Priest as governor-general: a less-secular Australia

Next month, Archbishop Peter Hollingworth becomes Australia's first cleric governor-general.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Australia's modern reputation was built on golden beaches, lavish high-camp movies, and outback adventure. It is known much more for pleasure than for piety. So the recent appointment of an Anglican priest as the new governor-general - the official representative of Queen Elizabeth II - has surprised this traditionally secular nation.

Rev. Peter Hollingworth is the latest high-profile appointment of a religious figure. In this nation, where 70 percent of people claim to be Christian but barely a sixth of them attend church, many people are questioning whether religious ideology is being allowed into government. Others wonder whether there are deeper stirrings of religious sentiment.

"One swallow does not make a summer," says the Anglican bishop of South Sydney, Robert Forsyth. "And there is still an intellectual antireligious fervor in much of Australia. But I think the appointment reflects a desire for some moral leadership."

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Those who agree with that desire present evidence: A legal heroin injecting room opened this week in Sydney's red-light district of Kings Cross. Australia is home to 200,000 slot machines (15 percent of the world's total). Soft-core pornography is available at most news stands, and television programs are more permissive than in the United States, depicting nudity and sex.

But others say there's more than "one swallow" here. Prime Minister John Howard, who recommended the Rev. Hollingworth for approval to the queen, appointed a former Catholic priest two years ago to review the nation's welfare system. The Rev. Patrick McClure, now the head of an evangelical charity, made a report last August reinforcing the government policy of making welfare recipients, including mothers and some disabled, work for their checks.

Mr. Howard also appointed a Salvation Army commander, Maj. Brian Watters, as Australia's antidrug czar, who has pursued a US-style "war on drugs," rather than the liberal policies of legally prescribed heroin and marijuana decriminalization.

Hollingworth, archbishop of Brisbane, has tried to assuage the concerns of those who are uncomfortable with a man of the cloth holding a position that traditionally goes to a retired politician or jurist. "I'm a committed Anglican, and I'm also a committed ecumenist. I believe deeply in the importance of interfaith dialogue with all the great religions of the world," he says. "Hardest of all is that I will have to set aside for the next five years my role and function as a diocesan bishop in order to ensure that I will be in a position to serve all the people of Australia. I shall, of course, be a bishop for life, because that is the nature of Holy Orders. But I will not be able to exercise that function in a public way while I am governor-general."

He also pledged not to interfere in politics, trying to bury Australia's lingering ghost of 1975, when the governor-general dismissed the elected social-democratic Labor government and then dissolved Parliament. "The government of the day ... is the government that has been elected by the Australian people," Hollingworth said. "It is not the role of the governor-general to interfere. I would not cross the line."

Political scientist John Warhurst of the Australian National University in Canberra, argues that the church's influence on economic and social policy has increased markedly over the years. Since the 1960s, for example, religious schools have received federal aid, making private education available to the traditionally but not exclusively Catholic working class.

Even before US President Bush began urging that faith-based institutions to take over some federal welfare programs, the government of Prime Minister Howard was contracting services out to church-run agencies. Until 1996, the federal government ran a national agency to help the unemployed find work. It has since been privatized, with the Catholic Centacare, the Methodist Wesley Mission, and the Salvation Army winning contracts.

Finally, the employment minister, Tony Abbott, a lapsed Catholic seminarian, provoked outrage last November when he suggested that church agencies receiving public funds still had the right to fire homosexuals and others who lived "openly at variance with church teaching."

"The churches' role in delivering social services is controversial within the churches themselves," says Warhurst. "They think they're simply picking up the pieces after the government pulls out."

Michael McGirr, a former Jesuit priest and publisher of the influential religious magazine Eureka Street, disagrees that religious ideology is influencing government. Even in the mid-1990s, when Catholic ascendancy was at its highest - the governor-general, the prime minister, five of the seven High Court justices, and several state leaders were Catholic - he says he can't recall their ever discussing religious issues.

Hugh Mackay, a leading Sydney social researcher, says the public sees Hollingworth as a practitioner of religion with rolled-up sleeves, not a "Bible-basher," Australian slang for a Christian zealot. Before becoming archbishop - and moderating his politics - Hollingworth ran the Brotherhood of St. Laurence welfare agency, confronting poverty and racism in the tradition of Dom Helder Camara of Brazil or Desmond Tutu of South Africa.

But not all Anglicans wholly support the Hollingworth appointment, either. "A cleric sets his life on a certain course, and I wouldn't want to see him distracted from that course," says the Rev. Forsyth. "Frankly, I think the archbishop of Brisbane is moving down from a very important job to a moderately important job."

Mr. Mackay, the Sydney researcher, says that while the country has not become more religious, people have lost faith in politicians and now look to spiritual figures. "They value the church as a moral anchor," he says. "In politics, pragmatism is the order of the day and, at a time when people are buffeted by global changes, they're seeking something more comforting."

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