ContentJust Search pageLJF site navigationLeft navigation links
LJF Logo
Publications sectionJustice Awards sectionResearch sectionGrants sectionPlain language law sectionNetworks section
Just Search

On the Occasion of the Appointment of the Most Reverend Stuart Barton Babbage as a Member of the Order of Australia

Date: 20 June 1995
Author: The Hon Justice Michael Kirby AC CMG Justice of the High Court of Australia
Type: Speech
Subjects: Person, Religion


It is difficult to follow an Archbishop. And particularly one so eloquent and incisive as Sir Marcus Loane.
But I have probably known our hero, Stuart Barton Babbage, as long or longer than most people in this room.

My recollections of him go back to school days. In those far off times, it was the custom at Fort Street Boys' High School to assemble the boys once a week for religious instruction. The Anglicans were overwhelmingly the majority, such were those times. We were gathered in the School War Memorial Hall, in vast numbers. I recall that a series of worthy, but rather dull, Ministers sought to enjoin us to Christian values and scriptural instruction - usually without a lot of success.

Then suddenly, in 1953 I think it was, a comet entered our sky. It was in the form of the new Dean of Sydney, Dr Barton Babbage. His towering appearance (to a small schoolboy), his lofty mien, his rounded voice and eloquent phrases astonished 500 boys into momentary silence.

If ever a hapless child should lapse in attention and begin babbling to his neighbour he would be summoned up for a form of corporal punishment not otherwise known to the school. He would be made to bend over in the presence of the entire company of school Anglicans. And then the Dean, in a fine gesture, would administer not the cane (for that was reserved to the Headmaster) but a pinprick, swiftly and lethally applied.

All over our Commonwealth there are no doubt damaged youths complaining to their psychiatrists of the horrors inflicted upon them by this most painful public humiliation. Nowadays, we would probably call it child abuse. But in those far off days it seemed to do the trick well enough. The combination of punishment and vivid instruction captured our attention.

I well recall Stuart in full flight, a sort of image from the Old Testament beckoning the boys back to the thunder and lightning of the ancient prophets:

"And the Lord said unto Moses ..."

But the sentenced ended with an explosion of wrath at a chatterer:

"... Shut up you blithering idiot!"

Five hundred boys laughed in unison and in affection. Out of laughter and drama this Anglican divine seized, captured and held the attention of a generation of school students. I was one of them.

He presented me for confirmation, after instruction in the cold confines of the Cathedral, to Bishop Hilliard. I have remained a loyal Anglican Christian ever since.

In the years after schooldays I followed Stuart's career. Opportunities lost. Opportunities gained. University societies met in Ridley College in Melbourne where he was for a time Principal. More recently, he invited me on several occasions to address the students at New College within the University of New South Wales.

He was always keen, in his work and at his home, to be surrounded by young people. He liked their ideas. He encouraged their radical thoughts and new perspectives. He was never a stuffy clergyman, clinging to the past. He was, and is, a true intellectual. In every way he was, and is, a university man.

More recently, I have come to know of his deep concern about the new challenges presented to our society and to the Church by the advent of HIV/AIDS. The last time I saw him was when I spoke at St John's Church, Darlinghurst for another wonderful Anglican priest, also a Fortian instructed by Stuart Barton Babbage, Dr Bill Lawton. The subject was the Anglican Church's response to HIV/AIDS. Typically enough, there was Stuart Babbage: attentive, compassionate, never abandoning the search for ethical principles illuminated by the gospel teachings of Jesus Christ.

Our hero is a kind of paradox. There is in him evidence of a type of schizophrenia. The externalities are of a great Old Testament character - a Bishop or an Archbishop - even a Patriarch - in appearance and sound. But in what he thinks and says and does he is truly a simple and kindly man, walking humbly in the footsteps of Jesus Christ.

It is more than time that his adopted country should honour him and celebrate his life and many contributions. The many whose lives he has touched, as he has mine, join in the celebrations. They lift their voices in praise of a remarkable pastor.