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The Australian Church, a church without martyrs

By Peter Sellick - posted Monday, 27 August 2007


I was reminded the other day of the saying of Tertullian that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. The reminder came in an article written by the Archbishop of Uganda, Henry Orombi in which he recounted the history of the Ugandan church and its martyrs. Orombi’s predecessor, Archbishop Luwum was murdered by Idi Amin in 1977. Seeing how events were turning Luwum said to a fellow bishop “They are going to kill me, I am not afraid”.

The martyrs have always been an important source of courage for Christians, indeed Fox’s book of martyrs was central to Christian reading because it highlighted that life without faith was unliveable.

Martyrs are owned across denomination and times. While we may claim the world’s martyrs as our own it seems to me that their blood is spilt in a particular place and it is the church of that place that is nurtured from it.

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Who are our martyrs? I must admit that no names of Australian martyrs spring to mind. The closest examples that I can think of are the Christian martyrs killed by the Japanese in New Guinea and the brothers killed only recently in the Solomon islands. It seems that the great cloud of witnesses from whom we should draw courage belong to other times and places.

The Australian church is a church without local martyrs - a rare thing indeed. The church in Australia was not born out of violence and turmoil and for that we can be thankful. Or can we? Perhaps it explains why we are so lukewarm. We cannot imagine that our lives would be at risk because we attend church on Sunday mornings.

We may ask why we are a church without martyrs. One reason is that by the time this country was settled a certain balance had been achieved between the church and the state in England that was exported to Australia.

Thus the church that was planted here was already at peace with the secular authorities and there was no need for confrontation. The state had come to a certain arrangement with the church.

Part of this came about by means of a curious deal. It was said, following the religious wars that raged throughout Europe after the reformation, that religion in the public sphere was dangerous and a threat to peace.

Aided by a church that was losing its focus it was thought that the proper place for religion was not the public sphere, that is the political sphere, but the private.

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Christianity was about the salvation of the individual and had no place in politics. Each man or woman was to commune with God on their own terms.

However, a careful study of the wars of religion reveals that often Protestants killed Protestants and Catholics killed Catholics. These were not wars of religion at all but wars caused by the rise of states. The reason for supposing that religion was a threat to peace was largely fabricated.

Nevertheless, having promulgated this view and relegated religion to the private sphere the state took over more and more of the church’s original role.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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