A Priest’s Story

Wednesday 7 June, Book launch: The Armour of Light: The Life of Reverend Doctor Barry Marshall by Nola Firth. Launched by Rev Dr John Tyman. Regent Cinema Murwillumbah, 6pm. Free.

Wednesday 7 June, Book launch:
The Armour of Light: The Life of Reverend Doctor Barry Marshall by Nola Firth. Launched by Rev Dr John Tyman. Regent Cinema Murwillumbah, 6pm. Free. Photo Matt Phan.

The Rev Dr Barry Marshall predicted in the 1960s that if the church did not lose its complacency it would be irrelevant in a generation. Nola Firth has written a biography, The Armour of Light, about this truly remarkable Australian man equally at home as a Bush Brother in Bourke and as a scholar in Oxford.

Who was Reverend Doctor Barry Marshall and why did you decide to write a book about him?

At the time of his tragic death in 1970 at age 47 in Oxford, Barry Marshall was probably the most well-known Anglican priest in Australia. An annual lecture is still held in his memory at Trinity College at the University of Melbourne. Barry predicted in the 1960s that if the church did not lose its complacency it would be irrelevant in a generation and he tried to remove that complacency. Born in Coolah, NSW, he was equally at home as a Bush Brother in Dubbo and Bourke as he was as a brilliant scholar in Oxford.

A poem I wrote about Barry grew into a biography. I had known him when I was an undergraduate student at the University of Melbourne and he was chaplain at Trinity College. Even though I left the church and became involved in Zen Buddhism, I never forgot his example of total commitment to a spiritual life. The poem I wrote led me to further investigation and I found 13 archival boxes of material about him. Part of that was the raw material for a memorial book that had not been completed. I thought his story needed to be told.

What were his most remarkable qualities?

His most remarkable quality was his total commitment to his god. All those who knew him, even if they were sometimes annoyed at his style, were in no doubt of it. He was also the antithesis of pomposity. One of his theological students remembered that he was ‘an affront to the image of a dignified person’. His bubbling, enthusiastic presentations and his inclusion and welcoming of people who may have been at the edges of society were all memorable qualities. So was his original thought, his belief in the use of the rational mind, and his willingness to stand up for what he believed no matter how unpopular that might be.

In a landscape where there are so many negative stories about the clergy, and the public seems to have lost their trust, why did you think this was an important story to tell?

I do think it is an important story to tell because, despite the betrayals, there were also those within the Christian church who walked the talk of their faith no matter what the cost. Barry was an extraordinary example of such a man. I think too that many people are looking for meaning in life that goes beyond the current materialistic emphasis.

The level of depression, especially among young people, is of concern. As Hugh McKay points out in his recent book Beyond Belief, many people nowadays are very interested in the spiritual even if they have left organised religion. It is worth sharing the story that there was an Australian man who thoroughly lived the spiritual life through his Christian faith and, despite many difficulties, found it gave him joy. Also it is a good story – Barry’s life and personality are intrinsically interesting.

What were the challenges of pulling a story like this together, particularly when it comes to authenticating someone’s life stories? 

I spent countless hours searching various archives in Melbourne, Bathurst, Dubbo, and Oxford. The challenge here was to find the relevant information within the time I had available. I quickly learned the absolute importance of keeping detailed records of where in the archives I had been working. Sometimes I didn’t realise I had found something until I accessed another piece of information and it could take hours to re-find the initial discovery. There was also the terror of setting up a reference, of which I had hundreds, and mistakenly using the wrong one or making a computer error that resulted in all the references moving one or more places so that all of them were wrong!

Another challenge was learning Barry’s faults as well as his inspiring qualities, but eventually I realised his complexity made him the more interesting. I also had to find a way to keep track of the huge array of material I had collected and to synthesise it. My job then was to search therein for the essence of Barry Marshall and his life, to choose from the many examples, quotes from those who knew him, and excerpts from his own writings. To ensure the story remained accessible to all and to keep the language alive and flowing, many wonderful but esoteric or repetitive details and incidents had to be left out. Sometimes there were more than twenty drafts of a chapter; each one was shorter than the last.

What should we expect for your launch at the Regent?

The book has been written to be accessible and engaging for non-religious and Christians alike and is being launched therefore at The Regent rather than in a church. Rev Dr John Tyman, a long-term resident in the region and another priest and scholar who has endeavoured to live a radically Christian life and break down complacency in his church, will launch the book. I will also speak and read some excerpts from the book. Twenty per cent of book sales at the launch will go to Australians for United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). The book is also available at local bookshops and at Readings and other online stores.

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