Sinners, saints, sceptics and believers keep on
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