Long White Cloud

We’re starting 2013 with a trip to Hobbitland… Once we get off Tullamarine..



Cricket loses another (bigger) voice

We’ve lost another voice in cricket. First it was on Peter Roebuck on radio, now it’s Tony Greig on TV. It’s almost like the situation on field – losing Punters and now Mike Hussey, leaves a gap which would take a long time to fill. 

The banters between Tony Greig and Bill Lawry will now have to be replaced. I hope Mark Taylor, Ian Healy, Michael Slater and the remainder of the Nine commentary team pick up where Greig (and Roebuck) left off, and continue to deliver entertaining and informative fillers.

I loved the below column by Jonathan Agnew from the BBC:


Tony Greig – A man you would run through brick walls for
Tony Greig, who has died aged 66, was one of cricket’s pioneers and innovators.

An immense and competitive character, he was also someone who stood up for what he believed was right and was not afraid to take people on.

He did not set out to offend people but could court controversy on and off the field of play.

The clash with West Indies batsmen Alvin Kallicharran  in 1974 stands out. For those unfamiliar with what happened, it was similar to the incident involving Ian Bell when England played India in 2011.

At the end of day two of the first Test between England and West Indies in Port of Spain, non-striker Kallicharran, who was unbeaten on 142, began to walk off after the final ball was bowled, assuming time had been called and it was close of play.

However, Tony, seeing Kallicharran out of his ground, had other ideas. He threw down the stumps at the non-striker’s end, prompting uproar in the crowd when Kallicharran was given out.

After protracted discussion, Kallicharran, like Bell, was reinstated.

Tony was involved in more controversy in 1976, when he said he would make Clive Lloyd’s West Indies side “grovel” during their three-Test series in England.

Tony knew at the time he had made a mistake, but his words were seized upon amid suggestions of racist undertones.

Tony Greig’s career

Tony Greig

  • Major teams: England, Border, Eastern Province, Sussex
  • Tests: 58
  • ODIs: 22
  • Test runs: 3,599 (average 40.43)
  • Test wickets: 141 (average 32.20)
  • Scored 16,600 runs (average 31.19) and took 856 wickets (average 28.85) in 350 first-class matches

I was there at The Oval that summer as a 16-year-old boy when, in the wake of England’s 3-0 defeat by a team that included the likes of Andy Roberts, Viv Richards and Michael Holding, Tony dropped to his knees in mocking reference to his own comments. A lot of West Indians loved him for that. Tony was certainly a showman.

Many people also remember Greig for his association with World Series Cricket in the late 1970s.

Media mogul Kerry Packer wanted to stage floodlit cricket and promised more money for the game, his Channel Nine station offering up to 10 times what the Australian Broadcasting Corporation paid to screen matches at the time.

The Australian Cricket Board kept saying “no”, but Tony, who was England captain at the time, led a rebel breakaway.

The decision to join Packer’s set-up was seen as the ultimate betrayal. Indeed, the infamous episode tore cricket apart for a while.

I remember going to a Professional Cricketers’ Association meeting at Edgbaston at the time. It was a very heated meeting, but it soon became clear that generations would benefit from the additional money being created by the sudden hike in the cost of television broadcasting rights.

Channel Nine helped revolutionise cricket, marketing the game in a way it never had been before. It should not be forgotten that Tony had a huge part to play in that.

Greig was a genuine all-rounderGreig was a genuine all-rounder

When he came to deliver his Cowdrey Lecture at Lord’s  in June this year, Tony’s brother-in-law, MCC president Phillip Hodson, pointed out that the first draft contained no reference to the World Series Cricket furore, a subject on which a lot of the MCC still felt very strongly.

But Tony did not duck the issue when it came for him to speak and had cleared the air with many disgruntled MCC members by the end of the lecture. Albeit grudgingly in some cases, most people eventually accepted that Packer’s revolution had to happen.

The only person he did not get the chance to make peace with was traditionalist and cricket writer EW “Jim” Swanton, who died in 2000. I know Tony was very upset he was unable to do that.

A proud South African who qualified to play for England through his Scottish parents, Tony was a huge man to have on your side and someone you would run through a brick wall for, because you knew he would do the same for you.

People also forget he was one of the best all-rounders England ever had, averaging 40 with the bat at a time when that was far less common than currently. He was also a very useful bowler, with either his medium pace or his off-cutters, and a fearless close fielder.

He was always on the go in life, too: looking for ways to improve cricket whether on the field or off. Who can forget the sight of him wheeling out the weather maps and all those other innovations during his time as a commentator with Channel Nine?

I remember coming back from holiday in Dubai to a message from Tony booming out of my answer machine. “Hi Aggers! I’m down to do the final in Sharjah but I’m in Australia for a wedding so I’ve told them you’ll do the commentary!” I had only just returned from there but because Tony had asked me, I went back out.

He was a bit like our own Test Match Special commentator Henry Blofeld – there was always something going on whenever he was around.

And whether playing or commentating, Tony viewed every ball of a cricket match as an event.

Jonathan Agnew was talking to BBC Sport’s Jamie Lillywhite

“My” regrets

On dealing with mistakes, regrets and forgiveness…

Another article by Phillip Jensen


Regrets: Do You Have A Few?

A regular article written by Phillip Jensen in his role as Dean of Sydney at St Andrew’s Cathedral.

Originally Published:

23rd March 2012

Two iconic singers of the twentieth century were born a fortnight apart in December 1915. One was American, the other French. Both had lives not only of fame and fortune, but also of notoriety and infamy.

They sang of their lives in two famous songs of the 1960’s. Each was an anthem, speaking of their life and struggles. Both songs became international favourites, sung by many other artists, but always associated with the original two singers. Both were songs dealing with regrets by denial.

One of course was the famous American, Frank Sinatra and his anthem “My Way”. His friend, Paul Anka, wrote the song intentionally for him. It captured the way Sinatra talked and the way in which he lived. It spoke of his regrets as “too few to mention” but then continues to struggle with the mistakes of his life – biting off more than he can chew, of tears and of losing. But as the theme of the song makes abundantly clear, the regrets are of no significance because the choices of life were his and his alone. He was not like one of those who kneel; he was a man who speaks his own mind, takes his own blows and does it his own way.

The other was the famous French singer Edith Piaf and her anthem “Non, je ne regrette rien” (“No, I regret nothing”).  Hers was a more defiant song, rejecting in the strongest terms possible any notion of regret, while manifestly “protesting too much”.  The opening verse declares the message.

“No, absolutely nothing

No, I regret nothing

Neither the good that’s been done to me,

Nor the bad: it is all the same!”

From there we are told that she doesn’t “give a damn about the past!” – her shames or her pleasures. And the reason for this abandonment of all her life is the commencement of a fresh start “with you”.  The song doesn’t spell out who this “you” is, and some Christians hope it is God – but there is no indication it is anything more than yet another lover.

So how do we deal with the regrets of our life? Pride ourselves on our achievements and suppress mentioning the failures?  Sweep up the past by forgetting all about it – don’t give it a damn – but sweep it away by rejecting the difference between good and evil?  It’s one thing to forget about the evil done to us but what about the evil we have done to others. What about the suffering of a fallen world? Are we to have no regrets for them either?

It is an insensitive soul that has no regret for sorrows of the world or their part in contributing to them.  But how can we face the pain we have caused others or the things of which we should rightly be ashamed? How do we deal with the sorrows of life that we have to endure?

We can, and should, own up to our errors, repent of our wrongdoing, apologise to those we have harmed and make reparation wherever possible. But even when we have done all this, there can still be a sense of deep regret about our actions. Often we cannot apologise or make any reparation, there is no possibility of putting things right – we just have to live with the consequences.

In the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, there is a major way through our dilemma of regret. For God, who is himself sorrowed by sinfulness, understands our failings. He has put things right for us. He has paid the penalty for all our sins. Paid a price, far in excess of anything we have ever done. Not the price of silver or gold but the price of the precious blood of his Son (1 Peter 1:18f). This payment does not pretend that our failings have not happened, nor pretend that they do not matter, nor remove them to the dustbin of forgotten history. This payment recognizes the seriousness of our sinfulness and deals with it in full.

As Christians become aware of our sins, we turn our grief into godly repentance and find forgiveness in the death of our Lord and Saviour. Having dealt with the past we press on to live the new life that Christ brings us. We are not left in grief without hope. We do not have to dwell in our mistakes or deal with them by denial (2 Corinthians 7:8-11, Philippians 3:12-14).

Christians can be free of regrets not only in our failures but also in life’s missed opportunities. We do not live as if blind fate has dealt us a bad hand. Nor are we simply the victims of other people’s sinfulness. We are the children of our loving Heavenly Father who is working his purposes out for our good, that we may be conformed to the image of his son and so bring glory to him (Romans 8;28-30). Life is not ultimately about us, but about Him, and our life finds its meaning, satisfaction, joy and love in being transformed into the likeness of our crucified and risen Lord. Whatever pain, sorrow or suffering we may experience – and there is much in this world to experience – is not worth comparing to the glory that awaits us (Romans 8:18).  It is all part of his loving preparation for our share in his holiness, yielding “the peaceful fruit of righteousness” (Hebrews 12:10f).

Christians neither wallow in their regrets nor repress their sorrows. We can face our failures of the past knowing that they have been dealt with. Unlike Edith Piaf, we do not negate the difference between good and bad in our attempt to leave the past behind. We also do not minimise the failures of the past, or carry the regret, as Frank Sinatra did. Christ has dealt with all our failures and God is ruling over all the events of our life to bring about his good purposes.

A (Not) Unexpected Christmas

Tress and I went to a Christmas eve carol service in a church close to home. It was very liturgical but that did not rob the occasion of its meaning and purpose. I wasn’t excited about going but thankfully Tress showed enough interest and determination and I came back glad that we went. We got home just after midnight.

The next morning Tress and I got up and started to get the house tidied up further for lunch. She then took kiddo to LifeGate church. Kiddo had wanted to catch up with old friends. Tress then came home and we went out to a grocery store to pick up a couple of items. We were pleasantly surprised when told, a couple of weeks before, that this store would open on Christmas Day. I guess it isn’t ideal that some people could not spend the day with their families or loved ones at home for Christmas, but when we got  there the boss himself was at the checkout counter so I guess (I hope) that softened the impact somewhat.

We got lunch ready and starting with Gerry and Jesslyn, the other guests started arriving close to 12.30pm. We ate, talked and whiled the arvo away. It was a great way to spend Christmas – being with de facto family.

Yesterday we had the choice of either of two traditional Boxing Day activities for Melbourne – either the Boxing Day Test match at the MCG, or shopping. With two ladies in the house, it was a no brainer. We were up late however, and we had a lazy breakfast at home so it wasn’t until nearly noon that we went shopping. We stopped at the FHC first however, to pick up tickets for “The Hobbit” later that night. Midway through shopping, Tress took a call from an uncle and so after shopping we went over to their home for a late lunch.

We left Uncle Seng’s close to 5, got home, I took LBJ out for a quick walk then headed to the FHC. The Hobbit was very good, although Les Miserables was much better, we thought.

It was back at work this morning and with the train schedule pegged to a weekend mode, getting in was a bit of a hassle but it was very quiet – there is now just about half dozen people in the office so I thought I could safely put this one up…

Weekend before Christmas

Gerry and Jesslyn made some lovely plans last Friday night. We went out to a lovely joint called “Kunyit” in Balwyn North. “Kunyit” is turmeric in Malay and it’s one of my favourite spices although the distinct yellow colour it produces means I use it only at certain times. Chicken or fish marinade is a favourite. Kunyit restaurant in Balwyn is a great find. The food was very good and the service was courteous, warm, non-intrusive and pitch perfect.

After dinner we went to Ivanhoe to view the brightly lit homes on the Boulevard – something we have wanted to do for years. It’s amazing how these homes went to great expense and effort to decorate their homes with the Christmas theme and there was even a few spots where carols were sung and musical instruments provided beautiful renditions of Christmas pieces.

On Saturday we spent the day cleaning up the house to get ready for Christmas Day lunch and later that night, went and watched Les Miserables. The splendour of the musical was beautifully transferred to the silver screen and Tress, Kiddo and I all enjoyed every minute of it. It was a wonderful movie.

Yesterday morning we again went to St Hilary’s at Balwyn North (St Silas) and then went to FHC to hide from the heat. Kiddo then went for a catch up with some old friends – they had dinner and then caught a movie and Tress and I dropped her off and then picked her up. On the way home, Kiddo mentioned some old friends wanted to venture out to Chadstone for a midnight shopping adventure but the spectre of driving into a cavernous Chadstone to meet people without any pre-arranged plans, and at that hour (lateness aside, it was also peak rush) was too much for me and I had to say no, albeit very reluctantly.

It’s half day at work today – Christmas Eve, and I will be out of here shortly…


Twas a Busy Week Before Christmas

A week out before Christmas and as expected, work is super busy. Yet, both Tress and I have been able to get off work before 5.30pm, which is great. I kind of miss taking the little fellow out for his walk, with Kiddo home now and taking him out before we got home.

I guess it’s a bit of mixed feelings. On the one hand I like the idea of one task taken off our minds when we got home but on the other hand, we kind of enjoy the whole routine. We’d get home and he’d be very excited at when we’d say “Walk” to him.

He’d perk up and get really excited when we do, and get ready for getting kitted up with his harness and lead. He knows how to fetch his own lead when we ask him to and his bubbling excitement at getting out of the house is an energy boosting routine for me. I also enjoy the open air and sunshine at the end of the day, having spent the day deskbound for the most part.

In any case, it has been unusually cool these past couple of days, and the sun has been a bit shy so not having to take that little fellow out hasn’t been a complete disappointment. He seems to be contented with just being around us anyway.

For this week at least, I’m happy for that to remain the case.

Civil Marriage Celebrant in the Church

The below article tells me the whole idea of a marriage celebrant is to provide an alternative model for couples to conduct their wedding. The basis or rationale for this alternative model is to exclude the church and the clergy. It is a model driven by the couple’s desire to be the ones determining the agenda, not the church. In a way, admitting the practices of this regime into the church is another ecumenical type of compromise that fails to differentiate between upholding truth in love and upholding love in spite of incompatibility of what lies behind the practice with the truth the church is supposed to be guarding. While the couple is to be supported in their plans for the biggest day of their lives, they should also be instructed on the teachings of the scriptures and the context of modern day practices in line with those teachings. What the couple desires is often a reflection of what is prevalent in the society at large, which in the context of modern day Australia, is set of secularist, godless values in a lot of things. It is the church’s responsibility to guard its flock, especially the couple in the context of the wedding, against these – not blindly drift along its current.

A Proper Wedding

Amanda Lohrey

The Monthly | The Monthly Essays | August 2009 | Add a Comment

Share on pinterestIn February of this year I watched the telecast of the Victorian bushfire memorial service, a unique piece of improvised public ritual that was very much of its time.

Twenty years ago, perhaps even ten, a service of this kind would have been held in an Anglican cathedral and presided over by an archbishop. In this case, the venue was a tennis centre, the Rod Laver Arena. It took traditional ceremonial elements – flowers, music, bells, candles, rhetoric – but deployed them in ways that were wholly secular. In an acknowledgement of multiculturalism, there were no presiding clergy. Instead, senior representatives of the major faiths were seated at the front of the audience, below the podium and on the same level as the rest of the mourners. The master of ceremonies, Ian Henderson – a newsreader who could be expected to bring a certain gravitas to the role – was a figure from popular culture, albeit one drawn from a state-sanctioned institution, the ABC.

I could not remember another time when a newsreader had been elevated above bishops at an important state memorial service, yet no one in the media remarked on it. This, I believe, is a direct outcome of the fact that for over three decades Australians have been attending weddings and funerals performed by civil celebrants. If any one factor has prepared us for an easy acceptance of secular ritual, both public and private, it is Lionel Murphy’s reform of the marriage culture.

One of the great secular humanists of Australian politics and attorney-general in the turbulent Whitlam governments of 1972–75, Murphy’s most enduring legacy is the Family Law Act of 1974, which introduced a dignified no-fault divorce. It was also Murphy’s concern that a form of civil marriage be made available that would offer an alternative to the dryly bureaucratic procedure of the registry office, one that would enable citizens to create their own meaningful rituals.

The doyen of civil celebrants in Australia today is Dally Messenger. Now 71 and based in Melbourne, Messenger was personally appointed by Murphy, whom he describes as a “visionary”. I asked Messenger if the idea was Murphy’s own and he told me the story of its origin. In the early 1970s Murphy was asked to act as a witness at a friend’s wedding in the Sydney Registry Office. In those days the bridal couples were lined up to wait their turn on a wooden bench until summoned in fours like cattle herded into a saleyard. After a few words intoned by a poker-faced official they were shown the door and the next couples shuffled into place. “It was as if,” Messenger said, “society was humiliating you for failing to toe the Church line.” To some this might have the ring of overstatement, but not for me. I remember the era well: the shabby aura that was attached to civil marriages, the often sneering tone in which a registry-office ceremony was spoken of. It was not a proper marriage.

So appalled was Murphy at the indignity of this ceremony that he resolved to do something about it. In the 1961 Marriage Act, introduced into legislation by Garfield Barwick, there was an existing provision that authorised the attorney-general to appoint marriage celebrants. In Section 39 Murphy saw an opportunity to create a civil ceremony that would bypass what he described as the degrading environment of state registry offices. In 1973 he floated the proposal with his advisors but they were dubious; it would bring the wrath of the Church down on an already controversial government and it was an aggravation they could do without. With characteristic resolve Murphy spurned this timidity. One evening, alone in his office, he typed a letter of appointment of the first civil marriage celebrant, Queensland schoolteacher Lois D’Arcy. He addressed the envelope himself and walked out into the dark to post it. The next morning, he informed his staff.

The alacrity with which this new institution was taken up by Australians of all classes, and in all regions and subcultures, is testimony to how accurately Murphy read the public mood. Twenty years ago, 60% of marriages in Australia were performed by clergy. Today, the number of marriages performed by civil celebrants stands at 64%, and is continually rising. The Murphy marriage has become the mainstream.

When Murphy set up the Association of Civil Marriage Celebrants of Australia (ACMCA) he made Dally Messenger its secretary and official spokesperson. Messenger claims that, contrary to expectations, not all clergy were opposed to the move. “Some were fed up,” he says, “with having to marry couples who they knew had no religious convictions and the hypocrisy of the situation bothered them.” Inevitably, secular marriage led to secular funerals, although the first appointees were divided on the issue. Not every marriage celebrant wanted to conduct funerals. When acrimony arose, Messenger went to Murphy and asked for his view on celebrant funerals. Murphy gave them his emphatic endorsement.

By this time, Murphy had personally appointed more than 90 celebrants and, in doing so, had made some radical moves. In an era when women clergy were unheard of, the majority of Murphy’s appointments were women. In Messenger’s view, Murphy’s initiative is an unacknowledged factor in diminishing resistance over time to the idea of women clergy. Many of Murphy’s appointments were also young, some in their mid-twenties, and two were Indigenous. The majority came from backgrounds of community service, including local government, and both sides of politics were represented. Messenger, who is writing a history of civil celebrancy in Australia, ‘We Lead The World’, says he interviewed Murphy on the subject before his death and, on the interview tape, Murphy uses the word ‘dignity’ 26 times. “That’s what it was all about for him. People should be able to have a dignified marriage ceremony. He wanted to turn the Church ceremony on its head so that the client defines the ritual from the bottom up rather than the Church imposing a one-size-fits-all from the top down.”

In the 1970s I watched a documentary made by Film Australia on the Soviet Union. An image that has stayed with me since is that of a married couple driving to a newly built dam in order to throw the bridal bouquet over the waters of the spillway. This, I thought, was secular religion: an important rite of passage marked by a ritual offering to the state at one of its modernist temples, a symbol of Science and Progress. The question of whether Murphy’s new institution might morph into a secular priesthood was fraught from the outset. Occasionally couples asked for a biblical citation to be included in their ceremony, most commonly a verse from Corinthians on love, but within the celebrants association there were strong divisions on whether to maintain a wholesale secularity and, to begin with, no religious references were permitted. This is not surprising given that many of Murphy’s first wave of appointments were active members of the Rationalist Society and the Humanist Society.

In researching this article I spoke to six civil celebrants and all were insistent that they were not practising a form of civil religion; they are event managers invested with a specific and narrowly defined legal power, in the same way as justices of the peace. It’s their role to facilitate an occasion and to stage-manage the details – to advise and not prescribe. “The entire ceremony should come from the couple,” said one celebrant. “My role is to try and ensure there are no surprises on the day and to otherwise be as invisible as possible.” But few couples are equipped to write an entire ceremony from scratch and the celebrant can exert a strong influence on the content. It’s not surprising that, as a former Catholic priest, Dally Messenger should have a feel for ritual and his book Ceremonies and Celebrations – something of a celebrant’s bible – offers a number of options, including several sets of vows. Experienced celebrants collect a repertoire of readings and poems from which couples can select, anything from Thomas Aquinas to Mark Twain, Victor Hugo to Michael Leunig.(Ian: ie. No bible please) One celebrant of 15 years’ experience remarked to me on changing fashions in preferred texts, fashions that offer an intriguing insight into changes in sensibility. “For about three years everyone wanted a piece out of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. Then, suddenly, no one wanted it.” When Messenger began as a celebrant in the 1970s, the average age of the bride was 21; now it’s around 29. “These couples,” he says, “have been leading independent lives before marriage and they want the words of the ceremony to reflect that. Hence, Khalil Gibran is a big favourite, especially the quote about the oak and the cypress standing side by side but not in each other’s shadow.”

A church offers a sacred space, sanctified by tradition and with its own atmosphere and mystique. But where do you hold a civil wedding? It’s estimated that around half of all civil marriages are held out in the open, with a preference for parks, gardens and beaches, which might lead the observer to conclude that nature has replaced the Church as sacred ground. Such a view is consonant with developments in ecological consciousness and it’s now common to plant a tree as part of the marriage ceremony. The Australian love of the water also exerts its influence, with a fondness for ceremonies on boats. The celebrant’s greatest nightmare, however, is likely to be the beach wedding. The wind is blowing in off the water; she has to lug her PA system across the sand so that 200 guests can hear her over the breaking waves; the bridal party is barefoot, but the women guests sink into the loose sand in their high heels. After the vows, the bridal couple sprinkle flower petals over the water and invite the guests to do likewise, just as a rogue wave sweeps up the beach and wets everyone’s feet. Parks can also present problems, especially in regard to potentially unmanageable accoutrements, such as the cage of doves or box of butterflies to be released after the vows. “The butterflies especially make me nervous,” said one celebrant. “Sometimes they have to be coached out of the box and on one occasion we opened it and they were all dead. The bride burst into tears.”

The desire for meaningful ritual leads to many requests for the unorthodox. There is the underwater wedding, the nudist ceremony, the hot-air-balloon nuptial, the entirely black Gothic affair, the wedding on top of a mountain at dawn to symbolise a new beginning. Then there are the really special requests: the couple with a love of trains who were married in the National Railway Museum; or the Collingwood supporters who were given permission to be married in the goal square, at half time, in the final game held at Victoria Park, with 20,000 spectators looking on. I’m told that in Sydney there is a specialist Elvis celebrant for those who can’t afford to travel to Graceland or Vegas.

Theme weddings remain the exception, however, and most civil weddings retain elements of the Church wedding, itself derived from pagan ceremonies. The walk down the ‘aisle’ (even if the wedding is in a paddock), the giving away of the bride, the attendants, the signing of the register: all of these date from pre-Christian marriage rituals. The civil model has also encouraged active participation in other ways, such that the children from previous unions may be asked to formally consent to the marriage or the assembled guests may be asked to pass the rings around as a form of silent blessing. Even the family dog can be included in the ceremony, with the rings attached by ribbon to his collar. Of course, there is no inherent reason why much of this couldn’t be incorporated into Church weddings, and some churches have attempted to keep up with the times by allowing for the inclusion of non-traditional elements (dogs excepted). Too late: the genie is out of the bottle.

Over time, say the experienced celebrants, they have been asked to do fewer and fewer ‘weird’ weddings. The delight of DIY novelty seems to have worn off and there is a consensus that the traditional format works better. It’s also the case that people have learned how to behave. One experienced celebrant remarked that in her early weddings she had to deal with barracking from the crowd, bridesmaids winking at their friends, onlookers heckling the groom. People said and did things they wouldn’t do in church; unaccustomed to secular ritual, it was as if the participants were conflating the ceremony with the reception. But that’s changed and the groomsmen have stopped pretending they’ve lost the rings. “I tell them, keep the jokes for the reception. If you are a good celebrant this clowning around doesn’t happen. Australians like to make a joke of everything. You have to put a lid on it.”

The celebrants I spoke to were clear on why Church weddings were in decline. To begin with, there are the mixed marriages. One celebrant told me of marrying a bishop’s son to a Buddhist. There were Buddhist elements in the ceremony, no gongs or prayer flags, but a Buddhist blessing and some chanting. The bishop came in his cassock as an observer. Secondly, there’s the fact that many young people have never been inside a church and don’t feel comfortable in one; they feel that religious ritual is not appropriate to the way they live their lives. They fear they may have to listen to a clergyman proselytise and they want the ceremony to be about them. Indeed, one of the most requested introductions begins: “Every wedding ceremony at which a celebrant like myself officiates is of a marriage that already exists. This ceremony gives social recognition to a union which is already taking place in the hearts of the couple present. It is Bill and Mary’s wish at this time to declare their marriage partnership to the world.” As with Quakers, this is a strong statement that there is no need for priests, that a union is consecrated in action and not by any form of officialdom. Such a statement is interesting not least because it makes the couple the subject, rather than the object, of the ceremony. They are not the object of God’s gaze or blessing.

The fact that Australians have taken to civil marriage in greater numbers than in the US or UK suggests that this country does indeed have a secular heart. Perhaps the trend reflects the long-held belief that we Australians are inherently sceptical of authority – that element of the national myth that arose out of the convict strain and was reinforced by CEW Bean’s creation of the legendary Anzac. Whatever else it is, a civil marriage is a firmly humanist ritual – in the eyes of some, too much so. To quote from Mary Roddy, a Sydney-based justice of the peace who also conducts funerals:

The trends in civil marriage ceremonies clearly reflect the notion of the ‘atomic individual’ now prevalent in modern democratic societies. This notion thrives on the idea that the individual is like an atom, with no necessary innate connection to a community or society beyond themselves – where each individual is autonomous and has the right to do whatever she or he wants without necessarily having any concomitant responsibility to the society in which s/he lives.

Roddy drew my attention to a piece in The Sunday Telegraph in which three celebrants remarked on a recent tendency for couples to alter their vows to eliminate the commitment for life. Some couples were even agreeing to review their marriage after five years, as if it were an experiment, something they might learn from, before moving on.

There are two ways of looking at this. You can view it as a decline in standards, or as an injection of realism that acknowledges high divorce rates. The Howard government did its best to resist Murphy’s law, but community expectation ran ahead of it, and not just in regard to heterosexual couples. The latest Galaxy poll finds that a majority of Australians support gay marriage, but the best that gay couples can hope for is a commitment ceremony. In 2004, as attorney-general in the Howard government, Philip Ruddock introduced changes to the Marriage Act to specify that marriage “means the union of a man and woman”. The Act goes further to declare that “certain unions are not marriages”. Apropos heterosexual couples, the phrase that marriage is “voluntarily entered into with the desire, the hope and the firm intention that it will be for life” was replaced with the more categorical “voluntarily entered into for life”. Ruddock’s changes have been widely interpreted as a response to pressure from the Christian lobby, especially its anti-gay-marriage wing, but if The Sunday Telegraph report is accurate then Ruddock was wasting his time, at least in regard to heterosexuals. Whatever celebrants are obliged to say on the day, couples will insert their own caveats.


In the mid ’90s I attended the funeral of a friend, who – with no history of depression and without warning – had taken his own life. It was a civil funeral, held in a garden, and there was a large crowd. Several people spoke eloquently about the dead man; of how accomplished he was; how kind and considerate to friends; and how much they loved him. And this was no mere funereal courtesy; I knew him well enough to know it was all true. Why, then, did he kill himself? There was beauty in both the setting and the service, but many of the mourners left the wake with a sense of something unresolved. We felt that, at some point in the service, we ought to have acknowledged that this man took his own life, but who could – or would – speak the unspeakable? Certainly not a minister of religion, given the Church’s teachings on suicide. Nor could the family be expected to speak of it publicly in the rawness of their grief. What we needed was a neutral person, skilled in the conduct of mourning rituals, to find the words (with the permission of the family) to reflect on the unbearable mystery that defined this death. We needed words that cautioned us all to think of friendship in a new way, to think of what it might demand of us in the future. What we needed was a civil funeral celebrant.

Since that time, many others have come to the same conclusion and civil funerals are rapidly becoming the norm. Some practitioners believe that a good celebrant is more crucial to a funeral than a wedding. A wedding is a joyful occasion that can survive a bumbling celebrant, but mistakes at a funeral can have dire emotional consequences. Too many funerals leave the participants feeling hollow; the awfulness of the funeral parlour is captured in Alan Bennett’s memoir of his aunt’s death (Untold Stories, 2005):

The building will be long and low, put up in the sixties, probably, when death begins to go secular … it looks like the reception area of a tasteful factory or the departure lounge of a small provincial airport … Unsolemn, hygienic and somehow retail, the service is so scant as to be scarcely a ceremony at all, and is not so much simple as inadequate. These clipboard send-offs have no swell to them, no tide, there is no launching for the soul, flung like Excalibur over the dark waters.

Not only is the deceased dead but so is the ceremony and, to quote David Oldfield, a US expert on civil ritual: “a dead ceremony is worse than no ceremony at all”.

Where the funeral parlour resembles Bennett’s archetype, and many do, the celebrant must play a compensatory role. I spoke with a specialist funeral celebrant, formerly an Anglican, who said, “People often get angry about Church funerals. They might say to me, ‘We had Dad’s funeral in church and it wasn’t about Dad at all, it was about the Church.’ They want something better for Mum but they aren’t sure what ‘better’ means. They look to me to fill the gap.”

This ‘gap’ is at the heart of the demand for civil funerals. It’s the gap where accepted notions of sacred used to be. For war veterans, it is sometimes filled by Anzac ritual. There is the recitation of the ‘Ode of Remembrance’ (“Lest we forget”), the playing of the ‘Last Post’ and the red paper poppies, available to the mourners for placement on the coffin. I’ve been to several funerals that were so ritual-poor that, had these elements been removed, there would have been almost nothing left. Anzac has filled a vacuum in our secular society; where a sense of the sacred is diminished, patriotism takes its place (as it did, on a somewhat strident note, in the Victorian bushfire memorial service). “The cult of Anzac warrants the name of civil religion,” writes the historian Ken Inglis, “something to believe in, apart from your footy team.” If the deceased is not a veteran, then very often the footy team does play a major role. Coffins are draped with guernseys or scarfs in team colours and ashes are scattered on football grounds. The memorabilia that decorates civil funerals would make for an interesting study, one that would repeatedly return to sport: a soccer ball, a hole-in-one trophy, a pennant – tribal symbols all.

A good civil ceremony makes us feel that we are participants, rather than powerless observers; by being involved, we experience a truer, more meaningful sense of congregation. But the greater the mourner participation, the lengthier and more intensive the preparation. A participatory civil funeral may involve a long running-sheet of eulogies with, say, 10 grandchildren under the age of 15 each making a short speech. It will almost certainly involve a slide show of the deceased’s life (the number of images can exceed 100), and the preparation of the main eulogy can take hours. The narrative of an entire life must be put together in a satisfying way and the celebrant must mediate among competing and conflicting memories. In a civil ceremony, biography takes the place of a unifying and integrative myth (the Resurrection). The eulogy must be equal to the task, and since there is no set format for a civil service – no traditional prayers or hymns – the celebrant must ease the family through a welter of stressful decisions. Then, during the service, she must act as a psychic net, able to encompass many disparate elements and support the mourners. To quote one funeral specialist: “When everyone goes to water, the celebrant is the keep-going factor.”

Unlike marriage celebrants, funeral celebrants perform no legal function and hence do not have to be accredited or trained. Funeral directors therefore control the market and pay the celebrants. It’s possible to first choose your celebrant and then approach a funeral parlour, but most families go directly to the parlour and use a celebrant that the funeral director recommends. This can make for something of a closed shop and Dally Messenger believes that funeral celebrants are the lowest-paid, most exploited people in the funeral industry. Funeral celebrants cite their preparation time as varying from seven to thirty hours, but funeral directors argue it is they who stage-manage the setting – furniture, flowers, microphone – and that all the celebrant has to do is act as an emcee. In Victoria, funeral directors’ fixed ceiling fees hover at around $440 (in other states this figure is lower), but there are celebrants who will accept as little as $150. Most clergy will do services at parlours for a fee of $180, but Messenger argues that, unlike clergy, celebrants do not have a congregation, do not get paid a stipend or receive a free car and petrol, and are not provided with a house, computer and mobile phone. It’s a fraught area and in August 2007 Messenger was fined $46,000 by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) for an alleged attempt at price-fixing. In essence, the case revolved around a recommendation by Messenger suggesting that celebrants working in parlours raise their fixed fee by $50 and consider setting an hourly rate. In a somewhat baffling decision by the ACCC, the David and Goliath roles were reversed. Messenger’s fine provoked the ire of many observers of the funeral industry, including Moira Rayner, lawyer and former Commissioner for Equal Opportunity in Victoria. Messenger no longer conducts funerals because, he says, he rarely puts in fewer than 30 hours and “they take too much out of me”.

The Canberra poet and civil celebrant Mark O’Connor argues that Australia is largely a “post-Christian society, and for many people the old ceremonies no longer fit”. Perhaps this is why so many new ceremonies have come into being over the past 20 years: infant naming, adolescent and old-age rites of passage, pet funerals, menopause parties, divorce ceremonies, new-home blessings – you name it, you can find a celebrant to officiate. Of these, the infant naming ceremony is the most popular, replacing as it does the traditional christening. Again, there is an emphasis on participation and the ceremony often involves the father lifting the infant above his head while assembled friends and family shout the child’s name. One celebrant told me of a naming ceremony where the mother read out a letter in which she apologised to the baby for her post-natal depression. “It was cathartic,” said the celebrant, “not just for her but the whole family. It felt like a new start.” This celebrant is one of the many who are content with their current role and limited function: “I don’t want to be doing any more than I do now. I’m not any kind of priest, I’m just a privileged witness.”

But let me give the final word to Dally Messenger. Just recently, he told me, he married a young couple in Dandenong who said they wanted two weddings. The first would be in a church “for the oldies” and the second would be a civil ceremony, “a proper wedding with a marriage celebrant for all our friends”. A proper wedding with a marriage celebrant? Lionel Murphy would be proud.

SOCIETY (376), Australian Politics (137), Memoir (110), Travel (100), Gay Marriage (10), Mark Twain (7), Biography (88), Subcultures (5)

Kiddo’s First Weekend Home

A couple of months ago Tress purchased one of those ubiquitous online deals which have now assumed spam proportions. It was for a big breakfast for 2 in a café out in Ringwood somewhere. It sounded like a great deal and it was, provided one keeps expectations in check since establishments seeking to market these products/offerings through online deals are very likely in need of more customers – not signs of a busy place.

So we waited for Kiddo to be back in Melbourne before going to this place, which we did on Saturday. It was bucketing down, which could have explained the quietness of the joint when we got there – there were only 2 other tables occupied and it was a large place.

They didn’t at all mind us sharing the two purchased meals among three people and the only additional order was a third coffee. It was a very big feed and after that we did some grocery shopping and I got a hairy before going home for a bit. Kiddo and I then went out for her driving practice. She needed to have some steer time clocked up so we jumped into the car and she drove. We drove round to Faulkner just a couple of streets north of our home, went towards Blackburn Road and down all the way to Ferntree Gully Road, towards Scoresby. We turned at Stud Road back north, turned into Boronia Road, then back on Canterbury Road to head home. Near home we went for a few parking practice runs.

I then spent the rest of the afternoon cleaning up the garden, mowing the lawn and just sweeping up. That night we had dinner with Gerry and family in a Chinese restaurant in Box Hill with the presumptuous name of Fancy Oriental. The food was good and the company even better. We got home, played cards and went to bed.

I got up just after 2am to catch the home game against Sunderland. Having checked that City had earlier beaten the Zebras it was good to see us win relatively comfortably to maintain the 6 point cushion going into the match. The last 20+mins however, saw O’Neil’s team mounting a very credible fight back so the win was good. I went back to bed at around 4am.

Tress was up just after 7.30am and a little later I woke, made coffee and brekky, got kiddo up and we all went to another church in North Balwyn. The search continues and on the way home kiddo mentioned something about attending Christmas Day service with her old friends. That was another pain point about the whole stupid saga I guess. It is moments like that which made me a little mad about why things had to turn this way.

Anyway, we went to lunch at Madam Kwong’s at Box Hill after church and then went to collect the food stuffs for the Wesley Mission Food for Families program. The response was surprisingly good and I filled the booth with loads of food, which I now need to arrange to have dropped off.

Last night we stayed in, skipped dinner (Madam Kwong’s food was still satisfying us late on) and played cards while listening to carols on kiddo’s Mac Book through the Apple TV. It was a great way to end the weekend.

Inundated and United

A lumpy and kind of major piece of work I have been working on for the past 4 or so months, is coming to a pointy end. We’ve lost a couple of procurement officers along the way, but a commercial lead in the IT projects area has held the fort almost single-handedly. As a legal support resource, I have tried to make the task easier whenever possible but it remained a challenging task and I continue to admire focused and driven professionals like this lead person.

So work builds a crescendo to accord with the season. Many want to just get as much done as possible, before breaking up for the year. We are all kept busy at work and the after-hours busy schedules also keep the wheels of a sense of accomplishment whirring along.

Tress and I are relatively less busy outside of work and that is because I have chosen to disengage myself from the local church which we have been part of from the time we arrived in Melbourne. Other than responding to queries and requests to meet or talk – all arising from my decision to leave – we have been quite free.

So we’ve taken long walks with the dog after work, come home to cook and eat a proper meal and settle down to do whatever pleases us. Tress has been busy planning our holidays, which would be soon. I have looked up old movies and Humphrey Bogart continues to strike a chord.

Last night however, I made plans to watch the repeat of the United v City game. It came on at 8pm, which was near perfect. After dinner and cleaning up, I settled on the couch and savoured the moment. With a glass of red, it was a perfect way to wind down the day. United looked like battling an uphill task, as City mounted a series of moves. We beat them in the end (literally – thanks to an injury time goal) but only just and barely deserved I think. And yet, like many things in life, the details are forgotten and the result/outcome is what will be etched in the annals. At this point in time, it’s a win for United who sits atop with a 6-point margin. There’s only one thing to top that off and that is the prospect of seeing them when they do their pre-season thing Down Under in July next year…