It seems almost an eternity ago that we heard those words, 'Game on'. We congratulate those who have been re-elected to the Parliament. We express our prayerful best wishes to those elected for the first time, including Australia's first Aboriginal member of the House of Representatives. We applaud that the highest offices in the land are now proved to be open to women.
On Saturday, I heard one train commuter in Melbourne after the big game [the AFL Grand Final] lament, 'We have a hung Parliament, and now a drawn Grand Final. What's next?' We never know what's next but we count ourselves blessed that we have the constitutional arrangements and political culture which assure us domestic peace, security and the possibility of civil discourse no matter how close the numbers and no matter what the contested issue at hand. Together in hope we can confront whatever is next, whatever it may be.
Prior to the 43rd Parliament's first meeting, we gather in this church enjoying the hospitality of the Wesley Christian community. Being members of the new Parliament and citizens concerned for the nation's wellbeing, we come as people of all faiths and none. Those of us who are Christians thank those who are not, for allowing us to give expression to the deepest yearnings of all Australians in the language and symbols most familiar to us Christians.
We remember and reverence the traditional owners of this place and of all lands throughout Australia. I am privileged to wear a vestment designed by Miriam Rose Ungunmerr from the Nauiyu Nambiyu community in the Northern Territory. When ordained priest 25 years ago, I wore this vestment and was embraced on the cathedral lawns by Senator Neville Bonner. Arthur Malcolm, the Aboriginal Anglican bishop from Yarrabah, North Queensland wore this same vestment when he presided at the opening liturgy of the World Council of Churches Assembly here in Canberra in 1991. This vestment was worn by the priest at the funeral of Mum Shirl, Shirley Smith, the apostle of justice to her own mob in Redfern.
We all come clothed in the history of past dispossession and abiding culture in this land.
The election result shows that we the people are not happy and we are not confident about the way forward. Today we pray for you our elected leaders that you will lead us with a commitment to mercy, justice and dignity similar to that displayed by that literary Old Testament figure, the suffering servant of Isaiah — bringing forth justice to the nations, not crying or lifting up your voices, not breaking the crushed reed, not quenching the dimly burning wick, not growing faint, not being crushed, but boldly establishing justice in the land, promulgating just laws, giving light to the nations, freedom to those chained by adverse circumstances, and providing those services and resources which bring sight to the blind.
Unlike the Old Testament's suffering servant, you have been elected by the people and you will face election again in the usual course, perhaps even sooner. While being committed to justice for all and dignity for the oppressed, you are called to respect the sovereignty of the people who have entrusted you with this sacred task of governance. Matters often call for political resolution through a vote on the floor of the Parliament because there is no self-evident and best way to accord justice and dignity to all. Only the one who is elected can faithfully discharge the task of forming and informing their conscience and to that conscience being true.
You who are members of a Parliament which owes so much to the Westminster tradition must surely be confronted by the same questions aired by Pope Benedict two weeks ago when he stood in Westminster Hall, close to the spot where the Lord Chancellor Thomas More stood trial. Addressing the members of that Parliament, Benedict said:
[T]he fundamental questions at stake in Thomas More's trial continue to present themselves in ever-changing terms as new social conditions emerge. Each generation, as it seeks to advance the common good, must ask anew: what are the requirements that governments may reasonably impose upon citizens, and how far do they extend? By appeal to what authority can moral dilemmas be resolved? These questions take us directly to the ethical foundations of civil discourse. If the moral principles underpinning the democratic process are themselves determined by nothing more solid than social consensus, then the fragility of the process becomes all too evident — herein lies the real challenge for democracy.
Let's all pray for each other this day as we wrestle with this real challenge of democracy, seeking always to distinguish right from wrong, finding the balance between personal autonomy and the state interest in the common good, and discerning the politically achievable.
We know these have been difficult days for you members of parliament, no matter what your party allegiance. We know that there have been excruciating events occurring in your party rooms this past year. Is it just romantic and unreal at the commencement of this 43rd Parliament to invoke in our public life that ideal of love which is patient, kind, not insisting on its own way, not envious, boastful, arrogant or rude, irritable or resentful, not rejoicing in wrongdoing, but rejoicing in truth?
Let's pray that we will all be able to contribute to the life of the nation during this Parliament not just with professional engagement but with love which transcends all hurts, divisions, and past disagreements. Even if 'a kinder, gentler polity' proves to be beyond our unaided human capacities, let's pray that each of us individually during the term of this parliament might grow more in faith, hope and love, seeing things that matter more clearly through the mirror of our own experience and national expectations.
We pray for your families and loved ones who privately sacrifice so much so that you might perform public service. We are all painfully aware that your more public appearances in church these days are usually the funerals of our young deceased service personnel who pay the ultimate price for our peace and security, as determined by your conscientious decisions to commit our troops to conflict zones. May our prayers for peace be answered and may our condolences to grieving families impel us never to commit our troops except in the cause of right.
As you prepare for those countless divisions in the Reps and the Senate, we all have cause to reflect this morning on that one great division called by the Son of Man coming in his glory — much like the shepherd putting the sheep at his right hand and the goats at his left. Each of us is to be judged by the times we visited the prisoner, gave food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, a welcome to the stranger, clothing to the naked, and medical and pastoral care to the sick. As legislators you are better situated than most of us to affect the outcomes for many more prisoners, strangers, the sick, and the poor.
For every prisoner you help, there will be hundreds beyond the purview of your concern. For every stranger you welcome to these shores, there will be thousands you can't; and for every poor person to whom you give a helping hand, there will be tens of thousands who need more.
How then are you, how then are we to be judged? Yes, you will face your family and friends when you go home at the end of each parliamentary session. You will face the people at the next election. You have to face yourself in the mirror every morning. And many of us believe we will have to face our loving God who says consolingly, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to the least one of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.'
As we wrestle with the demands of justice and the common good, let's always make a place and accord a respectful hearing to all our fellow citizens whatever their religious or philosophical world views. May the most reasonable of legislators accord respect to the most devout citizens of faith. May the Parliament, our airwaves, our social media platforms and our public squares be places where charity and truth temper our passion for politics while that passion enhances our commitment to truth and charity for all.
Together as a community we need to address, during this Parliament, laws and policies relating to sustainable population, national and international security, protection of the environment, and equitable taxation and provision of services. We hope and pray that we will leave our planet in better shape for future generations, that we will render the nation secure, and that we will keep the economy strong — while always respecting the rights and dignity of all, including the least amongst us.
It is 'game on'. But this is no sporting fixture. This is our nation's commitment to building a world reflecting the signs of the kingdom to come, the inherited kingdom of the blessed prepared for us from the foundation of the world. May God bless us all, for whatever comes next, we are being taken by the hand, called in righteousness and given as a covenant to the people and a light to the nations.
The above text is from Father Frank Brennan's Occasional Address at the Ecumenical Service for the Opening of Parliament, Wesley Church, National Circuit, Canberra, 28 September 2010. Pictured: the pulpit painting at Nauiyu Nambiyu by Miriam Rose Ungunmerr, which is the design on the vestment worn at the service.