Sin­ners, saints, scep­tics and be­liev­ers keep on

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Ru­ral, reclu­sive al­most, Les Mur­ray en­dured a hel­lish episode in the pub­lic eye. His or­deal was over­whelm­ingly po­lit­i­cal and only marginally re­li­gious; po­etry had noth­ing to do with it, although a na­tion of arm­chair crit­ics amused it­self a while in pil­lory and par­ody.

The year was 1999. A ref­er­en­dum on Aus­tralia’s con­sti­tu­tional sta­tus was pend­ing and John Howard played it like Don Brad­man, first by word­ing the ques­tion so as to muddy repub­li­can wa­ters, then by par­lay­ing a push for a bill of rights into some­thing less in­ju­ri­ous to his own ideals. If Aus­tralia were to be­come a repub­lic, the monar­chist prime min­is­ter sug­gested, then that repub­lic might ben­e­fit from a con­sti­tu­tional pream­ble. The word­smith Howard chose for the job was Mur­ray, a Catholic.

His­tory records that the ref­er­en­dum failed, as ref­er­en­dums will. The repub­li­can cause was de­railed for a gen­er­a­tion at least, and its ca- boose, Mur­ray’s pream­ble, was de­stroyed in the process. In fact, it was trashed long be­fore the vote even took place. A draft was re­leased some months ear­lier, badly bowd­lerised ac­cord­ing to its au­thor, bad in ev­ery re­spect ac­cord­ing to rau­cous pop­u­lar opin­ion.

The words that seemed to stick in the na­tion’s craw were the open­ing four: “With hope in God ...” Monar­chists and repub­li­cans joined be­liev­ers and in­fi­dels in a cho­rus of ridicule un­til Mur­ray re­treated to the shad­ows of pub­lic life, his pre­ferred habi­tat, and re­turned to his real work, star­ring in a fir­ma­ment for which no­body much cares any more.

But what’s so wrong with hope in God? Is it re­ally such a lesser thing than faith, which is blind by def­i­ni­tion and typ­i­cally foisted on the minds of de­fence­less in­fants? Did those four words not speak for most of us, re­gard­less of creed? And did they not speak with a spe­cial poignancy for that vast le­gion of the lapsed?

Ger­ard Wind­sor, so fond of anec­dote, says noth­ing of the pream­ble de­ba­cle in his me­moir A Tem­pest-Tossed Church.

But it’s easy to imag­ine him sym­pa­this­ing with Mur­ray. He’s an older man now, a cra­dle Catholic and one-time Je­suit who has spent a life­time reck­on­ing with the preacher from Nazareth and the church he founded. Nat­u­rally, peo­ple want to know where he stands. Nat­u­rally, so does Wind­sor him­self.

“For those born into the Catholic tribe, your de­gree of af­fil­i­a­tion as an adult is of­ten doubt­ful, above all to your­self,’’ he writes. Of­ten enough, peo­ple ask me, ‘‘Do you still go to church?’’ or ‘‘Do you still prac­tise?’’ or ‘‘Do you still be­lieve?’’ or ‘‘What sort of fu­neral will you have?’’ My sum­mary an­swer (although I’m quite will­ing to ex­pand) is, ‘‘I’d say I hope.’’ So, while far from giv­ing up on a ra­tio­nal as­sess­ment of the ques­tion, it makes sense to me to say that I hope more firmly than I be­lieve. Per­haps this is a fall­back po­si­tion, and per­haps it is un­ortho­dox, even hereti­cal ac­cord­ing to ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal rul­ings. Yet it seems the truest ex­pres­sion of my re­li­gious po­si­tion. In a later pas­sage, hav­ing ex­plored his youth­ful at­trac­tion to the Gospels, he clar­i­fies that

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