Instant experts who seem to know everything after only a brief stay in a place are rightly suspected. This encourages me to be cautious in forming conclusions about Australia, a vast continent in which I have lived and worked for less than 3 months.
Having said this, I must admit that one strong impression does strike the newcomer here who goes to church: the absence from most congregations of many young people or of more than a sprinkling of men.
This impression is confirmed by the findings of research into the Roman Catholic churches carried out by the National Church Life Survey and recently published.
For Anglicans, as for other mainline denominations, the proportion of nominal members who can be called active adherents amounts to only 8%. In a small town of 4,000 people, where only 20% of the population will be even nominally Anglican, this suggests that only 60 or 70 members will be involved in the life of the parish. Clearly it will be hard for the church in its present form to survive in rural communities. In Australia small towns are often many miles apart so it is difficult to follow the English practice and group them in a single parish – a factor lying behind the calls for lay presidency in the Diocese of Armidale (the debate in Sydney revolves around different issues).
Future projections do not look promising. Forty per cent of Anglican attenders are over 60. This means a significant decline over the next twenty years, a bleak prospect facing all denominations with the exception of the Pentecostals.
The survey points to a significant difference in attitudes between people born after the war and the previous generation. Baby boomers are cynical about institutions, like to pick and mix their own system of beliefs in the supermarket of faiths, and expect church involvement to make a difference to their lives by providing personal fulfilment. They find value in small groups and appreciate contemporary music in worship.
As well as facing generational changes, Australian churches are also struggling with multi-culturalism. A report to the forthcoming General Synod accuses Anglicans of taking little interest in this issue. As a result there is a danger that we will continue to be seen as an Anglo-Saxon ethnic minority, marginalised and culturally dissociated from the mainstream of national life.
Experience as a missionary has taught me the need for the church to be both in real contact with the local culture and yet also ready to serve as an instrument of change and reformation. Not all the values of the baby boomers and baby busters can be taken on board but we do have to learn to communicate with them.
Fundamentalist groups may be gaining in strength but this is often because they offer a way to opt out of the culture, providing an enclave of stability in a turbulent world.
So far as I can tell, these issues pose a particular challenge for Catholics within the Anglican Church. They tend to identify the faith with a certain cultural wrapping and have been slow to modernise and adapt. Even so, I have a hunch that we could still see considerable growth in this area. International Catholicism, responsive to contemporary culture but also rooted in the transcendent, evangelical in its preaching but offering the richness of sacramental worship, could yet prove to be a winner. But I must admit to seeing little sign of this in practice.
Paul Richardson, the author of this letter, who until recently was Bishop of Aipo Rongo in the Province of Papua New Guinea is now Bishop of Wangaratta in Australia.