Chairs and Prime Ministers: The Civic Ministry of Clarence Irving Benson
Imagine a church minister in one of Australia’s major cities broadcasting his sermons to a national audience and hosting regular dignitaries such as Prime Ministers and Governors General. In the post-war era of the 1950s and 1960s, Melbourne church minister Wesley did just that.
Sir Clarence Irving Benson (1897-1980) was one of the leading ecclesiastical figures in post-war Australian public life. As superintendent of the Central Methodist Mission from 1933 to 1967, his chair was open to civic leaders from Sir Robert Menzies to Richard Casey. His ministry of guest speakers and corporate worship Pleasant Sunday Afternoon quickly became a national institution, broadcast on radio stations to audiences across Australia.
From working class man to evangelist and orator
Born in the Yorkshire town of Hull in 1897, Benson was brought up in a working-class Methodist family and attended local schools where he developed an interest in history and literature. Eager to serve in ministry, he continued his education at Cliff College, an Evangelical Methodist college in Sheffield steeped in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition.
Emigrating to Australia during World War I, Benson settled in Melbourne where his style of preaching attracted attention. According to Methodist historian Renate Howe, “Benson’s conversational style of preaching and well-modulated voice complemented his tall and imposing stature”. Marrying Agnes Lyall in 1919, Benson was ordained in 1922 and ministered at Albion Street Methodist Church in Brunswick before assuming his role at Wesley Church in Melbourne in 1926 as evening preacher.
In 1933 Benson became superintendent of Wesley Church and Central Methodist Mission. As the quasi-“cathedral” of Methodism in Melbourne, Wesley Church provided the ideal platform for Benson to launch his public ministry.
Benson’s signature ministry was his enjoyable Sunday Afternoon (PSA) meetings which drew large and enthusiastic crowds. Featured live and on radio, Benson’s PSA ministry became a “national institution”, featuring public figures who would speak on current issues from a distinctively moral and spiritual angle. The public service announcements were essentially services but, instead of conventional sermons, the addresses had a wider range, the focus going beyond biblical exegesis to critique of world affairs such as the reconstruction of post-war, Cold War anti-communism, international relations, consumerism and moral concerns.
Friend of famous and ordinary
Guests on Benson’s PSA platform ranged from newspaper owner Keith Murdoch in 1947 to then Labor Party leader Gough Whitlam in 1967. His most frequent guests, however, were Prime Minister Robert Menzies and his Minister of External Affairs, Richard Casey, later Governor General. It was through the PSA that Menzies got to know Benson as a friend, and the Prime Minister appeared 32 times on his platform.
Within the Methodist Church, Benson was theologically orthodox and morally conservative. His use of popular apologetics aimed at the common person reflected his Wesleyan concern for the salvation of sinners. Besides being a prophetic voice in society, Benson was an evangelist who invited people to follow Christ.
To appreciate the cultural context of Benson’s long ministry, with its public gravitas and popular appeal, it is helpful to remember that Christianity had a much larger cultural currency in its time, with around 88-89% of Australians worshiping. identifying as Christians and three in ten attending church. regularly.
Australian society, of course, has become markedly secularized since Benson’s time, with the percentage of Christians now likely to be a minority for the first time. As such, contemporary Christians engaging in the public square cannot expect to enjoy the same degree of publicity and attraction.
Lessons from a Successful Public Ministry
Nonetheless, Benson’s prosecution still holds instructive lessons for us today.
First, it underscores the importance for our church leaders and ordinary lay people to engage with the civic leaders of our time. Regardless of the prevailing religious climate, there is value in following the example of the prophet Daniel “to speak truth to power.” In an age of spiritual purposelessness and moral relativism, our political leaders, in their deepest moments of reflection, will still seek inspiration from metaphysics, so this is a timely opportunity for us to salute the timeless message and gospel truths. It is an opportunity for the church to be the conscience of the nation.
Second, we must never tire of being the salt and light of the earth that Christ calls his people to be. This will not be accomplished by the imposition of decrees, nor by the indifference of laissez-faire, but by the patient art of persuasion. In the words of the late evangelical apologist John Stott, it is “to educate the public conscience to know and desire the will of God.” Benson sought to accomplish this through his PSA ministry, and Christians today can do the same in ways appropriate to contemporary culture.
In an age of aggressive secularism, cultural cancellation, and censorship of unpopular Christian opinions, it is tempting for Christians to become discouraged and resigned to the margins of society. This, however, would be an abrogation of our vocation to be salt and light in the world. In modern history, the flight of Pietist Christians from Nazism is as much a cautionary tale as the struggle of British evangelicals for humane labor laws is instructive. As Stott reminds us, “Christians must permeate non-Christian society” and “Christians can influence non-Christian society.”
In practice, this will have nothing to do with “imposing” our views on society, but everything to do with fully exercising our democratic rights to participate, campaign, vote, stand to public office, to speak and be heard like any other self-respecting citizen. This is how successful battles of the past have been fought and won, from the Clapham sect of Wilberforce to the civil rights movement of Martin Luther King.
Today, when each of us who are called to be salt and light can act to shine light in the darkness and bring preservation to decay, the name of God will be glorified, the dignity of men and women will be elevated and our world will be infinitely better for it.
This is an edited transcript of the address David Furse-Roberts gave at the 2022 Evangelical History Association Conference at Alphacrucis College, Parramatta NSW on March 19, 2022