Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Rememberance Day 2009.

Joshua Ismay was born close to where I used to work, and grew up in a very nice house in Hudson Avenue, just up the road from where I’m writing this. It’s a quiet street the Duck Noodle Gang drives past everyday as we take Mrs. Caliban to her office, and we think of it as just a few minutes away, which it is if you travel by car. However when Joshua lived there very few people had cars, and the distance would have been considered quite great since it’s almost an hour’s walk over a long hill. In those days people living at our end of the street usually traveled to town by walking in the opposite direction to Joshua’s place, down to the river, from where they rowed or hitched a ride on one of the timber-cutters' barges - the world was very different then.

A little after Joshua was old enough to vote and drink his family moved around the corner, before a shifting again a year or two later to a very fine home close to the supermarket from which we always promise to never buy another thing, on account of them being vastly more expensive than all the other stores around here… but since it’s convenient, and next door to grocer’s with the best fruit and vegetables ever that’s a promise we always find ourselves breaking. So we drive once again past the spot where Joshua’s family finally settled.

Except Joshua never saw either of the houses into which his family moved after leaving Hudson Avenue, because in 1915, when he was about the same age as I was when I worked in a shop that sold guitars and keyboards and amplifiers to rock and roll bands, and I could fit into a pair of jeans that were so tight they had zippers halfway up the legs so you get into them, Joshua enlisted in the A.I.F., and sailed to Cairo on the Euripides. From there he was sent to France, where he was twice wounded in the mud, and where he fought for the Empire in the War To End All Wars.

And in 1918, two months before the slaughter finally ended, a shell landed in Joshua’s trench. His comrades were adamant he'd been killed by the concussion: “there were no wounds externally”. It might even have been true, but soldiers usually said this to their comrades' grieving relatives; in hell showing the smallest of mercies to a man’s family ceases be a sin. The army sent Joshua's belongings back home on a ship called the Gaika: they amounted to one wallet, a Bible, letters, photos, cards, and a signaller’s badge. In 1922 his sister Dorothy collected a plaque the family was given in his memory, and the following year three medals were sent to Joshua’s father.

That’s not much else I know about Joshua. He was a carpenter, from an upper middle-class Congregationalist family, and prior to enlisting had taken out insurance with the Independent Order of Oddfellows Benevolent Society. With whom his mother engaged in a lengthy episode of correspondence while trying to make a claim on his behalf when he was wounded – they don’t appear to have paid, since Joshua was killed before the necessary paperwork arrived from the battlefield hospitals. They did, however, pay out his death benefit, but the amount was small. Young self-employed men don’t expect to die, so the policy had been geared towards protecting his income in the event of contracting an illness.

Nor do young men expect to be forgotten, and Joshua, and the millions like him they have every right to be remembered. Grant us, oh Lord, an end to the evil madness that takes them away from us.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Freedom from Liberty.

It looks like the gay-straightening business isn’t what it used to be, since word around Sydney is that financial constraints have forced the erroneously-named Liberty Christian Ministries Incorporated to retrench their professional straightener Simon Riches, who’s been doing whatever it is a full-time “Pastoral Support Coordinator” does for the past four years.

Nothing’s been announced on their web site, although that doesn’t mean much since it doesn’t appear to have been updated since December 2008, but anyone out there who’d like to accuse me of making this up should drop along to the farewell, which will be held on 19 November. Email me for details, oh ye of little faith: this could be your last chance to become one of the countless people who’ve received nothing more from these evangelical sexuality salesmen than a profound sense of failure and a whole lot more guilt.

For now Liberty’s management committee is claiming things will continue through the voluntary efforts of “a range of people
experienced in this ministry”, but organisations of this type rarely survive downsizing – at least I pray this one doesn’t. I’ve actually had some personal experience of one “expert” they’ll be relying upon: it’s someone from whom I sought help in another capacity when I first began suffering from depression. Perhaps someday I’ll write about the experience: suffice it for now to say that those who helped me through those darkest of days are still appalled by that “counsellor” and his antics (yep: the “treatment” really did involve me getting nude)…

As far as I’m aware the Diocese never funded Liberty, so their closure has nothing to do with the recent financial hubris/incompetence. Which can’t help but make me wonder, since “ex-gay” ministries are like the proverbial better mouse trap: it you really can invent one the world would beat a path to your door. Given the number of guilt-crushed young Christians (and their distraught parents) there’s no doubt that if someone’s program really could change people’s sexuality it would be flooded with participants. There aren’t many teenage kids who welcome the discovery that they’re “different”, especially not in fundamentalist and/or evangelical churches, and there’s no shortage of people in such places who’d give everything they’ve got to anyone who could honestly make them “normal”.

So when I hear of groups like Liberty struggling for money it only confirms what I’ve long believed about them – they can’t and don’t help people unsure of their sexuality their find what they’re looking for, and potential victims are growing wise to this fact. The motives might (but not always) be sincere, but this doesn’t make the claims and promises any less spurious. Nor does it change the fact that at the heart of such “ministries” - their raison d'etre - is something Jesus never once mentioned. “Come to me and I will give you rest” has no proviso regarding a person’s sexuality.

Good riddance Liberty. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out…

Sunday, 8 November 2009

I know they're short of money...

... but selling ladies at a Friday evening market is taking things too far.

The trade on offer might indeed be fair, but somehow I don't think even the fine evangelical ladies of my local "parish ministry centre" will fetch $160 million ;-)

Friday, 6 November 2009

Who is greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?

About 7 million people live in Sydney and the state of New South Wales, but there’s just one residential school for profoundly disabled children. A place called Kingsdene Special School.

Or rather, there was just one such school, because last Tuesday Archbishop Jensen, who chairs the Anglicare council which has operated Kingsdene school for the past 33 years, announced the school will close at the end of next year. After then there will be no facilities of this type available for children and their families. None.

That’s because the Sydney Diocese says it can no longer afford the $1.2 million a year needed to keep the school open, although the Sydney Morning Herald reported Anglicare Community Care director Ian Jackson as saying the closure was not a consequence of recent diocesan losses. Yeah right… forgive me if I don’t believe that either.

The reality is that in the great and glorious vision of global evangelical domination by which Sydney has been seduced there’s not much of a place for profoundly disabled children. Flying around the world and destabilizing British and American churches is a lot more exciting than caring for kids who dribble and aren’t ever going to join the Sydney University Evangelical Union where they respectfully admire the leaders’ brilliant Pauline exegesis. So when it comes to cutting corners…

Don’t get me wrong: I firmly believe that providing facilities for the weaker and needier members of our society is primarily the state’s responsibility, not the church’s, and I find it disgusting that a government who wastes $30 million on a V8 Supercar race refuses to provide appropriate care for those citizens least able to care for themselves. Yet in this case it’s not the government arguing against feotal abnormality testing, nor does the state teach that aborting a disabled feotus is a sin. If Sydney Anglican evangelicals want to set an example to a secular society they clearly consider their spiritual inferiors they must be prepared to lead the way when it comes to supporting those whom the world rejects. Setting a moral bar and then refusing to support those striving to meet it is the way of the Pharisees. And nothing more.

Nor is it enough to claim that since the government won’t put the money on the table then the Church doesn’t need to either. Ours is a calling to do more, not to meet apathy with apathy. If that means postponing the construction of yet another “multi-purpose ministry centre”, or a few less flights to meet and encourage liars claiming “this dispute is all about how we read the bible”, then so be it. Responsibility is not something Christ taught we can shrug off simply because the world doesn’t care either. Sure there’s no glamour (in this world, at any rate) in toilet-training incontinent teenagers, and the angels might rejoice when a 16 year old manages to learn the skills necessary to accompany their aging grandmother on a trip to the shops, but it’s not the kind of news that fills church-growth seminars. Yet since when has love been less important than having a “dynamic entrepreneurial missional focus”?

Forget whoever happens to be the latest gee-whiz evangelical guru: the parents of the children attending Kingsdene teach us all more about love, dedication, service, strength, and suffering than any Matthias Media paraphernalia can ever do. We reject them at our peril.
“See that you do not look down on one of these little ones.
For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.”
Matthew 18:10

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

...and the angels rejoice!

Great news! The Sydney branch of the truly evil Mercy Ministries has announced it is closing due to "extreme financial challenges and a steady drop in our support base".

Meanwhile their former supporter, Oedipus Houston and his equally vile church business Hillsong have shifted into damage control, doing everything possible to distance themselves from the program they once wholeheartedly supported.

Can't imagine this backflip could have anything to do with the very real case women defrauded and abused by Mercy Ministries have for compensation - could it?

Tuesday, 27 October 2009


The pair of them were watching Upsy Daisy and the gang from In the Night Garden singing and dancing in a pile of crunchy fallen leaves. I was trying to write php code in the next room.

Suddenly there was also a strange new sound - one not coming from the TV - and uncontrolled giggling. Racing to see what new mischief they were up to, I grabbed the camera on my way in ...

Mr. Not-yet-Two had sneaked into the kitchen and swiped a full pack of his favourite cheese crackers. Which his three-and-a-half year old ballet-obsessed big sister tipped onto the sofa in order to choreograph a crunchy little pas de deux of her own.

Pictured here is the prima ballerina attempting to leave the stage, probably with the intention of calling the dogs so as to (a) blame the whole thing on them and (b) encourage them to consume the evidence. Meanwhile her noble danseur and set builder is standing his ground, clutching to the one remaining (and thus in the complex economy of a toddler infinitely valuable) intact cracker (the small nibble he's made on the corner doesn't count), and is about to start accusing me (in a language known only to himself) of interrupting one of the truly great performances of modern interpretive dance.

And now you'll have to excuse me while I go and vacuum...

Monday, 26 October 2009

From Sydney's leading newspaper...

Just before hitting Publish I saw Noble Wolf had already brought this to everyone's attention, but just in case you've missed it here's another link to The St Jensen's Parish Newsletter - a very funny (at least to those of us less than impressed by the Sydney Diocesan leadership) satire published in last Saturday's Sydney Morning Herald by one of Australia's best known journalists. Father Troll must be feeling green with envy ;-)

I can't help but wonder what St. Paul would have made of the diocese's financial hubris and subsequent refusal to act in such a way as to earn public respect - as opposed to public ridicule? Given his concern that churches do nothing which might cause the Gospel to be brought into disgrace it seems highly unlikely he'd have been impressed with recent events. Dare I say Paul would also have advocated repentance on the part of the one in whom has been entrusted ultimate responsibility? And maybe even an apology?

In the absence of which is it any wonder people are laughing at the "servants" who don't even have the humility to say sorry?

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Why would anyone think them arrogant & patronising?

Courtesy of David Ould:

“One interesting factor will be to see how much noise the small number of Liberal Catholic attendees will make. They are normally vocal in all forms of opposition. Personally, I think that would be a bad move, much like the boy who cried wolf too many times. However, if they were to simply sit silently and let the evangelicals make the noise I suspect they would be able to mount a more substantial argument that unhappiness in the Diocese is spread amongst a larger constituency that (sic) the usual perception of a small group of malcontents.”
Right. So those of us opposed to incompetence, dishonesty, and a complete disregard for the Jesus of Scripture should just shut up and let the bullies speak on our behalf. Without ever presuming to question those who know better.

Just like women should behave in church, hey David?

Incidentally, many of those “Liberal Catholic” (most of whom are in reality neither – but Sydney apologists aren’t renowned for letting facts get in the way when calling people names) attendees come from some of the most successful parishes in the diocese. Churches which have easily achieved the targets for growth set by the Archbishop a few years back; targets rarely mentioned now that the majority of Jensen-sanctioned congregations have spectacularly failed to meet them. Nor are these growing parishes facing the loss of clergy and programs as a result of diocesan irresponsibility, since they were never deemed worthy of receiving handouts in the first place.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Archbishop Peter Jensen's Synod Address.

Any lingering doubt about fundamentalism being nothing more than a type of narcissism (hence its particular appeal to late-adolescent males: “I’m right, you’re wrong, and only those who think like me can ever truly know God”) was dispelled once and for all by Archbishop Jensen’s opening address to synod last night.

You can read the text for yourself here: the Archbishop told synod how he felt about the loss of an unimaginably large sum of his parishioner’s endowment; he spoke of his disbelief , and (in passing) his sense of responsibility that this occurred “on my watch”. But he didn’t apologise.

Instead he lied, claiming “we have been so careful and professional in our handling of the Endowment” (yeah - which is why they ignored all responsible practices and placed almost everything on one high-risk investment that depended upon the market continuing to rise indefinitely), he spoke of the pain and distress he had witnessed, and he speculated as to whether “the Lord is chastising us for our sins”, or “simply seeking to test us”. He even asked the question “Did we do the wrong thing?” Then changed the subject without attempting to offer an answer.

As I’ve already said, +Peter Jensen made no apology to those whom he and his staff have devastated through their incompetence and recklessness. There was no mea culpa, no repentance, no “I am so sorry”. Instead he quickly moved on to describing the wonderful experiences he enjoyed while distributing religious literature during the past twelve months. He spoke of the changes about to take place as a as if they were driven by something other than a simple lack of funds, and in so doing said nothing of the dozens of young men who will soon find themselves unemployed. We learned of the evangelistic challenges ahead of us, but nothing of the challenge many clergy, ordinands, lay-workers and their families are going to face in simply putting food on the table. We were told that one of the board members directly responsible for this mess is now in charge of the restructuring processes: perhaps we were supposed to give thanks that he won’t be among those who lose their jobs.

There’s no theological mystery about what went wrong, no matter how much the Archbishop may attempt to confuse the issue by claiming “we live in an apocalyptic era”. All that happened was that a group of men driven by greed pursued an irresponsibly risky investment strategy. Which ultimately went the way history shows these things always go. They ignored conventional wisdoms because they thought they were smarter than everyone else, or because God was on their side, or both. As could have been predicted by anyone with even a passing acquaintance with the Jesus of the Gospels, they weren’t, and/or God wasn’t.

The least Archbishop Jensen could have done was to say sorry and ask for his people’s forgiveness. Instead he talked about himself. I may be a cynic, but even I had expected more from the man. Then again, it has been more than a decade since I spent much time around fundamentalists...

Friday, 16 October 2009

So it's finally October...

A few months back, when news of the Sydney Diocese’s spectacular financial losses finally became public, the oft-repeated line from apologists was “Wait until October, when it’ll all be made public in synod”. Those of us with some experience of the carefully choreographed performance that passes as a Sydney synod were more than a little cynical – but nevertheless we have waited.

Now that synod is starting next Monday it seems that more facts are leaking out: today’s Sydney Morning Herald reports the loss as actually $160 million - $60 million more than originally stated. Yes - you read that right, $160 million. Which at today's exchange rate is about $US145 million - a truly enormous sum of money.

Another article in the same paper reveals that diocese’s investment body, the Glebe Administration Board, had borrowed more than $150 million, which was combined with more than three-quarters of the diocese’s $388 million worth of “growth assets”' and - in blatantant contravention of responsible investment practice – 80% of this sum was invested with just one fund manager: Barclays Global Investors. Thus while other fund managers spread their exposure to risk by adopted a more diversified profile, the brightest evangelicals in the Communion had nearly all their eggs in just one basket: a move the Board’s CEO Steve McKerihan (who to be fair, was only appointed after this strategy was adopted - but before things turned predictably pear-shaped) amusingly described as “unusual”. What about “irresponsible” Steve? Or maybe “bloody stupid”?

Please let’s please not have any more dishonest spin about “everyone lost money in the global financial crisis”. Yes, of course they did – but very few responsible organisations were hit this hard as a result of speculative gearing. And to the best of my knowledge no other churches were: the Sydney Anglican Diocese was unique among religious groups when it comes to getting whacked as a result of borrowing money in order to gamble that stock prices would continue rising. Instead of steadfastly using what they already had to bring Christ to all the people here (not just the minority living in affluent and predominately Anglo-Saxon suburbs) they got greedy. The end was going to justify the means…

… meanwhile can someone please tell me how many cross-cultural outreach workers could have been placed in Sydney’s economically bleak south-west for just half of the $160 million of parishioners money our leaders have wasted?

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Back to the River

Late this afternoon I took the kayak back to the same stretch of river on which I'd previously capsized. Since it wasn't a black moonless night, and as I certainly wasn't racing, there was plenty of time to stop and take pictures.

The spot I went for an involuntary swim is directly in front, by the far side of the the oncoming bend. Sorry about the poor quality of these pictures; given my proven stability issues I'm obviously not going to take our good camera with me. These were taken on my mobile phone, from inside a waterproof pouch.

This is also the site of one of Australia's greatest mysteries: it was just here on the river bank (about 25 meters beyond the mangroves fronting the water) that the bodies of Gilbert Bogle and Margaret Chandler were found in 1963. Which is something I'm glad didn't cross my mind when I was struggling in the mud and blackness ;-)

A really great documentary made in 2007 presented a very plausible solution to the Bogle-Chandler puzzle, suggesting that their deaths were caused by accidental hydrogen sulphide poisoning. Up until the late 60s there were a number tanneries and other noxious industries near hear, all of which discharged their effluent directly into the water. While the water quality still leaves an awful lot to be desired, during the years after the war it must have been revolting.

Paddling home was magic. My little kayak mightn't be the most impressive vessel afloat, but tonight as I remember drifting across water like glass, watching the water-birds settle down while the winter sun slowly moved beneath the hills, I wouldn't swap her for all of Cunard's finest.

The two most important women in my life were waiting on the pier when I returned. Miss Three is currently fascinated (read "absolutely obsessed") with sharks, and had doubted the wisdom of revisiting the scene of my earlier swim: "Daddy - are you sure this is a good idea?" It wasn't until she'd touched my hair and clothes to make sure they were dry that she really believed I hadn't tipped over again. I still don't think she's fully convinced I survived that night's dunking unscathed, and tonight's bedtime chat included a lengthy interrogation to make sure I hadn't held back any news from today concerning an unexpected immersion and a pack of ravenous White Pointers. After which she gave a fabulous demonstration of how to "be more careful in your kayak". Apparently hammerheads need to be simultaneously banged on the nose with one's paddle and tickled under their fins. So now we're all prepared... ;-)

Monday, 22 June 2009

My Friends.

Jesus told a story about a man who while travelling was attacked and seriously injured. As he was lying by the side of road a religious leader – someone who had spent many years studying the Bible – came along, but seeing the man he crossed to the other side of the road and left him there.

A little later a another person passed by, someone who might well be described as being “pillar of their church community” who came from a family with a long and impressive history of religious involvement. But he also left the man laying there to die.

Finally a member of an obscenely heretical cult came along. Having no respect for the plain meaning of Scripture, he was part of a group directly responsible for the nation’s downfall, it’s moral decline, and growing decline in respect for all that God had revealed in His holy Word. Yet this blasphemer went to the help of the injured man; treating his wounds he took him to somewhere he might recuperate, and then personally guaranteed the man’s medical bills while ensuring the man would be fully cared for until completely recovered.

At the end of the story Jesus asked his undoubtedly disconcerted audience “Who do you think was a neighbour to the man who was attacked?”. Which, at least in the vernacular of the community in which I live, could well be rephrased as “Who was a friend to him?”.

The people in my blogroll, as well as many of those who regularly comment both here and elsewhere around the traps, are people whom I proud to consider friends. Some of them I know personally, others live on the other side of the world and I’ve only every communicated with them via blog comments and email. Some of them I only know through regularly lurking at their sites – but all of them have in some way inspired me, given me courage to keep seeking God at times when it all seems too hard, and all I'd really like to do is toss away this whole crazy notion of wrestling with what it means to takes one’s eyes off the gutter and instead reach for the stars.

Not all of them are Anglican; at least one’s an active atheist, and one is actually a whole bunch of people who run a dog shelter. Some are gay, some are straight, and all of them need to love and be loved. More than a few have also struggled with the darkness of mental illness, and one wears his madness as a badge of pride in a way not dissimilar (although I suspect he’ll be appalled by the comparison ;-) to the way St. Paul boasted of his own weakness as proof of God’s redemptive mercy.

Sometimes they make what I think are mistakes – a few much more often than others - and when I disagree with them strongly enough I always make a point of contacting them personally to see if I can help bring them back into line. Sometimes they agree with me, more often than not they explain their side of the issue and we meet somewhere in the middle, and sometimes they show me why I’m the one who’s got things wrong. Whatever happens, they are my friends, and I know that when I fall down – albeit as a result of being attacked, or (more likely) my own folly – they’ll help me to shelter and safety. As I’ll do for them – irrespective of how much we resemble each other theologically.

Occasionally one or the other of them is truly obnoxious, just as sometimes my dogs are capable of releasing the most utterly foul flatulence imaginable. Yet even then I still love them: sometimes we all react unpredictably to the things we’ve digested. When I’ve finally managed to deal with the log in my own eye I’ll be able to get around to doing something about the speck in theirs.

What I’ll never do apologise for them. They’re my friends – even if they are Samaritans.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

A Response to David Ould.

This began as a response to a comment in the previous post, but I'm laying here in bed with the 'flu (don't worry - it's not Swine Flu!) and what began as a brief reply ended up becoming War & Peace. So rather than just delete it I decided to make it into an open letter, and give it a post of its own.)

David - Calm Down!
Your interaction here and elsewhere is greatly appreciated, and believe me you are respected for taking the time to do so. I realise it's not easy: sometimes it seems to me as if both sides of the divide are talking in different languages, and please understand that what can sound quite quite innocuous on one side of the church is actually very offensive on the other. That you've taken the time both here and on your own site to try bridging the gap is something for which we are all grateful, and stands as a testimony to you own faith and passion for all to know Christ.

Still - I can't see anyone here, especially any locals part of "the Sydney Opposition", crying "fundamentalist". To the contrary, I see a prominent Sydney blogger describing you and your approach as reasonable. Yes, he also calls for "conservative hypocrites" to be brought to account - as they well should be; so should liberal hypocrites and very other shade of hypocrite in between. If his use of this phrase seems harsh to you (or anyone else concerned) I've no doubt he'd be only too happy to explain why he chose to use it, and knowing him I can say with certainty he didn't make that decision lightly.

Remember that Jesus also used some pretty harsh expressions to criticise those using religion as an excuse to treat others as inferior. Elsewhere I've seen allegations of incompetence (with which I'm inclined to agree), duplicity (with which I don't) and a cover-up (jury's still out: I'll try to be more patient and wait until Synod). But fundamentalist? No, I don't believe I have.

Ok; the obvious exceptions are Father Christian and Father David Heron, but given that they're (a) satirists, and (b)quite often down-right weird, I'm not sure many people take them literally. At least I hope they don't: don't forget Father Christian recently called me an "outrageous, wicked apostate Vegemite-encrusted son-of-perdition", and any Sydney leaders taking him too seriously probably don't have the requisite social skills to be in ministry in the first place. In any case: throw those two at me & I'll match you with David Virtue and the Midwest Conservative Journal. Then I'll raise it by asking if you've ever tried disagreeing with anything at Craig's Place? That's the internet: robust, often rude, and frequently downright cranky. But in between the thorns I've had the privilege of finding great truths, and making friendships of a type once inconceivable. The world of the pamphleteers that thrived in the wake of the invention of the printing press wasn't much different, and it's largely due to them that the era of mass literacy came to be.

Given the things I see you saying here, along with suggestions I've heard you make at your place, I'm not sure you realise just how excluded from the processes of power those those in the Sydney "opposition" are. Clergy whose careers are blocked, or whose license is only renewed on an annual basis (and then frequently only after it's expired for a month or two). Requests for support that don't even receive a reply. Programs attracting hundreds of unchurched young people (yes, I said hundreds) that never rate a mention in Southern Cross, despite being run at virtually no cost by an army of volunteers - when the neighbouring "orthodox" parish receives a grant for a full-time youth worker to minister to its two dozen Christian kids. Churches massively exceeding their "Vision for Growth" targets that could for all the encouragement they receive be on another planet. Do I need to continue?

The "more productive" ways of being heard simply aren't open to many of us on a different side of the church to your own. As someone who hasn't been a "Reformed Evangelical" for more than a decade I can't join the ACL without lying. Nor can those not prepared to lie about their sexuality. Parish synod reps from our churches all too often return deeply frustrated; not because their motions were defeated (they didn't expect otherwise) but because they felt they weren't even heard. So what other forums do we have? We can't preach because we're women, or didn't go to Moore, or are divorced, or married to people who have been, or are perhaps just plain suspect. Our letters don't get published in Southern Cross, and more than a few of us were kicked off the old SydAng bulletin boards. Letters to bishops are ignored, and phone calls don't get past personal assistants who say "I'll notify him of your call". So what avenues remain?

The media and the web. And sometimes what you call "a thoroughly unproductive way of going about things" is the only option we've got. Many of us, myself included, have tried being polite and quietly spoken - and we were ignored. So all that remains is to become squeaky wheels in the face of the big machine, and even then it's only those of us with nothing left to lose who can afford do that.

Fighting for the right of those excluded by the church to discover Christ's love, forgiveness, and compassion is never a waste of time. I also wish there was no need to resort to some of the more abrasive tactics: I dare say Jesus wished he didn't have to use a whip to evict the temple's money-lenders. But the temple needed cleansing, and nothing else worked...

Friday, 19 June 2009

Wanna bet?

The discussion about Sydney diocese’s $100 million loss continues with David Ould posting on both his own site and Stand Firm - you can follow my discussion with David in the comments here. After taking exception to the suggestion that the Diocese was “gambling” (which like most working-class vices is generally considered by Evangelicals to be A Very Bad Thing, as opposed to middle class vices, which are rarely regarded with the same scorn), he concludes by asking
“Was the Diocesan decision to borrow and gear up their investments a wise decision? Was it shrewd? Were other people doing the same thing? Were they advising further gearing up, not for individual assets but the extension of already diversified portfolios?

Hindsight is always a wonderful thing, but to my way of thinking any exposure of that magnitude can’t help but suggest a lack of wisdom in an organisation’s investment strategy. Plenty of people have been stung in the past year, but not that badly: the diocese didn't just gear up, they geared up bigtime. Granted, since the diocese hasn’t made their asset/loss ratio public it’s hard to accurately put the loss into perspective, but let’s not lose sight of the reality that from any perspective $100 million is a bloody huge amount of money. So big that I refuse to believe the people to whom it ultimately belonged – the Anglican parishioners of Sydney – have a right to know more details than they’ve so far been told.

I believe there’s something very wrong about the wall of silence that followed the loss. Rumours have been circulating for over six months, and yet it took a journalist from the Sydney Morning Herald to start investigating the matter before most parishioners new anything. Late last year clergy were advised of a reduction in available funding for the coming year, but other than this there was nothing.

Were the Diocese a publically listed company Australian law would have required the leadership to make a public announcement immediately upon learning about this loss. But it’s not, and they didn’t. One might hope that as Christians they’d have had a natural inclination towards transparency and disclosure, but that’s certainly not how it appears from the way things they’ve been handled to date. Rumour (and the size of the loss) suggests investments were being made in products like Macquarie Bank’ Fortress Notes, or even the spectacularly “Queensland” (sorry to my Brisbane friends – but it’s hard not to notice the stereotype ;-) Storm Financial. The truth is even seasoned Sydney watchers like myself simply don’t know what was going on.

Maybe all will be revealed in Synod, and maybe I’m just a hopeless cynic, but past observation has taught me not to hold my breath. I’ll be happy to wager a bottle of wine against anyone who thinks I’ll be proven wrong – but that would be gambling, wouldn’t it? Even though it’s a bet I’ll be praying I lose.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Don't get all tied up in knots...

... just get a fish and a cardboard box!!!

As you can see, our little fellow's grown a bit since the last photo of him here! He's also proof that if you can't smile at the end of a great day on St. Kilda Pier you probably can't smile at all... which case you'd probably better get up and join us on the floor:

Currently on high rotation in the Casa del Caliban; play it and you'll understand the opening stuff about fishes and cardboard boxes - we're all having fun!

Sunday, 14 June 2009

It's not called 'Gambling' if you win.

It’s been fascinating to watch people’s responses to the news of Sydney diocese’s financial blunder. The letters published by the Sydney Morning Herald the day after the story broke mirrored the responses I’ve personally encountered: the true believers couldn’t see what the fuss was about, while those less effectively indoctrinated were disgusted.

Of the nine letters in the Herald that day, only one was openly supportive Archbishop Jensen, describing the loss as “unfortunate” – an understatement if ever there was one! The writer then continued by criticising Rev. Cornish, who had previously called the Diocesan Secretariat to take responsibility for the loss, as well as for the excessive enthusiasm with which an extremely high-risk investment strategy had been embraced. “Working together to serve Jesus” the letter decries with an unctious piety worthy of Trollope’s Obadiah Slope, “might be better than embedding division”.

Which becomes hilarious when you realise that the author is a Vice-president of the Anglican Church League - one of the most divisive groups in Anglicanism, and whose web site routinely sings the praises of every schism, division, and split in the Communion – irrespective of the pain that event causes the people who actually live and worship in the country/diocese/parish where it’s occurring. “Do as I say and not as I do” just reached a whole new benchmark.

Another writer correctly points out that virtually everyone with money in sharemarket has taken a beating. What they fail to grasp is that the diocese wasn’t just investing in blue-chip stocks which will almost certainly eventually return to their pre-recession levels; the diocese was borrowing money, using their significant property assets as collateral, and then investing that borrowed money in high-risk, theoretically high-return shares. Hence they haven’t lost a few million on paper because the value of their portfolio has declined, they’ve lost $100 million because they’ve had to repay loans for shares that are now worthless. There’s a difference; the same difference as there is between gambling and investing, and it’s a difference the Sydney Diocesan Secretariat still doesn’t seem capable of understanding. Or perhaps just don’t want to admit.

Someone else asks the very valid question as to why any organisation which can accumulate sufficient assets to be able to cover this kind of loss should be exempt from paying tax. While at Moore College I was often amused at the fervor with which my fellow ordinands attacked the great Australian blue-collar passion for tax evasion, while never stopping to consider their own church’s failure to pay tax. Only once did I dare suggest if this was such a grievous sin the Church might set a better example by choosing to voluntarily pay the same rates as required of non-religious corporate citizens; the resulting fury made me think better of opening my mouth a second time. These days I’m no longer such a coward: if Churches – any church, from traditional denominations to outright cults like Scientology – engage in commercial enterprises (including property investment and stock-market speculation) they should be subject to the same rules and obligations as anyone else. Anything less is unjust.

The best letter of all was from one Sean Linskon of Potts Point – I’ll quote it in full because it really is a work of genius; almost a week later it’s still got me laughing:
Ah, the House of Jensen crippled by a bad gambling habit. God works in mysterious ways, doesn’t she?

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Serving two masters...

It’s a bit of a worry when Father Christian is quicker off the mark to discuss issues in Sydney diocese than Caliban’s Dream, but since I’m on a roll (by my tragic standards, at least ;-) when it comes to blogging I thought some local perspective on the Diocesan machinery’s spectacular loss of 100 million dollars wouldn’t go astray.

Now I realise lots of people have endured spectacular losses in the past year, and obviously the larger the investor he greater the loss, but as the Rev. Cornish (one of Sydney’s few - but truly courageous - “good guys”) pointed out in the Sydney Morning Herald, were losses of this magnitude sustained by a secular organisation those responsible would be held accountable. In the Sydney Anglican diocese’s case, however… after all, it’s not as if this is a case of someone wearing a chasuble, or women becoming priests, or anything shocking like that .

What I find amusing – if it can be possible to find anything funny about this appalling waste of parishioner’s (and ultimately God’s) money – is that this has got to be the first time it can honestly be said that Mrs. Caliban and I are more conservative than the happy-go-lucky bigshots in the Sydney Diocesan Secretariat. That’s because what they were doing is exactly what some fellows at a merchant bank for whom I did some I.T. contracting a couple of years back tried to talk us into.

The strategy was this: using your existing assets you borrow money which is in turn used to buy shares. The gamble is that the capital gains and dividends paid on the shares exceeds the interest payable on the loans: if it does you make a tidy little profit; if it doesn’t you’ve got to find some way of covering the loan repayments or else lose everything. In the case of the two fellows we knew, their strategy was to invest heavily in U.S. sub-prime mortgage bonds. “Can’t fail” they insisted. “Even the Sydney Anglican church is doing this” one of them urged.

I’ve since lost contact with those two, but I know they’re no longer employed by that bank. Nor do I know if the Diocese really was sinking money into that particular scheme (which was quite possible; it was a blue-chip bank much feted by institutional investors) but if not that scheme then the Diocese was sucked in by one very much like it: they borrowed against church assets (primarily their spectacular property portfolio, I believe) to sink money into high-yield, high-risk shares. The same sort of investments that we looked at and thought were idiotically risky prospects at around the same time the Diocese was diving in head first.

Sure the guys pushing this scheme said it “couldn’t lose”. Then again, didn’t the same sort of people say that about tulips in the 17th century? But the people in Holland back then weren’t playing with money given in good faith over many years by people who expected it to be managed responsibly for the on-going work of the church.

Perhaps the most pertinent comment I’ve heard was made by a local radio talk-show host. A professed agnostic who’s never hidden his distain for the Jensens, his first comment when hearing about the Diocese’s stupid and irresponsible speculation said it all: “Isn’t there something in the Bible about doing that sort of thing?”.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Of cold water, a kayak, and church.

A few months ago Mrs. Caliban bought me a kayak as a birthday present. Spare time isn’t a commodity I have much of, but a large part of what little there is has since been spent paddling in attempt to get fit while exploring the fascinating upper reaches of Sydney Harbour.

As part of this I decided to join a large nearby kayak club. One evening a week more than a hundred paddlers meet to race over a 12km course: while aware my boat (and fitness level) is nowhere near as spectacular as many of the competitors, I’d practiced the course for a number of weeks, and was confident of my ability to achieve a respectable time. I’d spoken with a few club officials, and been assured my boat and times were more than sufficient to join: in short everyone couldn’t have been more welcoming.

So when it was time for my first race I was nervous, but confident things wouldn’t be too much of a disaster. Coming last wasn’t my concern (after all, someone’s got to, and as the least experienced competitor I was under no illusions of my own ability), just the fear of getting in the way of much faster (& less stable) boats. Let’s be blunt about it: I was a newcomer, and like newcomers everywhere I wanted to be accepted, and not upset any new friends.

You can tell where this is leading… despite arriving early, and having supposed to have been among the first group starting (the race is handicapped, so slow-coaches like myself are not straggling back long after the athletes have finished), the club officials couldn’t find the forms necessary for newcomers, so I didn’t actually get on the water and racing until the fastest competitors were scheduled to start.

Naturally they left me far behind in a matter of moments. Alone I set to work, finding my own rhythm as the paddle cut into the cold black water. Since racing occurs at night I’d mounted lights at both ends of my boat as instructed, but just prior to starting was told these were too bright, and could distract other competitors. Hurriedly I covered them over with duct tape until they emitted the same faint, barely visible glow as everyone else’s lights. In the dark this was useless at helping me to see the course, but – as I'd also just learned – most people were using GPS navigation devices, so they didn’t need to worry about seeing obstacles like overhanging branches, or snags. All they needed to do was follow the glowing line on their miniature screens which kept them on a safe course in the middle of the river; the barely luminous lights were more than enough to avoid collisions if boats drew close.

Without any such techno-magic I was on my own in the dark, struggling to hold my pace while avoiding a collision with the fast moving boats already on their returning leg and at the same time avoid carving into the tangled mangrove swamp on either side of the river. A sudden swerve to miss the last group lapping me saw my blade slamming into an overhanging branch, and I was over.

That part of the harbour is called a river, but really it’s an estuary in the middle of a national park. It’s dark, murky, and the kind of water bull sharks love. Since it’s winter here it was also bloody cold. After a couple of failed attempts to get back into the kayak I decided to try dragging the boat into the mangroves, where it could be bailed out and hopefully reboarded. The fleet had long passed, and on my own I eventually managed to this, grateful I’d worn both a pfd and an inflatable thermal vest, despite feeling very nerdy at the start when lined up against the pros clad in nothing more than lycra singlets.

Obviously I made it back to the carpark, or I wouldn’t be writing this. Nobody helped, and in my own middle-aged suburban way I’m kind of proud of my resilience and survival skills: by myself in the dark I scrambled far enough into the tangled swamp to stand, right my boat, and get things to the point where I could paddle back to the start. The cuts on my feet and hands from snags have now just about healed: by fastidiously applying antiseptic for the next few days only a few managed to get infected – the water at that end of the harbour isn’t the cleanest by a long shot, and since I didn’t get a dose of gastro I guess none was swallowed during my dunkings.

None of which is to be seen as a criticism of the club with whom I paddled. They obviously cater for a much more serious league of kayaker than unfit overweight beginners like me in sturdy-and-friendly-but-not-very-fast tubs like mine . Which is fine: top level racers have every right to their own association in which to train and race. Myonly complaint is that they weren’t sufficiently self-aware to realise this. If you’re going to invite hazards like me to join you please try not to leave us struggling alone in the dark after we’ve run into trouble while trying to stay out of your way.

All of which strikes me as a fabulous metaphor for what a lot of churches are like. These days “growth” is the word on everyone’s lips: not many parishes are honest enough to admit they don’t really feel comfortable with newcomers. Yet not many congregations seem capable of realising those of us who haven’t spent years training to become spiritual athletes often feel pretty clumsy when we’re lined up alongside you each Sunday. Saying outsiders are welcome is easy: actually making those whose understanding of the Christian life is not as mature – or maybe just different – to your own definition of Christian morality and experience is much harder.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been in a church that wants to reach out to it’s surrounding community but failed, and to be honest the responsibility for some of those failures is my own. Yet as I look back on my own scared efforts in the cold muddy water, the feeling I get isn’t very different to that which comes when I think about some of the times I’ve tried to fit in with congregations I never ended up becoming part of. I tipped my canoe over because of inexperience, lack of knowledge of the river, and general unfitness. There’s nobody to blame but me. Maybe the same can be said of those who aren’t able to find their place in our own communities of faith. But somehow I can’t accept that it’s ok for Churches to operate in the same way as a kayaking club.

Our call is to reach out to the weak, lost, confused, mistaken, or just plain sinful. Not just the doctrinally or liturgically adroit, but also to those prone to crash, or to fall out of their boats. Sure it’s fun to go fast, to skim along at the extreme edge of one’s hard-earned ability. Nobody enjoys scrambling in the mud and slime with some clutz who doesn’t have a clue. Except that’s exactly what Jesus did.

Monday, 6 April 2009

... and so we continue in prayer.

People who attended Catherine Peters' funeral have described the service to me as a "truly life-changing event" - one of those rare moments when all present feel God grieving as they themselves weep, and yet when they simultaneously feel the exhilaration of eternity, and our true future, breaking into time. Bosco has left this note for everyone:

Bosco, Helen, and Jonathan are deeply thankful for the thoughtfulness of so many since Catherine died. Through kind words, hugs, flowers, gifts to Oxfam, prayers, recalling stories, baking, and practical help, so many people have shared in this great loss and are supporting us in it. Together we share our gratefulness for the years with our gorgeous, smiling, vivacious, quirky, kind-hearted Catherine. Thank you for supporting, remembering, and celebrating, and for keeping us in your thoughts and prayers.

We will indeed continue to support, remember, and celebrate Catherine, along with everyone torn apart during this past dark month. And one day, one precious perfect day, we shall see clearly. Face-to-face, laughing with eyes unclouded by tears; till then let nobody every think they need cry alone.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Now is the time of tears...

It’s been a few days now, but I’m still gasping with shock at the tragic death of Bosco and Helen Peters’ daughter Catherine.

Fr. Bosco’s site is one of the Anglican web’s greatest treasures, and in January I had the privilege of meeting him and Helen while I was in Christchurch. What was supposed to be a quick cup of coffee ended up being the better part of a day spent sitting outside at the Arts Centre sharing our lives in the wonderful, heart-breaking, inspiring and utterly maddening journey that is faith. Together they are among the most inspiring and Christ-like people I’ve met: genuine and funny, filled with insight and the kind of honest love that makes me remember why I first became involved with this whole Christianity thing – because there really is a God who cares enough about people to dwell in our midst, shining both around us and through us in spite of whatever circumstances in which we might find ourselves.

All of which makes this all the more hard to comprehend. Why so vicious an evil should befall such great people as Helen, Bosco, and their son Jonathan, is beyond comprehension: like any theology graduate I’ve spent countless hours studying the strengths and weaknesses of endless theodicies, but none have ever seemed more than fatuous when considered in the light of a tragedy like this. In such times it’s only a touch that’s real, a kind word and the warmth that comes from being held by those sharing in our grief; those who also know what it is to live in a world clouded by sadness so dark that it seems the sun might never be seen again.

Which is why I’d like to send an expression of love and support to Bosco, Helen and Jonathan from all of us in the wonderful community orbiting around OCICBW… Ours may be a “virtual” church, but it’s no less real (and considerably more so) than many congregations I’ve had the misfortune to encounter, and on this terrible occasion we can as a community let Catherine’s family know we’re there with those whom she loved most.

The funeral looks like being next Monday afternoon, which will be late Sunday night/early Monday morning for those of you in the Northern Hemisphere. At the moment it doesn’t look as though I’ll be able to get on a flight so that I can attend myself, but members of my family in Christchurch will be delivering flowers on behalf of all of us in the OCICBW… gang. In addition I thought it would be nice if I could put together a book of all of our thoughts and support for Bosco, Helen, and Jonathan, letting them know in a physical way that we’re all thinking of them.

Please send what ever you’d like included in an email to me at making sure to put “Catherine Peters Memorial” in the subject field so that my irritatingly hyper-active spam filter doesn’t grab it. As many of you have probably already learned, my email server is very unreliable, so I’ll confirm your comments have arrived within 12 hours of your sending them: if you haven’t heard back from me by then please resend.

I’ll print them out on some nice paper, one comment to a page, and bind them, which will make a permanent record of our support for Catherine’s family: the weeks, months and years ahead are going to bring some very dark times, and this way our friends can have a reminder that we’re there for them long after the internet’s moved on. Please say as much or as little as you need to: just remember that I’ll need to have everything by Friday evening U.S. time at the latest in order to have it in Christchurch by Monday N.Z. time.

And please, remember Bosco, Helen and Jonathan in your prayers.

Rest in Peace dear Catherine, until we all find ourselves dancing in the Light which shall never be overcome.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

After the fires...

Thanks to everyone for your prayers last Friday and Saturday. Unlike far too many people in Australia we came safely through the horrors of last weekend. I took this picture from the side of the road behind our place the day after everything was extinguished: it shows how the fire was lit at the top of the escarpment and then blew back towards the road and houses – yes, the police say it was deliberately lit, probably by local kids. Fortunately nobody was hurt here – my heart goes out to everyone in those communities where this wasn’t the case.

It was about half past three in the afternoon when first I smelled the smoke: Mrs Caliban was at work and Miss Nearly-Three at pre-school, while the littlest duck-nodle had just woken from his afternoon nap. This was what we could see from our back verandah; just after this picture was taken our neighbour suggested we start hosing everything down, and shared the “comforting” news that in the ’94 fires the house behind his was lost…

Ten minutes later everything was dark, the sun a blurred ball through the smoke. By this point the dogs were too frightened to complain any more at having been brought inside, and our eyes were starting to sting. Wrapped up against the burning embers falling from the sky, the little fellow and I were spraying water on the garden and roof to protect against spot fires.

Words can’t describe what it felt like to see the fire helicopter arrive. The noise was incredible, and in the dense smoke we could often only tell where it was from the sound. Nor can words convey how grateful we felt to the men and women risking their lives to fly under these conditions.

You can just make out the helicopter’s water bucket hanging down – the pilot was dropping beneath the escarpment to fill it from the river, then skipping back up to drop another load. The roar of steam each time it emptied was indescribable: the courage it must take to fly like that is breathtaking.

After picking the rest of the team up (who couldn’t believe how badly we reeked of smoke) we returned a few hours later to see the sky clearing and the helicopter leaving. What this picture doesn’t show are the hundreds of black leaves blown onto the grass during the fire, nor the little burnt circles where each one of them landed.

None of which matters in the slightest – that nobody was hurt is the only thing of any importance. What we experienced was absolutely nothing compared with the people in Victoria, and all our hearts and prayers go out to them. Hundreds – if not thousands- of people have lost everything except the clothes on their backs, many are in hospital, and most tragic of all is that the final death toll looks like exceeding 200. Thanks to everyone who was praying for us (knowing there was a community of people around the globe caring meant an incredible amount) but please don’t stop now! A whole lot of people need your prayers and thoughts far more than we did, and the community springing out of our beloved Mad Priest’s place might all be a lot of ne’er-do-well trouble-makers, but there’s no denying God hears each one of you! Thank you again.

Monday, 26 January 2009

Australia Day 2009

Please stand for the National Anthem...

When the pubs played bands like this every night, when the idea of watching a DJ was too stupid to even contemplate, and when us getting messed up in yet another pointless and unwinnable foreign war was unimaginable. You had to be there back in the day ... ;-)