Heading a line-up of distinguished speakers for the National Chesterton Conference in Melbourne in May 2004 is the President of the American Chesterton Society, Dale Ahlquist, paying his first visit to Australia. Chesterton Conferences are held annually in various parts of the world testifying to the continuing relevance and popularity of Chesterton's writings.
The May Conference is being promoted jointly by the Australian Chesterton Society and the Thomas More Centre in Melbourne and is the fourth annual Conference to be held in Australia.
Exactly one hundred years ago, in March 1904, G. K. Chesterton consolidated his emerging reputation as a brilliant literary figure with the publication of his first novel, The Napoleon of Notting Hill. The reviews, with one or two exceptions, were fulsome in their praise. The London Daily News pronounced it a veritable triumph, and The Daily Telegraph critic, more percipient than most, after praising the work recognised in its pages the special quality which would mark all Chesterton's subsequent writings and which makes them so relevant and readable today: "Mr Chesterton, setting out to write in sport, ends in being terribly in earnest. He is not merely a wag, but a satirist who tries to probe to the very bottom of cosmic mysteries."
The Napoleon of Notting Hill, still widely available in a cheap modern edition, is an exuberant, fanciful story but underlying the fun are ideas that were later to find their way into Chesterton's socio-political doctrine known as Distributism.
Distributism was inspired by Christian social principles propagated in Pope Leo XIII's encyclical Rerum Novarum and endorsed in later encyclicals culminating in Centesimus Annus (1991). Advocating a political system, as the Distributists did (and still do), which is dependent on a more equal distribution of property and a belief that small is not only beautiful but essential to social well-being, invites the charge of romanticism and impracticality.
As a result, Distributism has been relegated to the margins of political theory - although the ideas still persist today, albeit appearing and operating under different guises.
The Melbourne Conference will explore and celebrate Chesterton's diverse writings, and in two sessions will discuss and reassess the relevance of Distributism. Proving that Chesterton is not the exclusive property of Catholics, Dr Race Mathews, a leading authority on the history, development, and future of Distributism has been invited to give a paper.
Dr Mathews, Adjunct Professor in the Faculty of Business and Law at Deakin University and formerly both a Federal and State MP, is in demand as a speaker on this subject; he was invited to give a similar lecture at the American Chesterton Society Conference in 2002. He is the author of Jobs of Our Own: Building a Stakeholder Society (Pluto Press).
The Conference's special guest, Dale Ahlquist, is President of the American Chesterton Society, a leading Chesterton scholar and lecturer and already well known to viewers of EWTN as the presenter of two series of programs on Chesterton. Ahlquist has recently completed a third series for later transmission. He lectures throughout North America and Europe on Chesterton and tells how his Road to Damascus was, paradoxically, in Rome while on his honeymoon. While there he, a Baptist, came across Chesterton's The Everlasting Man. For Ahlquist, and his wife who followed him into the Church, there was no turning back.
Other talks at the conference will be given by Dr Tracey Rowland, Dean of the John Paul II Institute, Karl Schmude, who heads a committee to establish the Catholic liberal arts institution, Campion College, and the well-known Melbourne journalist and broadcaster, Paul Gray.
Chesterton conferences are traditionally a mix of authoritative papers given by prominent Chesterton scholars on matters arising from Chesterton's prophetic writings interspersed with conviviality and good fellowship for which Chesterton was so well known throughout his life, and so much loved by all.
The aim of the Chesterton Society is to provide a forum for the examination and promotion of Chesterton's wisdom. It takes seriously T.S. Eliot's injunction, written in an obituary in 1936, "[Chesterton] leaves behind a permanent claim on our loyalty to see the work he did in his time is continued in ours."
Further information about the Conference can be obtained by contacting the Thomas More Centre in Melbourne, tel (03) 9326 5757, or in WA, (08) 9339 1403, and in the ACT, (02) 6288 5137.