A modern prophet

He’s been called “Prophetic Peter”; certainly his childhood was prophetic of his adult life. When he was 10, Peter Carnley was walking down a dirt road in his country town. “I remember thinking about why there should be anything; a philosophical question, I suppose. Why should anything be?“And I began to think about what would be if things weren’t there, if you subtract things: take away the fences and the houses and the dirt road, what would be left? It would all be blackness; but then I thought, ‘Blackness is something.’ And I could feel the hairs rise on the back of my neck.”

A different child might have been filled with dread, or with helplessness at the absurdity of human life in the face of the cosmos. But Carnley experienced it as a positive revelation; he felt “awe, and the mystery of it all. And I think that’s still with me”.

That moment shaped the rest of his life, and its reverberations are now felt in the life of the nation. The Most Reverend Dr Peter Carnley this year became an outspoken and controversial primate of Australia’s four million Anglicans.

He is the darling of the leftie intelligentsia and the bane of conservatives, exasperating Liberal politicians and religious fundamentalists in equal measure. His stance is a novel and – to those whose sense of humor is wickedly inclined – amusing one for a leader of the Christian denomination that has historically had the closest links with Australia’s establishment.

In the 1998 docks war, Carnley told the federal Liberal government it should be acting as an independent umpire, not a player, in the dispute. The Anglican Premier of Western Australia, Richard Court, has had to fend off claims by Carnley that opposition to Aboriginal land rights is akin to Hitler’s dispossession of the Jews. Anglican MP Wilson Tuckey threatened to leave the church over Carnley’s criticisms.

Carnley’s stance in theological matters triggers similar divisions in his flock. He is the hero of the Movement for the Ordination of Women. Boldly going where no bishop had gone before, he ordained Australia’s first women priests in Perth in 1992, defying outrage, litigation and years of stalemate.

A grand vision underlies his grand gestures. In his sermon that day he said, “Today we ordain 10, but we liberate tens of thousands from the stereotypes with which they have been bound.”

His refusal to wait for national consensus on the issue earned him the soubriquet “the Episcopalian cowboy”. He responded lightly, “I don’t think I’ve ever been on a horse, and I’ve certainly never been on a cow.”

But the large and powerful Sydney diocese has never forgiven him, and there is speculation that the divide between it and Carnley might develop into a formal schism.

Sydney is a diocese unlike any other in Australia. Anglicans there call themselves “evangelicals” but liberals call them “fundamentalists”. They emphasise faith over reason and see a fairly literal reading of the Bible as the source of truth and authority. They oppose female ordination, minimise the use of prayer books and ritual and want lay people to be allowed to give communion (“lay presidency”).

They are appalled by what they believe to be Carnley’s views on Christ and the resurrection and by an article canvassing these views in The Bulletin published at Easter. The week after the article appeared, Carnley’s inauguration took place in Sydney. It was accompanied by the kind of dramas more typical of the Bible belt of America’s deep south than a cosmopolitan Australian capital.

Leading Sydney clergy, including two bishops, boycotted the service. Others who attended said they were “saluting the uniform, not the man”. Demonstrators outside the cathedral carried placards saying “Anglicans are dead” and “Peter Carnley, repent of heresy”.

The church’s dilemma is that one man’s heresy is another man’s vision for leading a declining institution into the modern world.

CARNLEY has long been a leader. In most families it is the parents who decide the child’s religious orientation but it was the other way around for the Carnleys. His father was a postal worker and his mother stayed at home with Peter, born in 1937, and his younger brother and sister.

In the years following his mystical experience on the dirt track, Carnley surveyed the various religious offerings in his home town of Young, NSW (“the cherry capital of Australia,” he says with a wry, sidelong glance).

He had been taken by a neighbor to Methodist Sunday school, which didn’t really engage him, although he has always remembered the message of a banner hanging in the church: “Be still and know that I am God.” Today his little weekend farm is called Stillpoint.

Carnley was part of a scout troop that did Sunday “parades” at the church of each denomination in turn, and he decided he liked the Anglicans: “Robes. Candles. The liturgy.”

“I still do love worship, and the big cathedral occasions,” he says. “Grandeur and drama and tradition is part of it, but also the idea of transcendence, that there’s more to this world than we dream of.”

His non-religious family tolerated his decision as a teenager to get himself confirmed but was shocked when, in his 20s, he decided to abandon law studies to become a priest. “They thought I was daft at the beginning but after a little while they got themselves confirmed and Dad became the sidesman – you know, handing out hymn books.”

Carnley is said to be a shy man who is protective of his privacy. He certainly shields himself in this interview in his book-lined study in the Victorian mansion he inhabits as Archbishop of Perth, the diocese he has run since 1981.

A renowned scholar and theologian, he adopts the desiccated, donnish manner of a Mr Chips or a Casaubon, choosing his words with care. He will discuss his views but evades questions about his feelings. He is impervious to the journalistic trick of allowing a pause to develop in the hope that the subject will feel obliged to fill it. He simply falls into an unperturbed silence, gazing at the carpet. This man knows how to play chicken.

But while he keeps his face and voice impassive his slender, expressive hands give him away. He distractedly touches the symbols of his office as though they are talismans, twisting the episcopal ring or fingering his ornate Huguenot cross. Laughter emerges only in quick, rare flashes, as if he has to be ambushed by his own sense of the ridiculous.

`THAT’S because of what his role is at the moment,” says an old friend from theological college, Reverend Ian Brown of St Stephen’s, Richmond. “He’s got a droll wit, but once you become purple you’ve got to watch what you say. It’s like a life sentence; it just surrounds you.”

Or perhaps it is just Carnley’s natural reserve. The writer Tim Winton, an Anglican in Carnley’s diocese, says, “He’s probably more respected than loved. He’s not a man of the people but he’s interested in people, curious.”

Carnley is also curious about his own make-up. In this interview he comfortably dissects, for the world’s interest, his results on a Jungian psychological test called the Myer-Briggs Personality Inventory. He proffers as titbits his test result (INTJ), his wife Ann’s (INFJ) and even that of their mutual friend actress Jackie Weaver (also INFJ).

“The `I’ is the Introvert but I’m midway between `I’ and Extrovert,” he says. “I quite like being with people and going to parties and that sort of thing but to regenerate or recreate I go away.

“`N’ means Intuitive, rather than a Sensate person. It means that when I go to meetings, I know what the outcome of the discussion’s going to be but I have to sit and wait for everybody else to work through it. You intuit somehow, you can just grasp what is to happen, or where the truth is or something … And I certainly notice it at meetings. I have to bite on my bottom lip and just wait for people because I’ve learnt to understand that other people aren’t intuitive.

“`T’ is a thinker rather than a feeler. I’m a typical man, in that sense … And I was raised on Wittgenstein at Cambridge, I suppose. And then a `J’ is a person who is able to make judgments, whereas a `P’ is a perceiving person who keeps seeing other possibilities and will put off deciding until something else has been looked at.”

When the tester saw Carnley was an INTJ, “He said, `Oh yes, that’s the kind of guy institutions need at the top.’ The other clergy’s jaws dropped.” Carnley grins, amused by his Jungian imprimatur.

Carnley didn’t begin his priestly life as the kind of Anglican who would be open to depth psychology. Today he talks about the nexus between the spiritual and the subconscious, and how he believes some people project on to him the religious doubt they deny in themselves. But in his 20s he was as literal a believer as any Sydney evangelical.

He found his views challenged at theology college. His fellow student Ian Brown says, “We had to talk about the lives of Christ and how everybody doctored them to suit the age they lived in; in the First World War for the troops in the trenches; how with Fidel Castro and Che Guevara (Christ) was seen as the great liberator.”

Carnley was at first threatened, says Brown: “It was quite a tempestuous time for all of us. But Peter came from the law courts where he’d heard a lot of argument and he (began) to apply that sort of argumentation.”

Carnley says, “I remember being absolutely amazed that all this belief in angels and things that I had might not be quite literally true. Theological college shook me out of that into a much more critical historical approach. I think most theological students find that very liberating … It’s not possible to believe it all literally.”
Does he now believe in the devil? “Not with a tail and pitchforks, no. But I certainly believe there is a positive evil. St Augustine, for example, had a theory of evil as the absence of good … But I think it’s much more positive than that, much more sinister.”

And how does he see grace? “As something manifested in gifts. Life is a gift. And certainly love is. If you look at people’s lives, you can very quickly pick up when they’re trying to be loving. As soon as you try to do it, you’re found to be patronising.

“I think real loving is much more spontaneous. It’s a gift, a grace. It happens. You fall in love and love wells up like a spring of deep water.”

He fell in love with one Ann Dunstan, whom he married in 1966. They met at Melbourne University when she was training to be a teacher and he was studying biblical archaeology.

She remembers him as dynamic: “You couldn’t not notice him. It was probably his energy that captured me, but also his silence. He’s actually quite shy and if you move him from one social scene to another he finds it quite hard … I’m immediately more easy with people than he is; I think it’s partly a woman thing. And we both love nothing better than to be on our own together. We both need lots of quiet space.”

They retreat down to their 5hectare tulip farm at Nannup, south of Perth, where Carnley spends a lot of time on his knees planting and harvesting flowers, in part for love and in part for the mortgage.

Ann Carnley says, “We’ve got a tiny little house, and we’re building an extension and he’s taken out an owner-builder licence,” – she chuckles – “and he can’t work the video, you know. But he’s actually very good, he’s come to terms with some very complicated plans.

“We sit in the evenings with a drink, and watch the kangaroos. We go to bed very early. We read. We bore everybody by saying we saw a splendid blue wren …” She looks apologetic, uncertain whether their joy in the simple things will be understood.

Their marriage seems close – they kiss goodbye before parting after a charity breakfast function – and mutually supportive. Soon after they were married he won a scholarship to Cambridge University that did not include a fare for her. Ann Carnley tried to earn extra money by accepting a local newspaper editor’s invitation to write the society column.

“So Peter and I used to sit up the night before the deadline, and I’d be trying to make sense of `Bride wore mother’s tiara’ or `Interstate guests come for wedding’. And Peter would often run down the street to put the copy underneath the door to meet the deadline.” It has left him with a lifelong sympathy for the fourth estate, she laughs.

Carnley completed his PhD – on the interface between theology and the philosophy of history – at Cambridge in 1968. But he chose not to pursue a career in England as an academic theologian because he disliked the gap between his quality of life and his wife’s.

He says, “As a fellow I had a stipend in the college, and part of the stipend was all these dining rights. But that was only for me. My wife and child – we had Ben – were at home having mincemeat and I was there having college feasts and wine circles afterwards. And snuff!”

Ben, now 31, is a doctor training to be a physician. His sister, Sarah, 29, is a lawyer. Ann Carnley says, “She had a couple of years in a law firm but she’s not litigation-minded and now she’s into mediation.” Blood will out.

The Carnleys also seem united in their views about how Christians should engage with the wider world. They downplay proselytising zeal in favor of respect of difference.

Ann Carnley’s most recent job is that of part-time lay chaplain in a state primary school in Subiaco. She doesn’t see herself as a missionary: “God has created people who are unique and have integrity, and I’m not in the business of interfering with that creation. If I thought that people thought I was relating to them as a person who’s a possible subject for conversion, I’d be so unhappy. I think you give what you are, who you are, and that’s really it.”

In his Easter essay in The Bulletin, “The Rising of the Son”, Carnley sharply criticised “hostile and self-righteously condemning Christian attitudes with respect to … other religions”. He wrote of an ecumenical service he runs each year at which members of various religions are invited to come and say prayers for peace, each in their own way.

“If this service happens to be televised, we receive a spate of communications from angry people … who are hell bent on exclusion and condemnation – for, they say, salvation can come from Christ and no other, save Christ alone. Christians should have no dealings with Buddhists and Muslims and Samaritans!”

This and other comments in the article led Sydney church leaders to unleash a torrent of criticism of Carnley, accusing him of undermining the basic Christian tenet that the only way to God is through Jesus.

Carnley’s views on the resurrection have led some to believe he is not even Christian. He has been interpreted as suggesting that the resurrection was more a spiritual event that did not necessarily involve Christ’s body. Such an approach is not uncommon in modern theological circles but is anathema in Sydney’s evangelical ones.

Carnley says conservative Christians “picture that Jesus sat up and rubbed his eyes and pushed his way out of the tomb and started walking around on the ground”.

“That’s what happened in the story of Lazarus; it’s effectively a resuscitation … A person is pronounced dead and sits up and resumes life in this world. Whereas a resurrection – there’s only been one. It’s an entry into the mystery of God. The raised Christ isn’t just restored to this world; he’s transformed, never to die again. It’s a different thing altogether.”

Did Christ’s body get up and walk around again? “Not in that kind of way. When he appears in the stories, he appears from heaven, as it were, in the radical hiddenness of God. The raised Christ, for example, appears and is not recognised until the breaking of bread, and then he disappears … They want to describe the raised Christ in literal terms whereas I want to say the raised Christ is a mystery like God is a mystery.”

The man who led the Sydney boycott of Carnley’s inauguration, Reverend John Woodhouse, says, “My understanding is that he believes that the bones and flesh of Jesus rotted somewhere in Palestine. That’s a different view from both the view of the eyewitnesses who were present and the view of Christians down the ages. It’s a very significant thing to prevaricate on”.

In terms of the Bulletin article, Woodhouse says the main concern was the suggestion that Christ is not the only way to God, that there were people in this world who don’t need Jesus Christ as their savior.

Anglicanism has no “central control”. Bishops and dioceses function fairly independently of each other; Carnley has little executive power and must rely on moral suasion to influence others.

It is theoretically possible for Sydney and the rest of Australia’s Anglican “communion” to live with their growing differences. But it is also possible that lay presidency or some other contentious issue will trigger a formal schism.

Carnley has vowed that he will not be “bullied by fundamentalists”. He says he finds it “very hurtful” to be told he’s not a proper Christian: “I think any ad hominem abuse is undesirable.” How does he deal with it? “Oh, I grind my teeth at night a bit,” he chuckles. “And if necessary I write them a letter, pointing out that what they’ve been saying is defamatory and what do they plan to do about it.” His voice is suddenly steely: “I give them a few sleepless nights for the good of their souls.”

He takes a broad view of division. “It’s funny, isn’t it, that in a time when the world becomes more global it also becomes more tribal? Break down the Berlin Wall and then the whole Soviet Union breaks up into little groups.” He believes something similar will happen as Anglicans, Catholics and Lutherans move to unite: “I think as the ecumenical movement becomes more real, there are those who are going to opt out.”
BUT there are others who opt in because of Carnley’s inclusiveness. Jackie Weaver says, “Sydney’s very strange. There’s only about three churches I can go to. Whenever I read or hear what they’re saying about him in the Sydney diocese, that’s not the same person I know. The Carnleys are the epitome of what Christianity is all about: tolerance, and purity of heart, and generosity and forgiveness …”
Says Winton, who sees Carnley as a “useful moderate”: “It’s a fiery time for a normally lukewarm church – you can only wish the bloke luck.”

OUTSIDE the church it is his politics, rather than his theology, that has made Carnley controversial. He favors prescription heroin and injecting rooms, and opposed the GST on food.

His hero is Ernest Henry Bergmann. “He confirmed me; he was the bishop of Canberra-Goulburn. He was a wonderful Australian. He led the striking steelworkers down the streets of Newcastle during the depression demanding double the dole.”

In 1998 Carnley received an Order of Australia for his own contributions to theology, ecumenism and social justice. Most visible has been his support for reconciliation, which flowed from an earlier commitment to the anti-apartheid movement.

Carnley has a special relationship with the Ngarinyin people of the Kimberley following an approach several years ago by one of their elders, David Mowaljarlai.

Mowaljarlai had lost several children to problems including alcoholism, drugs and suicide, and wanted his last two boys to escape a similar fate. He offered a cross-cultural exchange: Carnley would find them places in a church boarding school, and in return Mowaljarlai would teach about Aboriginal art and culture. But Mowaljarlai died, leaving Carnley “Uncle Archbishop” – supplier of Walkmans and Reeboks – to a group that eventually grew to 11.

Carnley has been to “bush university” on their tribal lands. “There are galleries and galleries of ancient art, certainly more than 20,000 years old. It gave me a huge new perspective on this culture,” he says. “They have this figure called Wandjina … and Wandjina has no mouth because Wandjina is a manifestation of Wungud, sort of God. So it’s like an angel in the Old Testament, a manifestation of God himself.

“And the Ngarinyin people, when they see reflections of trees and rocks and cliffs in the water, they don’t see it as a reflection of the real cliff but see the reflection in the water as Wungud’s idea of the cliff. It’s wonderful; it’s like Plato, almost.”
But while his intellect delights in the play of their ideas, even Aborigines have been known to cop Carnley’s sometimes acid tongue. At one human rights awards function that ran late because of a routine by an Aboriginal comedian, Carnley, peeved that he might miss his plane, startled the liberal audience by remarking from the podium, “We seem to be running on Aboriginal time here today.”

“He can be blunt, and I suppose bluntness doesn’t always go with kindness,” says an old friend, the former governor-general Sir Zelman Cowen. “But underneath there’s a genuine warmth and caring.” Cowen, who is Jewish, read the first lesson at the church service for Carnley’s inauguration as primate.

Weaver was enlisted to a more worldly project: reading a play called Love Letters to raise money for charity during Carnley’s Anglican Awareness Week (slogan: “Anglicans make better lovers”.)
These are canny recruitments of a modern prophet who can read the signs of his multicultural and generally more tolerant times. It’s a world Carnley is keen to engage.

He believes that this is the difference between a sect and a church; the sect defines itself ever against a world it condemns – “I see that certainly in pockets in Sydney” – whereas the church connects with the world in order to transform it.

He has been criticised for placing what he believes to be right ahead of church unity. He has no regrets: “If there’s a tension, you’ve got to do what is right and that will be best for the unity of the church in the end. Like the ordination of women: You might say, `Let’s not do anything for a while until everyone agrees’ but that wouldn’t have produced unity … It would have exploded had we not moved.”

The revelation on the dirt road – that there is more to the universe than the material world – continues to underpin Carnley’s political views. In his inauguration address, Carnley quoted Vaclav Havel as saying that Marxism was wrong to assume that if you get the outward physical circumstances of human life right, that right morality, human relationships and culture would follow.

Carnley pointed out that it is now the West that needs disabusing of this idea. “In a curious inversion of dialectical materialism, we hear … that if we can get the economy right, then everything else will fall happily into place. Thus, Aborigines are told that what they need is housing and health services and all will be well .. .

“But something else is missing, something to do with consciousness: right fundamental attitudes, generosity of spirit, an open preparedness to acknowledge and honor the original custodianship of the land, and to own the many injustices of dispossession; in a word, spirituality is the essential nub of the matter.”

It is not a popular view in the corridors of power. But it has ever been the fate of the prophet to foresee what should happen long before people are ready to make it so.

First published in The Age.