The story goes that the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church was in solemn assembly discussing church vestments when the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution took to the streets of St Petersburg. It may well be apocryphal, but it is a story that haunts perceptive church people. They often fear they will get so caught up in internal religious issues that they miss really important matters confronting the wider community.
The St Petersburg story is resonating now within the Christian community, as some begin to realise the inherent dangers in the proposed anti-terror legislation. The Melbourne Anglican Diocese's social responsibilities committee has begun to talk through their concerns, while Pax Christi Victoria, the local branch of the international ecumenical peace organisation, plans to hold a forum about the legislation in Melbourne next Monday.
It would be so easy, though, for the churches not to get on board this particular issue. They are already fully stretched debating the industrial relations legislation. They are extraordinarily united in their concerns on that matter. After all, the churches are themselves major employers with their many parishes, agencies, schools and other affiliated bodies. They understand employment issues.
And they are concerned about the impact on family life - the bread and butter of contemporary church discourse. Not to mention the impact a totally deregulated workforce will have on traditional Sunday worship and the great Christian festivals.
The anti-terror legislation is a little outside their usual frame of reference. Like most Australians, the churches have to date not had any real cause to distrust governments when it comes to issues of internal national governance. They have protested vociferously about the treatment of asylum seekers and they don't like the Australian involvement in Iraq, but they had not imagined any real danger to the fundamentals of the Australian way of life.
Like the Christian churches in Germany as Hitler rose to power, they would prefer to hope for the best and trust that genuine democracy will prevail. It is so tempting to turn a blind eye, or to assume that the lawyers' associations and Amnesty International and other bodies more practised in this area will offer sufficient response.
Besides, the churches are all rather preoccupied at the moment. The Anglican Church in Melbourne has just farewelled one archbishop and is gearing up to elect another. St Paul's Cathedral is undergoing a mammoth restoration program, keeping everyone busy even without the prospect of King Kong featuring on the spire.
Meanwhile, the struggle for female bishops is still close to the surface in much of the Anglican Church in this country, given questions concerning their legal status are before the church's highest tribunal.
Like the Anglican Church internationally, the Catholic Church is concerned about gay clergy. While the Anglicans disagree over whether practising gay men (and women) should be ordained and gay partnerships blessed, the Catholic Church has gone one step further. A papal mandate is expected any day requiring seminaries to pry closely into the sexual orientation of potential ordinands. Men of clear homosexual disposition, regardless of their commitment to celibacy, will find acceptance as priests much more difficult, it is believed.
More widely, sexual abuse scandals and concerns have taken up enormous time and energy among church leaders of all denominations around the country.
All these issues are not quite as peripheral as church vestments were in 1917, but they are distracting the church leadership - and parishioners - from the real dangers in this legislation to the democratic freedoms and safeguards we had assumed were sacrosanct.
The churches in Russia and Germany ultimately paid a high price for their disengagement and collusion. By contrast, the Christian churches in South Africa, which led the struggle against apartheid, remain a shining example to the power of Christian witness when it mobilises against injustice and inhumanity.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, now retired, is still revered worldwide as a great contemporary prophet. He not only refused to turn his back on that life-and-death struggle but also worked hard to ensure that once apartheid was dismantled, the often-predicted "bloodbath" did not happen.
The pre-Christmas season of advent is about to begin in the mainstream churches. It is a season that carries stark warnings about the need to remain watchful against the danger of injustice in all its forms. Perhaps Christian people need, at the moment, to listen carefully to the modern-day prophets in the wider community.
Dr Muriel Porter is a Melbourne Anglican laywoman.
News source: theage.com.au
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