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Public Grief and the Post-Christendom Church: Reflections from Brunswick

Monday, 5 November 2012  | Gordon Preece



More than 100 people gathered on the steps of the Brunswick Baptist Church on Sydney Road Friday night 28/9/12 to remember Jill Meagher. Photo on right: Justin McManus. The Age

Demonstrative public, secular-spiritual displays of grief have become an increasingly common feature of our postmodern pilgrimage. The monumental tide of grief in response to the rape and murder of young Irish ABC employee Jill Meagher, embodied in the 30,000 person march down Sydney Road on Sunday. Such was the impact of Jill’s death, it even managed to put Melbourne’s annual holy day, the Grand Final of ‘triumph and tragedy’ into proportion. The often angry Alistair Clarkson rose to the occasion in a magnificent speech to the shattered Hawthorn faithful, that their defeat wasn’t a tragedy: the loss of a young Port Melbourne footballer, of Jarrad McVeigh’s young daughter, of a young Irish woman in Brunswick—these are tragedies.

Brunswick Baptist anticipated and sensitively connected with this outbreak of reflectiveness and mass grief at a vigil last Friday night near the scene of Jill’s abduction. This may be a model for how local churches can minister with and to their communities in times of inarticulate pain. These displays of grief, albeit triggered in part by Jill’s mass media connections and by viral social media, fit a growing pattern of secular, pluralistic and postmodern rituals in responding to such different public demonstrations of grief, anger, revenge, forgiveness and bewilderment as the death of Princess Diana, the roadside memorials along the edges of freeways, and the Bali memorial services, not to mention the Victorian bushfires commemoration at a sporting pavilion, or manifold expressions of formal and informal lament over 9/11.

The post-Christendom Church no longer has a monopoly on the expression and articulation of public grief, but Brunswick Baptist, in its own small but significant way, and the Episcopal Church which found new life as a source of solace in the shadow of the Twin Towers, show that the church can play a significant, if smaller part in providing solace in the face of inexplicably random violence and suffering.

Church of Christ member and Deakin University literary scholar Lyn McCredden in an essay entitled “Postmodern Rituals”, sees these rituals, as her book title states, as Luminous Moments: The Contemporary Sacred. But she rightly asks whether such different “hybrid” or “mongrel”/mixed meaning systems and smorgasbords of symbols can all be lumped together as ritual when they are so ‘fleeting, temporal and quickly past’, particularly in a society that can easily overdose on suffering from the four corners of the world, fed by an ADHD media. The question is, how sustaining in the long-term can these rituals be? Maybe their significance is just for the unbearable moment. And, we might add, how can they connect with what the Anglican funeral service regularly refers to as our ‘sure and certain hope’?

McCredden answers by seeing the value in “the self-reflexive, ambivalent and one might even add reticent, suspicious way in which many participants enter into such postmodern rituals which places them in a different category to traditional rituals.” Here, doubt and participation mingle in a transient territory with transcendent evil, and even good, as Jill’s partner Tom Meagher seemed to acknowledge in his thanks for people’s support. In the ambivalent world of mass and social media, some come to share in a solidarity of vulnerability; others in a more fundamentalist and Manichean way demonise the alleged perpetrator, calling for capital punishment. These experiences of evil and the goodness of a shared solidarity beyond neat solutions—“It could have happened to me” was often repeated—will hopefully lead to a sustainable sense of spirituality and community. Encouragingly for the latter, already two people are using social media for other women to share their vulnerability, and map out and prevent possible violence.

As McCredden depicts these rituals, “this is far from a simple demand for ‘The Logos’ (or ‘fixed, credal meaning’),” the one word that neatly resolves it all, “but it still is an understandable acknowledgement of desire for meaning”. It is meaning sensed in “luminous moments”, like the candlelight vigil outside Brunswick Baptist, it is word made flesh, frail and subject to brutality and death, yet full of new light and life. It is, as Charles Taylor puts it in A Secular Age, “cross-pressured”, like the demon-oppressed boy’s father’s fragile faith in Mark 9: “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief”.

As the Saturday Age report of the vigil continued, “Twenty metres up the road there were more flowers in front of the bridal store where a CCTV camera caught Ms Meagher talking to the man now charged with her rape and murder. Nestled in among the flowers, one note read, 'Jill, I knew you only from the news, but how you moved so many people. One day this world will be as beautiful as you… rid of all evil’.'' Less assuring but honest, The Sunday Age reported a small child asking innocently whether Jill Meagher was hiding beneath the flowers. The mother replied, “No, she’s not there, she’s somewhere else”. I suspect she’ll face some hard questions from her child later on, but I pray that both have experienced enough sustenance from the shared rituals, marches and vigils, enough enlargement of their longing, that they’ll find a sufficiently “sure and certain hope” of evil one day eradicated, to get them through, a day at a time, this utterly uncertain life.

Gordon Preece is Director of Ethos, www.ethos.org.au and a Brunswick West resident.

 


Comments

Philip HIggins
November 6, 2012, 7:45AM
Thankyou for this essay. It is particularly meaningful as we approach Remembrance Day and think of lives lost due to evil in numerous wars. The same religious/spiritual efforts go into many a Remembrance Day service, where many of the attenders only have a shallow Christian faith. Some would say that war took from them their faith in God, but they keenly share in these memorial services.
Ray Walker
November 7, 2012, 10:48AM
Apparently Brunswick Baptist had been experiencing a state of flux prior to this disaster and it was suggested by the Interim Pastor, Ken Luscombe to commit the flock to prayer in reaching out to those in need leading to this overwhelming time of grief with the Church becoming the
centre for peace and reflection..

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