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Peter Jensen on books, Billy Graham and finding spiritual refreshment

In this sweeping conversation, blogger Geoff Robson talks to Peter Jensen, former Archbishop of Sydney, about life and ministry – including his favourite book of all-time, how he became a Christian, why he wanted to be a stand-up comedian, why he tries to emulate Billy Graham, and how he has found spiritual refreshment for the last five decades.


GR: Peter, what’s the best way to introduce you?

Screen Shot 2014-11-26 at 5.00.14 pmPJ: Someone recently introduced me by saying that I was the former Archbishop of Sydney, which means I’m dead. But I am the former Archbishop of Sydney, the former Principal of Moore College, an ordained clergyman – but most of all, I’m a son of God.

GR: This may be apocryphal, but I’ve heard it said that if you hadn’t gone into full-time Christian ministry, you would have liked to consider a career as a stand-up comedian…

PJ: This is true, I have said that. It’s not apocryphal.

GR: Do you have any material leftover that you’d like to try out on people?

[Laughs] No, but the way I’m taking this retreat [the Latimer Retreat that Peter hosted this year] is, I hope, funny.

I regard it as the first duty of the minister to – I was about to say to entertain, and that may not be quite the right word – but at least to present [the word of God] in a way that captures the interest of his audience. And being funny is one of those ways, if you can manage it.

GR: Tell us how you became a Christian.

PJ: I grew up in a churchgoing family, but I think personal faith was lacking. When I was in my 16th year in 1959, I went to a [Billy] Graham Crusade that was being held in Sydney, and when Mr Graham invited people to come forward and give their lives to Christ, I did so. That was on April 20th, 1959. The sermon was on Noah and the Ark, and I have some fairly vivid memories of the occasion, as you may imagine.

That introduced me to the world of what you may call personal faith, rather than simply formal faith. It was a transforming experience – one that has guided my life ever since. I hope I’ve grown in understanding, but never away from the gospel that was preached that afternoon.

GR: What led you into full-time vocational ministry after becoming a Christian in 1959?

PJ: One of the things that Mr Graham mentioned in one of his sermons – I went back 17 times to hear him, much to the despair of my parents – was the need for people to go into full-time ministry. That just lodged in my mind as a 15-year-old, though it seemed inconsequential at the time.

When I left school, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I started to do Law – didn’t like it, failed, was tossed out of the Law school. [Around that time] I went to see a doctor because I kept falling asleep, and I was wondering if there was something physically wrong. He wasn’t a believer, but he said to me, “what do you really want to do?” And immediately I articulated for the first time, “I want to go into the ministry.” So he said, “Well, stop studying Law and go into the ministry,” which seemed like a good idea.

In our youth group experience, there was a huge amount of opportunity for ministry – something which may not always be there today. We had to run the Sunday School, we had to run the youth group, and then we got involved with Scripture Union camps. So life for us as a group of friends mostly revolved around ministry, and hence it wasn’t such a big leap to say, “I want to go into the ministry.”

GR: How have you stayed spiritually refreshed in your Christian walk for over 55 years?

PJ: I don’t think I’m introspective enough to be able to answer the question, so I’ll put it another way: How has God, in his mercy, kept me spiritually fresh? Here, I’m sorry to tell you, there are no surprises. What God has done is simply given me the Bible, which I’ve constantly read. I’ve said my prayers when I can. And he’s given me – both in my wife Christine, but also in my church – that Christian fellowship which has renewed, strengthened, and kept me. The prayers of God’s people and the care of God’s people – no surprises here! The thing available to us all: Christian fellowship.

GR: Your ministry has, at times, been particularly public. Have you found that the pressures of that have impacted you spiritually?

PJ: In becoming Archbishop of Sydney, I had imperfect ideas of the role, though I had been close to it for a long time. You can’t know something until you get there. So I found myself in public in a way that perhaps I was not prepared for and little expected. So you’re thrust into a public role.

I always thought being Principal of Moore College was more important than being Archbishop of Sydney, and I still do, so I wasn’t quite prepared for the way in which the outsider respected the Archbishop. The need then was to make use of this respect – unearned though it was – for the gospel’s sake. And so I had to think carefully about how to use the opportunities to promote Christ and the gospel without being boring and predictable, and without saying the same thing again and again. That required some significant thought about how each issue that might come before us finds its roots in the Bible.

I observe sometimes that Christian spokesmen seem to comment on various affairs in a way that basically anyone could. They don’t say anything that appears particularly Christian. So I tried – with limited success, no doubt – to put forward points of view on important public matters, but in a way that people could see I was coming from a Christian perspective.

When I first became Archbishop, I feared that the media, understandably, has an interest in the affairs of this world, and in political and social matters, but that they have difficulty in seeing the spiritual roots of what we’re talking about. Therefore [at my first press conference after being appointed Archbishop], I deliberately chose the idea of saying, ‘I believe in angels’, of all things! I wanted to confront them with the fact that we were talking about spiritual matters, first and foremost, and then talk about the social and other matters in the context of spiritual matters. That was my intention. In fact I just met someone who, last week, came to me and said that he heard that press conference, and that the comment about the resurrection from the dead changed his life completely. So there we are – I’d never known that.

You couldn’t prepare for [media scrutiny]. There were days in which the world went mad and 30 people rang you up. You can’t prepare for that, and it came as a surprise. Fortunately, I had two press officers who were mag
nificent in their role, Margaret Rodgers and Russell Powell. I may have been surprised, but I was extremely well supported.

GR: What issues did you find hardest to speak about, in terms of getting from the issue to the gospel?

PJ: There must have been some – I can’t think of any! I have a one-track mind.

I think one of the things I found difficult was that people don’t understand the difference between being a politician and being a media commentator – whether it’s someone within the media, or someone the media uses. It’s all very well for the commentator from within or from without, as I was, to pronounce, and to say this ought to happen or that ought to happen. But if you’re actually in politics, you have to deal with the reality and you have to make the hard decisions, which are always open to criticism.

The constant barrage of questions about refugees, for example, was difficult to deal with, because there’s not an easy answer. And it’s all very well for us to stand on our moral high horse and denounce the current answer. But we’re not the ones having to do it! There are moments where we have to say to our political leaders, ‘Whatever your answer is, you must respect human life, you must respect human dignity’. Yes, it’s right for us to call upon them for those standards, but I think we also ought to observe at the same time how difficult their job is, and to pray for them, and to assure them of our support and our help when we can give it when they haven’t actually done the wrong thing.

It’s a matter of balance here. Christian leaders need to be very careful before pontificating about matters which, if they were in charge, they could do no better. Our business isn’t to do the politician’s job for them, but to provide the help that they need in sensing what’s right and wrong, and in sensing what we need to do on the basis of the Bible and what God says.

GR: What about those of us who don’t have opportunities to speak publicly, but who will be having conversations with friends where they’re trying to give an account of how Christians think about particular issues – what advice would you pass on?

PJ: I generally try to move from the known to the unknown – to seek, in other words, to find common ground where people agree, and then to draw out the implications. Try to draw out the implications of what people believe already, because many of the things that people around us believe are actually Christian things, or quite in conformity with the Christian faith, or would, if they realised it, lead them to Christian faith.

To take one obvious case in point, I often notice the way in which we’re so quick to judge other people. And yet, why do we do that if we’re living in a world without God? Why do we judge other people? What’s the purpose of doing it, and on what grounds do we do it if there is no God? What standard are you appealing to in passing judgement on someone else? Is it just your own opinion – in which case, what gives you the right to judge another? Or is there some external opinion or standard to which you’re appealing here – and if so, what is it? A discussion along those lines may lead you to areas of theological interest, where people have their barriers taken down and are prepared to talk about deeply serious things.

To take another example, in talking about euthanasia, I always try to discuss the fact that there is no such thing as voluntary euthanasia, because voluntary euthanasia requires a freedom of the will that we don’t have. It requires a freedom from the opinions of other people, which is not possible. People around us are quite capable of influencing us in ways that suit their agenda, rather than in ways that suit the agenda of the patient. Now, people understand that description of reality – and then I take the discussion a little further: ‘In the Bible’s understanding, the people around us all have their own selfish agenda, so that a family member, when confronted with a dying relative, may be motivated less by their [family member’s] needs and more by their own need to get out of this situation – or perhaps even worse, to inherit their estate. No one would ever know that. It’s what the Bible calls sin. The problem with voluntary euthanasia is that we’re creatures who cannot be trusted with the lives of others because of our inner sinfulness.’ Now, I’ve found that people understand this, and I’ve never had any rejection of this analysis, nor have I had any objection to using the word ‘sin’.

On another note, I remember once talking to a reporter from a newspaper, and she asked me some question or other. Then she asked, ‘Is there anything you want to add, Archbishop?’ And I said, ‘Yes. I want to say that Jesus loves us all, and he came into the world to save us, and those who put their trust in Jesus can be saved.’ And she laughed! She was a New Zealander, as I remember! She laughed and said, ‘They wouldn’t print that, Archbishop.’ Now, that’s an interesting comment, isn’t it? That’s to do with censorship. They wouldn’t print my message.

GR: Let me ask you about something that I think is close to your heart – books. You read a lot of books, don’t you?

PJ: Yes, I was born short-sighted, and being short-sighted means you either choose books or you just go into a cave somewhere. So I chose books.

Those of us who are readers will generally have five or six or seven books on the go at once. I have reached the age of 71 and I’ve come to the conclusion that, if I survive, it might only be for another five years, and in that time I could only read 250 books, I guess – one a week, probably. Only 250 books out of all the books ever printed – you’re going to have to be pretty choosy about what you read!

GR: So how do you choose?

PJ: I choose books that interest me. I can’t read boring books. I choose books for entertainment and delight. I like a certain style of thriller, I guess, to entertain myself and switch off. On the more serious front – although thrillers are serious – I read history and English literature and theology. History, in particular, is my main interest and passion.

GR: When you’re asked for your most influential books, are there any that typically leap to mind?

PJ: Some books I couldn’t read again, but they have had an impact [on me]. When I was a child, aged 10-11, I read Wuthering Heights, and it set the standard for English literature. Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, similarly, I have read several times, but I can’t read it again. I can’t read Dickens again. I just can’t read it.

Recently, after the third attempt, I read War and Peace, and then I read around Russian history. War and Peace is justly regarded as one of the great novels. It inducts you into an extraordinary world – a world foreign to us, but a world recognizably the same as our own – to characters that will live in your memory, and to grand events. I thinkWar and Peace justly earns its accolade as perhaps the greatest novel ever written.

GR: It’s obvious that you spend a lot of time reading non-theological books…

PJ: Well, I like to read what interests me. Most theological books hardly interest me at all, really. I read the Bible – I think tha
t’s pretty important! I’m refreshed by the Reformers, and by some other authors. In terms of commentaries, I always regard the commentaries of my friend Peter O’Brien as being absolutely outstanding in their genre. And I’m blessed by reading commentaries as I read the Bible.

I read theological history, and I’ve recently read two American books that are incisive and helpful – one by Ross Douthat called Bad Religion, and one [by Kate Bowler] calledBlessed, which is a history of the prosperity doctrines. Both these books are significant and helpful, and they actually open your eyes as to why theology has moved, or why religion has moved in the direction that it has. I’ve found books of that nature extraordinarily helpful.

GR: As you read a book like War and Peace, or when you read books that aren’t discussing Christian things, what’s your thought process? You enjoy them and they’re entertaining, but how do you bring your Christian worldview to bear as you read those books?

PJ: All books are about Christian things, in the end. The Christian faith covers everything, and every book you read contributes to your understanding of the Christian faith one way or another. I just think the world is God’s, and history is God’s, and everything in [the world] belongs to God, so anything I’m reading feeds into a Christian faith and [a Christian] understanding of the world.

I’m very, very curious about why we’ve got where we’ve got, and I suppose from that point of view this is cultural history, which is intensely relevant to how we preach the gospel in today’s world.

For the full interview, head to Geoff Robson’s blog here