It’s often claimed that the first services in Western Australia were taken by the Deputy Governor of the Swan River Colony, Capt Frederick Irwin, who arrived in 1829. Of course it was way earlier than that. Anglican services of morning and evening prayer were led by Captain Matthew Flinders who landed at Cape Leeuwin in December 1801 - not to mention divine service conducted by officers of Dutch and Portuguese vessels from as early as the 1520s. But the first Anglican clergyman in the Colony was the official colonial chaplain John Wittenoom, who would have been the first to celebrate the Eucharist on this site sometime in 1831. For the most part in those early years Sunday services of morning prayer would have been led by lay readers. In 1835 however, efforts by the London Missionary Society to send a missionary priest to the Swan Valley bore fruit in the selection of the Rev’d Dr Luis Giustiniani who was despatched in early 1836 with instructions to establish a Moravian mission - which is to say a self-supporting farm-based community in the Swan Valley tending to the spiritual needs both of the poorest among the settlers and the local aborigines. And so Luis Giustiniani became the first priest of this parish.
Giustiniani had already had a long journey - from an aristocratic Italian family, a medical doctor who apparently had been the personal physician to Pope Pius VII until he converted to a Calvinistic brand of Protestantism and eventually arrived in London eager to work as an evangelical missionary. Anglican historians Leslie Borowitzka and Bill Leadbetter suggest the conservative settlers and landed gentry along the Swan really didn’t know what they were in for. Incidentally I am indebted to Leslie and Bill for the quick potted history I am dishing up here. The land-owners thought that they were getting a polite clergyman who would baptise and marry their children, preach uncontroversially on a Sunday and visit them during the week. What they got was a firebrand missionary, who wanted to evangelise and teach and lift out of poverty those who were exluded from polite society.
Giustiniani certainly worked hard, building the so-called octagonal church at Guildford and leading services in Guildford, here in Middle Swan and on the site of our church of All Saints Henley Brook. True to his Moravian principles, he established a successful working farm on what bacame known as Sswanleigh, employing local Aborigines to work in the vegetable garden and care for the animals. Giustiniani also travelled regularly to York, where he gave services in a private home, and where that same year, 1836, one local land-owner claimed he had shot 12 Aborigines for stealing. Other settlers in the area collected the ears of Aboriginal men they had killed. Giustiniani soon became a fierce critic of settlers who systematically dispossessed and led hunting parties against Aborigines. He appeared in court on numerous occasions to defend Aborigines charged with stealing supplies, gave public lectures and wrote frequent letters to the colonial newspaper, The Gazette, pointing out the contradiction that Aborigines were punished by the law for minor transgressions while being given no protection by the law from those who hunted and killed them with impunity. For Giustiniani, these were the last and the least who would be first in the kingdom of God.
So was he a saint? Perhaps from the perspective of our 20/20 hindsight, and there were some even in the Swan River Colony of the 1830s who shared Giustiniani’s vision of equality. Giustiniani however soon found himself out of favour with the landed colonial gentry and was denied the protection both of the governor and colonial chaplain. With his own churches emptying in protest and vilified in The Gazette, to whom he continued to write impassioned and possibly intemperate letters of protest, Giustiniani also eventually lost the support of the London Missionary Society who recalled him less than two years after his arrival.
So was he a saint? It seems to me that saints are often unsung and unsuccessful, and they don’t always have good reputations. Some saints, as the saying goes, are known only to God. Luis Giustiniani left the colony in February 1838 and from the date of his sailing on the Abercrombie nothing more can be learned of him. Some speculate that he may even have died on the voyage back to London.
We celebrate, today, the Feast of All Saints - the unknown and generally unsung ones. Not the martyrios, the witnesses who get red-letter days in the Church’s calendar, but as they are called in Revelation the hagios, or holy ones who, often unknown to history, are blessed simply for taking seriously Jesus’ command to love and who show mercy and kindness. These are the ones we glimpse in our reading this morning - incidentally the Greek work used for the great multitude, ochlos, can also be translated as rabble, and they come from every place and language group and social station, in short what we would describe today as a motley collection. The hagios are certainly an inclusive bunch.
Because the fact is that what makes us saints – holy ones – is not our own behaviour which much of the time is somewhat less than perfect. Or even our own motives, which are often mixed and unclear even to ourselves. As St John’s vision suggests, what makes us hagios is God’s continuing incarnate presence among us, sharing our own DNA, our own flesh and blood physical existence. What makes us holy, to borrow a phrase from the fourth Gospel, is that God pitches a tent among us. John of Patmos’s vision of heaven that we read in the Book of Revelation is not a vision of the end of time, or of the hereafter, but a vision of all time rolled into a single instant, the whole of eternity in which God becomes incarnate, takes on flesh in the act of creation.
I think that what is revealed to us in Jesus of Nazareth is not just God’s one-off attempt to communicate with us and then go back up to heaven for a well-earned rest - but God’s universe-long strategy for loving and caring for creation – the secret that God’s life is woven right from the beginning into the fabric of creation, and that our lives in all their ordinariness are made holy because the world we live in is God’s body and God’s home. So this is the paradox - that as God’s people we live in a world of accident and impermanence, struggling with the paradox of our own moral compromise, our hearts capable of both love and deceit in approximately equal measure – but at the same time filled with the beauty of God’s own life.
As St Paul puts it, we have the unspeakable treasure of God-with-us in the nondescript clay jars of our everyday lives. And just every now and then – particularly when the clay jars of our lives get cracked, the beauty of God shines through. And that’s what makes us holy. That’s how we grow to perfection, not in our own goodness, but as Paul expresses it, in our weakness filled with God’s holiness.
We’re all called, of course, to be saints, to be hagios. To be a saint means being open to the future, because it’s the future, not the past, into which God’s creative energy is leading you and making you complete. To be a saint means being open to change, constantly looking for evidence of what God’s Holy Spirit is doing around you, curious to see what God’s going to get up to next and wanting to be a part of that, because the Trinitarian promise is that transformation and newness are built in to the life of God – and if you want to be a saint that’s what you’ve signed up for. To be a saint means practising living life from the inside out – noticing that the latest and the most exciting place God has become incarnate is in you, daring yourself to let God’s life transform the shallowness and the selfishness of your own.
I think Luis Giustiniani, the first priest of this parish, was definitely one of the hagios. He was bold, maybe over-prickly and defensive but faithful to what he knew God wanted of him, certainly a staunch defender of the vulnerable, and he suffered the consequences. It is perhaps a sign of the early turbulent years of our State that there is no memorial to him in either of our churches, or indeed anywhere in the Diocese. Perhaps now with the benefit of well-researched histories might be possible for Reverend Giustiniani’s contribution to the story both of our parish and our State to be better honoured - I am pleased that a couple of people have indicated they would like to explore this and perhaps a fitting memorial would also contribute to the story of reconciliation in our own time.