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Honours reflect our shifting values



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.

Woman in black dress holding box for a medal (Getty images)

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.

The churches are now among many groups in society — think tanks, industry and union groups, media proprietors, community organisations and individuals among them — which have positions on human well being and public policy. They all enter public conversation to persuade their own members and others of their views and so to shape public policy.


'I welcome the loss of privilege given to churches in Australian society. A properly secular society is a good place for churches to occupy. It enables them to free themselves from the burden of acting as unquestioned authorities.'


This field of conversation is contested, and some participants claim that others have no right to participate in it. In particular, some argue that, because church beliefs are unreasonable and their influence in society is destructive, they have no place in public life. That secularist conviction is one of the many ideologies competing for space in a secular society. They should be free to represent their views and even to be honoured for them, but not to win the exclusion of the groups they criticise.

I welcome the loss of privilege given to churches in Australian society. A properly secular society is a good place for churches to occupy. It enables them to free themselves from the burden of acting as unquestioned authorities. As a result they are freed to attract people to their beliefs and view of society by open and exploratory conversation with others and by the attractiveness of the match between their lives and their beliefs.

There is a wider question raised by the reduced credit given in the awards to institutions, including judiciary, schools, hospitals and community organisations. The emphasis is on individuals, many of whom have worked in institutions. In earlier years the awards more explicitly mentioned institutions, which in turn felt recognised by them.

This change reflects the increased emphasis in our society on individuals, their life choices and their achievements, with a corresponding focus on the failings of institutions. News stories about them concentrate on greed and evasiveness in financial organisations, bullying and corruption in big business, hypocrisy in churches and self-interested myopia in political parties. All are seen to talk virtue but to walk vice.

But without a variety of energetic institutions with an eye for the common good despite the human frailties of the people in them, nothing stands between individuals and the state. The cult of individual choice ends in mass control. The emphasis on the value and initiative of each person is healthy, but the distrust of institutions is potentially dangerous.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street

Main image: Woman in black dress holding box for a medal (Getty images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Order of Australia, Catholic Church



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Existing comments

Always wise, Andy. Except for the potential eye strain! I would concur that a person's life is best received and given simply as gift. When we honour we dignify. And perhaps the people who receive Honours recognition feel that the honour is almost greater than the pleasure. Still, I respect the point made in the article about energetic institutions with an eye to the common good. And I certainly agree about the frailty of the people within those institutions. It is something we all have in common.

Pam | 05 February 2020  

One of the great Commonwealth schools has the motto 'Palmam qui meruit ferat' which translates 'Let him who merited the palm bear it'. That is one justification for an honours system and for those who accept them. On the other hand you have the late J G Ballard, a highly intelligent and moral man, who refused a knighthood for his science fiction writing on the grounds that the whole system by which honours were granted was inherently corrupt and he would not condone it. Our society has changed but our concept of honours is still very stuck in the Elizabethan Age. Elizabeth 1 was notoriously parsimonious and honours cost very little to bestow. I think our modern Australian honours are a bit like that. I know a man who got a lower grade gong for voluntary work. It was a bit of an Elizabethan honour: 'Well done old chap' and nothing substantial. Our society is a little more worldly wise than it was in the 1960s and institutions no longer have their former cachet. We respect people for their deeds, rather than their rank. Hence almost universal respect for Fr Bob Maguire of Melbourne. I don't think society is less coherent than in the 1960s. Just different.

Edward Fido | 05 February 2020  

On honours, Evelyn Waugh writes memorably in the introduction to his life of the Jesuit martyr Edmund Campion: "Tobie Matthew (a contemporary of Campion's rapidly advanced in Elizabeth I's favour and court) died full of honours . . . There but for the grace of God went Edmund Campion." - Thanks for your thoughts here, Andrew. I strongly support, in particular, your final paragraph.

John RD | 06 February 2020  

A very balanced and wise view of the situation.

Russell | 06 February 2020  

It is not surprising that individuals are being honoured rather than institutions. This is the consequence of the many commissions and inquiries that we have seen over the last decade revealing that many institutions worldwide have not acted as the general public would have expected. These institutions have been given the chance to resurrect themselves during and following inquiries but have failed dismally. There has never been any doubt that many good people work within these institutions and the plaudits are now going to them rather than to the vehicle that has provided the avenue for good works. The fact that the wheels have fallen off the vehicle in the matter of trust is what we are now rightly experiencing, especially in relation to churches. Rather than this now lack of trust freeing the churches from acting as unquestioned authorities, their continued example of defending the institution and its laws in the courts, even after an admission of guilt, will no longer be accepted by the public. The institutions with power, apparently emanating from a higher authority, continue the mass control of their members as the most effective way of protecting themselves, even when horrific crimes continue to be revealed.

Patricia Hamilton | 06 February 2020  

John RD raises the case of St Edmund Campion, who was a young man of considerable promise and who even caught the eye of the young Queen Elizabeth and who would not have gained just honours, but their fruit, which was preferment. His becoming a Catholic and thus leaving the Church of England was seen as an act of treachery. Loyalty to the C of E was required by Law. Those who did not conform were fined. Catholics were seen as potential subversives. Campion; like Dietrich Bonhoeffer; Beyers Naude and several others would've claimed their loyalty was not just due to the State, but to a Higher Cause. I think most of us would praise them for this and wonder what we would've done in their position. To my mind a lot of honours are given to people who are just doing their job. It is sometimes expected, if you fulfil a certain position in the public service or armed forces for a period, you will get the appropriate gong. Some honours, such as the Victoria Cross or the Star of Courage (formerly the George Cross) are granted for exceptional service beyond ordinary expectations. These are granted very rarely and their recipients held in real respect by the community at large.

Edward Fido | 07 February 2020  

“our lives are best received and given simply as gift without need for institutional reward” Christian theology holds that God doesn’t need our thanks; Christians thank him because that which is in them needs to, and the only fitting thanks is, in compliance with the Great Commission, the public display of an institutional one, best visible in the form of Mass or even a Sunday service devoid of Real Presence. The visible institution of Sunday worship, not good works on the other six days, is the definitive signalling that God exists and is due praise. Community honours can be seen as civilian eucharist in which those honoured don’t need our praise but that we others for our own spirits do need to affirm what they stood for at the time of the praiseworthy action, which, as a people, we can’t do unless we can see the various lights of merit that were moved from the bushel to the hill.

roy chen yee | 12 February 2020  

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