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The 2016 census: whence the church?

By Peter Sellick - posted Tuesday, 4 July 2017


The disastrous results about religious affiliation found in the 2016 consensus has given fresh impetus to those who believe that all religion is bad and who wait for the day when it will be non-existent.

In the Weekend Australian of the 1st of July Bernard Salt offers a comment on the decline in an article entitled "Battle of the Faithful":


Finally there is relief, there is honesty, there is a break with the religious affiliations of our youth and now in this decade the Australian people are finally being set free. In many ways, and without wishing to at all appear disrespectful, this is a cultural awakening of a repressed people, as opposed to an oppressed people, that acknowledges where our true value lies.

Salt may wish to not appear disrespectful, (in a nod to the god TOLDERANCE) but I do feel disrespected. But what could Salt know of me? Broad statements such as the one above will always be half-truths because they omit exceptions. It is true that many religions demand obedience and use threats to ensure that obedience and that many experience a new freedom on leaving, but that does not include me.

I attended a production of "The Book of Mormon" in Melbourne and thought it was mediocre; after all, the Mormons are an easy target. I was bemused at the standing ovation the cast received at the end and it occurred to me that the audience was celebrating something other than the performance, they were celebrating the freedom from all religion and they were ecstatic. The send up of the Mormons was complete and could easily be applied to all religion. The audience was roaring because religion was abolished before their eyes and they were free.

Christian denominations vary in their proscriptive demands on the flock. Catholicism has traditionally attempted to guide the faithful in morals and this has been a mixed bag. One the one hand we can admire Catholic social teaching in the papal encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891) and on the other despair at its prohibition of contraception that most Catholics have ignored. There are certainly many Catholics who have left the Church with a sense of relief and honesty. I have a close friend whose husband deserted her and her two children to marry again. She was told that unless the Church annulled her first marriage (making her children bastards) she could not remarry and if she did, she could not be a communicant member of the Church. She left the Church with much anger that the Church that had nurtured her all her life had abandoned her. Her leaving was not a release, it was a deep loss.

On the other hand, denominations that have been affected by the Reformation, like Anglicanism and the Uniting Church in Australia do not officially define morality. They do not have canon law as does the Catholic Church. Rather, they rely on the gospel acted out in the Christian community to produce members who have a moral conscience. There is a realization that proscribed morality is of little value because it undermines moral development and adult decision making.

I would like to question Salt on his reference to "where our true value lies". Does he, like Paul Kelly, believe that if we only had the right values then all will be right with us? This is naïve in the extreme and shows a misplaced confidence in human rationality and our ability to simply live by our values. Alas, the human animal is more complex than that, we are set about with uncertainty, dread, anxiety and fear. This is the stuff that fuels the drug culture. We are confused about our lives and at times it seems like a living hell. The right drugs make it all go away, for a time.


My experience with the church both as a minister of the word in the Uniting Church and as a deacon in the Anglican, is that the Christian community is essential to my wellbeing. When I was dismissed from my Uniting Church parish, ousted from an Anglican parish and found I had to leave another congregation because our new priest was theologically illiterate, I was tipped into a deep crisis. Finding a church that offered theological authenticity, liturgical profundity and beautiful music was hard to find. This is because both in the UC and the Anglican Church the Parish model has declined to such an extent that few have the resources to produce satisfying worship. Catholic parishes find themselves in a similar situation. The shortage of priests often means lacklustre preaching and doing ministry by the book to a disconnected congregation.

While the secularists and atheists think that the plight of the Church may be put down to core difficulties that may be applied to all religions, I beg to differ. While the decline of the Church has been caused by many factors, the value and depth of Christian theology in its analysis of the plight of humanity and its provision of firm human identity that encourages the growth of the self and not its estrangement, ensures that it will never be extinguished in our society. There will always be people for whom Sunday morning is the best part of the week and for whom Christian worship is an essential part of life.

My frustration with journalists like Salt and Paul Kelly in the Australian is that they are guilty of lazy journalism. They provide no evidence that they have consulted church leaders, theologians or commentators and subsequently publish their uninformed prejudices. Where are the journalists who are trained in the history and theology of the Church? Surely such an important part of the nation's life requires adequate comment or is it just assumed that religion is a personal and difficult thing to approach and hence should be ignored?

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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