A sweeping conversation with Peter Jensen, former Archbishop of Sydney, about life and ministry – including his favourite book of all-time, how he became a Christian, why he wanted to be a stand-up comedian, why he tries to emulate Billy Graham, and how he has found spiritual refreshment for the last five decades.
GR: Peter, what’s the best way to introduce you?
PJ: Someone recently introduced me by saying that I was the former Archbishop of Sydney, which means I’m dead. But I am the former Archbishop of Sydney, the former Principal of Moore College, an ordained clergyman – but most of all, I’m a son of God.
GR: This may be apocryphal, but I’ve heard it said that if you hadn’t gone into full-time Christian ministry, you would have liked to consider a career as a stand-up comedian…
PJ: This is true, I have said that. It’s not apocryphal.
GR: Do you have any material leftover that you’d like to try out on people?
[Laughs] No, but the way I’m taking this retreat is, I hope, funny.
I regard it as the first duty of the minister to – I was about to say to entertain, and that may not be quite the right word – but at least to present [the word of God] in a way that captures the interest of his audience. And being funny is one of those ways, if you can manage it.
GR: Tell us how you became a Christian.
PJ: I grew up in a churchgoing family, but I think personal faith was lacking. When I was in my 16th year in 1959, I went to a [Billy] Graham Crusade that was being held in Sydney, and when Mr Graham invited people to come forward and give their lives to Christ, I did so. That was on April 20th, 1959. The sermon was on Noah and the Ark, and I have some fairly vivid memories of the occasion, as you may imagine.
That introduced me to the world of what you may call personal faith, rather than simply formal faith. It was a transforming experience – one that has guided my life ever since. I hope I’ve grown in understanding, but never away from the gospel that was preached that afternoon.
GR: Who or what were some of the early influences as you began the Christian life?
PJ: Naturally, of course, youth leaders had a powerful influence. I think one of the keys to the way in which God has blessed me is through friendship. It happened that I was with a group of people who have remained friends all of our lives, and I can think of many ways in which our lives have gone in different directions, but they have retained a freshness and an enthusiasm for friendship, and for Christian support and strength. I think friendship is a much-underrated gift.
GR: What led you into full-time vocational ministry after becoming a Christian in 1959?
PJ: One of the things that Mr Graham mentioned in one of his sermons – I went back 17 times to hear him, much to the despair of my parents – was the need for people to go into full-time ministry. That just lodged in my mind as a 15-year-old, though it seemed inconsequential at the time.
When I left school, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I started to do Law – didn’t like it, failed, was tossed out of the Law school. [Around that time] I went to see a doctor because I kept falling asleep, and I was wondering if there was something physically wrong. He wasn’t a believer, but he said to me, “what do you really want to do?” And immediately I articulated for the first time, “I want to go into the ministry.” So he said, “Well, stop studying Law and go into the ministry,” which seemed like a good idea.
In our youth group experience, there was a huge amount of opportunity for ministry – something which may not always be there today. We had to run the Sunday School, we had to run the youth group, and then we got involved with Scripture Union camps. So life for us as a group of friends mostly revolved around ministry, and hence it wasn’t such a big leap to say, “I want to go into the ministry.”
GR: How have you stayed spiritually refreshed in your Christian walk for over 55 years?
PJ: I don’t think I’m introspective enough to be able to answer the question, so I’ll put it another way: How has God, in his mercy, kept me spiritually fresh? Here, I’m sorry to tell you, there are no surprises. What God has done is simply given me the Bible, which I’ve constantly read. I’ve said my prayers when I can. And he’s given me – both in my wife Christine, but also in my church – that Christian fellowship which has renewed, strengthened, and kept me. The prayers of God’s people and the care of God’s people – no surprises here! The thing available to us all: Christian fellowship.
GR: Your ministry has, at times, been particularly public. Have you found that the pressures of that have impacted you spiritually?
PJ: In becoming Archbishop of Sydney, I had imperfect ideas of the role, though I had been close to it for a long time. You can’t know something until you get there. So I found myself in public in a way that perhaps I was not prepared for and little expected. So you’re thrust into a public role.
I always thought being Principal of Moore College was more important than being Archbishop of Sydney, and I still do, so I wasn’t quite prepared for the way in which the outsider respected the Archbishop. The need then was to make use of this respect – unearned though it was – for the gospel’s sake. And so I had to think carefully about how to use the opportunities to promote Christ and the gospel without being boring and predictable, and without saying the same thing again and again. That required some significant thought about how each issue that might come before us finds its roots in the Bible.
I observe sometimes that Christian spokesmen seem to comment on various affairs in a way that basically anyone could. They don’t say anything that appears particularly Christian. So I tried – with limited success, no doubt – to put forward points of view on important public matters, but in a way that people could see I was coming from a Christian perspective.
When I first became Archbishop, I feared that the media, understandably, has an interest in the affairs of this world, and in political and social matters, but that they have difficulty in seeing the spiritual roots of what we’re talking about. Therefore [at my first press conference after being appointed Archbishop], I deliberately chose the idea of saying, ‘I believe in angels’, of all things! I wanted to confront them with the fact that we were talking about spiritual matters, first and foremost, and then talk about the social and other matters in the context of spiritual matters. That was my intention. In fact I just met someone who, last week, came to me and said that he heard that press conference, and that the comment about the resurrection from the dead changed his life completely. So there we are – I’d never known that.
You couldn’t prepare for [media scrutiny]. There were days in which the world went mad and 30 people rang you up. You can’t prepare for that, and it came as a surprise. Fortunately, I had two press officers who were magnificent in their role, Margaret Rodgers and Russell Powell. I may have been surprised, but I was extremely well supported.
GR: What issues did you find hardest to speak about, in terms of getting from the issue to the gospel?
PJ: There must have been some – I can’t think of any! I have a one-track mind.
I think one of the things I found difficult was that people don’t understand the difference between being a politician and being a media commentator – whether it’s someone within the media, or someone the media uses. It’s all very well for the commentator from within or from without, as I was, to pronounce, and to say this ought to happen or that ought to happen. But if you’re actually in politics, you have to deal with the reality and you have to make the hard decisions, which are always open to criticism.
The constant barrage of questions about refugees, for example, was difficult to deal with, because there’s not an easy answer. And it’s all very well for us to stand on our moral high horse and denounce the current answer. But we’re not the ones having to do it! There are moments where we have to say to our political leaders, ‘Whatever your answer is, you must respect human life, you must respect human dignity’. Yes, it’s right for us to call upon them for those standards, but I think we also ought to observe at the same time how difficult their job is, and to pray for them, and to assure them of our support and our help when we can give it when they haven’t actually done the wrong thing.
It’s a matter of balance here. Christian leaders need to be very careful before pontificating about matters which, if they were in charge, they could do no better. Our business isn’t to do the politician’s job for them, but to provide the help that they need in sensing what’s right and wrong, and in sensing what we need to do on the basis of the Bible and what God says.
GR: What about those of us who don’t have opportunities to speak publicly, but who will be having conversations with friends where they’re trying to give an account of how Christians think about particular issues – what advice would you pass on?
PJ: I generally try to move from the known to the unknown – to seek, in other words, to find common ground where people agree, and then to draw out the implications. Try to draw out the implications of what people believe already, because many of the things that people around us believe are actually Christian things, or quite in conformity with the Christian faith, or would, if they realised it, lead them to Christian faith.
To take one obvious case in point, I often notice the way in which we’re so quick to judge other people. And yet, why do we do that if we’re living in a world without God? Why do we judge other people? What’s the purpose of doing it, and on what grounds do we do it if there is no God? What standard are you appealing to in passing judgement on someone else? Is it just your own opinion – in which case, what gives you the right to judge another? Or is there some external opinion or standard to which you’re appealing here – and if so, what is it? A discussion along those lines may lead you to areas of theological interest, where people have their barriers taken down and are prepared to talk about deeply serious things.
To take another example, in talking about euthanasia, I always try to discuss the fact that there is no such thing as voluntary euthanasia, because voluntary euthanasia requires a freedom of the will that we don’t have. It requires a freedom from the opinions of other people, which is not possible. People around us are quite capable of influencing us in ways that suit their agenda, rather than in ways that suit the agenda of the patient. Now, people understand that description of reality – and then I take the discussion a little further: ‘In the Bible’s understanding, the people around us all have their own selfish agenda, so that a family member, when confronted with a dying relative, may be motivated less by their [family member’s] needs and more by their own need to get out of this situation – or perhaps even worse, to inherit their estate. No one would ever know that. It’s what the Bible calls sin. The problem with voluntary euthanasia is that we’re creatures who cannot be trusted with the lives of others because of our inner sinfulness.’ Now, I’ve found that people understand this, and I’ve never had any rejection of this analysis, nor have I had any objection to using the word ‘sin’.
On another note, I remember once talking to a reporter from a newspaper, and she asked me some question or other. Then she asked, ‘Is there anything you want to add, Archbishop?’ And I said, ‘Yes. I want to say that Jesus loves us all, and he came into the world to save us, and those who put their trust in Jesus can be saved.’ And she laughed! She was a New Zealander, as I remember! She laughed and said, ‘They wouldn’t print that, Archbishop.’ Now, that’s an interesting comment, isn’t it? That’s to do with censorship. They wouldn’t print my message.
GR: Have you noticed a change in the nature of public discussion since you became Archbishop [in 2001]?
PJ: Yes, there is change going on. When I began, the quality daily newspapers had a religion reporter; they now don’t. As each generation passes, the inherited respect for Christian leaders and their opinion is going to diminish, and our access to the media will lessen – this is my suspicion.
On the other hand, we have now reached the stage of social media and much broader media content, and a large number of media sources. And so it is up to us – as our ancestors did when the age of printing came – to address the public, bypassing the ‘official’ media outlets to keep the Christian message alive and well in the ears of people who are prepared to listen.
GR: Let me ask you about something that I think is close to your heart – books. You read a lot of books, don’t you?
PJ: Yes, I was born short-sighted, and being short-sighted means you either choose books or you just go into a cave somewhere. So I chose books.
Those of us who are readers will generally have five or six or seven books on the go at once. I have reached the age of 71 and I’ve come to the conclusion that, if I survive, it might only be for another five years, and in that time I could only read 250 books, I guess – one a week, probably. Only 250 books out of all the books ever printed – you’re going to have to be pretty choosy about what you read!
GR: So how do you choose?
PJ: I choose books that interest me. I can’t read boring books. I choose books for entertainment and delight. I like a certain style of thriller, I guess, to entertain myself and switch off. On the more serious front – although thrillers are serious – I read history and English literature and theology. History, in particular, is my main interest and passion.
GR: When you’re asked for your most influential books, are there any that typically leap to mind?
PJ: Some books I couldn’t read again, but they have had an impact [on me]. When I was a child, aged 10-11, I read Wuthering Heights, and it set the standard for English literature. Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, similarly, I have read several times, but I can’t read it again. I can’t read Dickens again. I just can’t read it.
Recently, after the third attempt, I read War and Peace, and then I read around Russian history. War and Peace is justly regarded as one of the great novels. It inducts you into an extraordinary world – a world foreign to us, but a world recognizably the same as our own – to characters that will live in your memory, and to grand events. I think War and Peace justly earns its accolade as perhaps the greatest novel ever written.
GR: It’s obvious that you spend a lot of time reading non-theological books…
PJ: Well, I like to read what interests me. Most theological books hardly interest me at all, really. I read the Bible – I think that’s pretty important! I’m refreshed by the Reformers, and by some other authors. In terms of commentaries, I always regard the commentaries of my friend Peter O’Brien as being absolutely outstanding in their genre. And I’m blessed by reading commentaries as I read the Bible.
I read theological history, and I’ve recently read two American books that are incisive and helpful – one by Ross Douthat called Bad Religion, and one [by Kate Bowler] called Blessed, which is a history of the prosperity doctrines. Both these books are significant and helpful, and they actually open your eyes as to why theology has moved, or why religion has moved in the direction that it has. I’ve found books of that nature extraordinarily helpful.
GR: As you read a book like War and Peace, or when you read books that aren’t discussing Christian things, what’s your thought process? You enjoy them and they’re entertaining, but how do you bring your Christian worldview to bear as you read those books?
PJ: All books are about Christian things, in the end. The Christian faith covers everything, and every book you read contributes to your understanding of the Christian faith one way or another. I just think the world is God’s, and history is God’s, and everything in [the world] belongs to God, so anything I’m reading feeds into a Christian faith and [a Christian] understanding of the world.
I’m very, very curious about why we’ve got where we’ve got, and I suppose from that point of view this is cultural history, which is intensely relevant to how we preach the gospel in today’s world.
GR: To change topics for a moment, what do you tell people about what an Archbishop’s job is? What does an Archbishop do?
PJ: It contains a thousand different things, but if you’re asking what it must do, the Archbishop must preach the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ in every opportunity he has. And that, of course, is the business, in a sense, of every Christian. But there are special opportunities that an Archbishop will have, which make it important that the person involved knows that’s what his job is. Otherwise, you may get sidelined into things that aren’t really important.
I remember thinking from time to time, ‘What would Billy Graham say?’ I don’t have a bracelet or anything like that! But what would Billy Graham say? Billy – although extraordinarily courteous, humble, very good in media situations – he wouldn’t miss the opportunity to commend Christ. And I think that’s a fundamental duty, whether in church or one-to-one, whether with the greats of the land or the poor of the land. I used to visit prisons – same thing. I used to visit Government House – same thing.
The second part of the Archbishop’s job, which he must do, is to provide for the recruitment, training, assessment and sustenance of Christian ministers for the churches. That he must do.
GR: You’ve continued to be heavily involved in Anglican ministry and the Anglican world through something called the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans (FCA). Tell us a bit about that, and why you’re investing time in that.
PJ: Christians should love unity. This applies preeminently at the local church level, but we should have the highest level of fellowship and communion that we can possibly manage with our fellow Christians. That’s a given.
However, there are times – and history has shown it – where Christians have taken such a different view on a vital matter that they’ve found it necessary to organise differently, to organise their churches in a way that sets up different networks, if you like, or different denominations. If such a thing occurs, it has to be over a matter of extraordinary importance.
What happened in the 20th century was that there was a huge boom in churchgoing in the 1950s. This was followed by the culturally significant decade of the 60s, which provided a profound challenge to Christianity. It led to this sort of post-Christendom world in which we live. Christian believers then have the difficult task of working out where we stand in regards to the prevailing culture. The prevailing culture before the 1960s was broadly Christian. It is now broadly not Christian. So to what extent can we come to terms with or accept the rules and regulations of the contemporary society? To what extent do we have to say no? Different Christians will have different answers to those questions.
That sort of crisis came for the Anglican Communion worldwide in 2003 with the consecration of an openly homosexual Bishop in the USA. Now, why is it a crisis? There are many other things that have occurred in the Anglican world that haven’t caused so great a tumult. Because it seems to many people that this is in sufficiently clear contravention of the sacred Scriptures as to mean that those doing it have fallen outside the clear teaching of Scripture – which they are not supposed to do. And secondly, because it’s over such an issue that, unlike some other issues, it’s an issue of salvation. What we understand the Scriptures to be saying is that if you live this particular lifestyle, then your salvation is definitely at risk.
This issue, which has continued to trouble the churches particularly in the Western world, came to a head [in 2003]. It led to such strong differences of opinion that many people withdrew from the [Anglican] Church and said they could no longer be within it, but they still wanted to be Anglican. At the same time, there were many around the rest of the Anglican Communion who shared that view – who thought that the activities of the American Church were wrong, and worse than wrong. And so there has arisen this movement called GAFCON, which had a meeting in Jerusalem in 2008, and out of that the movement called the FCA, of which I have the honour to be the General Secretary.
FCA is really a movement for unity. It’s a movement to draw together the fragments of Anglicans around the world who want to believe what Anglicans have always believed – namely, that sexual activity outside of marriage is wrong. They want to believe that, and they still want to be Anglicans. So the FCA exists in order to recognize such people and to sustain them and keep them within the Communion of Anglican Christians. Then, also, to use the enthusiasm, zeal and spiritual understanding of these orthodox Christians around the world to renew and strengthen the Anglican Communion, and make it more fit to preach the gospel.
GR: There might be people who read all that and say, ‘the Anglican denomination has lost its way, denominations are a thing of the past anyway – people aren’t as interested in denominations and institutions anymore. Why all the fuss? Why all the energy going into sustaining and renewing and changing (or maybe not changing!) things? What would you say to people who are skeptical about the value of investing time in the Anglican denomination worldwide?
PJ: Several things. I’d say I value your enthusiasm, and I value your zeal for Christ. You’re the hope of the future, and if you’re thinking through these things, that’s great – it’s good to have these thoughts. But have them in a way which gets the facts, and which understands the real situation. Don’t just make instant decisions that may not be wise, in retrospect.
For example, one of the truths is that the energy, enthusiasm and the youth of the Anglican Communion are found, for example, in vast numbers in Africa. That’s where the young people are. That’s where the enthusiasm and zeal for Christ is. And if you cut yourself off from the Anglican Church worldwide, what you’re doing is really cutting yourself off from the main wellspring of Christianity, which is going to be Africa and China, but particularly Africa at the moment. You’re cutting yourself off from that, which then means you can’t contribute to and can’t receive from some of the most vital, enthusiastic and zealous Christians in the world today.
Secondly, Christians have found down through the ages that yes, they can grow a church. But for the good of this independent church, it actually needs to be networked. ‘Need’ is too strong, but sensibly it does need to be networked. In other words, an independent church just going its own way soon falls into aberration. It finds it easy to depart from the gospel, really.
Christians have been around for 2000 years. We’ve had lots and lots of experiences all around the world. You can benefit from those experiences. You don’t have to reinvent things. We’ve fought battles. We’ve worked through and won various major contests, which you can inherit from. If you think you can invent the whole thing again, well, good luck. That’s ridiculous. The truth of the matter is that, by networking with an established denomination like Anglicans, you are tapping yourself into the fuel of history, which will keep you going for the next 50 years.
GR: At the same time, you’ve always said you’re evangelical first and Anglican second. What does that mean to you, and how does that affect the way you look at things?
PJ: A denomination is sometimes called a ‘church’, but it’s really a network of churches. The really important church is the one true church of Jesus Christ, to which we all belong. If you don’t belong to that, you’re not saved, because the minute you are saved, you are joined to Jesus and therefore joined to his people. You belong to the one true church.
On earth, that one true church is found as believers gather together under the word of God, in the presence of the Spirit of God, to bless each other. In local churches, you will find the one true church of Jesus Christ. Denominations are networks of churches, which are useful, but we won’t be Anglicans in heaven.
Evangelical is a word that has a long and distinguished history, but unfortunately has fallen into decay in some quarters. But an evangelical is a person who has committed themselves to the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the supremacy and sufficiency of the Bible, to Christian conversion, and to Christian mission. It’s a distinguishable strand of Christianity. It draws people together from all sorts of denominations. And I’m proud to be in that tradition. It was the tradition that first brought the gospel to Australia in 1788. It was the tradition that first brought the gospel to New Zealand in 1814. It was evangelicals who planned and did the bringing of the gospel to our two nations. I’m proud to be in that tradition.
One of my ancestors was an evangelical Congregationalist. I’m very, very close to such a person in theology – and closer to such a person than I am to some Anglicans and their theology. So I’m pleased to call myself an evangelical, first and foremost. But I’m also proud and pleased to be called an Anglican.
GR: So why should people know something about church history?
PJ: Just imagine you didn’t know who your father is – some people in today’s world don’t know who their father is. It’s a desperate situation, and most people feel they would wish to know who their father or mother is. There’s an interest, which is instinctive in us, to want to know where we came from, in order to work out who we are. Our identity is bound up with our personal history, and hence the extraordinary interest these days in family research. The satisfaction involved in that is to find out where you’ve come from, and who you are. Sometimes, the things you discover are rather surprising, and not welcome. But that’s very common, and it’s an understandable trait of human beings to think to themselves, ‘Who am I?’ and to think of finding themselves by [looking to] preceding generations.
History is family research, writ large. History is really telling us who we are as Christians. If we believe in the gospel as the salvation of the world through the Lord Jesus Christ, and if we believe in the spread of the gospel through the world, then the gospel is, in a sense, carried into the future by Christians and by churches. Knowing who we are, where we’ve come from and what we’re carrying with us, is pretty well indispensible to the task of evangelism today, and tomorrow, and the day after.
You may never be quite as interested in history as I am, but I do encourage you to ask the questions about who, and why, and what, and how the past has delivered its precious load into our laps, so that we can go on. I think history is terribly important.
GR: Thanks Peter – here’s your last chance to finish with a joke!
PJ: Well, I’d really like to finish by saying that the Lord Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom the Apostle Paul was the chief – which was a nice thing for him to say, because no matter how bad you are, you’re still not worse than Paul. If he was saved, then you can be saved as well. And that’s a great message.
Particularly to you folks reading in New Zealand, God be thanked for the way in which the gospel came to your shores on Christmas Day, 1814. And we hope and pray that this gospel – which at the moment is not so well known and loved as it ought to be, either in Australia or New Zealand – will again be known to all and loved by all in your beloved country.
GR: That’s much better than a joke – beautifully said. Thanks for your time, Peter.