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It’s time for Christians to come back to the public square: Jensen

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Outgoing Sydney Anglican Archbishop Peter Jensen. Photo: sydneyanglicans.net

Outgoing Sydney Anglican Archbishop Peter Jensen. Photo: sydneyanglicans.net

Peter Jensen, outgoing Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, has been one of Australia’s most public Christians since taking up the post in 2001. And he thinks there should be many more ‘public Christians’, as he told his audience at a Centre for Christian Living event last night.

At one of his last public speeches as Archbishop, Jensen said he believes Christians in Australia have become “lazy and complacent … We’ve thought it was impossible that the basic Christian ideology could be threatened. We’ve allowed other ideologies to sweep in and take the field.”

Tracing the beginning of the decline of Christianity in Australia back to the 1960s, Jensen said that since then, “little has been done at an intellectual level to contest the narrative which is supplanting the Christian narrative. The practical work of Christians still goes on, but the intellectual contribution of Christians and engagement with society is sadly lacking. And the fault lies mainly with the Christian side on this.”

The prevailing narrative at the moment, according to Jensen, is one of individualism coupled with the belief that we live in a secular society.

“I love being Australian and the sort of country we are. But the secularist narrative, in my opinion, fails to understand the history and nature of Australia. Australia is not a secular country: not ideologically, not historically, not demographically or constitutionally … It is not a secularist nation in which there is no appeal to, or no word at all of, God.”

Jensen warned of giving too much attention to the words of secularists who attack religion and herald its demise.

“That Christianity in the West may be in decline does not mean that religion is in decline. That’s a serious mistake. Christianity isn’t replaced by people like Richard Dawkins. It is being replaced by other religions. The question is not whether there will be no religion, it’s a question of which religion would you like?”

It is time, says Jensen, for Christians to start speaking again into the public square, but he stressed the need to always trace back our public statements to the Bible itself. He bemoaned the number of Christians he has heard in the public sphere who speak on issues “without ever mentioning the name of God”.

When that happens, he said, “the devil cheers”.

“The Bible delivers a particular way of thinking about human beings. An anthropology, a doctrine. The Bible is a universal book, aimed at all people. We preach to all, not some. That’s our business.

“We have a mandate to preach and teach the Bible. Never mind about the people wanting to shut us up. We do this out of love of neighbour, and love of God.”

Given Jensen has been such a vocal proponent of Christianity within the public square (see our compilation of some of Jensen’s finest moments at the bottom of this article), it seemed fitting for the Archbishop to wrap up his public appearances talking about how to be a ‘public’ Christian, though he said on taking up the Archbishop role in 2001 he was “surprised” at just how public the role was.

Jensen said his term as Archbishop was littered with attacks and questions about the Christian view of homosexuality and gay marriage. And while it’s not the issue he would have chosen to talk about, he says the nature of the media and the public square is that you very rarely get to choose the issues you are required to speak on.

But, at each point and no matter what the topic – homosexuality, euthanasia, abortion, anti-discrimination, even Christian education – there is a contest between the Christian view of what it is to be human, and what encompasses the “good life”.

“We live in a very contested world, and in order to live in it we ourselves need to know what we believe and why we believe it. You can’t choose the ground or even the means sometimes, but in any case we should speak by grace.”

How Peter Jensen kept the Bible in the public eye (compiled by John Sandeman)

Peter Jensen told the Sydney Morning Heralds Deborah Snow in an interview to mark his retirement that if he’s achieved anything, it has been to ”keep the talk about God alive and well in the public space … so that people are reminded that Jesus Christ is the king of the universe.”

His “reign” as Archbishop began with a classic tale of how a media slip turned into a masterstroke:

“Asked at his first press conference as Archbishop-elect in June 2001 if he had any advice for then Prime Minister John Howard, he said, “Read your Bible.” The Weekend Australian Magazine recounts. “The Howard government was caught in twin storms at the time, the first over the mandatory detention of asylum seekers, the second over Aboriginal reconciliation. Jensen insists now, as then, that he wasn’t trying to suggest that Howard was “out of step with God” but simply that it’s important for political leaders to keep Christian principles at the forefront of their minds. (Jensen’s media officer, Russell Powell, says: “That statement has been interpreted in a thousand different ways, but all he meant was, ‘Everyone should read their Bible, all the time’.”)”

“Read your Bible” took over the whole front page of Sydney’s Daily Telegraph. If it was a sad reflection on our society that to tell the PM to read his Bible was big news, it was the best beginning a Christian leader could hope for.

In 2005, in a major profile by Andrew West in the left leaning journal The Monthly, Jensen’s attitude to politics is revealed in an anecdote about Bill Shorten:

“Bill Shorten, federal secretary of the Australian Workers’ Union, arrived at the concrete-box office block behind St Andrew’s Cathedral in Sydney. He took the lift to the first floor and was ushered into a sparse office, where a snowy-haired, middle-aged man in oversized gold-rimmed glasses sat behind an uncluttered desk.

“So why have you come to see me?” the man enquired of Shorten.

“Because we can’t pick your politics, we can’t pigeonhole you,” Shorten told him.

“That’s right,” the man replied. “I’m in no one’s pocket.”

Again in 2005, the high water mark of Jensen’s time in the public square was his Boyer lectures—the ABC’s prestigious lecture series— entitled The Future of Jesus. He aimed high, telling the ABC that “I am hoping to provoke people to read the Gospels as adults, and recognise his [Jesus’] significance for a modern world in which religion is suddenly on the agenda once more.”

The SMH’s Mark Duffy was puzzled: “The ABC website says the purpose of the annual lectures is “to present ideas on major social, scientific or cultural issues”. But what the Anglican Jensen has given us, in two lectures so far, strikes me more as a sermon, indeed a vigorous attempt to convert listeners to Christianity.” But Duffy also said, “I wish him well in his appeal for converts.”

Roy Williams in The Australian gave a more positive review. “It soon becomes evident that Jensen is not an anti-intellectual primitive or a rigid biblical literalist. He understands that faith and reason are “indispensible allies”. He appreciates the vital importance of free speech and religious tolerance. He lauds multiculturalism (“the new and different Australia is a wonderful place”). He denounces anti-Semitism (“utterly reprehensible, tragic and unhistorical”). He supports fully the separation of church and state, while recognising the crucial distinction between freedom of religion (a basic right) and freedom from religion (a postmodern idea).”

In 2007 Peter Jensen attracted the ABC’s Chaser team who, literally catching him on the run, congratulated him on “returnimg the church to the Bible” before quizzing him on whether we should be imposing the Exodus 35 penalty for working on the Sabbath. Handling Chaser was probably an 11 out of ten in difficulty. One commentator on the “Ship of fools website”— hardly a Jensen-friendly place—said “Kudos to Jensen for keeping his cool and taking it on the chin.”

Possibly the toughest gig for a Christian leader in the public square is the ABC show Q&A. True to the show’s name, any question can be raised and a quick answer is required. Jensen projected a calm and thoughtful demeanour on Q&A— not an easy thing to do—but a corrective to the audience’s view of Christians. And, as it happens, an accurate portrait of himself. But then a really difficult question came.

Dr Jensen was invited by a questioner to unload on the Australian Christian Lobby’s chief executive, Jim Wallace, for saying that a homosexual lifestyle was as unhealthy as smoking.

Outrage at the comment went stratospheric. The Wallace line even prompted the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, to withdraw from addressing next month’s ACL national conference, but Jensen would not dump on Wallace.

”No, I won’t say that. I am generally supportive of ACL, I have to say. I don’t support everything that’s said by its leaders,” said Jensen.

”What he [Wallace] has done for us, rightly or wrongly, is given us an opportunity to talk about something significant, namely the question of health risks.”

The easy way out would have been to distance himself from Jim Wallace, but Jensen displayed a loyalty to Wallace who had had difficulty in an earlier Q&A appearance.

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