Church gives women bishops the thumbs down – again


The Church of England has again voted down the introduction of women bishops, after a long and divisive debate including over 100 speeches.The Church of England has again voted down the introduction of women bishops, after a long and divisive debate including over 100 speeches.

The measure had majority support but did not win the two-thirds majority in all three houses of the General Synod that was needed for it to pass. It was lost in the House of Laity by just six votes.

The result will embitter and embarrass supporters of modernisation, with many tweeting that they were “ashamed” of the church’s decision.

Among existing bishops, 44 voted for women to join their ranks, three voted against and two abstained. Among priests, 148 were in favour and 45 against. Of the laity, 132 were in favour and 74 were against. Forty-two of the church’s 42 dioceses have previously backed women as bishops.

The church will not vote on the issue again for at least five years. But there has been speculation that women priests might turn to civil law for redress, asking that the church be stripped of its exemption to obey equal-employment laws.

Before the vote, Sally Muggeridge of Canterbury asked who would go to see the Queen, a woman, and “tell her that we’ve failed her?”

Canon Jane Charman of Salisbury described the debate as “one of the most inward looking? I can remember”, saying a spin doctor did not exist who could make excluding women sound like good news to the outside world: “Synod, we need to pass this legislation.”

But speakers opposing the measure cited scripture as the basis for their refusal of “female headship”.

The synod was voting on a compromise measure that would have allowed women bishops but left wriggle room for conservative evangelicals, with women bishops able to “delegate” authority to a male bishop if their parish requested it. The incoming Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, said the compromise was “as good as we can get”.

But Edward Armitstead of Bath said the measure was unsatisfactory and that opponents of female bishops had not really been listened to: “The measure as it stands is discriminatory and does not offer reassurance to the almost a third of members who cannot accept female headship.”

Bishop Peter Forster of Chester said he was uncomfortable with the ordination of women as bishops even though he gladly ordained female priests. The proposed change would allow parishes to choose their own bishops and would mean bishops “will not be in Eucharistic communion with one another”.

Women spoke against the measure too. Rosemary Lyon said she was not a misogynist but “we need to stick with scripture.”

“Please vote against this. There is a better way,” she said.

Canon Rebecca Swyer of Chichester said she felt the church did not have the authority to make this decision.

Rod Thomas of Exeter said the compromise would still mean recognising the authority of female bishops, something he believed was not accepted in scripture.

But Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams asked how long the church could sustain a system in which some priests are blocked from being bishops. He said he wanted the church to “liberate itself” from the issue so that no more time and energy would be spent on it.

First published in The Age.

Ireland’s moment of truth

IT IS said that the best way to get a bad law overturned is to enforce it. When people see its consequences, the truism goes, they will be so appalled that public support for change will build up an unstoppable head of steam. The death of Savita Halappanavar might do just that for the women of Ireland.

Savita, 31, was 17 weeks pregnant when she went to University Hospital Galway in pain. Doctors told her that her cervix had opened and amniotic fluid was leaking. Her pregnancy was ending and there was no hope for the child. Over the next three days, in agonising pain, Savita repeatedly begged for an abortion to get the miscarriage over quickly.

Could doctors not induce the labour so she could give birth sooner? According to her husband, Praveen, the consultant told them this was not possible because there was still a foetal heartbeat, and ”this is a Catholic country”. That heartbeat finally stopped after four days, and only then was Savita taken to theatre to have the contents of her womb removed. She developed septicaemia, or blood poisoning, and was dead three days later.

Savita’s homeland of India is aghast, and there have been diplomatic flurries of concern.

Meanwhile, three separate inquiries have begun, and no doubt there will be findings as to whether medical negligence was a factor.

That was a straw clutched by some defenders of the Irish Catholic Church after the scalding rage that erupted over Savita’s case. ”It has nothing to do with the church,” one deeply Catholic woman assured me. ”It sounds like medical negligence.” She was channelling Pontius Pilate washing blood from his hands.

In Ireland, politics is deeply intertwined with Catholic doctrine and the institutional power of the church, and the church’s tough stance against abortion has protected a near-total ban on the procedure. Ireland still has on its books 1861 legislation that makes it a crime to procure a miscarriage. A 1983 amendment to the constitution acknowledges the right to life of the unborn child but is also meant to give equal right to the life of the mother. In 1992, Ireland’s Supreme Court was forced to interpret that during the case of X, a suicidal 14-year-old rape victim. The government was trying to stop her going to England to abort the pregnancy that had resulted from the rape.

”The state was going to force a child to bear a child for her rapist,” said one commentator. The court ruled that if there was a substantial risk to the mother’s life – her life, but not her health – it would be lawful to terminate.

Irish governments have prevented that judgment from coming into effect by failing to pass laws that would affirm and clarify it.

Ireland has a grand history of locking away evidence of sexual shame. Ask the ”wayward” young women imprisoned and abused as slaves in the Magdalene laundries, or the illegitimate children raped in orphanages by nuns and brothers charged with keeping them from contaminating the rest of Irish society.

Now abortion is concealed. More than 4000 Irish women go to England each year to end pregnancies, according to British statistics. An unknown number go to other European countries. ”Abortion tourism,” they call it.

Years ago, it could be argued the influence of church doctrine on the Irish government was democratic; the majority believed in Catholic teachings, so it was fair enough that they were reflected in Irish law, and that church leaders were consulted about planned legislation. But that is no longer the case.

An Irish Times poll found 77 per cent now believe abortion should be permitted in some circumstances. Other polls have found the hold of the church is weakening: 77 per cent of Irish now think there should be female priests, 90 per cent want married priests, and 70 per cent say the church’s teachings on sexuality are not relevant to them.

None of which is discouraging to Cardinal Sean Brady, the head of the Irish church, who announced in August that he would promote a lobbying campaign to oppose any change on abortion. Australia’s Cardinal George Pell has expressed concern the furore over child abuse has scapegoated the Catholic Church. The Irish pro-choice movement is not scapegoating the Catholic Church but holding it up to modern accountability.

The major religions are all guilty of some form of systematic abuse of women. Victims of rape have been executed in the name of Islam; Hinduism abandons widows to homelessness; orthodox Jews in Israel spit on women they deem immodest and try to force women to sit down the back of buses (Rosa Parks must be turning in her grave).

The fact that a religion invokes God, claims to be a path to transcendence and offers society many benefits does not exempt it from outside scrutiny of beliefs that cause harm. Catholic Ireland’s judge is likely to be the European Court of Human Rights, which criticised the government two years ago for not clarifying the Supreme Court ruling. The Irish government then set up an expert panel, and has said it will respond at the end of this month.

This will be a moment of truth for the Republic of Ireland. Many old-time Irish republicans believed the country could not come of age until it was united, with Ulster returning to the national fold. But perhaps a more important coming of age involves Ireland standing tall as a secular state where civil law can differ from, and override, canon law.

One person’s religious freedom must end where it hurts another’s right to health or happiness – or, as in Savita’s case, the right to life itself. As protesters outside the Irish Parliament last week pointed out, Savita had a heartbeat, too.

First published in The Age.

Breaking down the walls

The revelations of child abuse and cover-ups within the Irish Catholic Church have shocked the faithful, writes Karen Kissane from Dublin.

MARIE COLLINS was 13 and in Our Lady’s Hospital for Sick Children when she was abused. It was the hospital chaplain, a Catholic priest. He went to jail for it, many years later, like so many of his colleagues in Ireland, but only after decades of misery for Collins.
“I never connected his abuse with the church,” she says. “I thought it was somehow my fault and that I was a bad person who had brought it on myself. I had years of depression and agoraphobia that included nine admissions to psychiatric wards.”
As a young adult, anxious that other children not be hurt as she had, she told a priest in her parish. “He told me it was probably my fault, that I must have led the poor man on, but that I was forgiven and I could go away and forget about it.”
That priest’s sentence of guilt outweighed any promise of forgiveness. Collins did go away, into more years of silence and depression. The misery did not lift until after her attacker, Father Paul McGennis, was jailed in 1997 over offences involving her and another child he abused 18 years after Collins. He was later convicted of having raped a third girl, 24 years after he attacked Collins.
She has no doubt the validation given to her by those court cases, and the later findings of four major inquiries into child abuse, helped her to recover. She says of the opening up of Ireland’s cesspit of secrets: “I think it’s helped everybody, really, except the Catholic Church … It’s certainly worked for survivors. Even as late as the 1990s, it was difficult for any survivor to be heard or believed in any way. That’s not the case any more.”
Australia’s royal commission into child sex abuse, announced last week by the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, will look at the Catholic Church and other institutions. In Ireland, the church has been the focus of inquiries because its traditional reach there incorporated almost all schools, hospitals, orphanages, charities and welfare organisations.
And it is the church hierarchy that has time and again been found guilty of covering up scandals and protecting perpetrators in its ranks.
“The revelation that had the biggest impact was not that the church had abusers,” Collins says. “It was news of the systemic cover-ups that angered people.”
In her case, the bishop to whom she took her story told her the priest concerned had no complaints against him: “But they had known 30 years earlier he was an abuser. A few months after he abused me, the church found out he was doing it. He used to take indecent pictures of the children and he sent them to the UK for processing, and Kodak … picked out a roll and sent them to police here. The police commissioner did not investigate, but brought the pictures to the archbishop. They took him out of the hospital and put him in a parish.”
Ireland’s Prime Minister, Enda Kenny, a practising Catholic, was so outraged by stories such as this that following a damning report last year, he launched an attack on the Vatican that made world headlines.
The Cloyne inquiry found a 1997 letter from the Vatican criticising a new policy by the Irish church hierarchy of reporting all offenders to police. The Cloyne report documented, as had three other inquiries before it, patterns of clerical deceit.
Breaking with decades of subservience to the church by Irish politicians of all stripes, Kenny stood up in Ireland’s parliament and attacked Rome.
He said the report exposed an attempt “to frustrate an inquiry in a sovereign, democratic republic – as little as three years ago, not three decades ago. And in doing so, the report excavates the dysfunction, disconnection, elitism … the narcissism that dominate the culture of the Vatican. The rape and torture of children was downplayed or ‘managed’ to uphold, instead, the primacy of the institution, its power, standing and reputation”.
Rome removed its ambassador to Ireland, and Dublin closed its embassy to the Vatican. Ireland has since reinforced its determination to act on secular principles of child protection by making it mandatory to report sexual abuse.
Meanwhile, ordinary Catholics aghast at the scandals have voted with their feet. While national attendance at weekly mass is about 45 per cent, in Dublin the figure is less than 20 per cent – both a huge drop from the 90 per cent attendance of 30 years ago.
Dublin’s archbishop, Diarmuid Martin, said in February: “The fact thousands of children were abused within the church … is a scar the church will bear for generations. There is no way in which what happened can be consigned out of the way into the archives.”
Of the Murphy report into the misdeeds of the Dublin archdiocese before his time, he said: “I offer to each and every survivor my apology, my sorrow and my shame for what happened to them … the Archdiocese of Dublin failed to recognise the theft of childhood.”
The church has set up new structures to deal with abuse. Andrew Fagan, director of child safeguarding for the Dublin archdiocese, says the new system reports all complaints to police immediately: “Civil law and civil procedure takes precedence.”
Church volunteers are now trained to be abuse-aware and to develop practices that involve careful supervision of children “to ensure our churches are as safe as they can possibly be. And people are carrying that information into other situations – it is making our society safer”.
Despite the positive developments, Marie Collins feels she can no longer be part of the church. She still believes in God and has tried to regain her faith in the institution, but each time has found herself slamming into what she believes is a wall of resistance to change on child abuse.
In February, she went to Rome for a Vatican seminar on child abuse for bishops around the world. There she met a church official who gave her hope because he was passionate about the need to tackle the problem. Soon afterwards, he was demoted.

First published in The Sydney Sun-Herald.

Death sparks anger at Ireland’s abortion laws


THE Irish government faces worldwide pressure to reform abortion law, with demonstrations planned for Irish embassies around the globe over the death of a young woman in a Galway hospital.
About 2000 demonstrators gathered outside the Irish parliament, the Dail, on Wednesday night to protest against the government’s inaction over abortion after news of the death of Savita Halappanavar, 31.
Mrs Halappanavar died after doctors refused to terminate her 17-week pregnancy, even though they knew her miscarriage was inevitable and there was no chance the foetus would survive.
They left Mrs Halappanavar to labour naturally, despite her pleas to be induced, as long as the foetal heartbeat continued.
Her husband said doctors told him this was because “this is a Catholic country”.
Mrs Halappanavar delivered a dead foetus after three days of agonising pain but later died of septicaemia.
Many distressed protesters outside the Dail held candles in her memory, and there were emotional scenes as speakers condemned the government for having rejected abortion-law reforms tabled by United Left Alliance MP Clare Daly.
“Had that legislation been in place, Savita’s life would have been saved because doctors at University Hospital in Galway would have had a very clear understanding of legal guidelines,” Choice spokeswoman Stephanie Lord later told Fairfax Media.
“People are very angry and upset that this woman had to die before anyone would take notice. There have been women who have been raped and suicidal or who have had horrendous medical conditions and now this young woman has died – why has it got to this stage?
“Savita had a heartbeat, too.”
Abortion is a bitterly divisive issue in Catholic-dominated Ireland, where an effective ban on the procedure results in thousands of women each year flying out of the country to get abortions overseas. More than 4000 go to the UK alone, according to British health statistics.
In 1983 Ireland’s constitution was amended to ban abortion completely.
In 1992, the country’s Supreme Court ruled that it was permitted when the mother’s life was at risk, including at risk of suicide. This related to a case in which the government used the courts to try to prevent a 14-year-old rape victim from leaving the country to have an abortion overseas.
The 1983 ban is effectively still in place because seven successive governments have refused to back the Supreme Court decision by enacting legislation.
In 2010, the European Court of Human Rights demanded that Ireland pass legislation to give effect to the court decision. The government then set up an expert panel to report to the Irish health minister.
Prime Minister Enda Kenny said the government was due to respond by the end of the month to the demand for reform by the Court of Human Rights.
“This is a tragic case where we have a woman who lost her life, her child is lost and her husband is bereaved,” he said.
Several weeks ago he had said that abortion-law reform was not a priority for his government.
Another abortion-rights demonstration ending in a march on the Dail is planned for the weekend.

First published in The Age.

Woman dies in Irish hospital after being denied abortion

Karen Kissane in Dublin

A YOUNG woman died of septicaemia in Ireland after Catholic doctors refused to terminate her miscarriage because abortion was against the country’s law and religious beliefs.A YOUNG woman died of septicaemia in Ireland after Catholic doctors refused to terminate her miscarriage because abortion was against the country’s law and religious beliefs.

Savita Halappanavar, 31, died last month in University Hospital Galway after three days of agony, the Irish Times reported on Wednesday.

Doctors told her she was losing her 17-week pregnancy, as her cervix had dilated and the amniotic sac had broken, and that the foetus would not survive.

Her husband told the newspaper she begged for birth to be induced but was told this was not possible because the foetal heartbeat was still present “and this is a Catholic country”.

Praveen Halappanavar said that his wife, a Hindu, said, “I am neither Irish nor Catholic,” but they said there was nothing they could do.”

Mr Halappanavar said his wife was left in extreme pain for another two-and-a-half days until the foetal heartbeat stopped. The dead foetus was then removed but Mrs Halappanavar was soon taken to intensive care where she died on October 28.

An autopsy determined she had developed septicaemia, or blood poisoning, the Irish Times reported.

The hospital and local health service confirmed they were investigating her death but said privacy issues prevented them from commenting on individual cases.

Abortion is a bitterly divisive issue in Catholic-dominated Ireland, where an effective ban on the procedure leaves thousands of women each year flying out of the country to get abortions overseas. More than 4000 go to the UK alone, according to British health statistics.

Stephanie Lord, a spokeswoman for Choice Ireland, said Mrs Halappanavar’s death was a tragedy that would never have happened if Ireland’s politicians had lived up to their responsibilities on the issue.

“There have been raped woman and suicidal woman [who have wanted abortions] and that has not been enough to make the government change the legislation regarding abortion in Ireland,” she told Fairfax Media.

“People would ask if it had to get to the situation where somebody died. It should never have gotten to this stage. [Mrs Halappanavar’s death] is an absolute tragedy, and it should have been prevented.”

In 1983 Ireland’s constitution was amended to ban abortion completely. In 1992, the country’s Supreme Court ruled that it was permitted in cases where the mother’s life was at risk, including at risk of suicide. This related to a case in which the government tried to prevent a 14-year-old rape victim from leaving the country to have an abortion overseas.

The 1983 ban is effectively still in place because successive governments have refused to back the Supreme Court decision with legislation.

In 2010, the European Court of Human Rights demanded that Ireland pass legislation to give effect to the court decision. The government then set up an expert panel to report to the Irish Health Minister, who is due to respond by the end of this month.

A poll for the British newspaper The Sunday Times earlier this year found that four out of five Irish voters would back legal changes to permit abortion in cases where a mother’s life was at risk.

First published on

A spell in the country, a weekend Pottering around

THE long-legged coyote man had an animal tail hanging from his tail. The male witch had an ankle-length velvet cloak. The man who called himself Pixie looked like Braveheart.
“You should have been here yesterday,” he said. “My face was painted with woad” – the blue herbal dye the Celts used in warfare to terrify the enemy.
The 24th Mount Franklin Annual Pagan Gathering was held on an extinct volcano near Daylesford at the weekend.
This was worship at its freest. Today’s paganism is a religious smorgasbord encompassing Wiccans and witches (who are not the same thing), pantheists, who call on ancient gods and goddesses of Greece, Rome or other cultures, and many others whose self-selected beliefs defy categorisation. (Paganism and modern witchcraft does not involve satanism, with witches pointing out that Satan is a Christian figure).
Common to many pagans is the use of “the wheel of the year” to link ceremonies to the seasons, a belief that the divine is both feminine and masculine, and a conviction that sacredness is centred on the Earth and the four elements of earth, air, fire and water.
The Mount Franklin festival is held each year on the weekend closest to Halloween. It recognises Beltane (“bright fire”), a festival that celebrates the fertility of earth and animals.
Pagans believe it is a time when “the veil is thin” between the mundane and supernatural worlds, an uncanny moment when the air is filled with spirits.
On Saturday night they lit and encircled a bonfire, which symbolised the increasing power of the sun, and invoked the lady of the moon and the lord of the sun. Yesterday, 15 men and 15 women danced ritually around a Maypole. When it was tightly wound with red and green lacing, they “read” its weave to try to foretell what the coming year would bring.
Many children were among the 230 campers, and medievalism mixed with modern domesticity: a blue hatchback parked among the tents had a sign offering “Mead for Sale”.
On weekdays, Pixie is John Biggs and works in a plant nursery with disabled people. Male witch Morphix is Paul Franzi, a youth worker for kids with drug and alcohol problems.
And the man with the coyote totem is Josh Orth, a medical scientist. He says he has adopted the coyote as his symbol because the animal is “playful, energetic, wild and free”.
Several people at the festival declined to be interviewed, saying they had lost jobs before when their employers found out. But there are signs of a dawning acceptance of alternative religion. Nicole Good says she is one of four pagans who have been registered as civil celebrants.
At the end of all the interviews, this reporter’s hand was aching from a tight grip on the notebook. What did witches recommend for arthritis?
Forget spells and chants and magical balms. The answer came in a pragmatic chorus: “Deep Heat!”

First published in The Age.


Cover Story
Karen Kissane   The ancient belief system of witchcraft is on the rise because of modern technology. Karen Kissane reports.

Witches tend to keep to themselves; magick doesn’t lend itself to the scrutiny of unbelievers. But this ritual circle, up in the hills at Olinda, is to be open to all. It’s about witchcraft “coming out of the broom closet”, says organiser Jennifer Sunderland. It is also to heal the earth, suffering from war and to mark the autumn equinox by giving thanks for summer and welcoming the cold to come.

But she phones on the appointed Friday to postpone; it seems it’s too wet and chilly to welcome the cold. “We’ll try for the Sunday,” she says confidently: “We have a hunch it will be better.” Witches, after all, are meant to be in tune with the elements.

When I express doubt, she offers the prediction of a more prosaic science. “And I’ve been watching the long-range weather forecasts.”

Someone got it right. The evening turns out crisp and clear, with long shadows falling across the grass. Cockies squawk in the eucalypts above as the witches create a scene of storybook prettiness on the grass below.

A harpist in a greensleeves dress plays Scarborough Fair as Sunderland strews flowers in a large circle. At its centre, high priestess Buddhy Eldridge, in a black velvet cloak, covers a small table with a purple cloth to make an altar. She lays it with candles, a ritual knife and chalice, a wand, statues of a god and goddess and a beribboned basket of autumn produce – bread and fruit. High-church incense drifts on the air.

A dozen people who had been standing around in jeans or trackie daks don hooded velvet cloaks. Among them is Peter Schofield, a retired policeman with a pencil moustache and military bearing, who likes witchcraft because “it’s not so materialistic”; Annette Dunn, a pre-school teacher, who teaches her children “to respect the earth” and to cast
spells; and a manager with a utility company, who declines to be named “because I’ve got a lot of people with dead fish stuck on the back of their cars at work”.

They are the new pagans. “Pagan” used to be a pejorative, used by People of the Book to deride those who had not discovered the one true God and were, therefore, ignorant or unenlightened. Now the name has been reclaimed by free-thinkers who follow an earth or nature-based belief that does not have a central deity at its heart. They are the hippies of the divine supermarket, their offerings colourful, quirky, romantic and highly individualistic.

Their numbers are growing. In the five years to the 2001 census, they more than doubled to 39,000. Pagans follow many traditions and include Druids, who use pre-Christian Celtic rites, and Heathens or Odinists who follow Norse gods such as Odin and Thor. The pagans at Olinda this evening practise witchcraft, now the fastest-growing belief system in both Australia and the US.

The number of declared witches in the Australian census rose from 1849 in 1996 to
8755 in 2001. Many believe that number to be understated. Douglas Ezzy, senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Tasmania, estimates that between one in 100 and one in 50 young women have an interest in witchcraft. When he asks any witches in first-year lectures of 200 students to come and see him, “I get three or four every time”.

Since the mid-1990s, things witchy have loomed large in television shows, movies and popular books. Suburban malls have shops filled with crystals and dream-catchers, mojo bags (for holding charms) and texts on astral travel, auras and tarot. In the heart of bourgeois Hawthorn, the fragrant Esoteric Bookshop sells the stuff of Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley: hawthorn wands, crystal balls, 300 kinds of herbs, divination tools, runes and spells.

Popular culture is drenched in magick (spelt with a ‘k’ to differentiate it from what conjurers do with rabbits) – Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Charmed on TV, J.K.Rowling’s teen wizard, Harry Potter, in books and blockbuster movies. Home-grown episodes of Blue Heelers and House Rules have featured witch characters, courtesy of Melbourne-based Cassandra Carter, scriptwriter, long-standing “wisecraft practitioner” and author of the book Everyday Magic.

Even the law is changing to reflect the increasing acceptance of witchcraft. Attorney-General Rob Hulls has announced the repeal of the Vagrancy Act, which outlaws witchcraft and fortune telling. “We govern for all Victorians, and that includes witches, magicians and sorcerers,” he said in April. “These offences are going to ¤ disappear in a puff of smoke.”

Witchcraft is based partly on a yearning for a mythical past.

But here’s the paradox: it owes its real-life rise to modern electronics and the information revolution.

Ezzy, editor of a new book, Practising the Witch’s Craft: Real Magic Under a Southern Sky, says witchcraft used to spread by word of mouth but now many people first make contact through websites. “It’s very much a religion of the internet,” he says.

In such a supposedly rational age, what is it with broomsticks, cauldrons and cats? Do witches dance with the devil, as the medieval folk who burned them believed? And what does this interest in the occult and do-it-yourself ritual mean for Western Christianity and its rapidly emptying pews?
There is nothing eerie about Eldridge’s ritual. She lights four candles at the compass points of her circle and holds up a censer of incense, praying silently for the blessing of the lord and lady. Another witch uses a broomstick to sweep the circle free of any ill. The chanting is of love and trust, calling on the power of earth, air, fire and water. The hooded figures join hands and Eldridge “casts a spell”:

Raise your voice in Magick Rite

Send your power into the night

All the witches hand in hand

Raise the spirits of the land

Let love and healing come to birth,
Revitalise our ravaged Earth.

They “raise the cone of power” – draw up energy to send out with the spell – by walking a slow circle and chanting. Eldridge then blesses cakes and wine, the products of “passion’s grace” (the union of lady and lord that keeps the earth fertile). Those in the circle share them, saying to each other: “May you never hunger, may you never thirst.”

Two elderly Argentinian tourists who had come up to Olinda for the day stand quietly in the circle too, not quite sure what is happening but respectful of this quaint native rite.

Eldridge and other witches all have the same answer to questions about their relationship with the devil. You have to be a Christian to be a Satanist, they point out. You have to believe in the Christian God and reject him in favour of the Christian devil. They are pagans and do not believe in Satan.

Working out what witches are not (“I do not sacrifice black cats at midnight,” says Carter with dignity) is easier than trying to define what they are. Like magpies, witches nab whatever they fancy from other occult and spiritual traditions and have no single guru, a tolerant state of anarchy that Wiccans – one kind of witch – call “non-prophet disorganisation”.

They do tend to share a sense of the divine feminine, and of the body and the earth as sacred, as well as a conviction that “energies” can be manipulated. David Tacey, Jungian analyst, associate professor of arts at La Trobe University and author of The Spirituality Revolution, says witchcraft focuses on Western religion’s “missing trinity” – woman, body, earth.

“These three things have enormous popular appeal because they are missing elements, and whatever’s repressed from the mainstream has a natural interest of its own,” Tacey says.

“Throughout the millennia, religions based on the feminine have been earth-based. Patriarchal religions are suspicious of the mythical feminine and assume that the realm of creation is inherently evil, that sex and the body is the realm of sin.”

For 37-year-old Fiona Horne, witchcraft is a refuge from teachings about women that she found abhorrent. Witchcraft’s Australian pin-up girl, the blonde and beautiful Horne personifies its cool image and multi-media savvy. Her celebrity gigs have included the television panel of Beauty and the Beast and an FM radio talkback show in which she created spells to order. Her website is a barometer of interest in matters magickal; last month, she says, it scored 633,000 hits.

Horne grew up Catholic and disliked what she read in the Children’s Living Bible – “that women are doomed to bear children in pain and suffering to atone for the sins of Eve” – and the view passed onto her by a priest, “that humans are doomed because
we come from between two pieces of filth, the anus and the urethra”.

With Wicca, the branch of witchcraft she practises, “women are seen as sacred and our bodies are a divine expression of the life force and not something impure and only created to titillate men”.

The Judeo-Christian vision of God as male has spurred many a witch. Carter, now in her 50s, was an observant Anglican as a girl. “If there had been anything like the Movement for the Ordination of Women when I was a teenager, I would probably have sought ordination within the Anglo-Catholic tradition,” she says. “But there wasn’t.” When a book introduced her to the idea of a goddess who was equal with a god, “That was quartz-halogen headlamps going, Chung!”

Gary Bouma, an Anglican priest and professor of sociology at Monash University, says: “Why does witchcraft appeal? Because those women are dead sick of paltry patriarchal pontifications.”

Witchcraft also appeals to greenies and “eco-feminists”. It emphasises rituals based around the elements and the seasons, and many of its rites take place outdoors. “We are here to live on the earth and not dominate over it,” Horne says. She finds her sense of the divine most readily when looking up at the sky or studying a leaf. “Surely heaven is here on earth; this isn’t just somewhere we do penance till we get to a wonderful place afterwards.”

Witchcraft has one golden rule: do as you will, and harm you none. Its adherents hold a wide smorgasbord of beliefs: some believe in a goddess as an entity, others see her as representative of a divine force, and the more Freudian tell you she is a projection of their own psyches.

They use the names of ancient female goddesses interchangeably, believing that all those figures are faces of the divine feminine, and call on everyone from Brigid (Irish) to Demeter (Greek) and Isis (Egyptian).

For male witches – up to a third of the total number, according to the census – the masculine principle is represented by the Horned Lord, partner of the goddess. Although witchcraft tends to be seen as a girl thing, it has always had male followers; men made up a quarter of the 60,000 people executed for witchcraft in Europe and America between 1450 and 1750, according to Lara Apps and Andrew Gow in their new
book, Male Witches in Early Modern Europe.

Today, some witches believe in reincarnation, others that there is no life after death. Some work in covens of up to 13 people, timing their rites with solar and lunar cycles, and others work alone. Some say witchcraft provides them with a moral framework while others revel in the way it does not. Most love the freedom of being able to tailor their beliefs, or non-beliefs, to themselves.

“It’s nothing to do with religion,” says Nicole Good, a children’s face-painter who shared in the rite at Olinda, delicate blue garlands painted on her cheeks. “It’s about who I am and what I think about things. It’s not about belief in God or the lack of it. I’m not a Wiccan; that’s just another structured religion, to me.”

Witches also tend to focus on the innate goodness of people rather than on their failings. Carter was pleased to shrug off Christian guilt. She recalls thinking during one Eucharist, “I don’t feel like a miserable sinner not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under Thy table, even if Thy property is always to have mercy”.

Carter studies astrology and the Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism. She has a prosperity charm in a little satin bag on her desk and has developed her own ritual for sending onto the next world any troubled spirits she meets.

Sunderland, 28, runs a New Age shop in Olinda and says she had out-of-body experiences as a child. Eldridge, 45, is a registered nurse and grief counsellor who says she sees auras.

“Belief is not the key element that leads them into becoming witches,” Ezzy says. “(Pagan) people rarely ask me what I believe; they are more likely to ask me what sort of experiences I have had, or what rituals I have participated in.”

This is a reaction to the dryness of traditional religion, says sociologist Bouma. “The uniform response to, `Why don’t you go to church?’ is `It’s boring’. They don’t want a rational form of religion that’s all words and no experience. They don’t want to know whether you believe in God, they want to know whether you have encountered God recently. The truth is experience; the truth is not words on paper.”

There is also a longing for romance and mystery. Bill Stewart, dean of Ridley College at Melbourne University, has degrees in medieval history and theology and an interest in paganism. He says an influential sociologist, Max Weber, argued that modern science and industry have brought `a disenchantment of the world’.

“Another `missing trinity’. . . is concerned with re-enchantment,” Stewart says. “It is captured in a slogan employed by WitchCraft Magazine: `myth, magick and mystery’.”

He says American witches in the 1970s had a word that summed up how they felt about ordinary life: they called non-witches “mundanes”. That’s not too far off J.K. Rowling’s “muggles”, her name for the ignorant, unimaginative inhabitants of suburbia who have no insight into the parallel universe of Harry Potter’s wizardry.

Witchcraft’s sassy “leaders” are part of its attraction. Horne has helped make witchcraft glamorous (the word belongs to witches, anyway, “glamour” originally being another name for enchantment) and is part of the reason that two-thirds of Australia’s witches are under 29.

She has written several bestsellers on her life as a witch and her latest book is for teen witches. She is now in Los Angeles developing radio and television shows for the US market.

“Fiona is unlike leaders in traditional religions, who are generally either shunned or been largely ineffective in terms of contemporary media,” Stewart says. “(Baptist minister) Tim Costello perhaps could be considered a bit of a media personality but, unlike Fiona, he hasn’t played in a speed metal band and doesn’t have tongue piercings and hasn’t posed for Playboy.

“Fiona has the advantage of being part of (young women’s) world-view. Here’s a young blonde who has a website and answers my emails as opposed to a middle-aged bloke who wears a suit or a dress or something and gives a long-winded and boring talk on Sunday morning when any self-respecting teenager is asleep, recovering
from the night before. It’s no contest.”

But is witchcraft a fashion accessory? For some, agrees Sunderland. “Fashionable Wiccans tend to look, sound and speak just like they consider Satanism to be a music genre; they like heavy metal death movies and music. They work really hard on that image, the Goths. You tend to find them in couples, the musical Satanist and the fashionable Wiccan. One’s the man and one’s the woman.”

Others like the idea of life on the margins and of being linked to a victimised group. David Wilson-Steer, a ceremonial magician who runs the Esoteric Bookshop with his partner, pagan Julie Snodgrass, says he doesn’t like the way some witches “go around Christian-bashing”.

“They’re like reformed smokers,” he says. “There seems to be a great emphasis on witches having been burned millions of years ago instead of looking at what we do now, which is celebrating the forces of nature.”

All this talk of nature makes witchcraft sound as wholesome as stoneground bread and lentil soup. But part of its attraction, at least, has a dark side: the longing for power. Witchcraft involves spells. “Some people think it’s all about power,” Snodgrass says. “They think it’s about gaining control over everyone else. The power is about controlling ourself.”

Snodgrass’s shop has spells for every occasion: to attract love, bless a house or protect against a hex (all carefully labelled “sold as a curio only” to get around laws that forbid charging for charms or fortune-telling). When pressed about spells, Carter and others say dismissively: “What’s the difference between a spell and a prayer?”
There’s a big difference. A prayer calls upon a transcendent being to exert power on one’s behalf; the one who prays is a humble supplicant. A spell is based on the idea that the spell-maker has their own supernatural powers. It takes the idea of sisters doin’ it for themselves to a whole new level.

But Carter says: “In both cases it is the intensity or fervour of the need or wish that powers the magic. It’s just that most Christians don’t think of prayers as spells.

“Gnostic Christianity assumes we are all sons and daughters of God so we all have the power within us; it’s just a matter of recognising it. All the stories of the miracles of the saints would say there is an absolute power in the prayer.”

Witchcraft’s promise of power can be a magnet for the sad case. Carter tells of a woman who rang her asking for a spell to stop her ex-husband’s new wife from turning him against her children. “She’d been to see someone in Thomastown but they wanted $5000 and she didn’t have that much money but she could manage $3000.” Carter suggested she see her parish priest.

Wilson-Steer gave similar advice to a woman who came to his shop seeking to win back her husband – who had left 30 years before.

The pull of power can also lead to black magic, where the elemental forces of nature are called upon not to help or heal but to control the world or people in a selfish or destructive way. “I don’t think a lot of it is the black stuff,” Tacey says. “I think that has a lot to do with maturity. Sometimes when young people get involved in spells and sorcery they do so out of a Harry Potterish desire to gain power over their immediate environment. It’s pure Freudian wish fulfilment.”
He says hostile “sorcery in the suburbs”, while rare, can be dangerous – to the person practising it. “Anyone might have terrible dark thoughts about someone and wish them evil. That’s psychologically and emotionally unhealthy, whether or not you subscribe to a supernatural world view.”

For witches, it’s a matter of math: they believe that the good or evil behind spell-casting returns to them threefold, in itself an incentive to steer clear of the bad stuff. “If you believe what you send out comes back, you don’t need a book of rules,” says Wilson-Steer.

There are some aspects of witchcraft that even some of its strongest adherents avoid. Carter refuses to use “poppets”, little dolls that are ritually named for a person for whom a spell is cast (for example, to cure them of illness).

She doesn’t admit to any wariness of its voodoo-like feel, saying rather that it’s a question of what to do with the poppets afterwards. “Do you have an entire row of little dolls sitting up on a ledge somewhere? What do you do if someone else gets hold of the poppet that has been ritually named? It’s a damn sight safer to work here and here,” (pointing at her heart and her head).

Nor will Carter do love spells, because they interfere with another’s free will. Rather, she recommends concentrating on spells to make oneself more lovable. Horne issues the same warning in Magickal Sex: A Witch’s Guide to Beds, Knobs and Broomsticks. But she nevertheless publishes a “come to me” spell. It involves collecting some of the desired man’s “body bits” (hair or fingernail clippings), carving his name into a candle and making a spice mixture moistened with the spell-maker’s spit – or, for extra oomph, her vaginal fluid. (More tea, vicar?)
Superstition, surely, rather than religion? But Ezzy argues that magical thinking “is part of witchcraft in the same way it’s part of Christianity”. He points to Catholics and their belief in miracles, Pentecostals and their belief in the spirit’s power to heal the body. Is there much difference between a charm and a St Christopher medal on a car dashboard?

Perhaps more confronting is witchcraft’s earthiness: it deals with taboos such as death and menstruation and sometimes uses explicit sexual imagery – and, more rarely, sex itself. Some witches dance “skyclad” (naked) during rituals, and it is not unknown for sex to be used to “raise the power” of a rite.

Have there been rituals where people copulated in the centre of a circle? “There have been,” says Wilson-Steer. “They tend to be people who want to do that. Not everyone joins in. Why is sex wrong? Why can’t it be a method of worship as well? It’s a way of paying devotion to natural forces.”
Ezzy says at Beltane, a festival of spring and fertility, it is common for couples to have sex, but this is generally done privately. “It’s not quite as voyeuristic as it might seem. The idea of an orgy is quite overblown. But sex is part of life and witchcraft celebrates that, rather than saying that sex is something that separates you off from God.”

Ezzy is researching teenage girls and witchcraft and he says it often leads them to be more sexually cautious. “They tell me that whereas before they might have got drunk and gone off and bonked someone, witchcraft has allowed them to take sex more seriously as a spiritual act.” And they find its rituals useful in managing their emotional lives. “I was talking to a young woman who had just broken up with her boyfriend and was feeling very depressed. She used ritual; she wrote a poem about the way she had felt sad about the guy and then burned it within a circle. Witchcraft gives them a ritual way of dealing with important issues . . . Some witches would say magick works on psychological levels.”

Witches talk of a “tradition”. In truth, historians do not know whether there was a matriarchal religion before Christianity, according to Stewart. Their Wicca’d ways have more recent origins; the work of one Gerald Gardner, known as the father of Wicca. He published a book in England in 1954 claiming that witchcraft was a surviving pagan religion and that he had been initiated into it.

But paganism and witchcraft did not begin their resurgence until after the US publication in 1979 of two books, The Spiral Dance, by Starhawk, and Drawing Down the Moon, by Margot Adler. Three years later, the ideas gained wider audience with the best-selling novel The Mists of Avalon, in which author and high priestess Marion Zimmer Bradley rewrote the Arthurian legend as a battle between goddess worship and Christianity.

Unlike Christianity, paganism has no social justice agenda. It is so inwardly turned that it is almost narcissistic in its focus on the spiritual development of the individual. It will note be producing schools or hospitals or strong statements on the inequality gap.

But, says Bouma, not all religions do, either. “Buddhism has no social ethic at all. Meditate and you will feel better, meditate and the rest of the world will go away. It’s only Westerners who think religion should have a social ethic.”

Should the churches be worried? Some of their members are. Carter based an episode of Blue Heelers around a true incident in which a pastor in a Victorian country town gathered up his followers, burst into a local witch’s home and burnt her books on the front lawn.

But when it comes to the numbers, Christianity is so far ahead that it appears to be no contest. Stewart, though, says the bald figures can be misleading. “Most people who identify themselves as pagans are fairly committed to that viewpoint and made a conscious choice. There are stacks of people who tick the census form C of E or Presbyterian and it makes no impact on their lives.

“And also, if you look at the age distribution, it’s mostly young in paganism; in most mainstream denominations it’s predominantly old. I think it is (a threat to churches) if the issues concerned are ignored.”

Bouma agrees that the churches should be questioning themselves. “Can you meet God in this church? If they can’t say `Yes’ with some confidence, they are dying, and they should. They are not offering any product worth getting. People want powerful, numinous, spiritual experiences.”

It’s not just people on the social fringes who are seeking it. At the Olinda rite, the whole Dunn family came. Annette teaches pre-school and her husband, Marcus, is a trained nurse. They are all cheerily open about their beliefs; the children’s school enrolment forms have “pagan” in the religion box.

Rowan, 12, says: “We do magic, our own rituals, at home. Normally we just invoke stuff and we send our energy to people who need it.” Roxanne, 14, adds: “My friends respect it and they’re fine with it. I know kids in class who are weird with it, but nothing serious.”

Their deities? Annette says: “We believe in a god and a goddess. We believe in all gods and all goddesses.”

Marcus hugs her. “This is my goddess.”

She laughs back. “And this is my god.”

And they stand grinning, their New World jeans and trainers topped by their Old World ruffles and cloaks; living proof that witchcraft has sashayed its way off the screen and out of the broom closet. Suburbia will never be the same.

First published in The Age.

SOUL searching

It was the Sunday to preach on doubting Thomas, the apostle who would not believe he was talking to the risen Christ until he was allowed to put his hand into the wound in Jesus’ side. Come sermon-time, Father Vincent Peile did not waste words.

Fully robed, he walked over to a side wall of his church and slowly, ceremoniously, stood on his head. Returning to right-side-up, he asked his congregation, who were torn between shock and amusement: “If you were to go home and tell your family that father stood on his head during Mass, would they believe you?”

“I wanted to take them back to something unbelievable,” says Peile, Catholic priest at St Ambrose’s in Woodend. “It was the nearest I could get to offering them something of the experience of doubting Thomas. I believe there’s even a priest in Sydney, with youth and agility on his side, who in full clobber does cartwheels from one side of the sanctuary to the other. He tells people, `You won’t remember what I’ve said today, but you will remember what you’ve seen’.”

Gospel or gimmickry? A savvy way to engage a critical, post-modern audience, or a desperate attempt to overcome the growing irrelevance of a fading tradition? Peile, like most clerics, knows that selling God is tougher than it used to be. It will get harder as the churches’ staunchest adherents – older Australians – start to age and die away. The churches have always been concerned about where the world is heading; now they must worry about their own future. Whither Christianity?

To put it in what Peile would call the language of “affluenza”, Christianity’s market is shrinking and fragmenting. Except for the recent boom in Pentecostal churches, which have now overtaken Anglicans, overall church attendances have been falling for 20 years.

Those who do go to church have become picky. They shop around in what has been called “the divine supermarket”: Protestants swap denominations and Catholics travel outside their parishes to find their preferred style of worship. The result has been a rise in the variety of services – an economist might call it “niche marketing” – but it will be another decade before the churches find out whether their changes are too little, too late.

Their fundamental problem is the big gap between the number of people who call themselves Christian and the number that turn up to church. Most Australians believe in God, but only a minority now believe in a personal God. According to a study by the National Church Life Survey organisation, about 35 per cent of people in the wider community believe in a personal God and 39 per cent believe in a life-force of some sort. Forty-three per cent accept core Christian tenets, including that Jesus was God and that he rose from the dead. (Nine per cent are atheists and 17 per cent agnostics.)

But, while 33 per cent pray or meditate at least weekly, and 43 per cent say they feel close to God, only 20 per cent go to church at least once a month. Those who do are not young: only 9 per cent of church attenders are in their 20s, and less than a third are under 40.

Gary Bouma, professor of sociology at Monash University, says: “The picture is of churches that are increasingly inward-looking, with decreased significant contact between the church and the larger society. They don’t engage with people outside of those who show up, and those who show up are becoming such a strange subset of members of society: they’re conservative, they’re moralistic and they’re old.

“Meanwhile there’s a vast search for spirituality . . . Look at the shelves of spiritual material in bookshops. People are going to meditation sessions, to spiritual fairs – and when they go there, do they find anything from the mainline churches?”
Says Ruth Powell, researcher with the National Church Life Survey: “In a sense, there’s a massive cultural shift happening from . . . Christendom to non-Christendom.”

But Australia is still a Christian country. Powell says a combined total of only four per cent of people describe themselves as Muslims, Jews, Hindus or Buddhists. Christianity also comes out ahead of New Age alternatives; the influence of other kinds of “religion” is not as great as the magazines in dentists’ waiting rooms would have us believe. Eighteen per cent of Australians seek help from horoscopes, 9 per cent practise Eastern meditation and 7 per cent use psychic healing or crystals.

While the churches’ membership might be declining, they continue to be held in high regard. Powell says they come fourth in a list of most-trusted institutions (after the police, health and education systems, and way ahead of the banks.)

But there is some division about what the churches’ role should be. Powell says: “Attenders and non-attenders come up with the same answer: the top thing is providing a moral framework. But the non-attenders say churches should also look after the poor, while attenders say, `Our business is about meaning and purpose, the questions of why we are here and who we are’.”

Many put limits on the perceived legitimacy of the churches’ moral leadership, which is seen as stopping at the bedroom door. “There’s a very clear delineation; in theory, `I want the church to provide a moral framework’, but there’s also, `Don’t tell me how to run my life in terms of issues like (sexuality and) abortion’.”

Says Bouma: “The church is too ready to answer questions that aren’t being asked and too slow in responding to the questions that are there . . . People want assistance and advice in searching for their spirituality, but they don’t want to be told how to do it.”

Up to a point. While many chafe under a church’s strictures, others prefer rules and certainty, even if it involves loss of freedom. The Pentecostal Protestant churches draw 182,000 people into church each week, topping the Anglicans’ 181,500. Pentecostals are known for their exuberance and informality, their contemporary music – and their authoritarian, fundamentalist teachings. “Pentecostals’ belief is much more black and white,” Bouma says. “They offer certainty, along with contemporary forms of communication.”

It’s a winning formula; they pack in young adults.

Rob Buckingham, senior pastor at the Bayside Community Church in Cheltenham, has seen his flock grow from 40 people 10 years ago to 640 today. People travel up to 45 minutes to get to a Sunday service that takes two-and-a-half hours – and that’s not counting the hour of socialising afterwards. “It’s a lifestyle. It’s not something people do just out of duty,” he says.

His church has no organ or statues. “We sing modern songs. We have a fully plugged-in band – guitars, synthesisers, drums – and a great sound system. The auditorium is large and we have comfortable chairs, not pews. The message is 2000 years old, but the packaging is 2002.”
While Pentecostals are also known for their churn rate, the flow of worshippers between them and the other Protestant denominations is two to one in the Pentecostals’ favour.

“Musical pews” works differently for Catholics. They rarely change denomination; they stay Catholic or drop out of religious practice altogether. But those who continue to attend church are more likely to abandon their local priest to travel further afield for spiritual custom-tailoring.

Anna Krohn, acting director of the Pastoral Formation Centre with the archdiocese of Melbourne, says: “Different people have different checklists. A parish like East Camberwell, run by the Dominicans, has a lot of preachers who preach well; people go for a great homily. If what’s really important to you is the spirit of prayer, you might worship with the Carmelite nuns in Kew, where there’s a quiet, contemplative sort of spirit. There’s a Jesuit parish in Parkville which is very intellectual; (the philosopher) Max Charlesworth goes there.

“St Patrick’s (cathedral) has young people who now call it their parish, either because the music’s beautiful and they have a cultural interest in that, or because this is where they feel they can tap into the longer tradition of the church. In Burwood, charismatic groups have formed clusters of housing. Families might move to where they feel young children can be accepted into the Mass without feeling embarrassed when the baby cries.”
Such diversity has always existed in Catholicism, which calls itself a “broad” church. But others are now deliberately experimenting with new forms, Powell says. They include “the meta-church experience of 2000 people in a warehouse and a big band and 50 people on stage; home churches, where people gather together in small and intimate spaces; cafe churches, where a group of younger adults might sit around tables with candles and cake and coffee and you have a much more interactive style of thing, with maybe a multi-media extravaganza of images on walls, or a visit from a poet or a sculptor who has come to share their experience of God – no priest up the front telling you what to do any more”.

Not all the experimenting involves the ultra-modern; some is about reaching back into the past. Powell says the Paize and Iona movements involve an updated form of singing religious chants: “You will gather in a beautiful space, with lovely candles and maybe rich fabrics or beautiful icons spread out for you to look at, and you sing your way through.”
It is not only young people who want to try new things. Mark Dunn, minister with the Pilgrim Uniting Church in Doncaster, started a cafe church and found that parishioners of all ages turned up. He says the problem for many small parishes is now a chicken-and-egg one: they are no longer large enough to offer choices.

Local churches are also at the mercy of local demographics. Sometimes this works in their favour, says Alistair Macrae, Victorian moderator for the Uniting Church. His local church in West Brunswick was struggling 15 years ago because the suburb had filled up with Italian Catholics after the war. Then yuppies moved in as the suburb gentrified, and the church now has a thriving, self-sufficient community of people who share goods, run a food co-op and support each other emotionally. In suburbs that are ageing, Macrae says, the local congregations will reflect that. In suburbs with young families, the successful ministers are those who offer different models of worship and more consultative leadership. People under 40 want to participate, not be passive; they expect to be consulted; they loathe the hymns older people love; and they prefer spontaneity to being read to from a book, he says. What does all this tell us? It seems the search for meaning is as vigorous as it ever was, but it now ranges more widely and is undertaken, by this consummate consumer society, using competitive free-market principles.

Macrae can draw encouragement from the latest figures, which show the Uniting Church’s membership, previously in freefall, has now increased by 2000. Nominal Catholics, too, continue to grow in numbers, as the result of natural increase and immigration. But, while Catholics now make up 50 per cent of Christians, their church attendance continues to drop. Father Maurie Cooney, director of the Catholic Research Office for Pastoral Planning, says 233,000 Catholics attended Sunday Mass in Melbourne in 1984. Now it is 165,000. Cooney says even non-practising Catholics return to the church for rites of passage: christenings, weddings, funerals.

But there is another point at which many “almost Christians” or “once-upon-a-time Christians”, as Dunn calls them, suddenly feel the pull back to church, and an urgent need for ritual. When there is a catastrophe that shakes people’s faith in this world – a deadly bushfire, for example, or a September 11 – it is to churches that people turn for solace and reassurance.

Vincent Peile said Woodend ran an ecumenical service at St Ambrose’s after the twin towers disaster. “It was a `Conquering darkness’ service. I have never seen the church as packed. It was packed with people who believe in God, people who believe in something, and people who have lost belief. They had a need to express grief and loss and uncertainty. Ambulance drivers, the fire brigade, the SES all came in uniform. People were invited to light a taper and put it into two bowls of sand to symbolise that, whatever the darkness, we can rebuild hope.”

This, says Macrae, is the Easter message, one that is as relevant today as yesterday. “The time between Good Friday and Easter really covers the whole gamut of human experience, from desolation, depression and fragmentation on the Friday to Saturday’s limbo of hopelessness through to the Sunday and its hope and new life. For me, this is existentially such a powerful story because it tells us that God is intimately bound up somehow in all the grief and glory of the human experience.”
His church’s fate, however, is bound up in the long-term choice Australia’s Christians will make about the symbol for their Easter: wooden cross or chocolate egg?

First published in The Age.

Taking Rome to task

MELBOURNE’S Catholic archbishop, Denis Hart, is not known to enjoy a fight. He has a reputation as a conciliatory man who would rather talk you into accepting that line in the sand than dare you to step over it. But Hart now finds himself defending a line against a most unlikely adversary: the Vatican.

Hart is not alone. A great divide has developed between Australia’s Catholic bishops and Rome over the bishops’ attempts to deal with priests who have been accused of sexual abuse. The Australians believe any priest or other Catholic employee who poses an “unacceptable risk” to others should be removed as quickly as possible. Canon law, as interpreted by Rome, demands a slower, more certain and, many would argue, less effective approach.

The result is a stand-off. The debate is polite; verbally, due deference is paid to Rome’s authority by those determined to defy it. But defy it they will.

Hart said this week, “I don’t stand back from doing what I need to do.” In two legal rulings this year, Rome has challenged the validity of Australian systems for removing priests accused of sexual abuse. In the latest case, three priests accused of sexual abuse have successfully appealed to the Vatican about the way their cases were handled by the Melbourne archdiocese under a system set up by Hart’s predecessor, Dr George Pell, in 1996.

This follows a ruling in February that undermined the national system for dealing with such cases; the Vatican ordered the reinstatement of a Wollongong priest whose criminal conviction for molesting a former altar boy was overturned on appeal.

Has a creaking Roman bureaucracy pulled the rug from under Australia’s church leaders, weakening their power to weed out predators? Or could it be that Rome has a point; in the rush to protect victims and contain a public-relations disaster, has the Australian church failed to safeguard the rights of accused priests?

The rulings on the Melbourne cases, by the Church’s Congregation for the Clergy, overturned Pell’s decisions to remove the three priests and deny them the right to publicly administer the sacraments, which include holy communion, baptism and confession.

Pell’s decrees on the matter were found to be “null and void and without juridical effect because of serious flaws de procedendo”; that is, Pell’s decisions were invalid because the procedures of the investigation on which his decision was based did
not conform to church law (canon law).

Hart insists that the cases will not be revisited and the priests will not be reinstated. He says Rome’s ruling did not challenge the facts but merely expressed concerns about the process that assessed them. “Basically, they have indicated that the slower and more detailed process of church law hasn’t been followed,” he says.”

The normal provisions of church law are that there’s got to be a first warning, and then a period of time, and then a second warning, and then gradual restriction. Well, the judgment was made here in Melbourne that this is such a serious matter, we have got a public responsibility not to allow the possibility of reoffence, and therefore a decision was made much more quickly.” So the Vatican has made a bad call on this one? “No. I don’t believe the Vatican has made a bad call. I believe that the Vatican is pointing out to us the requirements and graduality of the process.” Hart acknowledges that a system of warnings is particularly unsuitable for cases that involve claims of sexual abuse of children: “Seriously, I cannot, as an archbishop, condone in any way any harm of children by church personnel or anyone else. That’s why I totally endorse the steps taken by Archbishop Pell since 1996.” He would not stand back from removing priests in such cases “because I cannot have it on my conscience”.

And, as a line manager in a prominent organisation, he must know that any other approach would be catastrophic for the church’s good name. In Australia and overseas, the church is struggling to regain its standing following scalding media coverage of allegations of widespread sexual abuse. There is public outrage not only at the abuse itself, and the fact that it was committed by people who were trusted as godly, but at stories of church authorities failing to respond to it or covering it up.

The national system for dealing with clerical abuse, Towards Healing, was finally set up in 1996 after damaging publicity about perverted priests emerged from a royal commission into police corruption in New South Wales. It is used in every diocese in Australia except Melbourne, which uses the Pell system, and by all religious orders except the Jesuits.

Now Towards Healing has challenged the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy. Bishops have appealed to a higher Roman forum, the Signatura, against the congregation’s ruling that the Wollongong priest must be reinstated.

Meanwhile, Australian church leaders will continue to remove offenders, says Sister Angela Ryan, executive officer for Towards Healing’s national committee. “I think there’s a situation where the people in the church in Australia are doing what they believe is right,” she says.

More challenges to Australia’s processes might be under way. Asked whether other disgraced priests have appeals to Rome pending, Ryan declined to answer.

The current impasse is distressing for both complainants and alleged offenders. Chris MacIsaac is president of Broken Rites, a support group for people abused within church communities. She says: “It just clearly indicates that the Vatican doesn’t take sexual abuse seriously. That’s the bottom line.” FATHER MICHAEL SHADBOLT, spokesman for the Catholic Priests Anti-Defamation League, believes the commission has generally worked very well but has concerns about whether the process is always fair to priests. Shadbolt says one of the three priests concerned has not been convicted in a court of law or charged by police; the only mark against him was the tribunal’s verdict, and “he was subsequently subjected to extremely hostile press coverage largely based
on that questionable verdict”.”

This is a totally unsatisfactory condition for everyone concerned. The victim can rightly claim he has been robbed of justice. But the priest can also claim that he has received anything but a just trial,” Shadbolt says.

Since it was set up in 1996, the Independent Commission into Sexual Abuse, run by QC Peter O’Callaghan on behalf of the archdiocese, has dealt with 22 offenders and 115 complainants.

O’Callaghan investigates the facts, much like a royal commissioner, and comes to a verdict. The archbishop then decides whether to act against the priest. “Any priest who has received a prison sentence or who has been found guilty by a civil court will never work again as a priest,” Hart says. In most commission cases, the same rule would apply.

The commission has jurisdiction over the 334 priests of the Melbourne archdiocese only.

Priests from other parts of Victoria, or who belong to orders rather than the diocese, would face the Towards Healing process.

Hart says six of the 22 Melbourne offenders have been jailed by criminal courts and three have received suspended sentences. Five have died. All 115 complainants have received compensation from the church, with payouts averaging $25,000. Altogether about $3 million has been paid in compensation and it has cost the archdiocese another $1.5 million to run Carelink, a counselling service for victims.

A national picture is harder to get. The Catholic church is not a monolithic organisation with a central control but a collection of loosely aligned fiefdoms. Ryan says Towards Healing does not keep national figures because each case is handled independently by a bishop or the provincial of an order and settlements are confidential.

But she estimates that there have been more than 100 Victorian cases outside the Melbourne system, and several hundred nationally. Most of the early complaints involved the sexual abuse of children but there are now also allegations of adult “boundary violations”, such as a priest having sexual contact with a parishioner, she says.

Broken Rites says that at least 43 Catholic priests and 27 brothers have been sentenced in Australian courts for sexual crimes since 1993.

According to MacIsaac, “It’s the tip of the iceberg.

Thousands of people have made complaints to us about sexual abuse nationally.” Unless they voluntarily leave the priesthood, priests are never off the church’s books. Those suspended for offending in Melbourne are still fed, clothed and housed by the archdiocese, says Hart, “because a bishop has a responsibility in charity to support all his priests”. Offenders live privately, “and we normally insist that they live somewhere away from schools or children, if that has been their particular difficulty”.

MacIsaac says victims usually find the Melbourne system fair, but she believes it does not compensate victims adequately (payouts are capped at $55,000). Many people who were abused as children have broken lives: “They’ve not been able to work because of substance abuse or their state of mind is such that they are very limited. Often they have lost an education.

They have lost an enormous amount.”
She says a Queensland girl recently won $800,000 in a court case over abuse by a non-Catholic minister.

She is more concerned about Towards Healing, which she says performs well or badly depending on the individual church authority dealing with the case. Ryan acknowledges that there were initial difficulties but says many of these have now been overcome.

Canon lawyer Tony Kerin says the church’s response to the problem of sexual abuse is not yet perfect, “but they’re getting better at it because of experience. It’s like a magistrate in his first year on the bench; after a while he acquires a wisdom about cases.”
Shadbolt says the church should update canon law to ensure that processes are legal and effective. Rome is committed to addressing sexual abuse, Hart says, and he will not appeal the Melbourne rulings because talks with Rome are continuing.

Wider questions remain. The bishops who set up Toward Healing also promised a review to examine whether there were aspects of Catholic culture that had contributed to abuse. Ryan says one issue is celibacy, but she points out, “Sexual abuse takes place in families, in society, so it’s certainly not totally related to celibacy.

“I suppose at the root of the questions we are looking at is what are the reasons that brought people to the priesthood or religious life, and does the trust that was placed in these people give them privileged access to an availability of people?

“At another level, you have got a real question about the ability to talk about sexuality in society 30 to 40 years ago, which is when a lot of these people were trained in the spirit of the times and with the taboos of the times.”

When it comes to trial and punishment, it seems that the Australian church will continue to go its own way while it waits for Rome to catch up with this particular dilemma of the modern world.

Hart plans to proceed with care. “I think I have to show more respect for what the church asks of me and the way I go about it. I will continue the discussion. But the church acknowledges that bishops have serious responsibilities and some of them are not always written down.”

First published in The Age.

The nuns’ story


Karen Kissane

Carol Hogan found the hardest thing about being a nun was the absence of beauty. She loved beautiful things – her degree had been in fine arts – but her spartan convent had nothing as worldly as paintings or flowers and few books. Hogan herself was no picture, in a shapeless black dress with her hair pulled back under a frilled mobcap. Her mother was appalled the first time she saw her this way. “Darling, you do look dreadful!” she cried, and burst into tears.It was 1953. Hogan, then 22, had been on a predictable path until that point, her twin goals being an education and a husband (“preferably a doctor!”). She was far from shy or retiring. “When we were at uni we didn’t count our marks. We counted our parties and boyfriends; I went to seven balls with seven different guys in seven different weeks.”

But then she realised that she felt the mysterious pull she defines only as “the call of God”. She decided not just to become a nun, but to withdraw from the world by entering the kind of order with the most severe regimen: an enclosed convent.

For the next 12 years, her every moment was dictated by the mediaeval rhythms of monastic life. She spent six hours a day in the convent chapel, praying and singing hymns and psalms in Latin. Much of the rest of the time she baked altar breads. She never went out except to the dentist.

She did not speak except for one hour in the evening, and even then: “We were not allowed to talk about ourselves; oh, my Lord, no. No intimacy at all, except with Jesus. At one stage we had chooks, and I think we had cats. I remember thinking to myself, ‘If we don’t stop talking about the chooks and the cats I’ll scream’.”

Life was so ordered that the search for sins to confess became the week’s creative challenge. In desperation, she laughs, “One of our sisters used to confess ‘vain and idle and useless thoughts’.”

Hogan is still a nun, but today she lives by herself, wears civvies, preaches feminism and is the chaplain for international students at Melbourne University. She has prepared a stream of students for baptism in the Catholic Church; she has also counselled several on how to accept their homosexuality.

To outsiders, says Perth theologian Jan Gray, it looks like nuns have bungee-jumped from mediaevalism into modernity. Has it been a good thing? “Yes!” says Hogan. “Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!”

The speed of the revolution in their lives, which saw seven centuries of tradition overturned in less than a generation, far outstrips the rapid workplace change the rest of the community finds so dizzying. But the world continues to change faster than they do and the social and theological changes that led to the sisters’ revolution also mitigate against their continuance.

These include the understanding that exploration rather than denial of the self is important for spiritual growth; the resistance to institutional authority calling the shots or mediating one’s relationships, including the relationship with God; and the growing independence and life choices of First World women.

Orders of nuns in Australia are in a decline that for many, verges on extinction.

This has implications for the religious, cultural and social mores of the 27 per cent of Australians who call themselves Catholic. It has implications for the huge network of schools and hospitals that nuns set up across the nation, which were formerly staffed and managed largely with their free labor.

And it has ramifications for nuns themselves. What is it like for those who continued as “brides of Christ” even after the turmoil of the 1960s that caused so many to leave?
What do they make of their legacy and the parts of it – involvement with stolen children, abuse of orphans in institutions – that do not survive moral scrutiny today? And has their devotion to a religious ideal and their celibacy been made less meaningful by the fact that either God has stopped calling, or young women have stopped answering?

The peak year for Australian nuns was 1966, when 14,620 women were in convents. By 1996, the figure had halved to 7360 and most of those were elderly. Today, the nation’s 120 or so female orders have only about 60 novices training for a life of poverty, chastity and obedience, according to Sister Mary Cresp, of the Australian Council of Leaders of Religious Institutes.

Hogan’s order, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, has no novices, and only one nun is under 65. They had an applicant several years ago, but decided that in all conscience they had to turn her away. They sold their altar-bread business to Cistercian monks and used the money from the sale of their large convent to provide for themselves in old age. “There’s no point in asking someone to commit their life now,” says Hogan. “I even worry about (the youngest sister, who is 53); I said to her ‘What are you going to do?’”

A common view of women who entered convents was that they were running away from the world. In fact, for many, the opposite was true; becoming a nun opened them up to adventure in a way that would not otherwise have been possible given the restrictions on women’s lives in earlier times. Take the Sisters of St John of God; founded originally to help with poverty during the Irish potato famine, they came to Australia from Ireland in 1895 and worked in hessian tents nursing miners at Kalgoorlie.

CHRISSIE CONNOLLY grew up as the eldest of eight children in a farming family in the west of Ireland. Like Hogan, she describes herself as a party girl when young. “But in the back of my mind I was thinking, `What is life all about? Is this how I’m going to spend my life – having a good time, enjoying myself?”‘

In 1946, aged 17, she joined a St John of God nursing convent and became Sister Teresina. Four of her sisters later followed her into the convent and out to Australia.

She arrived in Western Australia knowing it would be hard. “In those days in Subiaco we had … no lay people; it was all sisters working in the hospital. You were going all day long, run, run, run, run. We never knew what it was to have a day off; we worked 16 hours a day, seven days a week. We got a holiday once a year for two weeks. We had to study as well as work; you’d come off duty in a broken shift, you’d have your dinner, have prayers then go back to the study hall and back down to duty at 5 o’clock.

“But we were looking after people and people were very grateful, and we were bonded together. We’d have our fun in between times, sorting the laundry and bringing patients to the theatre and back again.”

Back then, religion was a deeply felt part of people’s lives in Ireland in a way that seems unimaginable now, she says.

Perhaps also behind her decision was the knowledge that her mother had always wanted to be a nun. Connolly knows she took the adventurer’s course; she has travelled and studied in Asia and America and spent 10 years as chief executive officer of 500 staff at a large private hospital in Ballarat. In her day, becoming a nun “laid the world at your feet. They gave you no choice (about where you would go), but you knew you were going to be out in it”.

“When I go back to Ireland and see the girls that were my friends when I was going to school – there’s a friend up the road, she’s very happily married and she has about 10 or 11 children and she’s never moved away from there.”
Madeline Duckett joined the Sisters of Mercy in 1965. She used to sing Beatles’ songs in her head while hanging out the washing during silence and played tennis in ankle-length habits and starched veils. Duckett joined straight from a Mercy boarding school; convent life was not so different, she says dryly.

Her spontaneity “went underground” for some time after she entered. Like Maria in the The Sound of Music, “I was too scared to be spontaneous because I just seemed to always get into trouble when I did. I kissed the ground any number of times. Any infringement of (the order’s) Rule you were supposed to confess. Breaking the silence was one of the major ones”.

Duckett and her fellow novices did dress as brides and were bussed en masse to St Patrick’s cathedral in the city, to the amazed gaze of onlookers. Of more concern to Duckett was what happened after the bridal gown was exchanged for the habit, part-way through the ceremony. “In the habit we did the prostration (lying flat upon the ground to signify surrender to God). So we had to practise for nights beforehand so that it wasn’t bottoms up when you went down or got up.”

That was the world Duckett joined, but it was not to survive the tsunami that followed Vatican II (1962-1965), Pope John XXIII’s push to modernise the church. For Duckett, an immediate result was an eye-opening year of study of the new theology. “That was the most mind-blowing experience. None of us had studied moral theology as such; we’d simply been told what was right and what was wrong. And now we learned about some of the ways you come to decision-making and that for the law to be the law it has to fulfil certain criteria. It was very, very freeing.”

But after all this opening up came a sudden closing down. In 1968, Pope Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae, his encyclical banning artificial contraception. Suddenly many priests and nuns were openly criticising church teaching and leaving.

In Hogan’s order, half the nuns left within 12 months in 1968-69. “That really shook me up because my best friend in the order left. And she said, `we’re not women of charity, maturity and prayer; it’s just not working here, this thing’. I thought, `you’re right’. What was going wrong in one sense was the (lack of) maturity. You just couldn’t grow and relate.”

Hogan now believes the 12 years she spent locked away from the world were dehumanising. “When I walked in the door of the convent and became Sister Mary Frances, `Carol’ died,” she says. “Total abnegation of the self was the centre of our spirituality. It required us to be like a candle that burnt before the Blessed Sacrament and left no trace.

“I think the structure (of that enclosed order) just dehumanised people. It took away intimacy; it took away development; it took away the possibility of being an independent thinker … I think perhaps one of the reasons I look younger than I am is because there was this arrested development for 12 years.”

Connolly was disturbed by the number of nuns leaving her order, but never had doubts herself. She remembers endless debate about every little aspect of change: what length should skirts be, how much hair should show? One of her four sisters left and later married. Connolly was sympathetic to her unhappiness and to her decision. “We just accepted it. Whatever was best for her.”

While many nuns agonised over the changes, Duckett says that lay people also resisted nuns abandoning their habits and their convents. “It’s like you can’t be human and you can’t be imperfect because you have to hold on to the sense of the holy for the human race. Part of the whole transition is (that we are) no longer being set apart or stood on a pedestal so that the rest of humankind can get on with their lives (and ignore spiritual issues).”

There has always been a mystique about nuns as the brides of Christ, the eternal virgins who devote themselves to the sacred. The image is of piety and selflessness and of life on a higher plane than the rest of the mortal world. Yet most nuns also engaged intensely with the physical world through work such as nursing, teaching or welfare. In Hollywood scripts, the mystique was often reduced to the cliche of tension between the love of God and the love of a good man (such as Peter Finch, in Audrey Hepburn’s portrayal of The Nun’s Story).

The reality is that the life of celibacy and devotion has always worked for some and embittered or exploited others. Says one Catholic observer, who did not wish to be named: “The `metaphorical marriage’ stuff sexualises their relationship with God, in a way; they use the language of love much like the mystics do. There is a long tradition of that in the church. But what it does to the ordinary person who isn’t a great mystical poet, trying to live their lives out in that language, I don’t know.”

Gray, a theology lecturer at Western Australia’s Notre Dame University, sharply dislikes the whole concept. In the early 1990s, she interviewed 80 nuns, aged from 26 to 83, for her book, Neither Escaping nor Exploiting Sex: Women’s Celibacy. “Most of them found (the bride of Christ image) intolerable or just unhelpful,” she says. Gray says her life as a nun is “a quest for the ultimate means of union with what’s good and what’s beautiful and what’s wonderful about being human … (But) I don’t want to be part of a harem, even God’s harem.”

Many nuns talk about celibacy as something that allows them to share themselves with everyone rather than just one person. Gray calls that “the prostitution interpretation – `I am available, I can move around, people can do with me what they want”‘.

“I think it’s dangerous in that it has led to abuse (of their goodwill). A lot of women who are religious have gone into situations and stayed in situations they should never have stayed in because of this notion that they have to be available. A lot of women have been kept working in institutions in the church where they have been treated like dross, given no thanks and just been used as pieces that could be moved around. The old religious life demanded that, that you have no attachment to any person or any place.”

For her research, Gray interviewed only nuns whom she felt coped well with their sexuality. “They were people who hadn’t been twisted by their celibacy,” she says. “They weren’t depressive and they weren’t asexual.” Because of this focus her sample was not random or necessarily representative, so its findings cannot be generalised to all nuns.

But Gray found that up to 25 of those interviewed “hinted at, if not explicitly described, significant sexual encounters” since taking their vows, although not all of these had been full sexual encounters. They had sought forgiveness and saw them as growth experiences. “Most have been able to incorporate any deviations from their vow as an important part of learning who they are.”

All nuns who stay nuns sacrifice partnerships and children. Duckett says leaving her first boyfriend behind when she entered was painful, but she has not missed children. While Hogan says: “People would say I’m not fulfilled because I haven’t got a child, but I don’t feel that way. I’ve got three little children I call my adopted grandchildren whom I’m very close to.”

Connolly admits to moments of regret at not having her own home and family.

“Oh Lord, yes. There’s no human being in any position, any vocation, who doesn’t have some regret, especially when they come to their 40s. There are pluses and minuses, though.

“This might sound selfish, but I can go to bed at night-time not worrying about where my kids are or what they might be doing.”

Men have never been an issue for her, although occasionally a surgeon, unaware that she was a nun, would try to ask her out. “We used to have great fun because all the staff knew, but some of the doctors didn’t know.” But forget Audrey Hepburn and the tragic romance of renunciation; passes were more likely to be dealt with summarily. One nun was washing a patient who tried to kiss her. “She put the soap in his mouth,” laughs Connolly.

That sturdy blend of idealism and pragmatism has left a large legacy in Australia. Many of the Catholic system’s 1700 schools were founded and run by nuns, as was much of its health system (at present 20 public hospitals, including St Vincent’s and the Mercy Hospital for Women in Melbourne, as well as 8300 beds in other kinds of hospitals and 16,500 aged-care beds).

But just as nuns are struggling with the future – lay people must be organised to run all this now, and big old convents must be sold or turned over to other uses – the past has come back to haunt them. There have been reports of physical and emotional abuse, such as beatings and cold baths, in orphanages and children’s homes in the 1950s and 1960s and at least one order has formally apologised for having accepted stolen Aboriginal children into care.

“In hindsight we should have questioned what, as a church, we were asked to do for the Government,” a leader of the Order of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart said in 1999.

Connolly and Duckett find it painful that such news has overshadowed so much good work. And Gray points out that there are different social mores now about the use of violence in education and family life and that nuns in earlier times often worked under appalling circumstances.

One nun told a 1998 inquiry into government and church welfare institutions of her time in a notorious orphanage in Queensland. “All those babies. They’d always be putting their arms up, and you didn’t have time to give them any individual love.” That inquiry found abuse “was allowed to happen” in both church and government institutions because of scant resources, a lack of support from society, overcrowding, isolation and the powerlessness of institutional inmates.

ONE Catholic observer says nuns are blamed for work that the church insisted the orders take on, such as dealing with the consequences of the forced migration of children from England after the war. “Many of these kids weren’t even toilet trained; they were seven or eight and were basically street kids abandoned or lost during the Blitz. There were such numbers, and such a degree of need, and of course these women weren’t trained. Most of the people in orphanages were neither teachers nor nurses. The whole story is a tragedy.”

There is also a less tangible legacy. Nuns ran large institutions and took on powerful roles in an era where women were largely invisible in public life; Catholic convent girls grew up seeing that women could work and lead. The bright ones took it as their ticket to life.

Through their teaching, nuns shaped Australian Catholicism and tried to inject generations of children with a sense of social justice. Public figures such as Labor Senator Rosemary Crowley and ex-Senator Susan Ryan have talked about the effect of nuns on their world views, as has that ferocious feminist and refugee from Catholicism, Germaine Greer.

Crowley remembers the nuns at her old convent school being divided between the sadistic and the wonderful. She has no doubt about their effect on her attitudes. Crowley, now with the Labor Party, still recalls learning in primary school about Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum, which promoted the rights of workers to unionise and expect a fair wage.

And she remembers the nun who became her sports mistress. Upon learning that Crowley’s basketball team had never won a match, she asked crisply: “Didn’t we know it was to the greater glory of God to develop all of our talents?” (The following year they were undefeated champions.)

Connolly’s last job was as “mission sister” for St John of God’s Perth hospital, training 400 lay staff in the values, such as compassion and duty of care, that the nuns want to continue after they hand over the reins.

Connolly is philosophical about the collapse in vocations. She sees orders of nuns as having developed largely in response to social needs that are now being filled in other ways. “I don’t think that really matters because the religious orders were founded, a lot of them, for education and health. And look at the fine job the lay people are doing now. There will always be religious sisters, I believe, but in different numbers; smaller numbers.”

Duckett believes many orders are in a process of transformation and rejuvenation rather than utter decline. “It’s the cocoon thing. Maybe we won’t have the numbers in the same way in the future, but something else is happening that’s beyond what we can put words on at the moment. We’re moving into a new, radical way of being.”

Hogan went through a period of intense rage and review about her life when she first discovered feminism and thought through its implications for the position of women in the church. “I thought that for 2000 years women had been deceived and I had too.”

Now, she says, she knows that Jesus was a feminist – “Who was the first evangelist? Who got the news (of the resurrection) first? Mary Magdalen. Do we ever hear that in church?” And in her teaching and counselling she routinely employs what some feminist scholars call the “hermeneutics of suspicion”: “I call it smelling a dead rat – and holding it up!”

Having come to terms with all this, the realisation that her order was facing sunset “was very, very upsetting for me for a while. I thought, `I’ve given the best years of my life to something that just seems to be a failure”‘.

“The whole tribal thing of church has gone; it was the focal point, it was the St Patrick’s day march and the St Patrick’s night concert, it was the parish school, it was the local thing you walked to. Now everything’s changed and everything’s up for grabs in the post-modern world. I don’t quite know where the church will go, because it hasn’t even gotten into modernism, I don’t think, much less post-modernism.”

But she loves her work at the university and knows she continues to make a difference to people’s lives. “I have chosen to stay in my religious community because it has given me my vision and been the framework of my life; it’s been the sea in which I’ve swum. It has enabled me to live my dream.”

The nuns who remain are, as ever, at the forefront of social need; it was the Sisters of Charity in Sydney who tried to set up Australia’s first injecting room. But, with female ordination not even a blip on the Vatican’s radar, it is possible that the falling away of nuns will further weaken the limited power of women in the institutional church. Connolly acknowledges that all but one of the CEO positions for St John of God hospitals handed over to lay people in the past 15 years went to men.

DUCKETT is not convinced that it matters, given the declining relevance of institutional religion to many people’s lives. Formerly a secondary teacher and tertiary lecturer, she has also been on the board of the Jesuit magazine of public affairs, Eureka Street. Now she works at a small spirituality centre for women that uses myth, psychology and a broad sense of spirituality rather than dogma to help people explore their lives.

Nuns are “definitely beyond the cloister”, she says, but now they need “to rediscover the contemplative heart that exists at the centre of all the action.

“Younger people are also looking for meditation or that coming to a quiet place within themselves; it’s a real spiritual search today, but it’s not necessarily a religious one … I think God and the whole thing is beyond religion. Religions are ways of coming into that.”
People now want smaller groups and more personal ministry. “I think we’ve done the big churches and cathedrals. There are historical moments where that’s the way of expressing it and then there’s a need for it desperately to be balanced out by a more intimate kind of setting where people cannot just hear the word, but actually grapple with it and see where it integrates into their own lives.”

Duckett and the others interviewed here have never wanted to be priests and have no strong feelings about female ordination. She says: “If we look back on our lives, we can see a pattern, and within that pattern is the gift we each have to offer to the world around us.

“We are all ordained by life to do what it is our gift to do. It’s another kind of ordination – call it primordial – than just being ordained by oil. And any priest worth his salt is not just ordained once; he is ordained again and again through the lives he comes in contact with and what these people give to him.” Or to her.

First published in The Age.