The Decline of the Christian Church in Australia

By Suter, Keith | Contemporary Review, June 2004 | Go to article overview

The Decline of the Christian Church in Australia


Suter, Keith, Contemporary Review


'I AM not a rapist'. May 8, 2003 was the first time in Australian history that a Governor-General (who was formerly an Anglican Archbishop) had had to make such a denial. Unbeknown to the Australian population, the Governor-General had been locked in a legal tussle over whether his identity could be revealed in a court case brought by Rose Marie Ann Jarmyn. Mrs Jarmyn claimed that she had been sexually assaulted by the Rev Dr Peter Hollingworth in the mid-1960s. Dr Hollingworth claimed he was a victim of mistaken identity. Eventually the suppression order on the identifying of 'AB' (as he was listed in the court documents) was lifted and his name entered the public domain. By the time the order was lifted, Mrs Jarmyn had taken her own life and the substantive court case was later struck out.

Dr Hollingworth's case (which few of us outside of it took seriously) was nonetheless the final straw in his involvement in a sad saga over clergymen and sexual abuse allegations. Dr Hollingworth was appointed Australia's 23rd Governor-General in April 2001. The appointment of a Governor-General is very much the personal decision of the Prime Minister of the day. It is shrouded in mystery because there cannot (to save any embarrassment to potential candidates or the Queen) be any public discussion and so the Prime Minister has to keep the appointment close to his chest for fear that the list of potential candidates gets leaked.

There was a general support from the public for Dr Hollingworth's appointment. The biggest objection (except for republicans who want the post abolished completely) came from people who were opposed to any religious leader being appointed. The animosity at the time was directed at the principle, rather than the particular person. Dr Hollingworth had had a highly praised career of working in the slums of Melbourne at the Anglican welfare organization the Brotherhood of St Laurence (first as chaplain from 1964 and then as the director from 1980). In 1989 he became the Anglican Archbishop of Brisbane. (I have known him since 1978, though I have not discussed the Jarmyn case with him.)

While he was Archbishop he had to deal with a number of cases of clergymen within his diocese who had allegedly been involved in sexual abuse over the years. All these matters were handled out of the public eye and were probably not known to the Prime Minister, John Howard, when he put Dr Hollingworth's name forward to Buckingham Palace as the next Governor-General (or at least Mr Howard had no idea how explosive the cases could become). The details only started to trickle out after his appointment (with the first compensation payment made to a victim in the December following his April 2001 appointment).

Gradually, there were increasing calls for his resignation. Some people had consistently opposed any religious figure being appointed. They were then joined by people who thought he had handled the sexual abuse cases badly. Other than the tragic Mrs Jarmyn, there were no allegations made against Dr Hollingworth personally. The issue was how he handled the allegations against others. Eventually the pressure became too great and so he resigned.

This article examines the declining status and influence of the Christian church in Australia. The Hollingworth saga has four bearings on this subject. First, his appointment was opposed from the outset by some people who wanted to maintain the 'church and state' split and so opposed any religious figure in that role. Second, the Prime Minister had limited options as to whom he could select. The 'political class' is despised so that the appointment of an ex-politician would probably not be supported by many Australians. Ex-senior military officers are 'safe' but boring. The country is probably not yet ready for a sports personality (though ironically two states have ex-runners as Governors). Therefore the popular 'pastor to the slums' seemed a 'safe' choice. …

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