Churches Face Challenge in Postmodern Culture

By Father John Flynn, L.C.

ROME, JULY 8, 2007 (Zenit.org).- With just a year to go before World Youth Day takes place in Sydney, data on religion from the 2006 national census in Australia reveals several challenges facing the Church.

The June 27 press release from the Australian Bureau of Statistics explained that Christianity remains the dominant religion in the country. Since the 1996 census the number of people reporting that they are Christian grew from around 12.6 million to 12.7 million. This is, however, a significant fall in terms of a proportion of the total population, from 71% to 64%.

The Catholic Church continues to be the largest Christian group in Australia. Since 1996 the number of Australians affiliated with the Catholic Church grew by 7% to 5.1 million. Nevertheless, this growth was not enough to keep the proportion of Catholics from declining as a proportion of the country’s overall population, from 27% in 1996 to 25.8% by 2006.

The Anglican Church is the second-largest group, accounting for 19% of the population. Their numbers are in decline with a 5% fall over the decade between the census surveys of 1996 to 2006. The fastest-growing Christian denomination was Pentecostal, increasing by 26%, to around 220,000 members.

Australia’s three most common non-Christian religious affiliations were Buddhism (2.1%), Islam (1.7%) and Hinduism (0.7%). Their numbers are growing strongly, with Hinduism more than doubling from 1996 to 2006, to 150,000. The numbers of Buddhists doubled in the ten-year period.

The number of nonbelievers also continues to grow. Since 1996, the number who stated they had no religion increased from 2.9 million to 3.7 million — boosting their proportion from 16.6% to 18.7% over the period 1996-2006.

New South Wales, whose capital Sydney will host World Youth Day, had the smallest proportion — 14% — of any of the nation’s main cities not affiliated with any religion. It is also the state with the highest proportion of Catholics, at 28.2% of the population.

Pentecostal boom

Pentecostals are also strong in New South Wales. From a small base, their numbers grew by no less than 48% in the state over the decade leading up to 2006, reported the Sydney Morning Herald on June 28. Among other groups Sydney is home to the Pentecostal Hillsong Church, which claims 19,000 members.

Its pastor, Brett Macpherson, commented that the number of Pentecostals was in all likelihood even greater than the census figures indicated, as some would have just ticked the more generic Christian box on the form. His comments came in an article on the census data published by the Australian newspaper June 28.

The newspaper also published an analysis by Bernard Salt of the situation regarding young people and religion. He commented that the proportion of believers aged 20-35 contracted by no less than 5% between 2001 and 2006. The latest census data, he added, suggest that people in this age group are much less inclined to hold traditional beliefs than were their age counterparts in the 1980s.

One interesting initiative to put young people in greater contact with religion was the launch of a national program to fund chaplains in schools. The National School Chaplaincy Program was launched by Prime Minister John Howard last October.

The program is voluntary and provides annual funding of up to 20,000 Australian dollars ($17,176) a year for both government and nongovernmental schools, according to a presentation of the scheme on the Web site of the federal government’s Department of Education, Science and Training. The government will provide up to 30 million Australian dollars ($25.7 million) a year for the next three years.

Education Minister Julie Bishop said that more than 1,500 applications were lodged around the country — around 15% of Australian schools, reported The Age newspaper May 30. After reviewing the applications, Prime Minister Howard announced that the government allocated funding to 1,392 schools for the first round of grants, reported The Age on June 27. Moreover, due to the high demand, he said that an extra 25 million Australian dollars ($21.4 million) in funds would be made available for the three-year program.

A reawakening

There is a reawakening of interest in religion and spirituality in Australia according to a book published last year by Monash University academic, Gary Bouma. In “Australian Soul,” he notes that Australia is a typical example of a secular, postmodern and post-Christian society. This does not mean, however, that it is irreligious, he argues.

Compared to the 1960s and 1970s, when secularism seemed triumphant, Bouma detects much more interest these days in religion and spirituality. Nevertheless, this is both good and bad news for the traditional churches, because much of this resurgence in religion is often not directed within the formal structures offered by established religion.

Studies of attendance at Catholic and Protestant churches, for example, show that regular churchgoers tend to be older and more likely to be female. One study revealed that the traditional Protestant congregations lost nearly half of those who were raised as young people in these churches.

Furthermore, the traditional predominance of Christianity is under challenge due to a burgeoning of other faiths, in part due to immigration, in part due to a growing desire for religious experimentation. Thus, not only have numbers of Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims risen, but also those who declare themselves followers of New Age type spiritualities or even forms of paganism is on the increase.

A closer look at the situation of the Catholic Church came in another book published last year: “Lost!: Australia’s Catholics Today,” by Michael Gilchrist. The Australian experience after the Second Vatican Council was similar to that of many other Western countries, he commented, with severe inroads made due to the forces of secularism and relativism.

Moreover, declining numbers of priests and a severe decline in many of the religious orders, who staffed the Church’s schools, has notably weakened both parishes and Catholic education. Gilchrist also devoted considerable space in his book to describing the theological and liturgical experimentation that led to a marked dilution in Catholic doctrine.

Catholic renewal

Gilchrist suggested a number of steps to improve the state of the Church in Australia. These ranged from recommending strong leadership by the bishops, to renewing the Catholic identity of the Church’s schools and revitalizing devotion and liturgical life.

He also urged that efforts continue to promote vocations and ensure good formation in seminaries. Over the last decade or so substantial progress was made in this area and the seminaries that have undergone reforms are seeing a steady increase in numbers.

Even though the task ahead is difficult, Archbishop Philip Wilson, president of the Australian bishops’ conference is hopeful. In a speech given this April at a conference for Church administrators he declared certain optimism for the future of the Church. This is based, he explained, both on a conviction of God’s faithfulness, and also because he believes that there is openness in Western culture to receive the Gospel message.

Transmitting this message to today’s world also requires a sustained effort on our parts, he added. In part we can achieve this through living “faithful, vibrant, intelligent Christian lives,” Archbishop Wilson commented. Being able to do this will require a serious religious and moral formation.

To achieve this, the archbishop noted the importance not only of educating young people through the Catholic schools, but also of forming adults in their faith. Not easy tasks, but essential ones to ensure a healthy future for the Church.

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