"I am not a Christian but a fellow traveller with Christianity" - the famous retort by the then Prime Minister, the late Gough Whitlam in 1973 recorded by the Sydney Morning Herald's Religion Editor Allan Gill.
The ABC's Religion and Ethics Report's Andrew West on Wednesday 22 October reminded many again of the context of that statement when Andrew was discussing the Christian legacy of Gough Whitlam with writer Roy Williams who wrote the book: God Actually; In God They Trust: The Religious Beliefs of Australia's Prime Ministers.
Gough Whitlam was Australia's 21st Prime Minister serving the nation from 1972-75, winning two elections, then sacked by the then Governor General Sir John Kerr and losing the 1975 election in a land slide to care-taker Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser.
Mr Whitlam died last week aged 98 and the nation collectively has been mourning his passing and celebrating his political colossus, the husband and the father. The Australian media has let no detail go unheeded from his tenure.
Perhaps the apocryphal story of his meeting with Sydney Catholic Archbishop Clancy sums up the public image, when Gough Whitlam enquired of the cost of a funeral in St Mary's Cathedral. As reported on Late Night Live with Phillip Adams, the enquiry related to his death and the use of one of the crypt's for three days.
There were many things accumulated in Australian Christian's general knowledge of "Gough Whitlam and Christianity" which were again bought to our notice from that Andrew West program.
Dr Mark Tronson, the retired Australian cricket team chaplain 17 years (1984-2001) a Baptist minister says he was aware that Gough Whitlam was raised in a devout Baptist home, attending Sunday School and church functions (youth, fellowship teas, etc). A rather more austere Christian figure in his early years was a committed conservative Baptist uncle and his sister Freda took on the Christian faith with enthusiasm. Freda rose to become Moderator of the NSW Uniting Church and served as a missionary in France.
Gough Whitlam went to an Anglican Grammar School and was stepped into the more formal Christian liturgy. He married Margaret, a Christian in this high Anglican tradition. There was no time in Gough Whitlam's life where the Christian philosophy was marginalised.
One thing Mark Tronson says he did not know but was revealed in Andrew West's program was that in his years in the RAAF he was called upon to conduct religious services when there was no chaplain available. By all accounts his ministrations to those present, whether church services or funerals, were meaningful and moving. This would come as no surprise to those who knew him well and even to the insightful who heard his speaking style and clarity of thought
Gough Whitlam's knowledge of the bible was therefore hardly surprising and he said that the three most important books were the works of Shakespeare, his own book on his Prime Ministership and the Bible.
Another story was revealed by Federal MP Malcolm Turnbull last week when 33 he had Gough Whitlam launch his book and Gough's retort was that Malcolm had achieved much by 33, but was reminded that Alexander had conquered the world by 33 and Jesus had saved it!
Fellow traveller with Christianity
With this background material to the life of Gough Whitlam, what might he have meant by saying, he was a fellow traveller with Christianity?
Mark Tronson says, that perhaps it might be better taking it in reverse order: what it does not mean:
It does not mean he treated Christian belief with contempt
It does not mean he treated as lacking those who believed
It does not mean he only appointed non-believers to senior roles
It does not mean he ignored the voice of Christians in his life
It does not mean he failed to recognise there is a spiritual realm
So if it doesn't mean these things, what might it mean and have meant in the life of Gough Whitlam.
There are some things which we do not know or which are silent through his writings, speeches and what others have written about him.
We do not know whether he silently contemplated deep spiritual truths while Margaret prayed (as is the norm for Christians) before they slept. We do not know whether in his heart, in the deep recesses of all human beings, he silently cried out in despair to God, as his colleagues, one after the other, made such horrendous political blunders.
This is what Mark Tronson considers it might mean for one so steeped in Christian thought:
He rejected the false piety of many of the Christians he witnessed - because he says he walked away from it when 12-13. He was highly intelligent and deeply insightful and was able to analyse with clarity. He wanted nothing of that - in his life.
Yet, he endorsed and encouraged Margaret's walk with the Lord, and at no time does he say or infer that he discouraged his family members in such. If anything, his tenderness with his family has been mentioned over and over.
He recognised the intrinsic value of Christian thought and the biblical announcement in the lives of so many – he was well versed on history and the role of Christian thought through the ages. In other words, he was pleased to walk beside 'formal Christianity' as it provided a certain stability and order.
Christian teaching on death and Salvation
Mark Tronson says that this is the important question not only to Gough Whitlam's death but to each one of us – the "Christian teaching" on death and Salvation – and there are several indisputable assertions from the Bible:
We leave this world as we come into it
The heavenlies is a very different reality
Faith in Jesus Christ as Lord (the Cross) is the only criteria
God looks on the heart – the dichotomy – the heart is exceedingly wicked
This applies to all of us. It's with fear and trembling we come before the Lord at any time let alone death. A very pleasing bit of news, Dr Tronson says, "I'm not the final arbiter or judge of anybody and I too in desperation, fall at the foot of the Cross: just like Paul the Apostle said, me, the worst of all sinners."
Dr Mark Tronson is a Baptist minister (retired) who served as the Australian cricket team chaplain for 17 years (2000 ret) and established Life After Cricket in 2001. He was recognised by the Olympic Ministry Medal in 2009 presented by Carl Lewis Olympian of the Century. He mentors young writers and has written 24 books, and enjoys writing. He is married to Delma, with four adult children and grand-children.
Mark Tronson's archive of articles can be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/mark-tronson.html