Meanwhile, as relations with the convicts declined, relationships with the establishment were just as difficult. The first chaplains were evangelical by persuasion and not traditional Anglican. Their evangelical zeal was problematic for the likes of Governor Arthur Phillip and the result was the chaplains were often socially despised. Even so, the authorities still used them for their own purposes, to bring order to an unruly rabble of convicts.
Despite these beginnings, the church finally did become part of the social fabric of the Australian. However, it was unavoidably tainted by these compromised beginnings. Although churches have often been at the forefront of cultural transformation seeking to alleviate problems such as alcoholism and domestic violence, their endeavours have often been frowned upon. Christians have gained the reputation for being wowsers and narrow-minded, and church leaders have too easily slipped into the role of Australia’s moral custodians. Yet whenever the Church becomes Australia’s moral policeman we pay a price. It comes at the expense of the Gospel, as our message of grace is compromised.
In the light of this history, we in the Church should not be shocked by the persistent continuing criticism. As I said, this criticism is nothing new, with roots deep within the Australian psyche. But nothing happens without God’s knowledge. God would not be surprised by our plight. It is likely God is using current trials to bring about a change, and that change is to free us of these vestiges of the past. I wonder, what would it mean for the church in Australia to die to its role as moral custodian?
Richard Johnson, our first chaplain, fought to bring God’s salvation to the convicts only to be thwarted by the authorities who used him as means of subordination of the convicts. The church in Australia has been compromised ever since.
How might we respond if God was at work in the current predicament seeking to release the church from our compromise? It’s worth thinking about.
Stephen L Baxter