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Divided Christians in Australia Are Engaged in a Culture War of Their Own
by David J. Palmer
Judging by Australia’s success at the recent Olympic Games, especially when measured by medals per million head of population—there are 20 million of us—it might appear that we have an overwhelming obsession with sport. Unfortunately for many Australians, this is true, but not surprising given the inordinate amount of state funding for Olympic sports bodies as well as the abundance of open space and sunshine.
However, our athletic success cannot disguise the significant differences within Australian society. This year, Australian Christians found themselves divided from other Australians over two matters.
The First Division
The first is a recent court case brought by the Islamic Council of Victoria against a Christian group under the state’s Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001. The second is an attempt by a male homosexual couple, waving a marriage license obtained overseas earlier this year, to have their “marriage” recognized in the Family Court of Australia as a marriage under Australian law.
The basic thrust of the Act is that no one may “engage in conduct that incites hatred against, serious contempt for, or revulsion or severe ridicule of” someone on the basis of his race or religion. It excepts anyone who can demonstrate that he spoke “reasonably and in good faith” for a religious purpose.
A person claiming the exemption, however, must demonstrate the reasonableness and good faith of his actions, and the Act also declares that “the person’s motive in engaging in any conduct is irrelevant.” In other words, a person charged with hate speech has his work cut out for him to escape penalty, in effect being held guilty until he proves himself otherwise. The Act distinguishes between “unlawful vilification” for which it gives no set penalties, though such penalties are likely to involve apology and/or compensation, and “serious vilification” for which the penalty can be a fine or even imprisonment.
It didn’t take long for Muslims to issue a complaint against a group of Christians. Just two months after the Act was passed, a Pentecostal group, Catch the Fire Ministries (CTFM), ran a seminar to explain Islam and to help Christians reach out in love to minister among the growing Muslim community in Melbourne. The Islamic Council of Victoria (ICV) asked three Muslim converts of Anglo-Australian ancestry to attend. With the backing of the ICV, they lodged a complaint with the Equal Opportunity Commission against two pastors and the CTFM.
Both conciliation and mediation failed, and a hearing at Victorian Civil and Religious Tribunal began in mid-October of last year. Some 36 days of hearings, conducted at great expense to all parties, were concluded at the end of March. As I write in mid-October 2004, we still await the ruling. Whatever it is, the aggrieved party is almost certain to appeal, possibly all the way to the High Court of Australia.
A fascinating aspect of the hearings was the unwillingness of the Muslim group’s counsel to cross-examine CTFM’s expert witness’s rebuttal of their submission, a rebuttal based on a detailed review of the teaching of the Koran and Hadith. This precluded consideration of the material, but also demonstrated the Islamic leadership’s extreme unease with the Koran and Hadith being exposed to such public scrutiny.
The legislation puts religious freedom in the State of Victoria at serious risk. What it actually promotes is not religious harmony but freedom from religion. Implicit in it is the hope that Christians and Muslims will slug it out and through the application of the law silence one another.
Muslims had strongly supported the legislation, but some are rethinking the matter. Amir Butler, executive director of the Australian Muslim Public Affairs Committee, wrote in The Age newspaper of Christians with notebooks and pencils attending meetings at which he spoke and said he has reversed his support for the legislation.
“I can say with some confidence that these laws have served only to undermine the very religious freedoms they intended to protect,” he wrote. He ended his letter with the rhetorical question, “Who after all, would give credence to a religion that appears so fragile it can only exist if protected by a bodyguard of lawyers?”
In other words, rather than promoting social harmony, the legislation promotes disharmony. As the Anglican bishop Robert Forsyth of Sydney said in his 2001 Acton lectures, multiculturalists have a static and therefore inadequate view of culture in that they believe that religion is contiguous with culture, thus making religious identity hereditary. Islam and Christianity will never be confined in such cultural boxes, and so trying to achieve social cohesion by silencing missionary religions will never work.
If push comes to shove and the state starts imprisoning Christians and Muslims for their religious beliefs, Christians and Muslims will push back. Many of us pastors have agreed that if any of our fellow pastors becomes the object of a complaint over a sermon, we will all preach the same sermon and confirm that fact in a signed letter to the press.
The Second Division
The second division is one we share with Christians in almost every other English-speaking and European country, that over homosexuality. There seems to be a consensus among Christians in the West that the homosexualists have already won acceptance of their lifestyle. This may be a premature assessment, at least in Australia. Though we have reason for concern, we have just as much reason for hope.
The courts are our biggest reason for concern. Earlier this year, two young Australian men, having “married” in a civil ceremony under new laws in Canada, returned to Australia and applied to the Australian Family Court to have their “marriage” recognized under the provision of the Marriage Act 1961 for marriages contracted overseas. This caused immediate alarm in Christian circles.
The Australian Family Court had already innovated in two earlier judgments. In October 2001 a judge ruled that two women, one of whom had decided to become a man, could marry. The word man, said the judge, could mean a variety of things and was not determined by biology. In December 2003, another judge ruled that it was in a child’s best interest to be raised by two male homosexuals.
Legislation is our biggest reason for hope. Christians have been concerned that the Marriage Act 1961 contains no definition of marriage in its interpretation clause. The Australian Family Association, in origin a conservative Catholic lay organization, proposed legislation to remedy this deficiency and presented it to the coalition government.
The amendment would make two changes: it would add the words, “marriage means the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life” into the interpretation clause; and it would add a further clause stating that “a union solemnised in a foreign country between: (a) a man and another man; or (b) a woman and another woman; must not be recognised as a marriage in Australia.”
The proposal stalled in the Senate when the Labour Party combined with the minor parties to send the matter off to a committee, with the public invited to comment on the proposed legislation. It was at this point that the homosexual lobby lost the battle.
At last count, over 16,000 submissions have been received by the committee, a record number, with reportedly only 100 arguing against the legislation and in favor of same-sex marriage. The Australian Family Association sponsored a spectacularly successful rally in the Great Hall of Parliament, attended by the Prime Minister and other politicians, at which the Labour shadow Attorney General promised to support the proposed legislation without waiting for the enquiry to be completed.
On August 12 the Marriage Amendment Act 2004 was passed in the Senate with only the minor parties voting against it.
This has been a fabulous victory. It is noteworthy that it was fought entirely by the Christian community. It is also noteworthy that once the legislation passed through the Senate, the homosexual protests found no responsive chord in the Australian public, save some half-hearted editorials in the press.
The Churches Today
What of Christianity in Australia? In terms of numbers and general decay, the church in Australia more closely approximates that in Britain than that in the United States, though on the whole it is more conservative and Evangelical. And it operates in a much more secular society than America’s.
Australian Protestant church life became dominated by theological liberalism in the 1950s and 1960s. Particularly afflicted were the Presbyterians, Methodists, and Congregationalists, while the Anglicans, Lutherans, and Baptists were less affected. It then proceeded to collapse dramatically under the impact of the sexual and theological revolution of the 1960s. Virtually none of those who were youth in the liberal churches of the 1960s and 1970s remain in the church today. The flag-bearer for liberalism in Australia, the Uniting Church, a 1977 merger of the Methodist Church and most of the Congregationalist and Presbyterian churches, declined in weekly attendance by 22 percent in the 1990s, a decline that has likely accelerated since.
Other factors affected the churches, of course. The introduction of Sunday-morning sports in the 1960s was a particular disaster for the churches.
According to a National Church Life Survey conducted in 2001, about 750,000 Catholics and 900,000 Protestants attend services each week, together making up about 9 percent of the Australian population, down from roughly 10 percent five years earlier. The big losers were the Catholics (down 13 percent), Uniting Church (11 percent), Anglicans outside the diocese of Sydney (10 percent), and the Lutherans and Salvation Army (both down 7 percent).
In overall numbers, however, Protestantism actually grew slightly, but only because of large gains by Pentecostals (over 20 percent), the Anglican diocese of Sydney (11 percent), and Baptists (up 8 percent). The Catholic Church is the largest single body, with the Anglicans and Pentecostals of various stripes roughly equal and second in size, followed by the Uniting Church, the Baptists, Church of Christ, Presbyterian/Reformed, and Lutherans.
Australian churchgoers are overwhelmingly conservative, certainly socially, if not also theologically. Apart from the Uniting Church and pockets of the Anglican and Catholic Churches, the liberals and nominals left years ago. The church is also no great prize for homosexuals. Even in the Uniting Church, a decision last year to allow the ordination of practicing homosexuals led to such a revolt in the pews that the church put the issue on hold while it takes further soundings in its presbyteries and congregations.
There are some interesting features in Australian church life worth pointing out.
Sydney & the Pentecostals
The importance of the Anglican diocese of Sydney cannot be overstated. It survived the traumas of the 1960s and 1970s and kept its young people. Most of its churches today are full of people of all age groups, many operating with teams of three, four, or even more ministers.
The area covered by the diocese contains a quarter of Australia’s population and half of its church-going Anglicans. They are evangelistically minded, broadly Calvinistic in theology, and, under their outstanding archbishop, Dr. Peter Jensen, have committed their resources to the goal of having 10 percent of the population of the diocese as committed members of an Anglican church by 2010. They are a great encouragement to fellow Evangelicals in other denominations.
Should a split come in the Anglican Communion, do not be surprised if the diocese aligns with the Anglicans of the Global South and extends its operations in Australia beyond its diocesan boundaries. Alternatively, Archbishop Jensen could be elected the Australian Anglican Primate in 2005 when the liberal Peter Carnley retires.
To American Episcopalians, even those of an orthodox stripe, Sydney Anglicanism might come as a shock. It is overwhelmingly low-church, to the extent of making Presbyterians look high-church. Thus, apart from a traditional 8 a.m. Holy Communion service, ministers (don’t ever call them priests) have dispensed with clerical collars and robes, the prayer book is gone, and the worship is informal in a non-charismatic sort of way. Faithful, expository preaching of the Bible occupies central place in the worship service. And people are converted, even in the rock-hard soil of modern secular Australia, and the new converts are enthusiastic.
In terms of growth, age range, and ability to draw in people outside the churches, Pentecostals are the most dynamic group in Australia. In the 1960s, they were but a blip on the radar. The early impetus for growth came from the break-up of individual Protestant congregations as a result of the Charismatic renewal movement of the 1970s and 1980s, as well as the defection of surprisingly large numbers of Catholics.
They are still growing, principally as a result of their own evangelism, though there is evidence that their growth is slowing. They have many large churches, with one in Sydney reportedly drawing 14,000 people every Sunday. It will be interesting to see the ways in which Pentecostalism develops. They have embraced Christian schooling, and being closer to the raw edge of Australian society, have various programs to assist young people, especially those in trouble.
Pentecostals have moved away from premillennial eschatology to a realized eschatology, from a fixation with the details of Christ’s return to a belief that “you can have it all now!” The movement lies wide open to the latest “health and prosperity” fad, though some want to delve deeper into the Scriptures. A fascinating development in my own denomination is that a third of the candidates for the ministry are former Pentecostals who have become enamored of Reformed theology and worldview.
Catholics & Presbyterians
This writer trembles to offer anything other than the most tentative of impressions of the state of the Catholic Church.
The Catholic clergy are mostly above 60 years old and totally overloaded with the care of their parishes. Vocations have collapsed. Stories of clergy sexual abuse, almost wholly involving long-past homosexual behavior, keep cropping up in the courts and the press to dampen spirits, while also in the public eye, at least for Catholics and interested onlookers, is the public bickering that seems to revolve around whether you are for or against the pope and George Pell, the archbishop of Sydney.
Cardinal Pell is everything Evangelical Protestants honor and respect in a Catholic leader: firm, resolute, defending orthodoxy, and kicking sand at all the revisionists inside and outside his church. The Anglican Jensen and the Catholic Pell are good friends, recognizing in one another fidelity to their respective church’s confessional stance and a common devotion to our Lord Jesus.
Overall, the Catholic Church is going through a very low patch, something we Protestants went through 30 years ago. Catholics will tell you what’s wrong with their church but not what is good. There are still more nominal Catholics yet to be lost, such is their alienation, and at the same time there has been no move of Evangelicals in Australia into Catholicism, or Orthodoxy for that matter, as in the United States.
There are many Orthodox churches closely connected to the recent arrival of groups from Orthodox homelands. They keep very much to themselves, even the Greeks, who have been here longest.
Perhaps I may be permitted a few reflections on my own denomination, the Presbyterian Church, a small body made up of those Presbyterians who did not join the Uniting Church in 1977. Our opponents said that we would not survive ten years, but 27 years on, it is the Uniting Church that is in decline.
After 1977, the remaining liberals went for all the administrative and titular jobs, while the Evangelicals went for the theological colleges. Now there is scarcely a liberal minister left in the denomination. Some congregations have died and others are dying, such was the legacy of liberalism and the continuing decline of country areas, but new congregations are being planted and former liberal ones slowly turned round.
A very significant factor for our denomination has been the arrival of people previously evangelized by Presbyterians, people from the Indian sub-continent, Pacific Islands, Southeast Asia, and Korea especially, and more recently from Sudan. A third of my own congregation are beautiful black Sudanese brothers and sisters in Christ, and oh, so many children.
Most encouraging have been the number of young men offering themselves for the ordained ministry in a church that is unashamedly confessional and Calvinistic to boot, the establishment of patrols into the vast inland regions of our land, and the upsurge in numbers of missionaries going overseas as Bible translators, teachers, medical specialists, and pastor-teachers.
Women & Children
Mention should be made of two other matters: the innovation of women’s ordination and the success of Christian schooling.
All denominations now have women fully functioning as ministers, apart from the Catholic, Orthodox, Presbyterian and Reformed Churches, and Anglicans from Sydney and one or two other dioceses. For some years now, women have comprised more than 50 percent of the Uniting Church’s candidates for the ministry, and the same is true in a number of Anglican dioceses. The women presenting themselves for ordination are generally in their forties and fifties.
The experiment has not been a success. Congregations, including those in the Uniting Church, prefer male ministers. Healthy parishes can call their own pastors, but less healthy ones depend upon their denominational authorities to appoint pastors, and this has become the usual route for women into parish ministry. In other words, women tend to end up in struggling churches. Evidence is emerging that putting women in charge of parishes leads not to the hoped-for gain but to a loss of parishioners, and the loss is disproportionately a loss of men.
It is an interesting commentary on the matter to observe how the call for women’s ordination among Presbyterians and Sydney Anglicans has subsided rather than increased ten years after these bodies’ initial denial of women’s ordination (my church actually reversed its position). That said, the challenge remains in my own denomination to encourage the gifts of our women. We haven’t yet got that right, having swung so hard against women’s ordination.
The development of Christian schools and the recovery of some of the elite schools (principally Anglican and Presbyterian) of their Christian heritage is most encouraging for the future of the church in Australia. These schools generally make a determined effort to employ Christian teachers and to inculcate in their students Christian disciplines and a Christian understanding of life and the world.
Today, no fewer than one-third of all Australian children are educated outside the state school system. All the growth in school enrollments in recent years has been in the non-government sector. By and large, Christian parents able to do so place their children in private schools, whether the local Catholic parochial school, an elite school, a denominational school (sponsored by Lutherans, Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Orthodox), or in one of various independent systems, such as the parent-controlled Christian schools started by post-World War II Dutch immigrants.
We Australian Christians live in a very secular country. It is hard going for the gospel. But Jesus is our King and he has said, “I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it!” Even so, come Lord Jesus!
David J. Palmer is minister of Pioneers Presbyterian Church in Cheltenham, a suburb of Melbourne, Australia. Before going to seminary, he worked in Australia and the United Kingdom in the senior management of a chemical company.