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The wobbly Anglican

  • 24 June 2009

The little church on the Yarra is dressed for Lent. There are three parishioners, the locum and me. The vicar's gone. Years ago, he arrived from Sydney, with tambourines and a direct line to God. The old-timers bolted, the vestry emptied, the bills piled up, and now the diocese is talking foreclosure, the waiving of debts and disbandment.

I sit in the back pew, in gumleafed sunlight. Iris Murdoch shuffles up. 'I nearly became a Buddhist,' she whispers to Phyllis James, sitting next to her, 'but then said to myself, "Don't be foolish, Iris. You're a member of the Church of England."'

Philip Larkin, further down the pew, guffaws, and then falls silent, perhaps contemplating the fate of churches when they fall completely out of use. That must be one of his 'dubious women' beside him. It's either her or Archbishop Carey's 'toothless crone' taking the last spot.

'Won't you come forward?'

I start out of my reverie, but no, it's not Billy Graham, after my soul. It's the kindly locum, hands folded over surplice. To my polite but distant 'No, thank you', he then bellows, 'Spoken like a true Anglican!'

So, a dishevelled crew of the living and the dead, we stand and join the current faithful, declaring we are joyful in God's word, have our eyes fixed on Christ and are ready to run the race set before us. We listen to Samuel, Paul and John and read a sad travesty of Psalm 23.

That evening, I fly home to Sydney.

We moved up here in the early '90s, and the local congregation soon had my number. Only Anglicans from Down South bow their heads in the Creed, kneel in prayer and 'amen' in extraordinary places.

'It all started with Samuel Marsden', cautions a friend, 'the flogging parson'.

A stint at a private school, teaching English and Religious Studies, further enlightens me as I dodge The Crusaders, stare disbelievingly at the vicar and bypass the Mothers' Prayer Group. But in the end, it is Sydney's Archbishop and Dean, the Jensen brothers, who tell me where I'm truly at, as they overturn the church furniture, drive out the miscreants and boycott the Lambeth Conference, that beleaguered supporter of women priests, and bishops belonging to 'the other team'.

My brother and I grew up in Auckland, in the sectarian '50s. The only other teams we knew were denominational ones. If you married 'out ', then, like Flanders and Swann's ill-fated