Keeping alive the rumour of God


One of the few vestiges of “Establishment” in the Anglican Church of Australia is the authority of clergy to act as Commissioners for Declarations. [This authority is unlikely to be withdrawn as it is one of the requirements of Marriage Celebrants.] Several times a year fellow residents of our retirement village ask me to witness their signatures on legal documents. I am glad to oblige. I have even had a stamp made to save me from having to write by hand “The Reverend Edward Peter Witham, Registered Minister of Religion W-ZZZZ.

As a CD, my responsibility is to witness that people have correctly signed their documents. For that I need to know the form of the document – will, passport photo, statutory declaration, bank business, etc. – but not the content. However, most people when they come to sign want to share the background to the document. For my part, I assure them of confidentiality.

So people in the Village do know now that I am a priest – or at least, a handy person for witnessing their signature!

However, when we moved into this village five years ago, we decided we would downplay our faith. We had heard an anecdote about one of the village owners who apparently declared that a public area in the Village Centre would be ideal “for Bible Study or the like”. This remark evoked a strong reaction, almost outrage, among some people.

We thought that if there are people outraged by the thought of Bible study, being public Christians in the village could be counter-productive.

We have discovered the other church-goers in the Village, and we encourage one another in conversation and with cards at Easter and Christmas. We continue all our practice of Christianity outside the Village, both in church attendance and in our involvement in the Franciscan Third Order.

But I treat the Village as though it were a country where wearing distinctive religious garb is banned. I have only once worn my dog-collar in the Village or twice, if you count my performance as the Vicar in the murder mystery one year! I rarely advertise church events within the Village, and if I do, I do it discreetly.

Our stance of being so coy about our faith has been challenged. Once a colleague at church loaned us a DVD of a Passion Play performed in the gardens of Government House. We watched it in our house. When we returned the DVD to our friend, he asked why we had not had a public showing of it in the Village cinema. That was his idea of evangelism. I tried to explain that it might be seen, in our Village, not as an invitation to the Gospel but as an intrusion.

Inspired by Charles de Foucauld and the Little Brothers and Sisters of Jesus, we just try to keep alive the idea of God in our village. The challenge in that is to evangelise simply by presence requires great holiness. If I am not steeped in prayer, and if my lifestyle lacks integrity and sacrifice, then keeping my Christianity quiet in our relatively benign environment may just be an excuse not to talk about Jesus Christ at all.

I am encouraged that people ask me to witness them signing legal documents, and in doing so, to witness something of their trials and difficulties, but, as Lent begins, I am conscious that I have to use my praying and my decisions to be more transparent to God and the Gospel. Brother Charles de Foucauld has set a very high standard!

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The Nine Lives of India’s Religions


William Dalrymple, Nine lives: in search of the sacred in modern India, Knopf 2010.
Hardcover 304 pages. Approx. $27 posted from online stores.
Reviewed by Ted Witham
Published in REJA, the journal of the Australian Association for Religious Education, Volume 21, No. 2, 2010

I took my first tentative steps in teaching Indian religion 30 years ago. I still remember my confusion: I learned lists of Four Noble Truths and Eight Right Pathways; I rehearsed the story of Gautama’s enlightenment to tell in class; I read about Shiva and Ganesh. But I couldn’t sort out why some Buddhists are effectively atheists, while others worship the Buddha as a god. I didn’t understand how Hindus appeared to worship hundreds of gods while the text books said there was one, or perhaps three, gods in Hinduism.

No doubt I passed on my confusion to my students. I could have done with Dalrymple’s engaging book then.

Only many years later I learned that “Buddhism” and “Hinduism” were effectively the creation of 19th Century English and German scholars, who had only recently classified Islam and Judaism as “religions”. These scholars cast their eyes across the practices of the teeming shrines of South Asia looking for religious systems. Not surprisingly, they saw what they were looking for and used the suffix “-ism” to describe them.

As Dalrymple knows, the reality is much more complex, and much more interesting, than can be contained in the religion scholars’ enthusiasm for classification. William Dalrymple is a travel writer living in India. He has a particular interest in religious practice. These are the Nine Lives of nine exceptional holy women and men up and down the country.

This approach achieves three things: first, it personalises what might otherwise be abstract notions of religion. We meet articulate people who know what they believe. With his travel writer’s eye for detail, Dalrymple sets these extraordinary sages in their setting, and allows them to tell their stories. All have found that it has cost dearly to pursue the holy.

Second, it allows Dalrymple the opportunity to describe faith-worlds of the “lay” folk who still flock to the shrines and their holy people. The 2,500 year old practices of India are not dead. Who knows how many of their proverbial “nine lives” they have had?

Third, it helps the Western reader build a picture of the lived reality of Hindus, Buddhists and Jains. It shines a light on the difference between a Tamil Buddhist in India’s south and a Tibetan monk in Dharamsala. It lets us see practitioners in many shrines as they intertwine Islamic and Hindu practices and ideas. It describes particularly Indian Sufis, and it shows the pressure the Saudis are placing on them to conform to the austere Wahabbi interpretation of the Qur’an.

Teachers of religion will find this book to be a treasure. Some may use the nine sections of the book to structure a term’s work and allow students to experience the same discovery as the reader. Year 12 and university students could read each chapter in preparation for a class discussion. To use the book in this way for younger students would require more structuring.

Others will be enriched by the contemporary update of their understanding of Indian religions. Others, like me, will recognise how India is not a confusion of spiritualities, but a vibrant, and fascinating, profusion of faith and ritual.

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Ted Witham is the Immediate Past President of AARE. He taught religion in Anglican schools and at Murdoch University. Now retired, he lives in the south-west of Western Australia, where there appears to be minimal religious diversity.