How Fares God in Australia?

Postcard from Sydney

By John Martin

Embedded in the footpath beside the fountain in Sydney’s Town Hall Square, close by St. Andrew’s Anglican Cathedral, is a single-word sermon: Eternity. It’s a solid-brass replica of a copperplate sign that was chalked for nearly 40 years on Sydney streets.

The chalk slogan was the work of Arthur Stace, once a homeless alcoholic, illiterate, and by all accounts a no-hoper. One night he stumbled into a service at St. Barnabas’ Church Broadway in Sydney and was soundly converted. He quit drinking and later got a job as a janitor at Burton Street Tabernacle.

Soon after, one Sunday evening at Burton Street, the war hero turned evangelist John G. Ridley, M.C., waxed eloquent: “Eternity! Eternity! Oh, that this word could be emblazoned across the streets of Sydney!” In his simple way, Stace decided to do that. For many years, no one knew the identity of the graffitist. He would walk the streets during the night hours to ply his project.

During World War II the clock tower of Sydney’s central post office was dismantled. When it was rebuilt, workers reinstalling the bell noticed Eternity etched in chalk. No one ever found out how Stace gained access to it.

It’s calculated that Stace wrote Eternity more than half a million times between 1932 and 1967. His enduring message makes people stop, think, and engage with the spiritual part of life.

Stace’s Eternity became a somewhat incongruous symbol of Sydney. During the opening ceremonies at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, a replica was the centerpiece of a huge illuminated sign on the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

A screen print of Stace’s copperplate Eternity was made in 1990 and is on display at the National Gallery of Australia. One of the works by English street artist Banksy during his October 2013 residency in New York depicts a worker washing away an Eternity tag. Stace inspired a religious newspaper called Eternity. The old Burton Street Tabernacle is now the Eternity Theater, owned by the Sydney City Council, which took out a trademark on the name to protect it against indiscriminate commercial use.

The Eternity story, and how it has caught the public imagination, in many ways runs counter to the Australian consensus. As with many parts of the Western world, the Christian church in Australia finds itself pitted against energetic secularist forces that want to see symbols of the faith removed from the public sphere.

In the week before Christmas, the Most Rev. Glenn Davies, Archbishop of Sydney, saw reports of carols being dropped from school and community celebrations, or words being changed to wish people “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas.”

“The politically correct vanguard of secularists are basically trying to conform people to their particular pattern of speech and belief,” he declared. The centerpiece of his Christmas sermon at St. Andrew’s Cathedral was an eloquent rebuttal of the argument of those who want to erase Christianity from public discourse.

Unlike in the United States, there was never any religious vision attached to European settlement in the Antipodes. Whereas many of America’s earliest settlers shared a vision to create a society based on the values of the rule of God, most of their Australian counterparts where drawn from among the classes most alienated from formal Christianity. Many early convicts had been sentenced to transportation by parson-judges and carried deep resentment of church authority. The first two churches built in the New South Wales colony were destroyed in arson attacks.

Dean Kanishka Raffel • Deirdre Martin photo

In the 1960s and 1970s there was a slide in Anglican church attendance (from 40% before World War II to around 20%). Roman Catholics, thanks to their network of parish schools, fared better. Now Anglicans are energetically founding schools. The welfare agency Anglicare is helping many parishes reposition themselves to serve social as well as spiritual needs.

As with many U.K. cities, cathedral worship in urban portions of Australia seems to be burgeoning. People flocked to St. Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne at Christmas, despite a terror threat that could have destroyed it. About 1,500 squeezed inside and more were turned away or worshiped in the forecourt.

St. Andrew’s in Sydney welcomed more than 3,000 to its Christmas services. The Very Rev. Kanishka Raffel, dean of St. Andrew’s, has been in the post a little over a year.

Raffel, 51, was born in London of Sri Lankan parents, and was brought up as a Buddhist. He found the Christian faith when given a Bible while studying law at the University of Sydney.

“Here we are in the middle of a cosmopolitan, vibrant, growing, fairly optimistic sort of city and everybody chasing their dreams at a furious pace,” he told TLC while drinking coffee across the street from St. Andrew’s. “It’s a great privilege to be able to offer the eternal gospel to a very wide cross-section of people. We have tourists, we have refugees, the business types who pop in for Evensong or a lunchtime Bible study.

“I like to say the doors are physically and metaphorically wide open. So we want as a cathedral to offer the hospitality of the gospel. We want to welcome people in: into our space, into our story.”

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