ANGLICANS IN AUSTRALIA have held their biggest national gathering since their church received its constitution in 1962. A conference in Canberra in February to look at the future of the church drew over 800 resident participants with a further 200 attending on a daily basis.

What have we learnt from the experience? It was certainly a happy occasion with none of the controversy that usually surrounds national events like the General Synod. However, this sense of harmony may have been a little artificial flowing as it did from the reluctance of many conservative evangelicals to attend. Only 10% of delegates came from Sydney, a diocese that probably contains as many as 35% of practising Anglicans in Australia, and only a few of them could be identified as definite evangelicals.

For me Canberra was something of a Damascus Road. Ever since I moved to Australia from Papua New Guinea I have been lamenting the failure of the Anglican Church in this country to really adapt to the local culture. As a result of my missionary background, I have been preaching the need for inculturation.

At Canberra I came to see that the problem is more complex. The Anglican Church has, in fact, identified itself only too successfully with one particular segment of Australian culture and as a result it now has difficulty in reaching other social groups. It is not inculturation that needs to be at the top of our list of priorities so much as a fresh grasp of the gospel and a readiness to try to make the faith relevant to a whole range of different cultures and world views.

As Bishop Donald Cameron has put it, the Anglican Church in Australia is splendidly ready for the Fifties. It is still at home in the era of Sir Robert Menzies, ministering quite successfully to people from what are termed an Anglo-Celtic background who grew up during the depression or the war years but who are now an ageing and dwindling minority. There are few baby boomers in our pews and even fewer from Generation X.

The Scottish missiologist Andrew Walls gives a perfect description of what has happened to Australian Anglicanism in his recent book The Missionary Movement in Christian History (Orbis, 1966) when he warns of the lurking peril in all successful indiginisations. The more the gospel is made a place to feel at home, he writes, the greater the danger that no one else will live there.

Somehow the church has both to connect with different cultures and yet also to challenge them. It has to put down roots in a local culture and yet also seek to change attitudes and witness to counter-cultural values. A church that simply echoes passing fads and trends soon ceases to be interesting or command respect; but a church that does not know how to communicate in the idiom of the age easily loses relevance and appears out of touch.

The Anglican Church of Australia fails on a number of scores. Except among the evangelicals, our worship reflects the tastes of the older generations. For example, Australians in their 20s and 30s appear to be more ready than others to mix cultural styles. They lack the concern of the boomers of good taste. So we find that they appreciate The Simpsons or The X Files as well as Shakespeare or Patrick White. They enjoy Oasis as well as Bach, cinema classics as well as the latest video, Kiss as well as Placido Domingo.

This kind of attitude is pervasive in new media like the Internet but it is rarely to be found in Anglican liturgy. There good taste continues to reign supreme and church councils resist change.

Older generations are also entrenched in the governing synods of the church. In fact synodical government is a major reason for the cultural captivity of contemporary Anglicans. White, middle-class member of what Peter Berger terms the knowledge class (teachers, journalists, public and private bureaucrats, professional people) set the agenda for our churches. As a result we usually chart a fashionable, vaguely left-of-centre course that very soon appears stale to the rest of society. As Dean Inge clearly saw, we marry the spirit of the age and quickly become widowers.

In the US the mainstream churches continue to emphasise issues of interest to women while deprived black males in the inner cities join the Black Muslims. It now seems their vote, not that of the soccer mums, was crucial in the 1996 election.

Even the development of feminism has left most Anglican synods behind. In the 1970s women were certainly concerned about the gender gap and the need for equality. Today this is assumed as many women worry about how they can balance their desire for a career with their often equally strong urge to become mothers and rear a family. Harvard Law Professor Mary Ann Glendon has pointed out in the American Catholic journal Commonweal that the issue both her male and female students wrestle with is how they can have a decent family life without suffering career disadvantages. In her opinion. the feminism of the 1970s may have made things harder by treating marriage and motherhood as obstacles to women’s progress and reinforcing the idea that the only work that counts is work for pay outside the home.

The national conference in Canberra opened with addresses on the situation facing the church in Australia. Social and economic issues were discussed but there was no mention of secularism or the difficulty we face in making Christianity credible to a generation that is either sceptical or prefers to shop around for its spirituality. More and more I become convinced that the Anglican Church will only have a future if it can speak a prophetic word and make the gospel its real focus and concern. As one evangelical told Church Scene, ‘We would have framed the basic questions of the conference in terms of What is God doing? Where is he at work? Are we following him?’

Paul Richardson is Bishop of Wangaratta in the province of Victoria