Christianity and its shrinking footprint.
ʺOnly forty four percent identify as Christianʺ – so screams headline analysis of the Australian 2021 national census. For most Australians and for a variety of reasons, institutional Church has become increasingly barren soil for the practice of Christian faith, let alone its discovery. In our 21st century multifaith multicultural society, past tribal allegiances that shored up religious identity and belonging, no longer have the same relevance, except for migrant groupings for whom religious and ethnic identity remain intertwined.
When I commenced my ministry in 1966 88% of the population identified as Christian with one third identifying as Anglican.
Now, from a Church insider’s perspective, it would be easy to excuse this downward spiral as a general trend of institutional mistrust, without seriously examining the capacity of Churches to be the vibrant conduit of Christian practice in a vastly different age. Is it the case that the general population is less hungry for spiritual meaning than its predecessors or is the truth less palatable, churches have shown themselves incapable of feeding or even reaching the spiritual aspirations of most 21st century Australians? The problem facing the Church has of course been made immeasurably more difficult by the scandals that have rocked it through the findings of the Royal Commission into child sexual abuse. However, the Church has made the situation worse by doubling down on its own internal concerns and desire to survive. Listen to the conversations of most Church synods or in the case of the Catholic Church, its Plenary Council, and you will hear much about preserving internal institutional life, not so much about how to engage our greatly troubled world and its individual members with a gospel of grace and life.
It would also be easy to regurgitate the cry of the 70ʹs and 80ʹs ʹthe age of religion is overʹ, science has made religion redundant; we have entered a new golden age of secularism. In some respects, the reverse is true. India, Turkey, Russia, Sri Lanka, the US have all moved significantly away from secularism to become, or nearly become, theocratic states with nationalistic ambitions reinforced through the religion of that state.
Few would disagree that there is far more to being human than popular success or material wealth. The much beloved Ash Barty has amply demonstrated this truth. Surveys show Generation Y (Millennials) are more empathetic, more likely to share with others, more concerned about equity and common good – yes, more spiritual than either Generation X or the Boomer generation. Materialism is not the answer to the world’s deepest longings.
What then is the Church’s future, or does the Church have a future? The Church does have a future, but what it looks like and how people relate to it will not remain constant. The structure and form of the Anglican Church, of which I am a committed member, remains largely the same as it did in previous centuries. This worked well until the 1960s, but the decades since have seen such vast changes in every dimension of life that old structures simply cannot accommodate spiritual aspirations which inevitably emerge from every other aspect of life.
Jesus said: ʺUpon this rock I have built my Church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against itʺ. The rock referred to in this dramatic assertion is not the institution that has evolved but faith: faith that God in Christ is present and does not need to be brought to this place or time, or any place or time (read the prologue of Johnʹs Gospel); faith that life, forgiveness, restoration is constantly on offer; faith that time and eternity merge in a new creation; faith that each individual is made complete through belonging, faith that love conquers all, faith that peace is made possible in love; faith that every individual matters because of what they bring to the whole, faith that in Christ humanity is embraced by divinity.
Now, who would not want to hear, experience, and embrace such a transformative faith?
I cannot outline a blueprint for the unfolding future but can perhaps make some observations.
John wrote: ʺI have written what I have written that you might know that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God and that in him you will have lifeʺ. Christianity is not fundamentally about dogma or religion. It is about life and discovering wisdom to live it in its fullness. Every encounter, every conversation, should be about this matter and this alone. Here in lies the Good News.