By Gordon Nary
Gordon: Please share with our readers the factors that influenced you conversion as an Anglican Priest to a Catholic Priest.
Father James: The Australian experience of Anglicanism has been in decline for over 25 years, at least it became noticeable 25 years ago. There is no single cause, but mostly in my own case it was a disillusionment with a leadership that no longer bothered to talk about the faith or to highlight the life of Jesus in any meaningful way. Mission has ceased and in is place was a desperate desire of Anglican bishops to be liked and thought relevant, somehow imagining that this would fill the pews again. A number of causes became central, Indigenous issues, refugee advocacy and a form of socialism that called for greater welfare payments without the equal call for responsibility in asking people to look for o obtain work. Anglicanism effectively supported the uptake and development of an underclass, of which nothing was to be expected and nothing was to be changed. Alongside, this, challenging people to change their habits was thought to be too aggressive and certainly attempting to present the Gospel to people of different faith or backgrounds became a form of racism.
In my own home city of Melbourne (around 5 million people) no mission has been done for 30 or more years. When the Diocese did attempt to commence local mission I can remember one of my local colleagues, a priest from the nearby parish, boldly taking out advertisements in local papers hailing “Mission Sunday” in which any man who attended on that day would be given a six pack of beer for free. Despite my warnings to the bishop that this could not be considered serious mission, I was told by the Archbishop that this was valid outreach.
The resulting photos from the day, published by the local paper showed the female vicar proudly surrounded by dishevelled alcoholic men holding their cans of beer. The aftermath photos and commenting showing littered cans all over the church lawns, embarrassed the parish, made a fool of the priest and her Archbishop and labelled Anglicans as encouraging struggling individuals to be even more bound by their addictions.
In 2008 the Anglican Diocese was unable to send an official representative to join with the Catholic Church in a prayer service against a new set of State government legislation, giving Victoria the most liberal abortion laws in the world. Whilst I attended that service, the Archbishop stated that it was not his business and that men had been “dominating” such issues for too long. On the same day the local bishop was photographed on his new mission opportunity “the blessing of the bikes” praying for safety for cyclists. The bishop was ecstatic with the 100 people who had turned up to join in a lovely day and ask for divine protection for cycling Victorians!
In the end I was unable to support such a form of Christianity that can only engage in frivolity instead of mission and sadly has largely collapsed. In a city of 5 million with 27% claiming attachment to “the Church of England” only around 8 thousand can be found worshipping in these churches today. Property investments will keep door open for the foreseeable future, but is this really the faith? I loved my 30 plus years as an Anglican priest, its demise was not what any Anglo-Catholic would have wanted, but the liberal destruction of Australian Anglicanism is now complete.
It was with great enthusiasm that I was ordained as a Catholic priest in September of 2012. There is no doubt that myself and my 3 colleagues recognised that we had indeed “come home”. Former Anglicans have an acute sense of danger to the church, given our lived and first experience of the collapse of Anglicanism; yes Anglican structures are much weaker than Catholic ones, yet, many of the social responses that Catholics show to social concerns and thoughts towards mission mirror the failed practices of Anglicanism. Perhaps this has made me overly strident in my challenges and criticism of the Catholic Church and urgent in the development of my own mission and priesthood within the church.
Without doubt something is happening to Australian Catholicism. The Church is now seen to be afraid, timid and with a desperate desire to be accepted by wider Australia, especially those elements which seek to promote, multi-culturalism, socialism and unlimited refugee intakes. The Australian Catholic Church has now entered a domain where the promotion on sustaining of Catholic communities is not possible if it comes against a prevailing societal view.
Regrettably, the Australian Catholic Church has adopted a substantial number of socialist ideas in a frantic attempt to maintain relevance within mainstream Australia. In this transition, Catholicism has echoed the path taken 20 years earlier by the Australian Protestant Churches (many of whom, now support marriage equality, radical women’s reproductive rights and transgender position, yet have slipped quickly into irrelevance).
The Catholic Church faces the same irrelevance in its sharing of a large number of core socialist positions. Some of these include increased taxation, greater welfare transfers, criticism of global trade agreements, extreme indigenous rights and radical environmentalism.
Well, all this begs the question of what can be done and does a complete newcomer to the system really have any rights to a strident voice within the Church. My view has been that criticism can certainly be levelled, but importantly, if that road is to be taken, a greater effort must be made in providing solutions and new ways of looking at problems. There also must be an “Action” component to criticism. To this end I have written 3 books, all attempting to help the Church hasten slowly. My last book “Keeping the Faith – the battle for Australian Catholicism” contains seven critical chapters and 13 attempting to build new dimensions and ways forward. The books are in high demand amongst ordinary parishioners, but make little impact on the Church hierarchy and agencies.
Additionally, I was surprised to find that there are a number of basic ways forward that Australian Catholics don’t attempt to do. Firstly, parish life is something of a mess – many are rapidly losing parishioners, one priest usually has two or more churches and schools to engage with and naturally has trouble keeping up with such a workload. Yet, where are the teams of clergy offering support? Where are the “mission programs” with new focus and new ideas? Where is the support for youth groups? (Which do not generally exist in Australian parishes) Where is the help in establishing new ways of connecting to wider society that maintains the integrity of Catholic life and practice? My second book (Let there be Light) was devoted to the regeneration of the parish, but is fundamental premise that we are seriously disconnected from the wider communities has not been acknowledged, although, again local uptake in some parishes who follow the program has been strong.
Gordon: Please share with our readers some information about your ministry.
Father James: My ministry for the last 11 years has been to Australian’s gaming industry. I am based at Melbourne’s Crown Casing and work across a number of other gaming and corporate establishments. I am not an opponent of gaming or the wider industry, it is a legal activity, but I work extensively in helping individuals remove themselves from gaming institutions if that is what they wish. My role is often misunderstood by some Church officials who feel I give “comfort to the industry”. In my view all of this misses the point, gaming is a symptom, an activity that people engage in when other aspects of life are collapsing. Overwhelmingly, Australians have forgotten core aspects of living, namely, we are each responsible for our own lives. The casino industry is not compelling people to enter its doors by intimidation; it does not employ people to wield baseball bats to ensure participation. All of this an individual does of their own free will. Nevertheless, at this point a problem arises and that is the severe tendency in Australian society to blame others. When people sit down with me to talk about gaming issues, it always begins with “the casino took my money”. I have been helpless in the face of the seductive tactics used against me” etc. It is my profound belief that no essential learning, new behaviours or indeed a return to faith can occur until an acknowledgement is made :I am the cause and source of my current problems. This is harsh medicine and few are willing to accept this at first attempt.
Out of this concern for the state of wider Australian society and the Churches inability to impact this society in meaningful ways, has come a number of initiatives. In the last 5 years I have operated “Mission Engage” and this year “Mission Engage X”. The programs are designed for demotivated young Australians of all backgrounds, aged 18-22 who have not been able to obtain entry level work. The difficulties facing young people, who have left school without adequate academic achievement, are somewhat lazy and who have entered a lifestyle of sleep all day, play on the internet at night is increasingly bleak. “Mission Engage” is the first program that actually takes young Australians to the workplace, dresses them in corporate attire, treats them as capable individuals and works hard to squeeze them into their first job. We limit numbers to around 12 per course, so that we can get to know each individual, push them as hard as possible and present a picture for them that “life needs to be grasped”. It is a unique program of “kick in the pants” combined with strong support. Currently we run courses each month for 3 weeks duration, our success rate is around 50% and we continue to work with those without success beyond the courses duration. All of the workplaces that host “Mission Engage” are places in which I work as a chaplain. A stronger argument for the need to corporate chaplaincy would be harder to find. Businesses that were once unwilling to allow “religion in the workplace” are now supporting a priest to help young Australians.
This reality is one of my earlier statements to the Church. We are disconnected from the mainstream; a message of only indigenous rights (which is a worthy cause, but who make up 3% of the population) ensures mainstream Australians don’t see us as engaged in their lives. Getting their kids a job is a huge statement of practical Catholic action. It is also a new narrative against a prevailing Australian view that clergy are untrustworthy and prone to paedophilia. Australian Catholicism is the only vehicle that can revitalise the wider society. Unfortunately, we haven’t realised this yet.
Gordon: Thank you for the great interview.