The Inter-relationship between the Australian Physical Environment

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The Inter-relationship between the Australian Physical Environment and Christianity

In 2000, internationally renowned travel writer, Bill Bryson, made the statement,

“The monumental emptiness of Australia is not easy to convey. It is far and away the most thinly

peopled of nations. In Britain the average population density is 632 people per square mile; in the

United States the average is 76; across the world as a whole it is 117. The Australian average, by contrast, is six people per square mile. But even that modest figure is wildly skewed because

Australians overwhelmingly live in a few clustered spots along the coast and leave the rest of the country undisturbed. The proportion of people in Australia who live in urban areas is 86 per cent.”

Bill Bryson Down Under

, Random House, Sydney, 2000 page 116

The predominant culture of Australia is western or European yet it is physically isolated from other predominantly European or western cultures. The distance between Australia’s major cities is greater than the total size of some countries. (Perth is the most isolated city in the world.) The distinctive nature of

Australia’s landscape, history and climate has led to the expression of Christianity here being unlike that in any other country. Although many countries will share some aspects of Australian Christianity, its final package is unique.

Distance

and

isolation

in the harsh Australian physical environment has led to unique phenomena such as the wife of the Anglican bishop of Willochra piloting him around the diocese in a small

plane

. Before the world gathering of Anglican female and male bishops in England in 1998, spouses were asked about what activities they would like to have organised for them. She asked for an aircraft maintenance course. This gained worldwide media attention.

Australia is an

island

with over 98% of its trade being done by sea. The

Missions to Seamen

(today called Mission to Seafarers) was established in 1868 and continues today caring for the pastoral, social and physical needs of the many sailors at ports around Australia.

Australia is such an enormous distance from the centres of Christianity in Europe that churches had to rely on the initiatives of lay people and on co-operation with clergy from other denominations.

This also made

Christianity more immune to theological fads. One saying is, “The Germans invent theology, the Americans distort it, the British correct it and the Australians ignore it.” (See also

Section 2.1.3).

Drought

,

fire

and

flood

have meant that churches showed leadership in local communities during such crises. Church buildings have often been the place where those whose homes have been

threatened or destroyed have stayed and memorial services have played a significant part in helping communities deal with grief and loss. The first Anglican bishop of Grafton and Armidale,

WC Sawyer, was

drowned

during his first year in office while attempting to cross the flooded

Clarence River to make a pastoral visit. A number of church buildings were destroyed during the infamous Ash Wednesday

bushfires

in Victoria. In February 2001, the Moderator of the NSW

Uniting Church flew to Narrabri to see the effects of flooding in the area. Within 18 months, the

Narrabri district, indeed 90% of rural NSW, had been drought-declared.

In 1967, a Catholic priest questioned the Anglican Bishop of the largest diocese in the world, North

West Australia, Bishop Witt. The priest said he rarely saw his own bishop because of the many meetings the poor man had to chair each day. What did an Anglican

bush bishop

do with his time?

Bishop Witt replied, “In the last 18 months I’ve dipped sheep, helped in a shearing shed, done a windmill run and opened 142 gates. I’ve seen the gold at Mt. Magnet and seen the iron at Tom

Price

. I’ve cray fished at Kalbarri and done confirmations in lounge rooms. I’ve been to gaol four times. I’ve looked for a noxious weed (and didn’t find it) and an anchor from a pearling lugger (and did). And

I’ve tried to be what the Apostle Paul says a bishop must be: the husband of one wife and a father to my five children.

” (Quoted in

Bush Church Aid, Seventy Five - Not Out!

, BCA, Sydney,

1993 p. 23).

A service for blessing of the animals at Darwin Anglican Cathedral included blessing native animals including crocodiles, spiders and snakes.

Isolation and lack of government services over a very thinly spread population base has meant that churches have carried a disproportionate load of educational and medical responsibilities in rural and outback Australia. See education and medical care in Section 2.1 and outback Australia in

Section 2.2.1.

Test Yourself

1. List five distinct features of the Australian physical environment.

2. Evaluate the impact that the physical environment has had on the

type

of ministries that Australian

Churches have undertaken. Evaluate, too, the

way

those ministries have been carried out.

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