Saturday, April 13

Faith across the ditch

I have lived in Auckland since 1987 but spent my childhood and adolescence in north-west Sydney. The specific suburb was Eastwood, which you’ll find on the railway line about halfway between the big inner-west interchange at Strathfield and the northern terminus of Hornsby. Sydney has an extensive and generally reliable train service – which is one point of difference with Auckland. Sydney also features an extensive web of political corruption, which is another. I’ll get back to that.

But at this Easter season, what I’m recalling is how in the ‘60s and ‘70s, there still existed a kind of fault-line between Catholics and Protestants. The area was populated mostly by people of English and Irish heritage, the first being mostly Protestant and the second, largely Catholic. There had been class differences linked to these origins, with the Irish more likely to come from working-class backgrounds. But the days of the charismatic anti-authority Irish rebels in Australia – Peter Lalor the Eureka Stockade leader, Ned Kelly the bushranger – had largely faded. 

The Catholic population was also extended by the Italian immigrants, many of whom were involved in the market gardens and the selling of fruit and vegetables in the region. The Protestants included several denominations, the largest being Church of England / Anglican.

The religious divide didn’t come across as particularly theological, although there would have been people who knew the differences, if asked. It was largely tribal, if with few obvious tensions. My family was Anglican, and the local family we had most to do with was Catholic. But you still heard stories that people on either side of the divide favoured those on their own side when in positions of power. 

The tribalism, including any undue exercise of influence, arose partly from the separation through the education system. Back then most Protestants went to State schools, or to posh private schools linked to their brand of Protestantism; Catholics overwhelmingly attended Catholic schools, of very varying degrees of poshness. So you were unlikely to have school-friends from the other group: I did a double-take when I got to university and found there were so many Catholics there! In addition, if a mixed couple wished to marry, it was doable, but the Protestant party had to undertake to bring up any children as Catholic. There could be disapproval, as there was from some in my family when one of my aunts married a Catholic in the 1940s. 

I did not warm to Sydney’s brand of Anglicanism, then under Archbishop Marcus Loane. The Anglican Church does offer a wide degree of latitude to its dioceses in matters of doctrine (I recall an episode of ‘Yes, Prime Minister’ where a new Archbishop of Canterbury has to be chosen, and Jim Hacker remonstrates with Sir Humphrey that he should at least be someone who believes in God…). But the Sydney diocese was very conservative, close to fundamentalist. My main complaint back then was that it did not accept the ordination of women, and I could not see why my sex were spiritually or intellectually unfitted to be clergy. 

Oddly enough, I have good memories of Archbishop Loane in other respects. In 1972, he embarrassed the then Liberal-National Australian government by drawing attention in an election year to the number of Australians living in poverty. The other senior Anglican clergy lined up on his side, as did the Catholic Archbishop James Freeman. The Government had to set up an inquiry, which continued its work after Labor’s Gough Whitlam was swept to power a few months later. 

Loane was in the news too in 1970, when Pope Paul VI visited Australia. There was to be an ecumenical service with the Pontiff, featuring the leaders of all of Sydney’s Protestant churches – but Archbishop Loane refused to participate. He said his Church had strong doctrinal differences with the Catholic Church, and that joining such a service would paper over these. Many people were startled and critical. I could, however, see the archbishop’s point: why risk giving a sudden impression of unity, if it wasn’t real?

Meanwhile, I had a somewhat odd link to the Catholic Church as well. Sydney’s most popular radio station in the ‘70s was owned by them – 2SM, the letters standing for ‘Saint Mary’ (Sydney’s Catholic cathedral). They developed a very streamlined, music-heavy, announcer-lite format, with Top 40 hits on rotate. But on Sunday night, there was talkback with Father Jim McLaren dealing with callers, and I hid the radio under my bedclothes to listen to him. I thought I was hearing people grappling with real problems and issues, and the experience was probably closer to that, than any talkback listening I’ve done since, in either Australia or New Zealand.

And now? There was no disapproval when my aunt’s daughter, brought up Catholic, married a Methodist back in the early 1980s. Nor when one of their daughters had an entirely secular wedding late last year. In fact, like New Zealand, Australia has become a lot more secular since my childhood. Close to 40% ticked ‘no religion’ in the 2021 census. Catholicism and Anglicanism are nonetheless still the biggest Christian denominations, at 20% and 9.8% respectively. 

The Eastwood area has changed too, with big influxes of immigrants, mainly from east Asia. The Anglican diocese remains very conservative: more pastoral roles for women, without full ordination, and a strong campaign against legalising same-sex marriage a few years ago. But the local church now runs services in Mandarin, Korean, Cantonese and Indonesian.

In politics, Victor Dominello, scion of one of those Catholic Italian immigrant families from my childhood, became the local MP for the Liberal-National NSW State Government. But governments of all types and stripes in Australia are in cahoots with the clubs that run poker machines. When Dominello tried to curb problem gambling, he lost the relevant portfolio, and left politics. New South Wales went to Labor in the State election in late March, and they got a bigger-than-average swing in his former seat. But will anything change?

And me? During a recent stint of illness back in Auckland, I couldn’t read much, and so listened a lot to music on the radio. I oscillated between the Concert Programme and Magic Hits 100.6. The latter would have been playing some of the songs I heard on 2SM radio back in the ‘70s, in a similar format. The music on both this station and the Concert Programme was in any case very consoling. So Palm Sunday found this still secular-minded woman at a performance of J. S. Bach’s St John Passion from 1723/4. Bach was a Protestant (Lutheran), but the musical traditions he drew on had some Italian, and thus Catholic, elements as well. And that ecumenical music communicated those spiritual traditions wonderfully.

  • Joanne Wilkes has spent her life mainly between Auckland and Sydney. She taught English literature for many years at the University of Auckland.