The missionary principles that guide this social reformer

Two missionary principles – loving service and advocacy for change – have guided Peter Sandeman throughout his life working in social justice and the church, for which the South Australian has been honoured in this year’s Australia Day Honours List.

Speaking to Eternity about his citation as a Member of the Order of Australia (AM), the former CEO of Anglicare SA and the former CEO of Mission South Australia said he was driven by a combination of the third and fourth marks of mission for the Anglican Church.

“The third mark is to meet human need with loving service. And that’s really important. It’s a loving service, loving relationship, not just professional, not just effective and efficient, but loving, which should make faith-based services somewhat different,” he said.

“And the fourth mark of mission is to transform unjust structures in society and challenge violence of every kind. Sometimes, situations that people find themselves in or communities find themselves in need structural change. And so you’ve got to challenge the prevailing arrangements in the community. And that means you have to build a coalition of the willing. So combining those two things is the thing that really drives me.”

“Sometimes, situations that people find themselves in or communities find themselves in need structural change.” – Peter Sandeman

Other Christians receiving AMs in the Australia Day awards included Professor Emerita Diane Speed, former Dean and CEO of the Sydney College of Divinity, for significant service to tertiary education, and to the Anglican Church of Australia, and Michael Walsh, for significant service to the Anglican Church of Australia, and to the community of Tasmania.

As a deacon in the Anglican Dioceses of Adelaide, Willochra and The Murray since 2012, Sandeman said he was glad to have been recognised for his work for the church as well as for the community.

“I think being a deacon is the one that gives me a great sense of grounding and that I’m doing the work of the church when I’m active in the community and, and vice versa. It’s the kind of liminal space that deacons occupy on the outside of the church. What gives me pleasure in that Diaconal role, to be a bit Anglican about it, it’s the third and fourth marks of mission to the Anglican Church.”

He explained that the five marks of mission are to teach, to preach, loving service, challenging unjust structures, and to care for creation. “And they provide a framework in the sense of what the full activities of the church should be. Not simply sometimes to do social action and not teach and preach. And not sometimes to teach and preach and not do social action, but to do what I would regard as the full gospel.”

Like his twin brother John Sandeman, the founder and former editor of Eternity, Peter developed a deep knowledge of and love for the Church in childhood.

“Well, we were formed, John and I, by being fostered and adopted by an English family. Born in Dover but migrated to Australia when we were five. My parents were essentially Baptist, but where we settled in Adelaide, there was a local chapel of what was called the Christian Church. In early settlement, there were the Catholics and the Anglicans and then the other Protestants got together and formed independent chapels. So it’s kind of primitive Methodism,” he said.

“So we grew up in a local church literally down the street, which was a very active, very conservative and what today we would call probably fundamentalist. So when John left Adelaide and went to Sydney and joined the Sydney Diocese, that was a leap to the Left for John.

“That gives context. So we grew up going three times a day to church on Sunday. Dad was the choirmaster and taught in the Sunday school, and that was their life.”

“We grew up going three times a day to church on Sunday.” – Peter Sandeman

When the twins went to university in the 1970s, it was a challenging environment for anybody reared in a conservative faith. Peter found Flinders University in 1970s a hotbed of student activism. “And that caused difficulty for both of us. I can remember a [Christian] crusade on campus. And I asked the campaigner one question, which was, ‘What’s my responsibility to fellow human beings?’ And was told, ‘Well, just get yourself right with Jesus and don’t worry about anybody else.’ So I left because that didn’t sit well with me and I immersed myself in student politics and things like that, and then came back into active Christian worship through my wife Deborah, who is a Quaker.”

While John had a different faith trajectory, they both came to rely on very similar formative influences. “So Bible Christianity, a deep faith in the efficacy of Jesus’ death on the cross, and therefore our sense that we need to look to service in whatever form we’re called to. And it takes a different shape for different people.”

Peter first became passionate about social justice in high school, when he was involved in the YMCA and camps for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, “but at the same time, John and I were marching in the anti-Vietnam War demos. So that strange spectrum between individual welfare, group welfare, and looking for social change, trying to deal with some of the inequalities in our society. That’s what I’ve done all my life, in voluntary capacities, in church capacities and welfare organisations.”

“Being locked up for eight days with them was a difficult time.” – Peter Sandeman

In the summer of 1982-83, Peter joined many other “greenies” from mainland Australia in protesting against the building of the Franklin Dam in Tasmania. The peaceful protest landed him in prison for eight days.

“I was one of the less fortunate greenies because I was put in the normal remand yard, not the remand yard with fellow greenies, but the ones with a different group of people who I’d never really associated with, who were pretty hardened young men. So being locked up for eight days with them was a difficult time,” he said, adding that the experience “convinced me that prison reform corrections work, which I’d been thinking about, wasn’t probably going to work, the institutions were too difficult, so I went into broader social work.

Peter’s career as a campaigner and advocate was not without controversy. In 2017, he met high-level resistance when he led a large coalition called One Community that advocated for full implementation of the Gonski education reforms.

“You can overreach sometimes,” he says. “Mounting a very successful campaign got me to the point where some members of parliament decided I was a little bit too strident in the advocacy, a little bit too powerful. And they instituted some corrective action.

“So you do take risks sometimes when you stand, but I’ve also then found that being identified as a public Christian has stood me in good stead. Not everybody agrees with Christianity or the version that I’m associated with. However, people understand that you are coming from a place of integrity and there is still in our community, surprisingly enough, a respect for the prophetic voice.”

“There is still in our community, surprisingly enough, a respect for the prophetic voice.” – Peter Sandeman

The best example of using a prophetic voice to call the community to action, he says, was his work in homelessness.

“The most successful work has been in homelessness and being part of generating a process called the Adelaide Zero Project, an alliance of business community groups, local government, state government, non-government to end street homelessness,” he said.

When Sandeman went to Chicago to look at the work of the Institute of Global Homelessness, he discovered he had fallen among “good Catholic social justice, social action.”

Asked if his approach to Christianity could be characterised as a little quirky, he demurs, saying it’s his brother John who is the quirky one.

“He’s the quirky one, not me. I’m following a tradition, which has variously been characterised as the kind of liberal Catholic tradition, the high church tradition or the social evangelicals of the 1920s,” he said.

“He’s the quirky one, not me.” – Peter Sandeman

When he was working for Mission South Australia, he was working with the descendant of the City Missions formed by Evangelicals from across the Protestant denominations. These City Missions then came together to form Mission Australia.

“Mission Australia comes out of that church in action, multi across denominations. But as these organisations have professionalised, they’ve become a little bit separate from the churches that spawned them.

“So social action is a grand tradition, be it from the Salvation Army or the inner-city missions. And the inner-city missions worked with the prostitutes and the alcoholics and the homeless without judgment. So they followed the example of Jesus in associating with the publicans and sinners and tax collectors.

“Whereas, perhaps that’s not the modus operandi of the mainstream churches anymore, and that work is left to the welfare organisations, which are church in name, but not always church in nature.”

“You are always striving for less bad, more good,” – Peter Sandeman

As Christians, though, Sandeman believes we need to be willing to work in such environments “where our rhetoric is about the perfect often, but in fact, our work is about less bad, more good. For some, that is a difficult thing, but if you are working in the world, you’re working in an imperfect space. In fact, we all are in an imperfect space. We’re yet to realise the fullness of the kingdom.

“But it’s the capacity to work and deal with that kind of contradiction that while we might yearn for the world to be perfect, we are not, and the world we work in certainly isn’t. And so you are always striving for less bad, more good, rather than the perfect. Therefore, that involves the terrible word compromise where we are working to make things a little better. And if you can go to bed at night knowing that the world’s a little better, or somebody’s life is a little better because of what you’ve done during the day, that’s great.”