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The wobbly Anglican


Iris MurdochThe 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 couple, the honeysuckle and bindweed, you might pull up your roots 'and just shrivel away'.

To avoid such a fate, our family strode a middle Anglican path, although one godfather, fleeing his third wife, headed off to Kuwait before my christening and sent back a bible with 'There hath no temptation taken you, but such is as common to man ...' inscribed on the flyleaf.

The Catechism, having none of that, ensured we renounced the devil and all his works, and when the Bishop lifted his hand from our heads, the Church of England girls school took over. For seven years we sat cross-legged under 'The Blood of the Martyrs is the Seed of the Church', and the dusty Melanesian spears and faded shields bore witness.

Mission boxes sat on our mantelpieces at Lent, and the missionaries repaid our efforts with slide shows, in which Mother Hubbard dresses meandered eternally towards a little church on a green hill, just above the encroaching jungle. Back home, we were armed for the Wicked World with copies of The Screwtape Letters and Honest to God, while my brother, who was six years older and had escaped all this, waltzed and quickstepped in church halls, with girls who wore orchids and batted their eyelids. 'Definitely No Rock 'n' Roll' was chalked up on blackboards outside.

Then, in 1958, Billy Graham barrelled down on our innocent islands and broke the spell. He asked my brother to come forward, and my brother did. He saw the true light, and embarked on the Wanganella for Sydney and Moore College. We farewelled him, clutching paper streamers till they snapped. 'Now is the Hour,' we cried with the seagulls, 'for us to say goodbye. Soon you'll be sailing,' we sobbed, 'far across the sea'.

But Sin City ensnared my brother before he could reach Moore College and it was the Jensen brothers who seized the baton and ran the race as Billy Graham saw fit.

So neither lapsed nor nominal, but wandering — squizzing through church doors to check the whereabouts of altar, cross and candlesticks, before slipping into the back row, beside dubious women, toothless crones, and the ghost of Iris Murdoch.

Last up to Communion, first out the door.

A True Anglican.

Eleanor MasseyEleanor Massey is a long time English teacher who now works casually in NSW schools. She is a freelance writer, with a number of published articles in such magazines as The Big Issue, Good Reading and Wet Ink. 

Topic tags: eleanor massey, wobbly anglican, iris murdoch, billy graham, Phyllis James, Philip Larkin



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Existing comments

I certainly enjoyed the Wobbly Anglican. It struck the true note of long Habit without the joyous motivation of Faith.. so often permeates the modern Anglican church.

I would like to send it on to others.. but website just creates more and more little odd ID puzzles to type in.

Patricia | 24 June 2009  

A beatifully evocative piece of writing - but 'wobbly' (which might still include some ultra-lefties from the 30s) is a better term for the type of Anglican Christian here portrayed than 'true'.

Yes, to be an Anglican (as I have been all my life) is to be part of a 'mere Christianity' church, open to the strange collection which is God's people. But it is about more than longing to return to a misty Edwardian dream (as a bishop friend of mine once described some Melbourne Anglicans) -or even a pre-Billy Graham white-picket fences one. And yes, some congregations are living out their last rites, but many more are seeking to indeed be joyful in God's word, eyes on Christ in church and out. And at every eucharist someone is desperate enough for spiritual food to be first to Communion.

What has pushed me over the wall to respond, however, is to gently defend the heritage of Billy Graham. It is people like the saintly Marcus Loane - only recently 'fallen asleep in Christ' who carried the Graham baton. And while the good Marcus, like myself, was not a great fan of aspects of the ministry of Peter and Philip Jensen (they do have Christian names), the implicit snideness in this article cannot be left unnoticed. It takes away from the empathy otherwise shown for our Anglican oddities, its being a parable of the rather mad make-up of the Kingdom of God - which is also true of every church of any Christian that I've known!

Please don't blame current 'Sydneyism' on Samuel Marsden. His legacy is the quite different character of the New Zealand Anglican tradition, Waitangi and all that.

Next time you poke you head in the door, Eleanor (assuming it is open!) I hope you'll feel able to stay for a bit and allow God to add to our ridiculousness.

Charles Sherlock | 24 June 2009  

Dont succumb to the wobbles just don't go it's so much healthier and real.
Try the flea market on a Sunday with coffee and scones.......an assorted bunch of oddities of the human family is there with you enjoying their morning and often communicating to you about their lives.

I ask the question. What is required to be part of the "Kingdom of God"........how do you get in??

Judy | 24 June 2009  

I invite Eleanor to send her insulting description of the 'little church on the Yarra' parish to the locum and all the parishioners. Perhaps they can read it aloud to one another after the service and have a good laugh. What an amazing putdown of people she doesn't even know.

Why has Eleanor not asked the real question: why is this particular 'little church on the Yarra' in the parlous state she believes it to be in? (Is this the fault of the parishioners? Hardly.) The answer to this question is the real story of what is 'true' and 'wobbly'.

Next time Eleanor steps off the plane from Sydney, I look forward to more generous reports on her visits to Anglican churches, or any church really.

Philip | 25 June 2009  

I am a priest of 48 years. Originally from Sydney but escaped,went to St Francis' Theological College Brisbane in its BEST days! With the leaders in the Anglican(?) Diocese of Sydney bent on "completing the 16th century Reformation" and its infection of so many other parts of the Anglican Church and the 'Liberalism' of the wider Anglican Communion (no churches with saints' names, now called "Ministry Centres", the great hymns replaced by with 'rock/pop/guitar & drum' noises (NOT music), classical English (and for Roman Catholics, Latin)abandoned, recognisable furnishings replaced or destroyed, Altars/Holy Tables on wheels, carved statuary reredos' covered with sheets for words for so called 'praise songs' to be projected etc etc. The lethargy and/or token affiliation of people together with the 'passers-through-congregants', and the explaining away of the basic tenets of the Christian faith by bishops and priests alike - no wonder the few who do turn up are FED UP.

I turned to the TRADITIONAL ANGLICAN COMMUNION - in this country, THE ANGLICAN CATHOLIC CHURCH some years ago. Not perfect, BUT Orthodox and Traditional.

For more information, 'phone me on 02 43 65 51 86. For info on our paper "The Messenger Journal" check the internet by typing in the paper's name and see what we are about! We're small but 'true blue' to TRADITONAL Anglican orthodoxy STILL relevant with the Faith of Jesus in the 21st century

The Revd Fr W L Wade | 06 July 2009  

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