a focus on Incarnation as meeting God in human social contexts. Interestingly one other book came my way that year and I read Leslie Weatherhead’s How Can I find God.  It had some lovely racy humour and easy reading style.  Here was my first serious step into a different view of theism and a different insight into atonement: I discovered the circumstantial will of God. The themes have never left me. After decades they shaped into an understanding – more than that an experience – of meeting the sacred in human encounter.

Sacred Journey: Meeting Jesus the Man

There is one more story that helped consolidate this. Stuart Barton Babbage’s Friday class at Fort Street was all about the experience of being unashamedly human. In the process he would remind us that in life we make many mistakes but it is always possible to turn back and start again. This formed the basis of his controversial Friday talks on sexuality. Circumstance was not an enemy but an agent of possibility. And so he told us that:

A Fort Street boy, on his way home from school, fell into a huge crater in the road. People from all walks of life and all sorts of beliefs gathered round to help and offer advice. Some spoke of fate, some of his stupidity, some of sin, some of the human condition, some of the opportunity to reflect on future prospects. But one man jumped down into the pit and lifted the boy out on his shoulders.

The analogy was clear. I didn’t need anyone to explain its theology. Earlier that year I had read Soren Kierkegaard’s Gospel of Suffering and his Either/Or. Now, that life goal became real for me: ‘By that way must I go, for by that way went he’. My sacred journey was to enter manhood by embracing a passion for life. That Other Man, incarnate and crucified, seemed to have stepped forward through the centuries offering his sacred path to discovery. I wanted to be a man like that Other Man.

Sacred Journey: Through Art, Discovery and Freedom

I was learning passion and commitment to something larger than myself. And the Korean War highlighted for the left-wing me the terrible cost of capitalist incursion into other people’s rights and struggle to control their own destiny.

But let me lighten this story to keep it personal. I recall it was winter and the year must have been 1958. With 12 to 15 others we had received call-up papers and were herded into the Scout Hall at East Ryde. I had successfully postponed this moment and so was fractionally older than the others. The room was cold, the conversation was raucous, the humour scatological. We shared the camaraderie of adolescents terrified at the war prospects lying ahead for each of us.

The officer in charge told us to strip off all our clothes and stand in one long line. We were to be medically examined. The experience would be etched in my memory. The embarrassment was more acute than the cold. With the adjutant taking notes, the officer clutched each person’s testicles. Right hand holding firmly he said ‘Name – cough’. That was it – that was the medical for our conscripted service to Korea. Next, dressed again, we went one by one to be interviewed in Akela’s den. And one-by-one he declared all of us to be medically unfit. He had known all along what we didn’t, that this was a charade. Conscription was about to be cancelled.

The waiting had made me ready to go but the relief at being excused was immense. In its own way, the experience made me ask myself more searchingly about the rights and wrongs of sending young people to war. At the beginning of 1959 the impact resurfaced in a small meeting room in St Andrew’s Cathedral.

In the hour before being made Deacon we took our many oaths. There were two oaths that troubled me – the oath of allegiance to the Crown, and acceptance of the Thirty Nine Articles of Religion. Yes, I already had issues about God in the first Article and atonement in the 31st Article, but the one that troubled me most deeply was Article 37: ‘It is lawful for Christian men, at the commandment of the Magistrate, to wear weapons, and serve in the wars.’

I recall Michael Eagle asking if we MUST take these oaths. Bishop Hilliard replied, ‘Nelson put his blind eye to the telescope – sign!’  That moment we all became complicit in Anglican duplicity. As a piece of private mockery some of us took oaths with fingers crossed behind our backs. We knew then that formal ministry would be about concession and compromise.  I think I recall – not absolutely sure of time and place – that in my mind the tune and words of The Vicar of Bray dulled the sound of the Bishop’s voice.

Having mentioned Michael Eagle, perhaps I should conclude this piece of mummery with a recollection of our priesting. As we were again filing into St Andrew’s Cathedral, Michael said softly to me – why me of all people – that he was wearing a stole under his cassock. He had rosary beads in his right pocket and a bottle of holy water blessed by the Bishop of Norwich and from the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in his left pocket. Maybe a spoof – but what a strange other-world that was in the late 1950s.

There was a silliness and seriousness about the whole exercise. Some of our year were distracted into holiness experience, some were wildly evangelistic, one I recall was absorbed by the writings of Jonathan Edwards and I for a short time trod the Benedictine path – before becoming an ultra-Calvinist. It is hard to confess that once-upon-a-time I marched to the discordant tune of supra-lapsarianism.  Do not pause to check the meaning: it was a folly better forgotten.  We left College to take our separate journeys. Some of us were bonded to ideas not to each other and only superficially to the denomination.  After ordination we met less and less frequently, each occasion highlighting our difference and dissonance.  But I have felt free to find another way, a sacred journey that helped me celebrate a shared humanity.

In the years that followed ordination, I have increasingly realised that Liturgy is not a rule but an art form. The Bible is not a rule-book but a window onto grace. Ministry is not sermon performance but a stimulus to serving others. And Church is a symbol of culture and a conserver of tradition not a trendsetter in cultural populism. Here with art, discovery, freedom, continuity and social justice I could pursue my search for the sacred.

All-life has been an upsurge of people, events and discoveries but now the twilight moves to a steady different beat, an anguish to be reborn and reborn. This shapes as a yearning for inner light, where the gods and goals of high ambition ground in that very human moment of self-discovery.  The sacred journey is a human journey, lived with other people in an environment that shapes your either-or decision-making.  4 January 2015. – a post-theist reflection

Bill Lawton

25 April 2017


sacred journey




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