A few years ago my daughter, Eve, and I visited the UK on somewhat of a quest. As she was studying history at Melbourne University we decided to venture to good ol’ Mother England in an effort to absorb the culture and heritage that form the bedrock from which my side of the family is hewn.
One place that struck the heritage chord was Whitby, in North Yorkshire. Whitby is a small fishing hamlet, nestled inside a safe harbour that is nothing more than a tiny inlet sliced into the high cliffs facing the often-treacherous North Sea. This humble port is tied inextricably to Australia, being the place where Captain Cook learned seamanship while crewing on the Quaker boat, Freelove, carrying coal to London in his early days at sea. Each time Cook entered Whitby’s harbour, the ruins of the magnificent Whitby Abbey would be seen high up, silhouetted by the sun that crossed to the south. These cliffs have remained consecrated ground since the defeat of Penda, the pagan king in AD 657, because the townsfolk are thankful to God for their deliverance from an array of marauding hordes from Europe.
While standing on the wharf of Whitby’s protected marina you gain a new perspective of the difficulties of life in the mid to late 1700’s, and yet, you are also aware of the strength of connection that existed between these people and God. Faith was a normal part of their lives because they knew that it was by the grace of God that they were alive. These times were tough and people clung to their Saviour to get them through life’s difficulties.
As Eve and I continued our travels we ended up in a little town on Easter Sunday. We were staying in East Devon, and found a quaint Miss Marple type church in the small rural town of Musbury. As this was a Church of England church, and not wanting to offend anyone, I asked the vicar if we could take communion with the fellowship. Our request was met with warm enthusiasm. And, this is what I love about the fellowship of believers; wherever I travel and meet other Christians, the bonds of faith in Christ allow me to connect with brothers and sisters that I’ve never met before.
On entering St Michael’s we noticed an elaborate stone carved mural (circa 1611) of the Sir Francis Drake family kneeling in their segregated pews. What impacted me was not that I’d come to worship in a shrine to this famous explorer, but that Sir Francis Drake worshipped the same God who loves me. While we were born four hundred years apart and on different continents, we are brothers in Christ. His faith is my faith. Such a thought makes you stop and consider the breadth and depth of God’s love. Whether it be Captain James Cook, Vice Admiral Sir Francis Drake or little old you or me, our Heavenly Father loves us and is worthy of our complete adoration, thanksgiving and attention.
Sitting here in Melbourne today, four years after my visit to Whitby and Musbury, I admit to feeling sad at our nation’s declining commitment to Christ. Australia was founded as a Christian nation, yet unless we stop and celebrate the significance of the Christian faith in our heritage, we run the risk of denying the very foundations that make us what we are as a nation. While some might be quick to deny our roots, consider that at the time of our federation in 1901 96.1% of Australia’s population identified themselves as Christian. By 2011 this figure had dropped to 61.1% and if current trends persist, within the next twenty years our country will no longer be identified as Christian.
You have to wonder what our world might become should we not return to the bedrock from which we’ve been hewn. American historian, Robert R. Palmer, in his classic college text book A History of the Modern World writes about the positive legacy that Christianity has given humanity :
“It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of the coming of Christianity. It brought with it, for one thing, an altogether new sense of human life. For the Greeks had shown man his mind; but the Christians showed him his soul. They taught that in the sight of God, all souls were equal, that every human life was sacrosanct and inviolate. Where the Greeks had identified the beautiful and the good, had thought ugliness to be bad, had shrunk from disease and imperfection and from everything misshapen, horrible, and repulsive, the Christian sought out the diseased, the crippled, the mutilated, to give them help. Love, for the ancient Greek, was never quite distinguished from Venus. For the Christians held that God was love, it took on deep overtones of sacrifice and compassion.”
Palmer provides us with the good summary of how faith in Jesus Christ has been an integral part of our western heritage for over two thousand years, transforming the world towards heaven. In the moments before Jesus left us to return to the Father He gave us a prophesy of sorts: “…you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8 NIV). Many consider Australia the ‘end of the earth’, and so it is the responsibility of all of our 13 million Christians to work hard at passing on the legacy of our Christian heritage that is part of our very roots.