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Honours reflect our shifting values

  • 05 February 2020


Like many people I am ambivalent about honours. I do not believe in them — our lives are best received and given simply as gift without need for institutional reward — but I happily rejoice with friends who receive honours. Accordingly, on Australia Day, with nothing better to do and bravely running the risk of eye strain, I trawled through the list in search of friends and acquaintances and their citations.

Reading through the list I was struck by changes from, say, thirty years ago. In particular, there were far fewer people identified with churches. In the Catholic Church, no bishops nor priests, and two or three members of religious congregations, and one or two lay people cited for their contribution to the Church. The same parsimony was true for other churches.

If this conclusion, based on amateur perusal and unreliable memory, is correct, what might we make of this change? It is always tempting to read such changes as evidence of enemy action. Lest anyone claim it is due to anti-Christian or anti-religious bias, I should add that I also noticed the diminished numbers of bankers and members of the rich on the list. The honours system is now weighted in favour of people whose contribution to the community is more local and personal. That change of emphasis is surely right.

It would be difficult, too, for any Christian to claim anti-Christian bias as a reason for their Church’s diminished haul of honours. If Christians were specifically targeted, that would surely not be out of contempt but rather out of respect for their adherence to the Lord who warned them against seeking prominent places at the table and high places in heaven. To refrain from honouring them might reflect a delicate sensitivity to their desire to live a life consistent with their religious convictions.

The great significance of the change may lie in its confirmation that the churches no longer have the central place in Australian society they once enjoyed. This is now being reflected in public ceremonial. Church news, unless it be of scandals, is not of public interest. Theology is read by specialists and not by the general public. People who by virtue of their position have a privileged standing in churches do not have the same standing in public life. The public sphere is now more thoroughly secular and loosed from the moorings of its historical traditions.