Port Arthur

© Rex A E Hunt

Submitted for publication to New Springboards, a publication of the Assembly Commission on Liturgy, Uniting Church in Australia.
June 1996


Revd Rex Hunt is minister, Hobart City Centre Parish (Tasmania) and Uniting Church in Australia chaplain at the Royal Hobart Hospital.  As such he was one of the hospital chaplains involved in ministering to patients and relatives of those in the tragedy at Port Arthur.

The plea on my answer phone told me something significant had happened.  And I needed to respond.

It was a few hours later when the relatives started arriving at the Royal Hobart Hospital that we first began to sense the growing tragedy which has become known as ‘Port Arthur’.

Much has now been said and written about this tragedy.

When you drop a stone in a lake many ripples flow from that rupture, spreading over the surface of the lake.  When you drop 55 stones into a lake all at once, the ripples flow and crisscross in violent reaction over the entire surface of the lake!

Because I work in several situations - parish and hospital - I felt it necessary to attempt to make several responses in those different situations.  Thus I tried to shape what we said and did with imaginative liturgy.

A candle in the darkness
One of the most important liturgies I have even prepared was the one offered on Sunday 5 May - the Sunday after Port Arthur.

Scots Church, situated one block from the Royal Hobart Hospital, had been opened all week, and a small number of people had entered for peace, prayer and silence.  When approached they and others told their stories of connection:
• a son had a mate who had two mates who were
• a mother who with her two daughters had visited Port Arthur the day before;
• a neighbour who was the brother of  three people who were killed;
• a person who had car trouble, so visiting friends hired a car and drove down themselves, only to be killed;
• a person who felt he too might do what the alleged gunman had done and, because of  his state of mind, committed suicide because he was so frightened of himself;
• a mother who on hearing her son had been seriously wounded and her daughter-in-law killed, suffered a heart attack and died.

So what to say. Yes, but equally important, what to do.  The ‘say’ meant for me to be honest and real.  Preacher, what do you see and feel...?  The ‘do’ was liturgical.

As the people arrived for worship, 35 white candles were handed out.  Not everyone got a candle.  Then following the ‘Celebration of faith’ those with candles were invited to come to the front, light their candle from the Christ candle and form a circle.  Those who didn’t have a candle were then invited to form a loving circle around the candle bearers.  Together we begun the healing process offered when one is in community.

Those with candles were asked to keep and protect them on behalf of us all.  I still see them in crystal cabinets and on mantle pieces as I visit.  And we talk about that experience and their experiences.

Restoration and healing
As the first week following the tragedy drew to a close, the hospital chaplains met to plan a service of healing and restoration.

It was decided to hold the service in the hospital forecourt, where the media had camped for the past week.

All staff were notified and each person was invited to bring along a symbol of their work to shape a tableau of service.  Some did.  And they brought a phone, a bed, a trolley, a pager, note book, gloves, a book of prayers and food.

The liturgy consisted of music, a meditation, two biblical readings and a prayer.  As each section within the hospital is colour-coded, 42 coloured balloons - red, blue, clear, yellow and white were also used.  The chaplains added another - green. Representatives from each section brought the balloons forward and then as a group, the balloons were released into the air to float over the hospital and the city.  When they were released, there was absolute silence - not planned silence, it just happened.

But a very special moment happened at the close of the service.  Several hundred sprigs of greenery were offered as a symbol of renewal and hope.  It was then that staff surged around the chaplains who were handing out the greenery.  People took a piece for themselves.  They took several pieces for other staff members who couldn’t be present.  They clasped hands.  They sighed in relief.  The healing of the hospital and staff had also begun.

The media as liturgists
Some of my chaplain colleagues found the media presence intrusive and overpowering.  They even interpreted the special hospital service as a cleansing moment, saying to the media: you no longer have a place here, so please leave.  I did not share that feeling.

Sure I’ve worked in the media for more than 25 years, so perhaps I’ve got used to their presence at major events.  But despite the stories of complaint and some tasteless ‘got-to-get-a-different-angle’ tactics of a small number of media personnel, for me the media played an important liturgical role in the healing process.

The media are the ones who carry the stories and images to the bulk of the people, who wait each morning or evening for news of the unfolding events.  The media are the ones who, despite using the stories for their agenda, touch the minds and hearts of so many others.  Treated with respect and honesty, media personnel can be liturgists to many more people than those whom we usually set aside as, or expect to be, liturgists.  For they too can help begin the healing process.

Liturgy of the stones
In all the occasions when I was required to give a liturgical response to the tragedy at Port Arthur, the experience of one personal imaginative liturgical event kept returning to me time after time.

During 1990 I had the privilege of spending some time as part of the community on the Isle of Iona in Scotland.  And during that stay I participated in the pilgrimage around the island.

One moment during that pilgrimage we spent time on the pebbled beach of St Columba Bay.  Legend has it Columba landed on this beach on Pentecost Day, 563AD, having previously been expelled from Ireland.  He and his monks buried their boat on the beach and then climbed a hill - Carn cul ri Eirinn - a little further west.  When he looked toward Ireland, it could not be seen.  So he turned his back on his home country and headed north east across the island.  Translated, the hill is called “Hill with its back to Ireland”.

Remembering the story of Columba’s journey, we were invited to reflect on our own life’s journey.  Then, naming some thing or event we wished to ‘leave behind’, we threw one of the smooth pebbles into the sea, turned our backs on the Bay, and made our way to the Mhachair (the island Common).  There we shared lunch and fellowship together.

That liturgical experience has remained with me ever since.  That liturgical experience continues to shape my understanding of liturgy as being both story and deed, with imagination.  Being a storyteller I don’t wish to down-play the importance of oral tradition, but it is in the weaving of both story and deed that ‘imaginative liturgy’ happens and in the face of tragedy, the healing process begun.

In the aftermath of Port Arthur, liturgy is an important healing experience for many people.  Church liturgy and media liturgy.  And I reckon if we’re wise most will agree that’s the way it should be in this our electronic media-saturated culture.