Acting on Conscience Melbourne Launch Speech - Rev Alistair Macrae

  • 27 February 2007

Book Launch Acting on Conscience by Frank Brennan

Rev Alistair Macrae

Executive Director
Centre for Theology and Ministry
Uniting Church
Synod of Victoria and Tasmania

Nov 10, 2006


First, thanks to Frank for the invitation to help launch this book. And second, thanks for the book. It is incredibly timely! I don’t know whether reading the book has particularly sensitized me to church/state issues but every form of media I interact with lately seems full of it.

On the radio last week the ABC reporter began by saying the issue of religion and state is to the forefront again. He listed three issues:

* Sheik Hilali and the conflagration he caused with his comments and about connections between female attire and rape
* State-supported Chaplaincy in schools
* And the vexed issue of stem cell research (which gets very good treatment in this book).


My congratulations to UQP publicists for superb product placement. On the TV news the other night, Andrew Bartlett made his way into the parliamentary debate clutching this book!

Over the weekend Victoria’s Minister for Health, Bronwen Pike, a good Uniting Church person, said that the role of the church in the public sphere is to advocate for the poor and marginalized. While that orientation is certainly fundamental to any Christian approach, if she was saying that is the church’s only role I’d give her a C for that. Necessary, certainly, but not a sufficient description of the church’s role. Frank would certainly argue for more, I think.

Senator Conroy, a devout Catholic and his partner have just become proud parents of a child fertilized using IVF, from an egg donated by a friend and carried by a surrogate mother!

Tony Abbott, following the Sheik Hilali business, argued last week that the church’s opinions should be heeded in the public square (over against those of, presumably, Islam) because Christianity is based on reason rather than revelation! No disrespect to the esteemed Minister, but a D for that one! No self-respecting Protestant, (nor any Catholic who knows their Rahner), could allow him to get away with that. If reason is unhinged from revelation, there would be no basis for theological discourse at all. We would be left with a choice between a closed, self referential fundamentalism or a free floating liberalism. Both dead ends.

However, I take Tony Abbott’s point, which Frank reinforces in this book, that in order to communicate cogently, the church must use rational discourse to advocate views on issues that effect the whole society.

Frank argues, convincingly, that the church needs to reposition itself and move from a pontificating stance to one of informed engagement in the public square. The book traverses a whole range of contemporary moral, social, legal issues - war, stem cell research, a bill of rights, same sex marriage, IVF, land rights and much more. I think Frank would agree with Richard Neuhaus who in a recent article wrote:

[I]t is precisely because of the Judeo-Christian ethic that the public square should be hospitable to all faiths. Because, first, we do not sacralize the public square, mistaking it for the Church. And, second, because we recognize that all people, whatever their religious or other errors, are made in the image of God and therefore bearers of a human dignity that demands our respect. -- First Things, "The Public Square," Richard John Neuhaus, March 2001, p. 81.

Post modernity cuts the ground away from imperialistic truth claims by any one group, not least the church. Is it possible for the church to participate thoughtfully, vigorously but respectfully in community debates over policy? Is it possible for us, without surrendering a commitment to truth, to declare our understandings non-imperialistically?

Counter-intuitively, perhaps, I believe this post modern context allows a reclaiming of non-imperialistic particularity. That is, the church can rightly claim its place and its right, even its calling, to argue for a gospel based position on this or that – but it can no longer claim a privileged voice. It needs to exercise more of that core gospel value of humility.

(I well remember an occasion when Davis McCaughey brought a prophetic word to our Synod meeting. His challenge to the UCA was simultaneously a call to deeper grounding in our core spiritual disciplines; and a well-aimed swipe at our propensity to shoot off our mouth on every issue without doing the careful work first. ‘At a time when the church seems to be losing the capacity to speak to God it seems in inverse proportion to claim the right to speak for God.’ Ouch!)

Let me give offer some teasers from Acting on Conscience:

‘Church leaders need to accept that their teaching role is primarily with their own church members. They might not be the best of teachers in the public square.’ (206)

‘The right to bear children does not include the right to bear children denied their natural rights of biological identity. (189)

‘No-one can now doubt that our judges are now cultivating a barren judicial field far removed from the English law lords’ garden of guaranteed European rights and freedoms’. (145)

‘All citizens must review their trust in government (107)

Frank quotes with approval Pope Benedict 16th ‘It is not the Church’s responsibility to make its social teaching prevail in political life’. (77)

And what is probably the key thesis of the book: ‘There is a need to set the limits for all religious traditions, ensuring that the nation state and the dignity and rights of its citizens are not threatened by religious activity and beliefs of some, even if they are in the majority’(49)

Frank quotes the celebrated convert John Henry Newman in relation to conscience and external authority:

‘Certainly if I am obliged to bring religion into after dinner toasts (which indeed does not seem quite the thing) I shall drink – to the Pope if you please, - still, to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards.’

To paraphrase, I think Frank would say:

I shall drink – to the Pope if you please, maybe even, with certain qualifications, to Archbishop Pell – still, to Conscience first, albeit an educated conscience, informed unashamedly by one’s particular tradition, but open to wisdom from other sources as well.

While we’re in a toasting frame of mind I would like to propose a toast to Frank and this book. I encourage you to buy it, read it - to activate your informed consciences and to conscientise your political and social activity.

It’s a pleasure to introduce Frank Brennan Brennan – priest, writer, lawyer, social activist and commentator, advocate, public theologian and public intellectual.



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