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Reflections on the Fitzgerald era: The religious figure

Don Whebell graces the cover of The Courier Mail in October 1989. Image courtesy of Don Whebell

SOMEONE RECENTLY recalled my first induction as Moderator in 1989 and that I’d said something like it was important that people read not only their Bibles, but the Fitzgerald Report – and discover what each had to say about the other. It was not an entirely original statement.

Swiss theologian Karl Barth, in the midst of the turmoil of World War II said his own daily reading was the Bible and the daily newspaper.

He was calling on Christians to be aware of the realities of the world and the greater realities of the judgement of the word that God was speaking through Jesus Christ.

My first term as Moderator coincided with the release of the Report of the Commission of Enquiry into Possible Illegal Activities and Associated Police Misconduct in Queensland.

The Commission, led by Tony Fitzgerald QC, created a wide-ranging debate about corruption in Queensland’s public institutions.

The Synod met in October 1989 and issues that arose from the Enquiry were not far from our attention – nor from the concern of other churches.

The comment about reading the Bible and the Fitzgerald Report was made in the sermon at the Synod gathering in Festival Hall.

It went ahead of me around the state and gave opportunities to try to encourage people to catch hold of the challenges confronting our society. Translating the sermon into action was the big job.

Jesus’ message to the Nazareth synagogue (Luke 4) was addressed also to us. The Gospel always is! And that wasn’t terribly comforting.

The churches were, as always, in a situation that called us out of our comfort zones and into living Christ’s Gospel in action.

We all knew that corruption existed, and that there was the occasional rogue in our institutions, but did little about it. Fitzgerald made it very public.

People in the churches who spoke as prophets were often told to shut up and leave politics out of the pulpit.

Over many years, we’d heard the mantra from Premier Bjelke-Petersen and others in his Cabinet that the churches had no role in the public domain. Debate about that followed me around the state, with many of our people responding.

Many people had been longing to see the church active in confronting the corruption exposed by the Fitzgerald Report. Others in the church and the community were quite angry.

Some letters, mostly anonymous, were threatening: pretty disturbing when they’re signed ‘yours in Christ’!

On a personal level that was pretty rough. I was grateful for those who worked with me and concerned for those who felt they couldn’t.

There was a change in Queensland’s Government and our Synod took an active role, encouraging people to vote in the light of the Gospel, and not party-politics.
During the election campaign a wide range of issues were up for debate.

To give some leadership in responding to them Mark Young (the then Synod Social Justice Advocate) put together a discussion booklet pointing to where the Uniting Church stood on moral issues including: abortion, capital punishment, homosexuality, firearms, the environment, Aboriginal sacred sites, economic justice, and much more. Twenty years on much of that is still before us.

So too is the Gospel that speaks the Good News and needs to be heard afresh.

"The Word of God on whom salvation depends is to be heard and known from Scripture appropriated in the worshipping and witnessing life of the Church. The Uniting Church lays upon its members the serious duty of reading the Scriptures, commits its ministers to preach from these and to administer the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper as effective signs of the Gospel set forth in the Scriptures". (Basis of Union, para 5)

Photo : Don Whebell graces the cover of The Courier Mail in October 1989. Image courtesy of Don Whebell