An ecumenical spirit

Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence.

These lines evoke about my earliest memory of Davis McCaughey. They are the refrain to ‘Long-Legged Fly’, a poem by W. B. Yeats, and were recited by McCaughey to the motley group of hairy students who attended his Sunday poetry evenings in The Lodge, when he was Master of Ormond College in the University of Melbourne. Yeats makes several surprise appearances in this book, indicating two particular strands of continuity in McCaughey’s thought, his trust in the Irish poetic inheritance, and his skill at bringing the past to bear on the future.

Wherever we meet McCaughey in these papers, his voice is confident, measured, considered. His argument is presented in a characteristically inclusive manner, each essential idea left open for our reflection. There is nothing forced, but he is regularly forceful. The direction of each piece—whether lecture, article, sermon, or eulogy—is handled with seeming ease, though the scale of the material he controls is sometimes grand and multifarious. His rare digressions are ever vital to the context. Fearless in support of his own assertions, McCaughey still keeps asking questions. Assertion very often leads to ‘an overwhelming question’, not so often the other way around. He is not in doubt about what he says, but allows us to keep uncertainty as well as certainty in our own minds. He respects his reader. The editors praise his ‘unyielding rigour’ and ‘lightness of touch’. Other pleasing features of the McCaughey style are a soundness of purpose, a defiant clarity, and an elevating irony.

McCaughey’s writings are intended for public speech. The content is never self-indulgent or trivialising. They are models of logical argument, leavened by a disarming sensitivity towards his listeners. ‘This leads to the third and last observation with which I shall weary you,’ he says, after a lengthy paper of closely reasoned lucidity. In discussing Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue he warns, ‘MacIntyre must not be held responsible for my use or abuse of his thought.’

The editors draw attention to ‘the effortless transition into poetry or literature’ in McCaughey’s theological writing. This is his practised art, but also displays his intuitive championing of literary criticism in theology and biblical studies, a movement that gained speed mid-century and today is a minimum requirement. He knows that ‘Christianity has been a great literary event’. Literary critical readings of the Bible, literature as a means to theological understanding, the written heritage as key to the scriptural heritage—these and other modes of criticism and discourse are at work throughout this book.

The strongest force that enlivens this collection is its ecumenical spirit. Ecumenism is the first premise of many of these papers, and all the others can be read with ecumenism as a main motive. ‘The Formation of the Basis of Union’ and his other addresses on the foundation of the Uniting Church in Australia are crucial documents for our understanding of Australian church history and justify purchase of this book in their own right. McCaughey makes it plain why the Bible, that book of little books, is an open text for open minds. Church union is not a ponderous pursuit of doctrinal differences but a reclamation and canvassing of strengths and common directions.

The subtitle is a misnomer. Some McCaughey Papers, surely. To be true to its claim, The McCaughey Papers must be a sizeable editorial challenge; other volumes in the set would contain his many writings on society, government, literature, history, and education. Here we have just some of his important writings on religion, though glimpses into his other interests are evident. For example, McCaughey draws our attention over again to the values that make for more complete individuals, a more imaginative and responsible society. He rebukes the managerial mentality, reminding us that vocation is central to personhood and that a healthy society does not flourish by pure self-interest. Literary consciousness meets Christian conscience when he recommends MacIntyre’s saying that ‘it is in the narrative order of a single life that virtue is perceived’.

Davis McCaughey was a quintessential figure in the formation of the Joint Theological Library, a vital national and international resource. Right into his late eighties, McCaughey could still be seen ascending the spiral staircase into the library. As a member of staff who makes mental notes of borrowers’ reading habits, I observed that McCaughey not only took out the latest critical works, but also copies of titles that he had donated to the library himself 30 years earlier. He embodies the view that it is not just the books you read that form and define your character; more importantly, it is the books that you re-read.

 Fresh Words and Deeds: The McCaughey Papers, Peter Matheson & Christiaan Mostert (eds).
 David Lovell, 2004. isbn 1 863 55106 9, rrp $25

Philip Harvey is a Melbourne librarian and poet.

 

 

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