Commonwealth Constitution Act: The Historical and Political Origins of the Current Preamble

It is written, one of the few human freedoms “guaranteed in the Australian Constitution - the free exercise of religion (s.116) - owes its existence in part to the insertion of the phrase 'humbly relying on the blessing of Almighty God' in the Preamble…”

Which was “added at the Federation Convention in Melbourne in 1898, s.116 largely at the behest of the Victorian, Henry Bournes Higgins, while the inclusion of God's blessing in the Preamble was due to the efforts of the South Australian, Patrick McMahon Glynn… Glynn's public justification for reference to the Almighty in the Preamble referred to the 'great central fact of faith' and the 'spirit of reverence for the unseen' which pervaded civil life in Australia.”(4)…

4. Official Record of the Debates of the Australasian Convention, vol. I-V, Legal Books, Sydney, 1986. See e.g. Higgins at Melbourne Convention 1898, p. 656. Also see pp. 1740-1, Glynn at the Adelaide Convention in 1897, pp. 1184-5.

Glynn's private reflections in his diary were quite different. After ensuring God's inclusion in Melbourne, Glynn wrote in a matter of fact style-'Today I succeeded in getting the words humbly relying on the blessing of Almighty God in the Preamble. It was chiefly intended to secure greater support from a large number of voters', Patrick Glynn, diaries, Mortlock Library, State Library of South Australia, 2 March 1898….

So, whether Glynn personally believed in ‘humbly rely on the blessings of Almighty God’ I would not know – but he must have believed ‘a large number of voters’ did and would thus ensure greater support at the proposed 1890s referendums.

Over a hundred years later, the beliefs of many, even most, descendants of those earlier voters have no memory of why that Preamble insertion was important to those who went before.  So, what was it that Australians of the 1900s thought foundational for their new nation that we in the 21st century have lost sight of?

Stating the obvious, it was their belief in a supernatural realm
that must be taken into account in their national affairs.
But this was the 1900s and ‘the scientific age’ was then upon them.  But let’s backtrack a little for a while, and it is the work of Dorothy L. Sayers (Begin Here”) that I draw upon for the following.

The Mediaeval Age
In the Mediaeval Age ‘freedom’ was understood, not in the sense given that word today but in a more philosophical sense: the freedom to be true to man’s real nature, that is, to stand in a right relation to God. As a stone, left free to follow its own natural law, falls to the ground, so the spirit of man, made free to follow its own natural law, flies to God. The stone, if set free, is not free to follow some erratic direction; it will only do that if compelled from without. It was in that sense that theological society understood freedom.

‘Equality’ also was understood theologically. It was a spiritual equality.  Still it did not have to be claimed and fought for as a right; it was there already, the admitted and unchallenged cornerstone of society.

In the temporal world, it displayed itself neither as political nor social equality, nor yet as an equality of natural endowments, but rather as a vast interlocking network of reciprocal duty. As man was bound to God by the law of human nature, so, by the very essence of His Divine nature, God was bound to man. At every point, theological society exhibited the working of this universal law. The people owed service to the king, and the king owed protection to the people—not in reason of any mutual contract expressed or implied, but because both owed service to the same universal law.

It is not suggested that society in this age conformed to the ideal pattern.  This society no more than any other was able to start from scratch.  It grew piecemeal over a long period of time and in every district had to impose its social structure upon an already existing structure in full working order.

From the period of the Norman Conquest, the emerging principles of the English Common Law were shaped by Christian kings, and by Churchmen who were also Canonists.  The Canon Law ‘made a natural bridge to connect legal ideas with ethical and theological discussion’. 

The Holy Roman Empire – and a New Way of Thinking
What was the real reason of its collapse? It was not altogether the purely administrative difficulty about temporal power. What disrupted the theological world-state was not any local disharmony between its separate members, but something that affected the whole body. It was the appearance in the world of a new way of thinking, which led to the demand for an entirely new manifestation of human liberty and equality.

It was the rise of the New Learning, which led eventually to the Reformation, to the Renaissance and to the invention of the Scientific Method.  It was the demand for individual liberty in the spiritual sphere, in the emotional sphere and in the sphere of the mind.

Now this revolution in thought is often represented as a revolt against the authority of the Church, and so it was; but not quite in the sense commonly supposed. The Church had only one Authority, and that was God Himself; ‘and the New Learning was not a revolt against God.  Nor did it come from outside the Church, but from within, for the Church was all Christendom; that is why I have been careful to distinguish between the Church and her officials. It was the official Church that had not the courage of her own convictions and by that timidity broke up the structure of Christendom.

The explanation usually put forward is that the theological state rested upon a particular set of doctrines which could not be altered and had to be interpreted in a particular way by a particular set of people and along a particular line of thought; and that it fell to pieces when certain individual people, working along a new line of thought, brought those doctrines to the test of experimental inquiry.

There is a great deal of truth in this explanation, but it is not the whole truth. It is quite true that the state rested upon the truth of God’s revelation in Christ; but the rest is only partially true.  What actually happened was this, the Church had fallen into the same lazy habit which we discussed in the first chapter. She had allowed the professionals to do most of her thinking for her. And the professionals had become old-fashioned in their method of thinking. It was certain amateur thinkers who ‘hit upon that new method of thought which we now call “scientific”; by which we mean the method that collects facts by observation, uses them to form a theory, and then tests the theory by fresh experiments with facts. This method they applied to the material world, by way of astronomy and physics; to the world of art and letters, by way of exploring classical sources; and to the spiritual world, by way of linguistic and critical research into the Scriptures.

In all these fields, the results were both fruitful, and disconcerting to the professional ecclesiastical thinkers. Astronomy and physics offered explanations of the material universe that did not appear to agree with the story of Genesis; art and letters not only encouraged an unseemly enthusiasm for physical beauty, but unearthed unexpected beauties of thought among heathen poets in a way that seemed to threaten the Christian foundations of ethics; while a critical examination of the Scriptures shed certain doubts upon the official interpretations while at the same time throwing a glaring light
upon the behaviour of ecclesiastical officialdom as compared with that of the first Apostles.

Officialdom was alarmed. Not all officialdom, for many of the greatest exponents of the New Learning were churchmen. But as a body it was alarmed and uneasy, just as, for example, official medical opinion is alarmed and uneasy when a Lister or a Pasteur arises to challenge its traditional methods
of practice. It could not see that, if it really trusted its Supreme Authority, it had nothing to fear.

If God was eternal Reason, then any valid method of reasoning must be a manifestation of Himself; if He could display Himself in a material Sacrament, then all material beauty was His tabernacle; if His Spirit had been with men from the beginning, then any beauty of spirit wheresoever and whensoever
was the work of His presence; if the Scriptures were truly His Word, then the most stringent examination could only confirm their truth.

But a radical change in methods of thought is always terrifying, as the Pharisees realized when Christ interpreted the old Law in a new way; it sounds and is dangerous, and the immediate reaction is to resist it. And there is always this to be said for the specialists’ side of the controversy: that when you open the closed ring of interpretation, you may let in a Pasteur, but you may also let in all the quacks. Long and often painful experiment is then necessary to weed out the false from the true. The official Church was as genuinely afraid of the effect of quack religions upon people’s souls as the most careful medical practitioner of the effect of quack medicines upon their bodies.
At any rate, the New Learning was an adventure of the spirit, and the professional Church was not ready for adventure. She thrust the Reformers out, or let them leave of their own accord. And through the open gate marched in the hosts of Caesar.

To be continued….

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