Changing Patterns

I remember as a boy being told by a well meaning relative, a non-practising middle of the road Anglican, that the difference between Anglicans and Roman Catholics was that when we went to church it was because we wanted to; they went to church every Sunday because they had to – otherwise they would go to hell. In those days the hereditary English / Irish divide was still a reality in the capital cities of Australia, and there was an element of social superiority lurking behind that kind of remark. (‘We can think for ourselves; they have to be told what to believe and do!’)

So, it came as a bit of a surprise when I was twelve to hear a blistering sermon at the local Diocese of Sydney Anglican parish church on Hebrews 10.25 about ‘not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together as is the habit of some, especially as we see the Day drawing near’. The preacher actually said that we should gather at least every Sunday as the early Christians did if we were to grow spiritually. It is what God commands. Then, a couple of years later, having discovered full-blown Anglo-Catholicism at ‘the Gate of Heaven, Railway Square’ (as Christ Church St Laurence was known among us!) I sat through an equally dogmatic sermon on the same subject. The preacher said all the things that an Evangelical would say; but he kept referring to the Prayer Book phrase ‘our bounden duty.’ I still remember the sermon because he said, based on the idea that the ‘first and greatest’ commandment is to love God, and the second is to love our neighbour, that it is actually more important to be at Mass each Sunday than it is not to commit adultery during the week.

That was in the 1960s, very much the golden age for Christianity in Australia. Sunday schools were full of baby boomers, every congregation had a flourishing youth group, evangelistic programmes abounded, new churches were being built and old ones enlarged. Everyone thought in terms of expansion.

But it didn’t last. The baby-boomers as a generation forsook the churches, a fact that is reflected in both the census figures and the statistics found in the National Church Life Survey (NCLS) – a periodic snapshot of Australian church life taken by a Christian research organization. The practising Christians among parents of baby-boomers remained committed, hence the large proportion of over-65s in the pews today, but the children of the baby-boomers are very conspicuous by their absence. A seemingly unstoppable slide in attendance has been a feature of Anglican and Protestant church life ever since.

Until the end of the 1960s Mass attendance in the Roman Catholic Church was the envy of Anglicans (ranging between 40% to 60% depending on the diocese). Since then, the proportion of Catholics going each week gradually decreased, but the influx of southern European and then Asian immigrants kept the numbers up in many places, disguising what was really happening. According to Fr Paul O’Donnell of the Catholic Enquiry Centre, while the number of Catholics rose to 5 million in the 2000 Census, from 4.8 million in 1996, only 14% to 15% of them now attend weekly mass, with about 17% attending monthly.

In fact, as Chris McGillion has shown in A Long Way From Rome: Why the Australian Catholic Church is in Crisis, the number of Catholics attending Mass weekly declined by 10 per cent between 1991 and 1996 (compared with an average 2 per cent decline in church attendance for the same period among Anglicans and protestants). This means that the Roman Catholic Church in Australia ‘caught up’ with the rest. The problem is that this accelerated rate of decline is not slowing down.

In case the reader thinks that 14% to 15% isn’t too bad, I must refer to an intriguing study of church attendance surveys: Did You Really Go To Church This Week? Behind the Poll Data by C Kirk Hadaway and PL Marler in The Christian Century, May 6, 1998, pp472–475. Hadaway and Marler conclude that in every attendance survey they looked at, about half the people were not telling the truth. In other words, the real figure for weekly attendance is probably about 7% in Australia. My feeling is that this is, in fact, more like the true picture.

However, in his remarks about Australia in The Tide is Running Out, Peter Brierly says that, ‘While the estimated numbers attending weekly fell by nearly 300,000 between 1982 and 1998, the same method of estimation suggests that the numbers attending within a month rose by about 21,000. In 1998, 20 per cent of the Australian population claimed to attend church once a month or more often.’

The real crisis we face is not the slide in attendance levels, but the slide in frequency of attendance. According to the Evangelical Anglican Church growth expert, Peter Corney from Melbourne, ‘It doesn’t matter whether you’re a small local family church, a big mega-church, or anything in between. The people who used to come to church 4 times a month now come 3 times a month; the people who used to come 3 times a month now come twice a month; and so it goes on. And we’re talking here about our committed people, not just the fringe people who come only occasionally.’

This affects the availability of the most committed, and it frequently affects their giving. It is related to factors such as both parents working, and the longer hours that those with jobs are expected to work. Also, the fact that today’s proper emphasis on ‘quality time’ with the family often degenerates into a frenetic seven day a week delivering of children to sporting and social activities, further complicating the commitments families have.

According to Corney, even among the very committed, the church is less central than clergy imagine it to be; it has been pushed to the periphery where it jostles for attention with all the other things people are involved in. One of the results of this is that in societies like Australia being a Christian easily becomes over-individualized, privatized, and purely a matter, of ‘my’ spirituality. One of the results of this process is that a vast proportion of Australian Roman Catholics have become, to all intents and purposes, extremely protestant in their general orientation to the Faith, while entertaining a nostalgic attachment to the Church because it is ‘my culture’ or ‘it helps me in ‘my spirituality’.

It is clear that those who are called to evangelistic and pastoral ministry must develop strategies that take into account the changing patterns of attendance and involvement among our most committed people. We will not change anything by simply complaining about why things are as they are. Next month’s Letter From Australia will look at what those congregations who are bucking the trend Down Under are doing right.