Features Australia

Flogging parsons

Much like the first convicts, Australians today cower before the great moralisers of the day

12 December 2015

9:00 AM

12 December 2015

9:00 AM

Convicts chewing on the bread ration served as lunch on their first Christmas Day at Sydney Cove in 1788 would have found the weather the most striking difference from their English homeland. Instead of the wintery landscape of England, the new arrivals were adapting to a burning December sun that beat down on arid bushland and scrub.

One convict, Michael Dennison, perhaps sampled a crumb of the festive spirit. He had been sentenced to 200 lashes for stealing a pound of flour from Martha Pugh. But since it was Christmas, he endured only 150 strikes of the whip. Governor Phillip was tough on crime, and tough on the causes of crime. The Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ was never going to accommodate an excessive softening-up on discipline.

As they munched their bread, the convicts must have wondered what had happened to the promise of peace and goodwill that customarily heralded Christmas Day. Not much of that was on offer to them.

The early colonists brought Christianity to the Great South Land as a civilising force to impose a moral and social order on the wilderness and its inhabitants. Phillip relied heavily on Christianity as the most powerful source of colonial authority after the Crown. It’s what London wanted when ordering Phillip to ‘enforce a due observance of religion and good order among the inhabitants of the new settlement’. As the new settlers all made their lives in this strange, topsy-turvy landscape, little wonder they looked to plant the institutions of ‘home’ in the folds of the new, brown land.

Of course, this is not to say that the first decades of European settlement were especially religious; only that the machinery of religion was an integral part of the colony’s life. Indeed, an early Anglican cleric, the Rev. Samuel Marsden — dubbed ‘the Flogging Parson’ because of his enthusiasm for corporal punishment — took an active part in the administration of justice as a magistrate in Parramatta, and attracted plenty of criticism in that role. After all, if a hot Christmas showed that the natural order of the year could be inverted, it was important to check quickly any inclination to similarly invert the social order. No wonder the founders of the early colony clung so tenaciously to the eternal verities of the old world they’d left behind. And the Church of England was in lockstep with Phillip all the way.

No doubt the triple scourges of heat, sunburn and fiery wind were also considered biblically authentic components of the cruel punishment meted out to those early colonial sinners. Climate was an instrument of God’s justice and the Church of England made sure the convicts knew all about the divine wrath they had brought down upon their own heads.

227 years on, the Australian celebration of Christmas looks very different. Not only has it long been uncoupled from Christianity, but religion itself plays a much diminished role in our society. For those who want it, there’s a religious interpretation of Christmas accompanied by worship and church attendance. For many, however, 25 December simply marks the unofficial finish line of the year over which we collapse, exhausted, to start the long-anticipated summer hols.

In other respects, however, we might as well be back in 1788. Hot weather is still a wonderful feature of the Aussie Christmas, of course. But far from being left in peace to revel in the sun, we are flogged by present day environmentalist ‘parsons of doom’ with prophecies of destruction and warnings of imminent punitive catastrophe unless we immediately repent of our sinful lifestyles. And many of those administering these floggings are, indeed, parsons seeking to rally the faithful and condemn the heretical.

Early last month, on the very morning of the Paris massacres, the Church of England launched its own 320km ‘Pilgrimage2Paris’ aimed at encouraging world leaders to reach a ‘fair, ambitious and binding’ deal at the UN Climate Change Conference when they met in Paris at the end of November. The Church’s General Synod had previously resolved to take urgent action on climate change ‘acknowledging that global warming is already hitting the poorest of the world hardest’.

Never mind that global temperatures stopped rising in the mid-1990s; church leaders remain convinced there is surely no better way to help ‘the poorest of the world’ than to campaign for action that will force up the economic price they pay for energy, pepper the landscape with windmills and solar panels, and drive the coal mining industry out of business.

We have our own flogging parsons in Australia where loss of political and cultural influence has been the most marked manifestation of religion’s decline over the past 100 years. This loss has been accompanied by the collapse of Christian morality which has seen Australia since the 1960s become largely a post-Christian society in which religion has a greatly reduced capacity to shape the life of the community.

Whereas at one time it was the churches that instructed society about morality, now it is wider society that sets the moral standards expected of the churches. Perhaps nowhere is the inversion of influence more apparent than in the churches’ responses to the devastating scandals of sexual abuse that have seen Christian leaders scrambling to account for their institutions to the Australian community.

A profound change in attitude over the past generation has served only to marginalise Christian teaching even further from secular culture. Our contemporary celebration of Christmas is marked not simply by an inversion of the seasons but also by an apparent inversion of the very social order the Christian churches sought to impose from the outset.

No wonder many church leaders, in the quest for relevance, have abandoned the task of proclaiming Christian virtues and opted instead for the more acceptable cause of human-induced climate change as their preferred moral cause. Feelings of guilt and culpability can be induced just as easily, but without any of the embarrassment attendant upon preaching about fornication.

Halt economic progress, renounce dependency on coal, and berate the rich for impoverishing the rest of us: the flogging parsons are with us once again. In their hearts they know Australians have probably moved on and are no longer listening. So now they are whipping us with electric cars, renewables, and wind farms. It certainly is a funny old upside-down time of year.

Peter Kurti is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies

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