Book review - Memoirs of a Loose Canon
Reviewed by Stuart Blackler
Beyond the labels! A great and creative Anglican
I was the Warden of the Servers at St Paul's Cathedral Melbourne and a university student in 1953 when Stuart Barton Babbage accepted the position of Dean of Melbourne in addition to the Principalship of Ridley College. He was 37 years old when appointed Dean - rather remarkable, more remarkable when it is realised that he had been appointed Dean of Sydney six years earlier!
Stuart arrived at St Paul's and the lights, no the floodlights, went on and the glow for his friends, whenever they spend time with him or hear him, has never been diminished. Those who were beneficiaries of his preaching and personal ministry at St David's Cathedral for Holy Week and Easter 1991 would support that.
In his preface to this entrancing and absorbing autobiography, Justice Michael Kirby, who had come under Stuart Babbage's unforgettable influence when a schoolboy, writes:
It has been a great blessing for me for more than fifty years to have had such a mentor in the message of the Gospels.
And so say many of us. Stuart Babbage's ministry has distinguished him as Brian Porter, reviewer of this book for another publication, well described as a 'Remarkable Churchman'. Perhaps too liberal in heart for many in Sydney, he revelled in the Melbourne position and put the Cathedral at the heart of community activity and an avant-garde, even discomfiting, arena for social justice. When the position of Dean of Melbourne was raised to full-time and Stuart was not appointed, there began for him a ministry in theological education in the United States lasting some ten years. Those years were marked by creative administration and a continuation of his commitment to justice, in that context in the Civil Rights movement led by Martin Luther King with whom Stuart Babbage was closely involved.
Dr Babbage returned to Australia and the Mastership of New College at the University of New South Wales and gave his inimitable style of opening minds, elegance and constant good humour to that place. During the time he was at New College he became Registrar of the Australian College of Theology, continuing in that role for some years after he left New College.
Stuart Babbage defied and defies labels, especially any narrow definition of the term 'evangelical', although the burning desire to bring people to see Jesus as the Fulfiller is indisputably the source of that glow of his ministry. He was intimately involved in the 1959 Billy Graham Crusade as Chairman of the Crusade Committee and subsequently an Associate Evangelist for the Greater Philadelphia Crusade some years later. His latter Sydney years were a matter of amazement to many when this remarkable Anglican priest ministered with customary eloquence as Guest Preacher at Scots Church, Sydney for seven years!
In his preface to this book Michael Kirby laments that Stuart's career should have been crowned with a mitre (although the man himself once said to me that mitres in the Anglican Church were meant to be on bishops' envelopes, not their heads).
When once asked by a reporter as to what I felt about being twice pipped at the post for election as Archbishop of Sydney, I replied: 'Providence was merciful: merciful to the diocese and merciful to me!'
And I think the church can give three cheers for that, as it is easier to be a loose Canon or a wayward Dean than it is to be in the office of a Bishop. We need the gadflies, the label breakers, those fiercely committed to social justice and the acceptance of the dignity of all minorities in society. We need the loose Canons, and can only be enriched by their memoirs. In this case those memoirs are short, but they are encyclopaedic, or as Stuart's would say 'magisterial'.