Change and Decay

THERE ARE SIGNS that at long last Anglicans in Australia are starting to at least think about the steady decline in the membership of their church that has been occurring for a number of years. As the Primate, Archbishop Keith Raynor of Melbourne, has commented, the results of the latest Census and of the National Church Life Survey (NCLS), both carried out in 1996, “do not make pleasant reading for Anglicans”.

In the single state of Victoria, the Anglican Church has lost 50,000 members since 1991. In the past 30 years the total loss has been in the region of 200,000. Many of these people were nominal adherents who once felt obliged to hide behind the label “C of E” but are now ready to tick the “no religion” column. But even the loss of fringe well-wishers weakens the church. There is less contact with the wider community and the feeling grows that Christianity is basically irrelevant.

Perhaps more worrying that the Census results is the profile of church attenders that emerges from NCLS. The number of active worshippers has not declined very much from the figure for 1991 but the proportion of people aged over 60 has increased. This is a problem for most of the churches in the liberal Uniting Church. Young Australians who are religious are not influenced by brand loyalty. They are ready to shop around for a denomination that appeals them.

The great exception is the diocese of Sydney. In the Anglican Church as a whole, only 24 per cent of attenders are aged between 15 and 39. In the diocese of Sydney this figure rises to 38 per cent. This is still less that the proportion of this age group in the wider community (50 per cent) but it is considerably better than the Anglican performance elsewhere.

As regular readers will know, church decline has been a major theme of this column since I began writing in 1995 when I moved to Australia from Papua New Guinea. My final letter before I return to England in October, gives me a chance to sum up what appear to be the reasons for the predicament in which the church currently finds itself.

A major problem is that most liberals and Anglo-Catholics here are cultural conservatives, desperate to remain faithful to standards of “good taste”. The only times I have heard groups playing rock and other forms of modern music at worship have been at services in evangelical churches like St Hilary’s, Kew, in Melbourne, and the Sydney mega-church, St Matthias, Centennial Park.

Church gatherings are dominated by discussion of political and economic issues. Bishops and church leaders are quick to denounce gambling or economic rationalism because they know that in taking such a stand they will receive support in the wider community. Far less attention is devoted to the challenge or secularism or the claims of popular modern creeds like “scientism” or the New Age.

Synods are poisoned by internal church politics. Issues like the ordination of women or sexuality are used to grab power, marginalise opponents and deprive them of positions of influence in the church. Life in the diocese of Melbourne is made unpleasant by an on-going struggle between liberals and evangelicals (traditional Catholics are largely ignored).

Given the trends in church attendance, it will only be a few years before the liberals join the Catholics in obscurity but I am not sure that this will happen in time to prevent a major split between Sydney and the rest of the church over such issues as lay presidency, sexuality and women bishops. There is a high degree of diocesan autonomy in the Australian Church and even in peaceful times the bonds of unity are fragile. The 1992 vote to permit the ordination of women shattered hopes of peace.

In Australia, as in other western nations, Christians are a cognitive minority who need to be able to give a reasoned account of their faith if they are to survive in the face of secular pressures. Unfortunately little religious education is available in state secondary school and the Anglican Church of Australia possess very few able, trained theologians.

Many theological schools are in a bad way. The prestigious Trinity College in Melbourne has only 7 ordinands, 6 of them are women and of these 5 are aged over 40. Young graduates, particularly young male graduates, no longer appear to be interested in the ministry. This may partly reflect a reluctance to take student chaplaincy work seriously. A number of universities have ecumenical chaplaincies in which there is little specifically Anglican input.

Sydney is again the exception. Moore College has an excellent faculty and 170 students, half of them training for the ministry. There are a number of parish clergy and people working for the diocese with doctorates. In Melbourne the evangelical Ridley College is also doing well.

Australia is a multi-cultural society with many of its citizens tracing their roots to Asia. Few of these people are Anglican. The Roman Catholic Church has benefited the most from immigration but yet again it has to be recorded that the diocese of Sydney has devoted considerable resources the multi-cultural ministry and has a large number of Chinese, Greek, Vietnamese, Philippino or Maori congregations as a result.

The root cause of the weakness of liberal forms of Christianity is their willingness to let secular Western culture set the agenda. As a result, the gospel message loses its cutting edge and becomes an echo of what other fashionable commentators are saying. A figure like Pope John Paul II can attract a million young people to Paris because they see in him a person of conviction who believes in a message that both challenges current presuppositions and offers hope in a world that is confused. Ironically, the liberal search for relevance often results in making the church appear not only parochial and dated but also boring and uninteresting.

Paul Richardson is Bishop of Wangarratta in the Province of Victoria.