Archbishop Peter Jensen, surprise scourge of John Howard and Malcolm Turnbull, has a vision of a country and a Liberal Party more invested in love than money.
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On the morning of June 29, two days before John Howard’s government sealed its control of the Australian parliament by assuming a majority in the Senate, Bill Shorten, federal secretary of the Australian Workers’ Union, arrived at the concrete-box office block behind St Andrew’s Cathedral in Sydney. He took the lift to the first floor and was ushered into a sparse office, where a snowy-haired, middle-aged man in oversized gold-rimmed glasses sat behind an uncluttered desk.
“So why have you come to see me?” the man enquired of Shorten.
“Because we can’t pick your politics, we can’t pigeonhole you,” Shorten told him.
“That’s right,” the man replied. “I’m in no one’s pocket.”
The man was Peter Jensen, Anglican archbishop of Sydney, and Shorten was trying to enlist him in the union movement’s struggle against the Howard government’s tough new industrial relations laws. He did not expect Jensen to become a mouthpiece for the campaign, but Shorten did hope the archbishop would raise his voice, if not to oppose the laws outright then at least to express disquiet about them. “I wasn’t trying to get him to say the government was terrible – I mean, he wouldn’t have said that anyway – but I wanted him to be aware of the law’s potential impact on the broader community,” Shorten recalls.
Archbishop Jensen was way ahead of him. For almost six months he had been working on his own searing critique – to be delivered during this year’s ABC Boyer Lectures – of the nation’s obsession with prosperity at any cost. Key themes included the impact of neo-liberal economics on families and the disintegration of organisations that had traditionally united citizens. “He sees unions, like churches, as vital to human solidarity,” says Shorten.
The unionist and the prelate would spend almost an hour and a half talking and Shorten would leave the meeting confident he had received a sympathetic hearing – from possibly the most important ally the labour movement would have in the stormy months ahead. But to Jensen, the issue runs much deeper than the debate on industrial relations. He is attempting nothing less than a sweeping redefinition of the Australian polity, away from the sterile Left–Right axiom and towards a new politics that elevates relationships above economics.
In doing so, Jensen is forging new and surprising alliances. A leader of what was once called “the church militant” – that is, the communion of living Christians, as opposed to those in heavenly repose – he is joining forces with the reformed militants of the ’60s and ’70s protest movements. He is confounding the stereotypes of a conservative cleric, ensuring that his message will be heard well beyond the choir stalls.
Peter Frederick Jensen, archbishop of Australia’s biggest, wealthiest and most evangelical Anglican diocese, is far less fearsome in the flesh than he is portrayed in the apocalyptic missives of Anglican liberals. He is 62 and has been married to the same woman, Christine, for almost 40 years. They have five adult children including a son, Michael, who is a Sydney Anglican minister, and 11 grandchildren. He also has two brothers, one of whom, Phillip, is Dean of St Andrew’s Cathedral. For 16 years Jensen was principal at Sydney’s Moore Theological College, where he had taught, on and off, since 1973. Except for a brief stint as a curate he has spent most of his career as a teacher – a teacher of The Word.
Jensen has put on weight in the past couple of years. It’s inevitable given that so much of his work is sedentary, chairing meetings and dealing with the nuts and bolts of running the Sydney Archdiocese’s $3 billion financial and property portfolio. As always, the most striking thing about his appearance is that he does not wear episcopal vestments: no clerical collar, no purple stock, no pectoral cross. In the staid shirts and suits that Christine buys for him at Fletcher Jones, he looks more like a high-school maths master than a prelate. It is deliberate. Jensen does not want what he considers to be ritualistic frippery – what Thomas Cranmer, the 16th-century Archbishop of Canterbury and a hero of Jensen’s, called “the clutter of false excess” – to get in the way of The Word.
He nominates two events as pivotal in his life: the 1959 Billy Graham crusades, when his faith went from being pro-forma Christianity to “a personal relationship with Christ”; and his four years at Oxford University in the late ’70s, when he earned his doctorate in theology, just like his Roman Catholic counterpart in Sydney, Cardinal George Pell. Jensen is widely regarded as having one of the most formidable intellects in the Anglican Church. But for some Anglican liberals, agitating for female bishops and greater accommodation of gays in the church, his ascension to the archbishop’s office provoked fear. According to Chris McGillion, author of The Chosen Ones: The Politics of Salvation in the Anglican Church, two issues identified Jensen as a Biblical “hardliner”. McGillion writes: “On the ordination of women to the priesthood, for example, he once said ‘the church is more like a family and, within the family, men are the spiritual guides.’ On an issue such as homosexual practice, he is uncompromising: homosexuality, he has said, ‘is not very different to something like alcoholism. Someone may be genetically predisposed towards alcoholism but that doesn’t mean they should get drunk.’” Jensen is, in fact, far less obsessed with the issue of homosexuality than most of his critics, and he has not led the witch-hunt against gay Anglicans that some had anticipated. He has, however, placed himself and his Sydney diocese firmly on the side of Anglican clergy in the developing world, and many laypeople in the first world, who oppose ordaining practising gays to the priesthood. Jensen argues it is this Biblical orthodoxy – this absolute fidelity to the scriptures – that liberates him to be an entirely different, and surprising, man when it comes to politics. It means that when it comes to wagging a finger at governments, he is not one of the usual suspects.
Within hours of his consecration as archbishop there were clear, if largely ignored, signs that Jensen would be no disciple of the Right. His first political comments were deeply critical of John Howard’s refusal to apologise to the stolen generation of Aboriginal people. While Jensen did not accuse Howard, as the media inferred, of being “out of step with God” – he merely posed it as a question – he did state, explicitly: “I think he is wrong.” Jensen went on to make another telling comment, one that eluded most of the media but offered the best clue to his attitude on the direction of national politics. “I think he [Howard] has a view which, unfortunately, is not communal enough,” said Jensen. “I think his view is too individualistic and he should recognise the Christian understanding, which is that we belong together and we do things together and we have a joint responsibility for things.”
In politics, Jensen identifies as a liberal in the early-20th century tradition of Alfred Deakin, Australia’s second prime minister. According to political scientist Judith Brett, whose book – Australian Liberals and The Moral Middle Class – Jensen draws on for some of his Boyer Lectures, Deakin rejected privilege for the wealthy and laid the foundations for the welfare state. Deakin presided over the introduction of Australia’s unique industrial arbitration system, the remnants of which Howard is now legislating to dismantle. Brett also suggests that Deakin, as a Protestant, became a liberal largely out of a sectarian reaction to the Catholic dominance of the Labor Party.
“I very much identify with Brett’s characterisation of liberalism,” Jensen tells me as we sit in his Sydney office, as spartan as it was when he met Shorten. “Brett discusses liberalism of the early-20th century, with its emphasis on freedom with responsibility, on a person standing up in his or her own right in order to serve others. Now that’s Christian. You get to the end of the 20th century and the rhetoric is still the same – freedom is still the great value for the Liberals – but the sense of responsibility is no longer there. I don’t say for Mr Howard, necessarily, but in the community this strong emphasis on freedom is now allied with this invidious philosophy of individualism.
“In the original sense of freedom you take responsibility, which is to say, you love others. Your freedom is limited by the commitment you have for other people. By the time you get to the end of the 20th century, there’s no sense of love for others. It’s purely what suits me. I think the Liberal Party originally began with a Christian view of human freedom and has lost it, so that what was human freedom has now become multiplicity of choice.”
In Jensen’s final Boyer Lecture, to air in mid-December, he takes a swipe at the high-profile merchant banker-turned- Liberal politician Malcolm Turnbull, who has spent much of the past year espousing tax cuts for high-salary earners to further boost their incomes. “Mr Turnbull, whom I understand is a professing Roman Catholic, is putting forward a view which endorses human freedom as being almost a supreme good,” says Jensen, setting down his cup and saucer. (Tea is the archbishop’s preferred beverage, being generally abstemious.) “Now, I think his view of human freedom is very different from the Bible’s view and I’m sorry that his thinking hasn’t been shaped by a Biblical view of human freedom.”
If the liberalism of Deakin informs much of Jensen’s world view, so too does the work of contemporary Christian philosopher Michael Schluter. A former economist with the World Bank, Schluter is now chairman of the Relationships Foundation in Britain, which wants governments to assess the impact of every policy on human relationships: to see how far they might strain, even shatter, family and community life. In the mid-1980s Schluter also founded the “Keep Sunday Special” campaign, fearing the effects of full weekend trading on family life. A couple of months ago he delivered a lecture in Australia, arguing: “God’s interest lies not so much in a society’s, or a person’s, level of wealth but in the quality of their relationships. The Christian faith, with its relational focus, points towards a new approach to the way we think about politics. So much of our present preoccupation in politics is with the growth and distribution of income.” Schluter – and, by extension, Jensen – rejects not only the Left’s traditional demand for the redistribution of wealth but the Right’s obsession with constant productivity increases and economic growth.
Schluter’s other great apostle in Australia – indeed, the man who introduced his work to Jensen – is federal Labor MP Lindsay Tanner. He and Jensen met three years ago after Tanner’s book about the impact of work and loneliness on people, crowded lives, was published. “Peter called me – I don’t think we’d actually spoken before, and I wasn’t sure we’d have much in common – and asked me to get a group of friends together so we could discuss the book,” Tanner recalls. “He drove down to Canberra and for several hours we just talked, probably unusually for a group of blokes, about how everything from technology to sport affected our relationships with partners and kids and work colleagues.”
Out of that encounter grew not only an unlikely friendship between a conservative evangelical cleric and a left-wing MP, who in his 1993 maiden speech still identified as a “socialist”, but a realisation that the new frontier in politics was the debate over materialism versus relationships. “This is the new politics,” says Tanner, “and it shows, once again, how meaningless the old Left–Right split is.”
If anything, the new political dichotomy is communitarian versus libertarian – and Jensen has positioned himself unambiguously with the communitarians. It is here that he has found another strong ally in Clive Hamilton, executive director of The Australia Institute, a left-leaning think-tank. Hamilton, a former treasury economist, is the high priest of the “downshifting” phenomenon, the movement of Australians, usually in their 40s and 50s, who are abandoning powerful, lucrative, high-pressure and time-consuming jobs for less money and more family time. Two of Hamilton’s books, Growth Fetish and Affluenza, were bestsellers, tapping into the growing belief that a life defined largely by the size of one’s bank account and the number of assets is ultimately barren.
Two years ago, in a speech at the Sydney Writers’ Festival entitled “Can Porn Set Us Free?”, Hamilton argued that by separating sex from intimacy it had been commodified: that the free market had intruded into the furthest reaches of our love lives. Hamilton, once a ’60s radical himself, now believes the sexual revolution helped pave the way for the neo-liberal economics of the 1980s and ’90s, where everything – including sex – had a price but nothing had a value. “The common point between us,” says Hamilton of his alliance of ideas with Jensen – for the two have never actually met – “is that we feel the deeper aspects of human life, such as relationships and intimacy, are being trivialised and ridiculed and cheapened by the free market. You don’t have to be a wowser to be offended when you drive across the Bolte Bridge in Melbourne and see a massive advertising billboard with the letters FCUK on it. It’s obvious what they’re trying to say.”
In his Boyer Lectures, Jensen quotes Hamilton’s speech and other writings with deep approbation. He also affords himself an impish smile that a one-time radical ’60s protester, such as Hamilton, has not so much recanted his past as reassessed it. “I don’t know Dr Hamilton” – everyone is either doctor, mister or missus, Jensen is very old-school that way – “but his life story is very interesting, in that he represents that group in the ’60s who threw it all over and he is now thinking again about where that leads you.”
Lindsay Tanner, who has dined with Jensen at the baronial Bishopscourt official residence in Sydney’s Darling Point, isn’t sure how Jensen votes. “I suspect Peter is a conservative in the way that Malcolm Fraser is a conservative. They honour certain values and institutions in this country, which is very different to John Howard and the other right-wing radicals.”
Among those institutions are trade unions, which Jensen argues are essential to good social order. He has immersed himself in the work of Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam, who 15 years ago began charting the decline of organisations such as ten-pen bowling teams. During Jensen’s teenage years in the ’50s the ranks of unions, Rotary clubs and lodges swelled with members. “The decline of free associations is very bad for democracy because democratic skills are learned in free associations,” he argues. “If they disappear, the government will fill the vacuum and that will be very bad indeed. We need a society in which we are governed at all sorts of levels, not just by government. I have always been a unionist ... Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I can’t see it’s a good idea for the unions to go into decline. I mean, I’m not a big businessman, eastern-suburbs type.”
The problem for Jensen is that many of his flock are just that – businessmen and corporate executives – and they are openly voicing opposition to their archbishop. In the pages of the Sydney diocesan newspaper, Southern Cross, Rick Lewarne, proprietor of Frontline Office Furniture, has insisted: “Good employees have nothing to fear from the [industrial relations] legislation.” Paul Sampson, an Anglican minister at Sylvania in Sydney’s south and former industrial relations manager in the steel industry, wrote: “Christians shouldn’t be worried about such changes.” The diocesan website crackles with dissent as business owners upbraid Jensen for his stand. One of Jensen’s closest colleagues, South Sydney Anglican Bishop Robert Forsyth, concedes there has been a backlash against Jensen from some evangelicals – those who would otherwise be “Jensenites”. “I’ve had one pretty prominent Sydney Anglican, who works in IR, come up to me at church and say he wished Peter wasn’t speaking on this issue,” says Forsyth, who supports the Howard government’s changes and jovially declares himself the “driest of all the bishops” on economics. Forsyth points out, in terms that will comfort the prime minister, that when Jensen speaks it does not carry the ex cathedra, or infallible, status of a papal pronouncement. “Peter is trying to be a Protestant archbishop,” says Forsyth. “He does not believe he speaks for the church. He is more subtle than a meddlesome prelate.”
Given that the changes to workplace laws will almost certainly pass, Jensen’s protests (if not outright opposition) are unlikely to trouble the government. What might rattle John Howard is that his appeal to Australian individualism, and his message of ever-increasing prosperity, could now be facing some resistance in the heartland.
It’s Sunday morning at St Paul’s Anglican Church in Castle Hill, on Sydney’s north-western outskirts. Parishioners are pouring in, literally in their hundreds, for the 10 a.m. “contemporary worship service”. The Baulkham Hills Shire, which includes Castle Hill, is classic new money. Castle Hill Towers is the most profitable shopping centre, per square metre, in the southern hemisphere, and average weekly household spending in the shire is $1,070. Tellingly, though, its residents spend the smallest proportion of their incomes on food, tobacco, alcohol and restaurants of anywhere in Sydney. They are family people. They prefer to stay at home. Once upon a time they would have been, in Judith Brett’s words, the moral middle class. Now they are the “aspirationals”, the group considered the bedrock of Howard support.
I walk around the St Paul’s car park and see dozens of Ford Festivas, Toyota Camrys, Mitsubishi Magnas and the odd Nissan Pathfinder four-wheel-drive. These are solid, medium-range family cars, nothing extravagant, despite their owners having a wealth rivalling that of Sydneysiders in the lower north shore and eastern suburbs. Inside the worshippers are dressed as much for an afternoon of whitegoods shopping as for church – jeans, shirts untucked according to the current fashion, only one man in a tie.
If the dress is casual, the message is rigorous. On stage – and the church is designed with a stage, rather than a traditional sanctuary – youth pastor Mark Stephens is delivering a sermon about the corrosive effect of materialism on relationships. “We are saved individually, but not to be individuals,” says Stephens, striding round the podium, speaking through a wire-less, clip-on microphone. Stephens, who is doing his doctorate in theology on the Book of Revelations, is a rousing preacher who refers only occasionally to notes.
Much of his sermon is what you would expect in a biblically orthodox evangelical parish. He emphasises the sanctity of marriage, the “horrific impact of divorce” and a sense of despair at the incidence of casual sex – now known, among US college students, as “friendship with benefits”. But Stephens’s critique goes beyond the simple issue of sex outside marriage and into territory that Clive Hamilton would appreciate. “People are getting together for sex without even intending to have any sort of relationship,” he says. “Friendships are now like health insurance plans, they come with ‘benefits’.”
The St Paul’s parishioners are part of a constituency that Howard and Jensen share – but they may be hearing contrasting messages from their political and spiritual leaders. “If I’m a conservative,” says Jensen, “it is only because I believe in families and I don’t believe the future can exist with huge numbers of single households. I think the future must belong to families of mothers and fathers and children. I think the real aspiration of the aspirational class, more than anything else, is to have sound, happy family lives. So yes, I believe our theology speaks very strongly to them. They’re the ones who are paying a vast cost for the economic reforms of the past two decades. They are not the winners. They’re the people who do the work to keep the society going. It has meant they need two incomes and not everyone wants that, [but] it’s a decision we’ve made as a society to be that wealthy.”
Jensen’s message is resonating with the “aspirational” class, according to the Reverend John Gray, senior minister of St Paul’s. He says giving has increased markedly, and not just in the weekly collection plate. When a group of teenagers told the congregation they needed $3,000 to fix a church hall in a struggling western Sydney parish, one man wrote a cheque for the entire amount on the spot. Within a day the teenagers had also raised enough money to pay the wage of a youth worker who was selling pizza to subsidise his living. “We’re very blessed in this parish, there’s a lot of money here,” says Gray.
And yet Gray has also written, in a recent parish newsletter, of a “deep sadness in the area. I fear it covers up issues prevalent across society like depression, domestic violence and absent parents. Things that can be hidden behind very fine doors.” It is a sadness felt most profoundly during Sunday services when the minister occasionally plays Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle”, the popular 1974 ballad about an absentee father who is too busy making money. After one Sunday service, two families told Gray they were changing jobs, taking pay-cuts and pulling their children out of their expensive private schools. “They did not want to live with the constant pressure of having to earn more and more.”
For all his recent outspokenness, be it on industrial relations or the threat to relationships from the cult of “more”, Archbishop Jensen resists the idea that he is gravitating towards the Left. He identifies with a liberalism that has long since passed. Unlike John Howard – who, despite the popular parody of a man locked in the 1950s, never really liked the post-war egalitarian character of the country – Jensen actually does hark back to an earlier Australia. His social conservatism favours a society in which mothers do not have to work; his communitarianism prefers an Australia where a father can take his family to a union picnic day.
To rebuild this kind of community, Jensen feels he has to take a public stand. He cannot afford to remain the cerebral, if sometimes stern, theology teacher. His willingness to speak out, to offend those politicians who might have thought him a natural ally, has even impressed some of his traditional doubters.
“I think we are seeing him grow in office in a way that not many of our public figures do,” says the ABC religious broadcaster Stephen Crittenden. “He has very impressively picked up on outside currents with his comments on the Howard government’s IR legislation, and suddenly he is out in front of the community debate and also way out in front of his own Sydney Anglican tribe. I suspect some of his traditional supporters may be a bit dubious about this new focus on social justice. We may even see a break between Peter Jensen and the Jensenites.”