The Christian churches in Australia currently find themselves in a perfect storm. The recently released data from the 2021 census makes the reality clear. The future of Christianity in Australia will be as a minority. Just 44 per cent of Australians now identify as Christians, down from 52 per cent at the 2016 census.
Not only are Australians no longer identifying as Christians, but the public standing of the churches has been shredded. Up until the turn of the century the ebbing of the churches' political power and influence had been gradual. The impact of the change was muffled by the continuing important role of church-related welfare agencies and the expanding network of Christian schools. The churches, while no longer in a position of dominance, still carried some influence and standing in society.
The revelations of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to the Sexual Abuse of Children exploded like a bombshell disrupting the slow transition away from the churches' history of privilege. While the sexual abuse of children was shocking enough, the covering up of that abuse in the cause of the churches institutional preservation was shattering. Christian leaders in their public engagement are now defensive, displaying an unacknowledged grief at their loss of power and status. The churches risk being stuck in a self-reinforcing spiral of cultural isolation, powered by a toxic mixture of nostalgia, anger, and fear.
Will the churches respond to their dislocation from a position of power and influence by attempting to recover a past that can't be retrieved? Or will they treat this as an occasion for repentance and transformation, a moment of grace in which community engagement following the teaching and practice of Jesus is undertaken as a compassionate presence with those on the margins?
The evidence of the recent election is that significant numbers of Christians and some churches favour the first option. The approach taken by the Australian Christian Lobby in debates over religious freedom makes this clear. The ACL strongly supported proposals by the Coalition government that the churches should be able to discriminate against LBQTI people and campaigned against Coalition MPs who had voted against some of those provisions.
Using legislation and lawyers to uphold church privilege is a strategy that can only lead paradoxically to the secularisation of the church. The reliance of churches on lawyers and courts in responding to the sexual abuse crisis was a deeply flawed strategy and led the churches astray from their pastoral responsibilities and their deepest theological, and moral, commitments. That didn't end well.
I suggest a path that was recommended by the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was arrested and executed during World War II as an enemy of the Nazi state. Writing from a prison cell in Berlin in 1943, he observed that the church in Germany had been fighting for its self-preservation and nothing more. He called his church to a time of public silence, prayer, and faithful action for justice.
In the spirit of Bonhoeffer, I offer a "modest" proposal: that the Christian churches in Australia refrain from here on in from public advocacy on any issue directly related to their own institutional self-interest, and privilege. This should be accompanied by careful, patient listening to those whom the churches have damaged and abused. This listening should guide the churches' life and community engagement.
The Christian churches should focus their public advocacy to support for those in greatest need, who are vulnerable and do not have a voice. Better still, they should provide those on the margins with the support and the resources that will enable them to speak for themselves.
Christians worried about losing power and influence who find this proposal outlandish do so I suspect because they can't imagine how the church could survive without being privileged and protected by the state. It's time to let go of that prop handed down from Christendom and recover the original radical character of Christianity. The early Christians understood that getting too close to the state and becoming dependent on it was a thoroughly bad idea. It still is.
- Dr Douglas Hynd is an adjunct research fellow at the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture, Charles Sturt University based in Canberra. He is the author of a new book, Community Engagement after Christendom (Cascade Books).