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Christian leader receives highest Australia Day honour

Sydney Uni Vice-Chancellor thankful to God for the opportunity to serve

Michael Spence received the highest Australia Day honour this week – Companion of the Order of Australia. But the Vice-Chancellor of Sydney University, one of Australia’s leading and highest-profile education institutions, doesn’t use such an impressive occasion to blow his own trumpet. Instead, his service to higher education in Australia is a way for Spence to honour what God has done for him.

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“God has been incredibly kind to me and part of what I want to do is express my attitude to that kindness, by the way in which I do my job – and by doing the job well,” said Spence, who is also an ordained Anglican minister.

“I hope that I scrutinise what I do more carefully.” – Michael Spence

Having had the role of steering the overall direction of Sydney University since 2008, Spence cites a few key achievements as stand-outs. He is proud of the university’s return to its original mission of equity – “the university was the first institution in the world to have admission on the basis of academic merit alone” – and also its return to trying to help students respond to “real-world” problems through multidisciplinary approaches.

Spence is one of Australia’s most public Christian figures. Given what his role involves, Spence has noticed that if people are critical of a decision he has made, they will start referring to him by his full title of Rev. Dr (even though he never refers to himself by it). But he doesn’t know if he is scrutinised more than other public figures, due to his Christian faith.

“But I hope that I scrutinise what I do more carefully,” Spence explains to Eternity. “That is, I ask myself the question: ‘How will this look, not only as a Vice-Chancellor but also as a person who makes certain ethical claims at the same time?’

“The way you can honour God in your job is by doing your job well, in a way – as much as you possibly can – that has demonstrable integrity.

“If you do that, my experience has been that Australia is a place that remains open to people with different faith commitments [holding] public office and the like.”

“The kinds of issues I face are the sorts of issues that Christians in any workplace face.” – Michael Spence

But what is it actually like for Spence to be a Christian who heads one of Australia’s biggest secular education institutions? According to the man who previously worked for two decades at Oxford University, running one of its four main divisions, he is just like any other Christian employee – “with the slight difference that we have 53,000 students and 10,000 staff.”

“The kinds of issues that I face are the sorts of issues that Christians in any workplace face,” says Spence modestly, before adding he’s most similar to other Christians in public roles. Those who work “in an environment where everyone has an opinion about what you’re doing and it’s not always possible to explain all the facts to everybody.”

“How do you make sure that you don’t let the gospel down?” – Michael Spence

“In the way that you do your work, people see something of the love of God for this tired old world, and the values of his kingdom.

“How do you make sure that you don’t let the gospel down – as much as you possibly can, and accepting that you are going to do a hopeless job at it?”

Along with striving to “not let the gospel down” in his day jobs at Oxford and Sydney universities, Spence also has been an active servant of local churches.

He and his first wife Beth (who died in 2012) looked after a parish for 20 months in the Sydney suburb of Waverley. He continues to do relief work on Sundays at churches with his wife Jenny.

“I think Christians have to be able to make a case for their faith.” – Michael Spence

Grateful for the prayerful support of family and friends, as well as the advice of “smarter, older wiser people”, Spence is a Christian man who has made a notable impact upon his nation. When it comes to the impact that his fellow Christians can have upon Australia, Spence suggests a shift in perspective.

He describes Australian society in the 21st century as “increasingly similar” to the environment encountered by the first Christian believers, in the first and second centuries. Knowing that your beliefs and values are not the primary ones of the society you are in, can help reshape how those beliefs and values are shared.

“I think the call to the Church at the moment is a call to be intelligent and winsome and clear in what it is that we have to say to the community more broadly, without making the assumption that ours is the dominant worldview,” says Spence to Christians in Australia.

“I think Christians have to be able to make a case for their faith. In Peter’s words: ‘To give an account for the hope that is within them.’ [1 Peter 3:15] And to do that in a way that engages with the culture, in ways that are both meaningful and challenging.”

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