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St Peter's Day, Friday 29 June, 2007
The Most Reverend Philip Freier, Archbishop of Melbourne

I am delighted to be with you on this significant occasion as St Peter's celebrates its 160th anniversary. This parish has long been a benchmark for all that is held dear by those in the Anglo-Catholic tradition. Its liturgical and musical excellence has been matched by the quality of its preaching, and particularly the social action imperative preached from this pulpit by Canons Hughes and Maynard.

My first awareness of St Peter's, Eastern Hill was about 25 years ago. In the early days of my time as the priest at Kowanyama I spent some time in Cairns with a retired missionary teacher, Sylvia Card, to learn about her life at Kowanyama when it was still known as Mitchell River Mission. I spoke to her about her life as a missionary and how she had come to spend her working life in that remote part of far north Queensland. She told me that she was one of Father Maynard's 'penitents' and how she was inspired to offer her life for missionary service through the formation of her faith in this parish. Known as Sister Maud when she was in Melbourne, Sylvia Card was, for most of the time, the only qualified teacher at the Mission School. Arising from her Catholic spirituality, her motto for the school children was 'Work hard, Play hard, Pray hard'. In that distant place, far from Melbourne, St Peter's Eastern Hill had remained for her a spiritual home and exemplar of how she sought to live out her Christian life.

He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?' Simon Peter answered, 'You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.' And Jesus answered him, 'Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.' (Matthew 16:15-17)

Sylvia Card's life was the intensely personal response to the same question that Jesus posed to Peter, '... who do you say that I am?' Like Peter, Sylvia and all who are faithful Christians answer, 'You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.' This is the primary confession we make, that Jesus is Lord, and in those words recognise that through Jesus Christ it has not just become possible but has become a reality for us to enter into a relationship of love with the living God.

We need to recognize up front that Christian missions were in many regions of Australia the only form of kindness or benevolence that Aboriginal people experienced at the hands of whites. Most missions had twin goals that were evangelical and humanitarian—broadly reflecting the Two Great Commandments.

It is not surprising that missionaries who were European born, or of European descent, encountered the world of Australian Aboriginal people as strange and alien to their experience. Because of the devestation often wrought by earlier contact with pastoralists, miners or seafarers, the Aboriginal people that were brought into the life of missions showed all the signs of trauma that we would today associate with refugees or survivors of genocidal conflict. Aboriginal language proved difficult for many missionaries to learn and the Aboriginal hunting lifestyle drew people that missionaries often described as 'mission inmates' away from the missions into the bush.

We don't need a lot of imagination to see how in these conditions of frontier contact Christian missionaries usually sought to be a force of 'civilisation' with the Aboriginal people they contacted. This 'civilising mission' approach meant that there was a lot of effort put into replacing the hunter and gatherer lifestyle with that of the settled villager. Missions were formed as villages, gardens were grown to provide food—and work, like cattle raising, sawmilling, brick making or domestic arts, encouraged to replace the life in the bush. Often 'civilisation' was understood to be a necessary precursor to 'evangelisation'. In the same way because cultural change to the form that better reflected the European pattern was the norm, the isolation of children from their families was understood to be a useful means of speeding up these changes. Such changes were usually thought to be inevitable and compared with the treatment they were likely to receive from whites who weren't missionaries, even these interventions were often accepted as necessary by Aboriginal people themselves.

With this background you can see the challenges that faced a woman from Melbourne who left this parish in the 1950s to go to remote Far North Queensland.

Peter went out and followed him; he did not realize that what was happening with the angel's help was real; he thought he was seeing a vision. (Acts 12:9)

Our response to Jesus is like that today—one that is based on faith in this inner spiritual sense that God uses to draw us more closely to him, to his love and to his purposes. No amount of fact will convince a person who does not want to understand God or respond to his invitation to see his promise to all humanity in Jesus. Where fact and persuasion fail, faith remains as the means through which God reaches our hearts and lives so that we can know his purposes in Christ.

How do we then assert that what we say about God is worthy of belief? Are we in the situation like the one that the Pharisees said Jesus was in, namely of only having an opinion that is ours alone, unattested by anyone or anything else?

Last year I was involved in the preparation of a public statement about indigenous issues that I issued along with my Roman Catholic and Uniting Church counterparts in the Northern Territory as a contribution to the public discussion about the living and social conditions of Aboriginal people, especially in remote Australia. Among other things we said,

  • We call all in Australia who are engaged in this debate to recognise that the spiritual issues of identity and belonging must be dealt with and that human life cannot be reduced to merely material terms.
  • We urge the Australian people to approach these issues with the love for the neighbour and those who are different in the way that Jesus taught.

The day after the statement was released I was called by the producer of the afternoon drive show on the ABC radio. The producer went through the main points of how I saw the issues that had been raised and what the churches might do to improve the social circumstances of Aborigines. 'Of course you need to know that our core business is changing lives through the gospel of Jesus Christ', I told her. As she rounded off the discussion she said, 'What we really want you to talk about is what the churches are going to do, not that gospel stuff.'

For anyone used to reading the book of Acts you'll know that this is not something that has just arisen in our society. The ancient world and its Christian members well knew that many wanted their testimony silenced, that's why Peter was in prison. The energy behind the suppression of the gospel that the apostles Peter and John proclaimed increases between Acts 4:18 and 5:40, and explodes in 7:57 with the death of Stephen. Happily, this is unlikely to be the end of our witnessing in Australia even though the same escalation of hostility to speaking about Christ in the public domain is only too familiar in many countries around the world today. Even though I left the conversation with the radio producer with the agreement that the interview would take place live to air that day, I was not surprised when I was told that the interview had been cancelled. It was an interesting learning experience about the value of keeping what I might want to say live to air until the time the interview was to happen.

In its own way the response of people from those who opposed the testimony of the early Christians right down to our own day has been to nudge Christians away from speaking about Christ to something different. But we know that at its deepest basis our Christian faith is about the life-changing Gospel of Jesus Christ and that it is from this basis that we make our assertion that this message really is something to be taken account of.

For ourselves, we can't do much better than follow the example of Peter and John recorded in Acts 5:42, 'And every day in the temple and at home they did not cease to teach and proclaim Jesus as the Messiah.'

Sylvia Card's response was also deeply personal, a radical commitment to holiness and commitment to the worship of God in the litugical rites of the church. I think that this is demonstrated in these words she wrote advertising the Christmas worship at Mitchell River in 1967:

Christmass Confessions
Please come to prepare for Christmass.
At Christmass God was born to save us from our sins.
The Blessed Virgin Mother held God in her arms.
At Confession God cleanses us so that we may hold God in our hearts at Holy Communion.

Her spirituality with its commitment to personal holiness of life and radical commitment to being sent to proclaim the gospel is a clear consequence of the words in 2 Timothy 4:8, that we heard read to us earlier, 'From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.'

And so we move now to renew our commitment to God in Christ present in the Blessed Sacrament, and then to an agape, a splendid 160th anniversary feast. May both feasts strengthen us all in our Christian commitment, and specially the priests and people of this Parish Church of the City of Melbourne for your ongoing ministry. May we all be encouraged by words from the first letter of John with which I conclude:

Beloved, we are God's children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. (1 John 3:2)


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