An Australian Perspective on Disestablishment

When the Pilgrim Fathers landed in New England in 1620 the event was celebrated by prayer and bible reading. By contrast when Governor Phillip landed at Sydney Cove on January 26th, 1788, no religious observance marked the occasion. As one historian described the scene, “The baptism of the place was performed in libations of liquor and success to the settlement was duly toasted in the flowing bowl”.

One of the features of Australia that has struck me in the six months I have lived here is that it appears to have no civil religion. American Presidents lace their speeches with quotations from the bible and John Major can refer to old ladies cycling through the early morning mist to holy communion when he wants to conjure up the spirit of England, but I would be very surprised to hear this kind of talk from Paul Keating. One survey just published even shows more Australians able to recognise the golden arches of MacDonald’s logo than the Christian sign of the cross.

Religion rarely surfaces in public discussion. The major metropolitan newspapers give little coverage to church news and not even the ABC has a religious affairs correspondent. As often as not the late night Sunday “God-slot” is filled by an imported “Everyman” production. As a leading Australian Catholic theologian, Fr Tony Kelly, has observed, “for a politician, or anyone else in public life for that matter, to appeal to deeper values is to resist a resentful rejoinder: `Keep your values to yourself! this is no place for preaching!’ ”

Coupled with public silence goes a reluctance on the part of individual Australians to discuss religious issues. The typical male sees himself as tough, unemotional and untouched by spiritual concerns. Sport is the great national obsession.

There seems to be a feeling of awkwardness or embarrassment on the part of some people at the thought of entering a church building. Many weddings are performed in public places and funerals often take place in chapels owned by undertakers. Most Anglican clergy refuse to go along with these arrangements but an increasing number of weddings and funerals are now performed by secular, registered celebrants. The same officials offer something they call a naming or “Christening” ceremony.

A partial explanation to this is Anzac day when Australians remember their casualties at Gallipoli. If there is a civil religion, this observance lies at its heart. No doubt the Christian themes of death and resurrection are there but they are submerged beneath a good deal of military ritual.

There are many reasons for the failure of the churches to establish themselves at the heart of Australian national life. Settlement began after the Enlightenment had undermined faith in revealed religion. A large proportion of the early settlers were convicts and the Anglican clergy at least were linked in their eyes with an unsympathetic establishment. One of the first Anglican clergymen to work in New South Wales, the Rev. Samuel Marsden, was popularly known as the “flogging parson”. Australia acquired the reputation of being “the most godless country on earth”.

Dr Muriel Porter is one of a number of commentators to suggest that while Australians do not lack an interest in God, they prefer to bypass the churches and keep their mysticism to themselves. “There is something about us Australians” observes Fr Tony Kelly, “that prefers to communicate in silence rather than words”.

The trouble with private spirituality, of course, is that it very easily loses touch with orthodox Christian belief and turns into superstition or New Age mysticism. That could well be the road taken by belief in this country. While there is much Australians can learn from aboriginal culture, it is all too easy for them to adopt half-understood aboriginal myths or beliefs about sacred places and rework them in a New Age syncretist mix.

Are there any lessons here for Christians in England? In particular are there any clues to help us predict the impact disestablishment might have on the Church of England?

As a missionary, I think the key question to consider here is the influence such a move could have on the large number of nominal church members who lack any real allegiance to the faith but who are still glad to claim the C of E umbrella as their civil religion. Will disestablishment encourage them to reconsider their beliefs and values and come to a definite commitment or will the removal of this link to the church drive them further away from organised religion?

Looking at the Australian situation, my feeling is that cutting the ties between church and state in England would also weaken the bonds between the church and the wider community. A disestablished church that was a sharply defined organisation with clear rules about who can and cannot belong would undoubtedly have a committed membership but it will also sacrifice evangelistic opportunities and most likely be a body that carried little weight beyond its own ranks.

Paul Richardson, the author of this letter, is Bishop of Wangaratta, province of Victoria.