BLast week I had the honour of launching Let There Be Light: Parish Leadership for the 21st Century by Father James Grant, a Catholic Priest who is an Adjunct Fellow here at the IPA.
Fr James is a prolific writer and commentator. His article published in The Australian last year 'It's unchristian to oppose coal-generated power' provoked hundreds of comments.
Fr James has an interesting story. He's married with children and was once an Anglican priest. He is a qualified instructor in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and in scuba diving, he played First Grade cricket, and he's a competitive pistol shooter. He's also a qualified trauma counsellor.
Fr James was born in Adelaide after finishing school he joined the Commonwealth Police in 1977. He decided to leave the police and studied theology at the University of Melbourne and then was appointed vicar in Brixton in 1985. Fr James also worked as a vicar in Berlin and Budapest. In 1989 he returned to Australia and was a chaplain at a number of schools including Geelong Grammar.
After more than a decade in schools Fr James was a parish priest, including in the north of Melbourne where he worked with Christian Sudanese refugees. Fr James regarded himself as a 'traditionalist' in the Australian Anglican Church, and as a result of what he saw happening in the Anglican Church, he left.
I and my family attended Fr James' ordination as Catholic Priest in September 2012. Fr James currently spends his time doing many things, including running two charities he's founded: Chaplains Without Borders that works with businesses and the Father James Grant Foundation that works with at-risk young people. He's also the chaplain at the Melbourne Victory soccer club (and Fr James has been kind enough to invite me to some games - even though I'm a Melbourne City supporter!) In among all of this he built two schools in Northern India.
When Fr James asked me to launch his book I replied that I was flattered but I questioned whether I was really the best person to launch a book about how to run a parish. Fr James understood my reluctance but asked me to wait to give him a reply until after I'd read the book. And what happened was that as soon as I'd finished reading it I rang him up and said I'd love to launch it.
Let There Be Light has in fact a slightly misleading title because it is about much more than parish leadership. Parish leadership is just Fr James' starting point for a much broader discussion about religion in 2016.
I can't really do the book justice in a few sentences - but if I was to try to sum up its essential message I'd say that it is that in a world of perpetual change it is more important to hold on to our institutions and practices that can give us meaning beyond the peripheral things that crowd our day-to-day activities. Fr James has some strong things to say about priests that chase the latest fads in search of popularity. Religion, work, the family, and community traditions are some of the anchors to the modern world that Fr James believes we need as individuals and as a members of a society.
Fr James talks about Anzac Day as one of those community traditions that are becoming so much more important in the modern world. As we commemorated Anzac Day on Monday the truth of Fr James' assessment became obvious. Hundreds of thousands of Australians commemorated a day that twenty years ago looked like it was about to be consigned to the dustbin of history.
Over the Christmas holidays I took my three children to the National War Memorial in Canberra. We did a tour with one of the voluntary tour guides - he'd fought in Vietnam. He explained how after he'd arrived back in Australia from his service overseas he'd attend the Dawn Service and throughout the 1970s there'd be maybe a few hundred people. On Monday 55,000 people attended the Dawn Service at the War Memorial in Canberra.
There's nothing inevitable about what Anzac Day has become. And so as Father James says there's nothing inevitable about the future of religion, and especially the Christian religion. In the same way as commentators today claim Christianity faces an inexorable decline in the face of a multi-faith, multicultural Australia, people in the 1970s said Anzac Day was an idea which time had passed by.
Fr James makes the point that the revival of Anzac Day wasn't the result of any coordinated or calculated plan. Instead it was the result of everyday, normal Australians wanting to recognise the sacrifice of those who fought and died for our freedoms. And the more that the postmodern Left attacked the very concept of Anzac Day the more desperately did most Australians want to hold on to the idea of a day in which we could pay respect to people we don't know and will never know.