Tuesday, January 06, 2009

O Most Excellent Judge

Justice Michael Kirby of the Australian High Court will be retiring in the next few months. While I wish him all the best in retirement, it will be a huge loss to the nation.
I have always felt a particular affinity with him. He is 5 years older than me (exactly less one day), we grew up a few blocks away, went to the same primary school (his brother, also a judge, was in my class), the same high school, the same university where he did Arts-Law and I did Arts-Education from where his career went into the stratosphere and mine plateaued but we are both Anglican and gay.

I have found this speech given by him in 2004 at the Pitt Street Uniting Church. It is titled:
Even in the darkest days, my hotline to God was never disconnected

It is fairly long but I would encourage you to read it.
Some of it refers to the neighbouring parish to that in which I grew up. (Although living nearby we were on opposite sides of the parish boundary.) However there was a period in which my family attended that church and my sister was a Sunday school teacher while I was in the kindergarten. We cannot remember why we went there as it required a bus journey and it is too late to ask Mum now.

Some excerpts follow:
When did you first meet God? For me, it was in kindergarten: Mrs Church's school attached to the Anglican Church of St Andrew at Strathfield in Sydney. In between the plasticine and interminable concerts, I was introduced to God. Generally speaking, we have been on friendly terms ever since.

When I eventually grew old enough to attend Morning Prayer in St Andrew's Church, it was like moving into the Big School. Out of the church hall where the kindergarten had been conducted and Bible stories taught in Sunday School, I moved into the church itself. It was then that I found that, almost certainly, God was an Englishman.
Above the altar (or did we call it that in the Sydney diocese?) hung the Australian flag. But in pride of place was the Union Jack. This, after all, was the Church of England. In the 1940s the word "Anglican" never crossed our lips.

We were not the first, or the last, to invoke God in war and to create him in our own image. At that time the British Empire still flourished. In the school map, a quarter of the world was coloured red. We felt pretty sure that God looked on British subjects with special favour. White British people had a civilising mission. But we did not really want Asians or black people in White Australia. We wanted to remain pure white - just like the images of God's son shown in the stained glass windows. God was certainly not Asian or black. If he was not an Englishman, at the very least he was white like us.


As a young boy on the brink of my teenage, I was pretty comfortable that I had the inside running in the matter of God. Things were fairly cut and dried. I used to look at the red on the map and feel mildly irritated by the little section of yellow where Thailand severed the link between Burma and Malaya. No doubt, I thought, an imperial war would, in due course, fix this up. Mr Dillon would go with the troops and, as usual, the British would win the last battle, for truly God was on our side.


I returned to the fold of the Church of England at Fort Street High School. That great preacher, Dr Stuart Barton-Babbage, taught Scripture to the huge Anglican class. He presented me for confirmation at St Andrew's Cathedral. That is where my relationship with God might have been arrested. It was a solid, competent, somewhat prideful superiority of mixed racial, cultural and religious beliefs. It was not a bad grounding for a spiritual life. But it kept God in a proper compartment. The English were never obsessively religious and neither was I. In a sense, surrounded by love at home with parents and siblings and close relatives, God was an other-worldly phenomenon of the same type of love extended universally. But then a very strange thing happened to me. I reached puberty.

When I realised that my sexual attraction was to people of the same gender, and did not change, I knew that this was not looked on as a good thing. My knowledge did not come from the Reverend Dillon. If ever he read the passage from Leviticus , I must have missed it and all the other strange injunctions appearing there. Nor did it come from my family. But at school, the occasional denunciation of "poofters" led me to know that I should treat my sexual orientation as something very, very bad. The newspapers would occasionally report on famous people entrapped by the police and tried for crimes. The Police Commissioner, Mr Delaney, was always going on about it. At first, I shed a few tears. I felt embarrassed and ashamed about myself. But I got on with my studies; kept speaking to God; and continued with life in a state of denial.

This, presumably, is what was expected of me by religious people. So far as I knew, my own Church said nothing about the subject. Perhaps that was because, in an English type of way, a former Supreme Governor, King George V, had declared: "I thought people like that shot themselves".


When I reached law school I learned of the stern punishments meted out for "the abominable crime". For an adolescent, full of hope and spirit, these were very frightening times. Especially because you were frightened into silence about your deepest feelings even with those family members closest to you.

Do not think that these times have passed in sunny Australia in a new millennium. Violence against people for reasons of their race, gender and sexuality are daily occurrences. Youth suicide is extremely high, especially amongst boys and young men. Last week I learned of the funeral of a highly talented young man, rejected by his Italian Australian family because of his sexuality, driven to suicide. At his funeral, after all the prayers and the music, all that could be heard was muttering: "It doesn't matter. He was just a poofter".

So how did my relationship with God survive this experience of self-discovery?

First, I never doubted for an instant the surrounding love of my parents, my brothers and sister. I knew, in my heart, that they would always love me as I was. For years we did not confront the subject verbally. We did not really need to do so. When we did, it was exactly as I expected. No big deal. Not everyone is so lucky.

Secondly, I was greatly blessed by having many loving friends and companions, homosexual and heterosexual. Especially in finding a loving partner, Johan. He is not here tonight. He has very little time for religion and churches. He has often said to me: "I don't understand how such an intelligent person can take seriously religions that all oppress women, people of colour and gays". He prefers to be out there helping his Ankali. He volunteers to clean and cook and scrub the toilet-bowl for a patient living with HIV. That is his "religion". He has utter contempt for what he calls "the Bishops in their frocks, spouting words of hate". For thirty-five years, despite the impediments of the world, we have been together. Not everyone is blessed with such relationships. Not everyone wants them. But they are not evil or disordered - just loving, kind, loyal and mutually supportive. To deny humans such love is truly disordered, unnatural, some may even say evil.


Truth is a tremendous weapon. It is the truth that sets us free. First, a small group, then more, and eventually most citizens came to know the truth that some people are homosexual. To deny them love and companionship is just plain cruel. To deny them equality as citizens is unjust. To punish them for private adult conduct is oppressive. I was fortunate to live through a time when these truths became gradually, increasingly and overwhelmingly accepted in Australia and other civilised countries. Remnants of the old disordered view linger on, including in God's churches. Doubtless in some places they will last longer than others. But in the end, scientific truth will prevail.

I was greatly strengthened in my approach to these issues by my religious upbringing. The Anglican Church in Sydney has its faults. As we all have. But it is part of a denomination that grew out of the Elizabethan settlement in England. After the terrors against Catholics of Edward VI and against Protestants of Mary I, it was imperative to establish a Church of many mansions. Thus, in Sydney to this day, we have the Cathedral, the Church of St James and Christ Church St Lawrence. They represent the low, middle and high church traditions. There is always a space for diverse opinions. It is not, I think, coincidental that it is the Anglican Communion that has witnessed not only the worldwide move to the ordination of women (an absurd exclusion from the ministry of God). But also the ordination of openly homosexual priests and the consecration of Bishop Gene Robinson as elected Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire.


I have never been cut off from God. Never in the darkest days of secrets, fear and alienation have I felt removed from the loving presence of God. Not for an instant did I feel cast out of the temple. It may be a presumption, but I never felt myself "intrinsically evil". I never felt guilty of "grave depravity". Never. I knew that this was just the way that God and nature meant me to be. It had a purpose.


To be brought up in a spiritual belief with a personal God is a mighty comfort. It helps you get through the problems of life. God was with me in bereavement and in moments of pain and of success. To be brought up in a Church of Jesus is specially comforting for minorities. As Bishop Spong said from this pulpit, Jesus was actually a revolutionary. The universality of his church was a new message for religion to that time. His instruction to love one another, to forgive enemies and to seek reconciliation is one specially relevant to the dangerous contemporary world. His New Covenant undoubtedly extends to gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender, intersex and all queer minorities. In fact, it extends to everyone. But many in the world, including many still in error in his Church, are not listening.


Their anthropomorphic, contorted, nasty little view of God is totally incompatible with my notion of the enormity of God's presence, as the universal being. It is humans that stamp on God their own petty conceptions. It is humans that try to reduce God to their own paltry and often mean imagination. The notion of God as a bearded prophet or as an Englishman or as a Protestant or Catholic or as an Islamic, Hindu or other human possession is, frankly, absurd. But the notion that around us, "immortal, invisible and divine" is a loving God is one that millions of humans cling to and believe in. It is a notion that is not incompatible with science. It is unproved. But it still exists.

Certainly, that notion is incompatible with cruelty and unkindness to one another. There has been altogether too much of this in the name of God. For centuries people of all religions just accepted a contemptible, little view of God. But now, in our age, a new and larger vision is emerging. As this vision gains strength, many of the human cruelties of the past will be seen for what they were. Then Jesus' injunction to "love one another" will take on a new meaning. The trivial doctrines will be discarded. We will all be closer to God, not just to some creation that humans have fashioned in the image of our own prejudices and selfish conceptions.

I honour those in all churches and faiths who reach out in love and inclusiveness to all people. Tonight I specially honour those who reach out to sexual minorities. Those minorities have been cruelly and wrongly abused in the name of God and often still are. In the millennial year 2000, the Pope prayed: "Let us ask pardon for the violence some have used in the service of the truth and for the distrustful and hostile attitude sometimes taken towards the followers of other religions". To that prayer, I would say Amen. But I would add "Let us ask pardon for the violence some have used in the service of the truth and for the distrustful and hostile attitudes sometimes taken towards women, towards people who are different from ourselves and towards sexual minorities" who are a full part of God's creation. That prayer will come one day. Of that there can be no doubt. And when it comes, let us all be ready to say, Amen.

O Most Excellent Judge

1 comment:

Davis said...

Thanks for this excellent and illuminating post.