June 2006 A cold shower for Triumphalism

How to put ecclesiastical sandstone to good use

IF you are friends with a well-known Sydney Anglican, any well-known one will do, here is an early Christmas present suggestion for you. What about a picture of a large, tall, faux-Gothic 19th- century sandstone building?

Think of dappled sunshine on pointed arches, the city against the pinnacles, golden Sydney stonework.

No, not the rain shelter you are thinking of, but one plonked down on barren North Head. A thousand miles from care.

These days it is a hotel training school.  But once – some pewsitters will have guessed the provenance – it was St Patrick’s seminary.  ‘The Priest factory’, as the title of Chris Geraghty’s memoirs calls it.

In the early 1960s it was so full of young Catholic men that they could not fit in the chapel stalls. It seemed that there was an inexhaustible supply of students. The place was overflowing.

But by 1995 Judge Geraghty returned to an echoing institution that had almost emptied of students and was about to be decanted into much humbler premises, an old Telstra training site built along the lines of a country pub in the inner west. The last student was about to turn out the lights, or snuff the last candle.

As Geraghty tells it a ‘naïve and trumphalist’ church had allowed itself to become frozen. A flood of vocations had encouraged complacency. “It had grown smug.”

It could never happen to us, could it? A few pictures of St Patrick’s towering above Manly might just help prevent it. They would be a reminder that the graph does not keep sloping up, just because it has developed the habit, recently. 

A photo, drawing, screen saver or a bas relief of St Patrick’s would remind us that our diocesan-wide ‘Uluru’ (church growth and decline) diagram would explain just like parishes, pleasurable decline will tempt all in our Diocese.

Let’s pause here to allow some of you to point out reasonably enough that we are not Roman Catholic, clinging to Latin, and there is no Vatican II coming down the track to swamp us.

Rather it is to be expected that our temptations might come from a more contemporary direction. ‘God has been good to us’ is the pious mantra we hear when the numbers dance upwards. 

And it is true. When this happens our heavenly father has been, just, heavenly.

And an army of mostly unknown heroes has laboured for this harvest.

Yet close by these good things lurks the prosperity gospel (Sydney Anglican version). It goes like this: somehow we must be doing the right thing because God has blessed us.

Okay, we don’t actually think this, but there are times our thoughts drift that way. Or at least mine do. I might be the only one…

Naturally we would not think of money as proof of God’s favour on us. But an increase in Sunday attendance? The biggest church in the district – or the fastest growing one? You don’t have to be a Zebedee to want to be recognised as a good leader. 

So consider a gift of St Patrick’s for the study wall. Think of it as a virtual cold shower for our triumphalism.

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