One was a pacifist who fought against the Church’s involvement in warfare and the other challenged ecclesiastical misogyny and was labelled a heretic. Two important figures, indeed.
Last week I promised you some portraits of people that will inspire you in these dark times. We all need reminding that there is more to the world than economic collapse, viruses and Donald Trump. We have already looked at two cracker Indigenous women, Evelyn Scott and Faith Thomas. Today I would like to introduce you to two men who stood up against the Church. In different eras, for different reasons, but nevertheless, courage was needed. Let me kick off with somebody who is as good as forgotten but shouldn’t be.
When WWI broke out, Reverend Bernard Linden Webb had just been appointed to his new parish of Hay, NSW. He was thirty years old, father of two, and came from a devout Methodist family from Sydney. He had been fated to be a lawyer, but when he was only twenty, he ‘received the call’ and decided to become a Minister instead. It was March 1914 and that date would determine not only the Reverend’s career, but also his life.
As a young man, Webb had looked at Australia’s involvement in the Boer War and decided that this kind of violence didn’t meet Christ’s teachings or His expectations of His people. War, any war, Webb thought, was morally wrong and against the Scriptures. So, when WWI broke out only months after he had arrived in Hay, it was clear that fur was going to fly. Hay was proud of its military volunteers. It had one of the highest per-capita enlistment rates in the country and families who had one or more children in the trenches were celebrated. The Methodist Church, too, was a big fan of the conflict. It was convinced that the war was ‘God’s cause’, ‘and we may humbly dare to believe that God is with us’, as The Methodist wrote in early 1915.
Also on The Big Smoke
The aim was to defend the Empire and because of that, the Church told its Ministers to encourage enlistment from the pulpit. Just to make sure they followed through, government recruiters knocked on their doors, emphasizing the urgency of Britain’s cause. Every single Reverend did what he was asked.
Except Bernard Linden Webb. He believed that ‘state-sponsored violence was contrary to Christian teachings’ and on 3 January 1915, he gave the first of three pacifist sermons. It was called ‘The war and Christian ideals’ and he didn’t pull any punches: ‘The sacrifice of men fighting for their country has been compared to the sacrifice of Christ. That is a terrible blasphemy’, he said. On 21 February he followed this up by ‘The war as a problem to Faith’. ‘It would be a very simple matter for me to stand up and preach the righteousness of war, as so many others are doing, but before God, I cannot. Nothing less than the ideal of Christ will do’.
His third sermon, two weeks later, was about ‘The moral damage of war’ and stated that supporting the war would lead to Godlessness and ‘terrible depressions of the soul’. At the end of the year, Webb had his sermons published with the help of the Quakers, who are always strictly pacifist. But that only aggravated his problems.
First, his Church colleagues started to agitate against him, in articles and from their own pulpits. ‘The Empire would be in a sorry plight if it were led by theorists who turn the blind eye to the stern facts’, they said, calling in question his patriotism and even his right to call himself Australian or a member of the British Empire (which we still were by then). People called his argument ‘puerile rubbish’ and that got worse once boys from his community started dying on the battlefield. Some of their parents voted with their feet and left the Church, others refused to have him attend their sickbed or officiate their wedding. It came to a head when PM Billy Hughes announced the first of the Conscription Referenda in 1916. All Protestant Churches supported the Yes campaign, especially when Daniel Mannix, then Archbishop of Melbourne said ‘No’ on behalf of his Catholics. Webb hunkered down for a while: ‘moral and spiritual forces are mightier to overthrow evil than all the bullets and bayonets ever made’, he said, deploring the ‘failure of the Church to bear an uncompromising witness against militarism’.
But in the end, the forces against him were too great and he resigned a few days before the first Referendum. Now a father of four he had a problem. He had no house and no income, so for the rest of the war he ‘tried his hand at teaching elocution, farming, peddling apples door to door and selling second-hand clothes’. This took until 1920 when the Church gallantly ‘forgave’ him and took him back into the fold. Between 1920 Webb was a Reverend in Muswellbrook, Toronto, Gordon, Norfolk Island, Summer Hill, Campbelltown and Kensington. And then WWII broke out. Instead of having to go through the same rigmarole again he resigned straight away: ‘My pacifist principles are not consistent with my work in the Church’, he said, again selling fruit and vegetables to make ends meet. His spiritual and intellectual force all went to organisations that advocated pacifism. In the Peace Pledge Union and War Resisters International, he was a well-liked speaker. But his stance had taken his toll on his health and in the end, Bernard Linden Webb died in Rima Convalescent Home, run by one of his daughters.
Thirty years later, a middle-aged Presbyterian Minister came to Australia from Scotland to become the Principal of St. Andrew’s College at the University of Sydney. Like Bernard Linden Webb, Peter Cameron’s ambitions had seesawed between the law and the Church. Cameron had even been a public prosecutor in Dundee, Scotland, for a while, but by early 1991 he felt himself at the heart of the Church and ready to take on its work Down Under. Then, seven months after his arrival, the Church decided to overturn its policy on ordaining women as Ministers. It had sounded as a good idea at the time, but not anymore.
Webb believed that ‘state-sponsored violence was contrary to Christian teachings’ and on 3 January 1915, he gave the first of three pacifist sermons. It was called ‘The war and Christian ideals’ and he didn’t pull any punches: ‘The sacrifice of men fighting for their country has been compared to the sacrifice of Christ. That is a terrible blasphemy’, he said.
On 2 March 1992, Cameron, his feet barely under the desk, gave a sermon at Ashfield about ‘The place of women in the Church’. The whole idea that women couldn’t serve was based, he said, on Paul’s ‘Letter to Timothy’, part of the New Testament: ‘I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent’. But, Cameron said, ‘ it is actually possible that he got things wrong. There is no reason why Paul should have been infallible. However much people quote him, the answer should simply be: so what?’
Furthermore, he called the Church ‘obscure’, ‘uncharitable’, ‘puritan’ and ‘vain’, saying that it ‘is now in exactly the position of the Pharisees whom Jesus accused of shutting up the Kingdom of Heaven’. Come again? Questioning the Bible and Christ’s right-hand man? To the stakes with you! The powers-that-be in the Presbyterian Church got together and began proceedings to have Cameron named a heretic. Despite the fact that nobody had been officially called that for over a century, they were so angry at his liberal theology that they did everything in their power to shut the Minister down.
Only days after the sermon, he received a letter that set the tone for the year to come. Paul’s letters were ‘the Word of God’, it read, and so had ‘supreme authority’. Also, Cameron had spoken of ‘Christianity as a religion of freedom’, not of obedience and that, of course, was ‘striking to the heart of the Christian faith’. The Church, the writer said, should ‘defend the Faith’ against the likes of Peter Cameron, and that is exactly what it started to do shortly after. On 18 March 1993, the first day of Cameron’s heresy trial started. Of course, the media and the Australian public were very interested. This sounded so outdated, so old-fashioned, so frankly weird, that they were flocking to the night-on-night coverage. Cameron’s accusers said they feared for ‘the future of the Church’ if this Minister was allowed to stay. What he had said in his sermon was dangerous: ‘it seriously and totally undermines the authority and infallibility of the Holy Scriptures’.
If Cameron didn’t resign, they advocated officially labelling him a heretic. When the Minister was allowed to speak, he said that ‘it was illusory to regard the New Testament period as a religious golden age, and therefore illusory to think that by returning to the conditions of that age we can escape the confusion of the present age’. He also stated that the Bible often says that God got something wrong, so ‘how can it be an offence to suggest that Paul got something wrong?’ And so it went on. Every time Cameron said he was engaging in a dialogue with the Bible, the Church representatives told him his only job was to ‘defend doctrine and be obedient to the Church’. And the Church won. With a large majority, they found him guilty as charged.
Explaining the verdict to the masses, the Church’s spokesman treated the Australian public like morons: ‘It’s like joining a soccer club, then deciding to pick up the ball and play Rugby Union halfway through. Dr. Cameron has to play the game the way the Presbyterian Church plays it’. But that was not how most people understood the issue. To their minds, and Cameron’s, it was about fundamentalism. In interviews, Cameron started to kick against the ‘herd instinct’ of fundamentalist Christians and their ‘unquestionable acceptance of authority’. He also commented on his new status as a heretic: ‘It is not something I would recommend. It is as if you are unclean and should have a bell around your neck…a servant of Satan.’ Cameron appealed, twice, but lost.
In 1994, just after his memoir Heretic was published, he resigned: ‘It was said some years ago that God was dead. It might not be absurd now to proclaim the death of the Church’. To him, it was clear, as he said to ABC radio, that the Church ‘was being hijacked by fundamentalists’ and that dissent against that was very important. ‘Fundamentalism is a major threat to civilisation’, he wrote not much later, pointing to the rise of the evangelical churches in the US that, much later, would elect Donald Trump to the presidency. Sometimes it is wise to listen to the outsiders, the critics, the heretics, is all I’m saying.
For this story I have used the following sources:
Peter Cameron Heretic, Sydney, Doubleday, 1994
Bernard Linden Webb The religious significance of the war, unknown publisher, 1915 http://users.tpg.com.au/hayhist/NewsletterSeven.html