“You can’t really move forward unless you first look back”
In May this year (2021) after several delays due to Covid restrictions we were able to launch two very important books at Ridley College by Dr Stuart Piggin the Sydney historian. I was given the privilege of being the speaker on this occasion. What follows is the address that I gave. The occasion was also combined with a celebration of the centenary of the late John Stotts birth and the annual Charles Perry lecture also given by Dr Stuart Piggin.
The book launch address by Peter Corney.
It is a great pleasure and privilege to have a role on this occasion today. Because three people whom I admire and greatly respect are featured here today. First, John Stott who had such a profound, inspired, and wide influence on contemporary Evangelicalism and indeed on my own life and ministry. Second, Stuart Piggin, a friend, and whose work as a historian of the Christian influence on our nation is so important. Third, Harry Goodhew a person and an Australian Church leader I greatly admire.
We are gathered to launch two books “Attending to the National Soul” and the biography of Harry Goodhew. The first is the second volume of Stuart Piggin and the late Robert Linder’s history of the significant influence of Evangelical Christians on our nation’s history since European settlement. The first volume covered the period from 1740 – 1914 and this volume from 1914 – 2014.
The record in these two volumes is so important and needs to be made more widely known especially in our current cultural context. One where the Christian foundations of our culture are now largely forgotten or distorted by an aggressive secularism and various ideological reconstructions.
There is a rather quirky novel by a French writer Michel Tournier whose central character is a fourth Wise Man in the life of Jesus. His unique role is that he always arrives too late for the great events in the life of Jesus. He misses the nativity, he’s just too late for the Sermon on the Mount and arrives too late for the Last Supper in the upper room. But he does find a bit of left- over bread and picks it up and eats it!
The story is a bit like a metaphor for the present state of Western culture. So preoccupied with the present, so distracted by our prosperity, our popular media and entertainment, so controlled by a hyper individualism, that we have missed or lost the knowledge and meaning of the past key events and beliefs that have shaped our culture and its best values.
But like Tournier’s fourth wise man we still manage to scrounge some meagre sustenance for our weakening inherited values from what we have missed or abandoned from the scraps that are left behind. But the scraps are disappearing, and historical amnesia is a dangerous affliction for a culture’s future.
It is said that ‘‘you can’t really move forward till you first look back.” I first heard that statement from an indigenous female elder in North Queensland as she was discussing the way forward in relationships between indigenous and other Australians.
Stuart’s historical work helps us to do that with the history of the Church in Australia as we try to move forward in tackling the challenges we have today in our contemporary culture. For example, in chapters eleven and twelve there is a good account of the challenges presented to our culture and the Church by the 1960’s and 70’s period of radical and rapid social change. It records how parts of the Church responded poorly, and so declined rapidly by the 1980’s but many evangelicals did better and were more creative and adaptive in that period especially in the youth culture of the Baby Boomers.
We are now in a new and even more challenging period of change and the Churches cultural profile is smaller and more contested. To meet these challenges, we need to first look back if we are to move forward creatively and faithfully. This book helps us do that.
There are different ways of looking back, some are helpful, and some are not. For example:
- Nostalgia is not usually very productive.
- Grief and anger at our losses are not very productive either.
- But examining past responses to social and cultural changes and challenges can be. You can see the mistakes more clearly and identify the creative and positive responses that were influential and productive, and which contain key principles.
This major work helps us do that. So, thank you Stuart and to the late Bob Linder for these two volumes of the history of the Church in Australia and the key contribution of Evangelicals. May they have the influence they deserve.
My second task is to launch Stuarts fine biography of Harry Goodhew. Harry is a person and a leader whom I greatly admire. He has that rare combination of Godliness and strength of conviction with inclusiveness and collaboration. Not a common combination! The book is a very comprehensive study of his life and the influences on him.
There are many interesting insights to be gained from Harry’s life and into the Diocese of Sydney. One of the fascinating things to me was Stuarts inside account of Harrys election as the Archbishop of Sydney in 1993. It’s an eyewitness and insiders account of the politics of such elections by Stuart who actually ran Harry’s campaign. An unusual role for a historian!
The other thing that caught my attention was that Harrys ministry in the parish of St Stephens Coorparoo in Brisbane coincided roughly with mine at St Hilary’s Kew in Melbourne in the early 1970’s, a very turbulent time culturally. What I discovered in Stuart’s biography was that St Stephens and St Hilary’s both approached that period of change in similar ways, and both grew to become large congregations in a time when others were declining. For example, they both pursued the following methods: (a) Strong youth ministry with contemporary worship and culturally relevant music. (b) An effective evangelistic ministry, Harry developed E.E (Evangelism Explosion) and Kew used Christianity Explained. (Today one would probably use “Alpha.”) (c) Both adapted and applied Church Growth principles that were drawn from cultural analysis of the social changes taking place. They included developing lay ministry gifts, small groups in homes, and connecting with the local community and its needs. This is an example of my earlier observation about learning from the past especially in periods of dramatic social change. Find the principles of adaption that are effective and consistent with our theological convictions! To move forward we have to first look back!
So, it is my great pleasure to launch both these excellent books that have so much to teach us about how we can respond to the challenges we face today.
Peter Corney (Vicar Emeritus St Hilary’s Kew.)