Summary: Today we view Australian Anglicanism=s beginnings as a lens through which we may better know God who calls us ever onwards into Christ=s mission sustained with the true and living bread.
In the name of our living God, creator, redeemer and sanctifier. Amen.
Today we view Australian Anglicanism’s beginnings as a lens through which we may better know God who calls us ever onwards into Christ=s mission sustained with the true and living bread. How do we as Australian Anglicans move from the attitudes of neglect and contempt towards the church to hospitality, graciousness and reverence?
Under the leadership of New South Wales’ Governor, Captain Arthur Phillip, the First Fleet landed at Sydney Cove on 26 January, 1788. The Fleet consisted of 872 convicts, four companies of Marines, the Governor and his staff. They were boat people. Among them was the Reverend Richard Johnson, Anglican priest, and chaplain responsible for that fleet and the new colony - about one thousand people. He conducted the first Anglican service in this land eight days later. Johnson came under the authority of the Church of England but under the direction of the Governor of the colony.
Given that the 215th Anniversary of the first Anglican service is tomorrow, 3rd February, we can imagine the day being hot and set in bushland. The Union Jack was flying. The land was strange to all and no less to Johnson, the 32 year old priest - a Cambridge graduate originally from Yorkshire. He summed up his field preaching mission: It is my duty to preach to all, to pray for all, and to admonish [teach] every one. (Iain H. Murray, Australian Christian life from 1788: An introduction and an anthology, Banner of Truth, 1988, p.3) His charge was vast. Governor Phillip asked for a service of public worship on that Sunday at 10am and that no one was to be absent on any account whatever (Murray, p.3.) The service was held under a large tree near the water. Johnson preached on the text from Psalm 116 What shall I render unto the Lord for all his benefits toward me? I will take the cup of salvation and call upon the name of the Lord.
It was an act of considerable vision and faith to proclaim this in such a hostile cultural and physical environment. It was hostile culturally because of the pervading penal colony culture - we can imagine eight months at sea with convicts chained and in filthy conditions arriving sick and rebellious towards authority and often to one another. It was hostile physically because of the heat and the untamed landscape. What if we were to go out into the parched, barren paddocks today and proclaim What shall I render to the Lord for all his bounty to me. Some may wonder what the grounds were for such confident optimism. Richard Johnson attempted to point people to the God of yesterday, today and forever, the great >I am=. How could he exhort people to labour for the food which endures and take up the cup of salvation in such an apparently hopeless context? Johnson however tried to help people lift their vision to see beyond the transitory misery to that which really matters.
It would be beyond most of us to minister in the conditions Richard Johnson faced. He and his wife Mary moved into their hut of cabbage tree and rushes completed 10 months after arriving. A couple of weeks later their first child was born dead. They lived in that hut for three years until a brick house was finally built - well after the Governor was comfortably housed. The lack of interest in building adequate shelter for the chaplain and places of worship for the colony is a worrying theme emerging in Richard Johnson’s journal. He met with continual hostility (and contempt) and neglect (and disregard), two themes I look at.
An excerpt from Richard Johnson=s journal gives insight into something of the hostility: 1789 This morning I got up at four o’clock. Took boat at five for Rose Hill; arrived there about half-past nine. Preached from I Cor 1.7 [God’s grace provides all spiritual gifts needed]. Am more and more convinced of the total insufficiency of all human efforts to change the heart without the grace of God. Have been now nearly two years preaching, as well as privately admonishing [teaching] these people; but after all, they seem to grow more and more abandoned. Have distributed many books among them; but this I fear has done little good. One sold his Bible for a glass of liquor; others tear them up for waste paper; - this discourages me greatly. I have no heart to go amongst them; my spirit is sorely grieved to see the misery and blindness of this people. Oh that they were wise! (Murray, p. 10)
Still commenting on Rose Hill the next near year in 1780 his writing reveals the experience of neglect: Set off for Rose Hill this morning about five o=clock; arrived there at nine. Performed divine service. Returned home to Sydney about eight o’clock in the evening. A very unpleasant day altogether. And though I have been to Rose Hill from time to time for now two years, I have no place provided for myself, neither a room, a table, nor a stool, and no place of worship. In short, no attention seems to be paid to these things, though I have so frequently desired it. God help me to bear with such treatment in a becoming manner. (Murray, pp. 10f)