“AUSTRALIAN ANGLICANS: declining, ageing, English”. That heading from the weekly Church Scene provides a good summary of the state of Anglicanism in this country. It led a story on a report by the Bureau of Immigration, Multicultural and Population Research (BIMPR) entitled Anglicans in Australia that showed 55 per cent of church attenders are over 50 years old and almost 95 per cent were born either in Australia or the UK.

What the heading did not highlight and what Church Scene did not mention, was that the report also revealed that two-thirds of Anglican attenders are women. Men under 50 are an endangered species in the Anglican Church of Australia.

To be fair, commentators have been able to find a number of inaccuracies in the report, which is based on the latest available census figures. However it is unlikely that either the 1996 census or the National Church Survey that was undertaken in August will contradict the general pattern detected by BIMPR.

In the Church of England the claim has been made that the rate of decline in church attendance has slowed down or even bottomed out. Even so, while usual Sunday church attendance was 1.14 million at the start of the Decade of Evangelism in 1990, by 1994 it was down to just over 1.09 million. To say this is not to belittle the efforts of people like Canon Robert Warren of the Springboard project but only to show how big is the challenge we face.

Why are the Anglicans and other mainstream denominations in trouble? Steve Bruce, a sociologist with no religious affiliation of his own, has some interesting points to make in his latest book, Religion in the Modern World: from Cathedrals to Cults (OUP, 1996). According to Bruce, a large number of studies agree that the growth of conservative Protestantism owes little to the recruitment of people who were previously non-believers or even liberal Christians. The real reason lies in retention of children.

A major problem for liberal Christianity is that it is so diffuse. As a result, liberals find it difficult to unite around a common theme or course of action. In a secular society, Bruce sees liberal clergy driven to seek relevance by finding new goals to pursue. They are easily attracted by community work, therapy or politics, areas where they often find it easier to focus their energies and set clear objectives. Usually the excuse for such activity is that the church is trying to build bridges to the secular world, but, as Bruce comments, “Building bridges may simply encourage church members to drive across them and not return”.

Another problem Bruce highlights is the diversity of liberal Protestantism. This leads to fragmentation and individualism. Adopting a faith becomes a matter of personal preference and few liberals are really strongly motivated to encourage their children to grow up in the church. Given the pressures of secular society and of their peer group, it is not surprising that most teenagers drop out of liberal denominations.

Bruce sums up the dilemma for liberal Christians in words that are worth quoting. “Many liberal Protestants (and, increasingly, liberal Catholics)”, he writes, “came to their faith as a liberation from the authoritarianism of either the church or a sect form of religion. What those bodies that have been most influenced by liberalism cannot do is give any pressing reason why an atheist should accept religious beliefs. There may be peripheral advantages in the company or the social activities offered by a church, but, so long as the mainstream churches tend to the universalism of endorsing secular beliefs as being pretty well equally valid and seek new roles for themselves by becoming involved in secular activities, they are offering little or no challenge to those presently outside the churches.”

If the analysis offered by Bruce is accurate, and I believe it is, then evangelism will only succeed if there is theological renewal in the church. We need to recover our confidence in the gospel as a word of hope and message of redemption for modern men and women. One of the problems facing the Anglican Church of Australia is that it has so few theologians and has produced so little in the way of creative theological dialogue with the local culture – a point made by Anglicans in Australia. Roman Catholics, with the resources for theological education made available by the religious orders, have been far ahead in this area.

Clearly the church always has to strive to be relevant to the environment in which it finds itself placed but we have to be careful how we understand the concept of relevance. It is not achieved by emptying the gospel of its distinctive meaning and by conforming too secular presuppositions any more than it is by repeating tired old slogans and pious clichés.

When W.H. Auden left England to live in the US in 1939 one of the people who criticised him was his father. Dr. Auden told his son he would rather he had remained and become the “mouthpiece of an epoch”. In reply, Auden pointed out to his father that if a writer wants to be the mouthpiece of an age, it must be the last thing he (or she) thinks about.

“What an age is like is never what it thinks it is, which is why the best art of any period, the art which the future realizes to be the product of its time, is usually rather disliked when it appears”.

These words of W.H. Auden are worth reflecting upon by all of us who want the church to be relevant. Achieving relevance is a complex matter. it is certainly not gained by adopting secular causes or tinkering with liturgy but nor will it be achieved by ignoring the signs of the times and pressing on regardless. In the end, I suspect, the clue lies in trying to be faithful to the gospel while still living in the modern world and not seeking refuge in a ghetto or a fantasy land.

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