Tradition and Change: Australian churches and the future

Carole M. Cusack, University of Sydney

Caroline Miley The Suicidal Church: Can the Anglican Church Be Saved?, Pluto Press, 2002 (220 pp). ISBN 1-8640-3182-4 (paperback) RRP $29.95.

Chris McGillion (ed.) A Long Way From Rome: Why the Australian Catholic Church Is In Crisis, Allen & Unwin, 2003 (211 pp). ISBN 1-8650-8917-6 (paperback) RRP $29.95.

Since the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788, institutional Christianity has struggled to gain a foothold in Australia. One-quarter to one-third of the transported convicts were Catholics, chiefly of Irish extraction, and the Church of England establishment of the colony denied them priests and freedom of worship until 1820. Being compelled, along with other non-Anglican convicts, to attend Church of England services conducted by the evangelical colonial chaplains Richard Johnson and Samuel Marsden created resentment and a sense of injury.

The majority Anglican convict population also gave institutional Christianity the cold shoulder, and the colonial administration was similarly unenthusiastic. Reverend Richard Johnson’s diary for 1794 notes that:

One morning as I was going through the service, I was interrupted—first by the improper conduct of two soldiers, and soon after by the beat of a drum, when instantly the corps took their arms, got into their ranks, and marched away. I had then been barely three-quarters of an hour in the whole service (Flannery 1999, p. 133).

In addition to such humiliations, the first church in Sydney, erected by Reverend Johnson in 1793 largely at his own expense, was burned down by persons unknown in 1798.

The irreligious atmosphere of the colony resulted in a ‘military chaplaincy’ style of church leadership. Governor Macquarie ordered ‘compulsory church attendance for convicts in government service, and enforc[ed] laws against the profanation of Sundays by arresting loiterers and charging publicans who traded during hours of worship’ (Carey 1996, p. 4).

Throughout the nineteenth century, the arrival of free settlers created more receptive church members. The Catholic Church became almost the sole source of identity and pride for its members, who were the repressed underclass of Australian society. Until the mid-twentieth century, a gulf so wide that it can scarcely be imagined today separated Catholics and Protestants. Catholic church machinery discouraged contact between Catholics and Protestants, and there were corresponding Protestant groups, such as the Australian Protestant Defence Association, which lectured its members on the evils of Romanism and provoked the Catholic community by vigorously celebrating the Twelfth of July (Orangemen’s Day), and other festivities associated with the English monarchy, such as Empire Day (Campion 1982, p. 82).

From 1960 onwards, Australian society has been engaged in a dual transformation. On one hand, radical secularisation has lowered church attendance figures across all denominations. On the other, Australia has become a multi-cultural, multi-faith society with many new religions. Some of these ‘new’ religions (for example, Buddhism) are only new to Australia, and others (for example, the Church of Scientology) are entirely new. Three censuses since 1991 have shown that Islam, Buddhism, and Neo-Paganism are the fastest growing religions in Australia. The ‘big’ Christian denominations, Anglicanism and Catholicism, are still numerically dominant, but are experiencing a gradual decline.

Secularisation has eroded the ranks of church attenders.

It might be tempting to view both churches as suffering a similar—perhaps identical—crisis: Christianity, traditionally the religion of Europe and European-derived communities, has lost its appeal in the face of the scientific revolution and the challenge of other religions. From this perspective, Christianity dominated the past because it had no real competition, so the challenge of the future is to re-think the Christian faith so that it could compete in the religious marketplace.

Two recent books, Caroline Miley’s study of the Australian Anglican church, The Suicidal Church, and Chris McGillion’s edited collection about the Australian Catholic church, A Long Way From Rome, suggest, however, that the two denominations are facing rather different problems.

McGillion and his contributors accept Edmund Campion’s portrayal of the Australian Catholic church from its colonial inception to the mid-twentieth century as an overbearingly authoritarian institution, asking only obedience of its members. The Second Vatican Council in the late 1960s radically overhauled Catholicism, but the results of this modernisation have been mixed. Secularisation had already eroded the ranks of church attenders. More importantly, both clergy and laity were taking issue with the church’s teaching on contraception, women priests, clerical celibacy, homosexuality, and a wide range of other issues. The ‘modernisation’ of Vatican II had been insufficiently radical, and the Catholic church was failing the ‘life test’ for many of the faithful. Priests, nuns, and brothers left the religious orders in droves. The papacy of John Paul II (1978 to the present) has intensified these problems, because his vision for the Church is extremely conservative and authoritarian.

Sociologists of religion have noted that institutions generally are losing ground in the contemporary world. Michael Mullins’ essay paraphrases Yves Lambert’s findings:

political ideologies and religious institutions have together lost ground in recent decades. The values they represent have been replaced not by indifference, but by more flexible and pragmatic notions of liberty, equality and fraternity. These core values continue to be regarded as moral reference points, but not in the way in which they have been interpreted by political parties and churches (p. 159).

The Catholic church’s continued advocacy of a centralised, male-dominated bureaucracy, coupled with damaging claims of child sexual abuse and the church’s apparent failure to take seriously the extent of this problem, has increased church members’ tendency to move away from the institution and rely on conscience and personal responsibility.

Despite these problems, McGillion’s contributors argue that contemporary Australian Catholicism has progressed in ways that are appropriate to the present and that it has what it takes to face the future. The core difficulty is that Rome has not. The Australian Catholic church is thus ‘a long way from Rome’, and the distance is growing. McGillion argues that senior Vatican personnel view:

the Church as a kind of club with an inflexible set of rules, to which all its members must subscribe. Those who don’t—proponents of women’s ordination, practising homosexuals, divorced and civilly-remarried Catholics—are made to feel unwelcome; those who question the rules are asked to leave or forced to go (p. xxiv).

Miley's dissection of Australian Anglican church culture is devastating.

The tragedy of the Vatican hierarchy is that it has sought to impose ‘conformity rather than searching for a new consensus’ (p. xxiv).

This analysis provides a bridge to Caroline Miley’s argument in The Suicidal Church. McGillion’s book does not dwell on the nature of Christianity itself, being exclusively concerned with the failures of institutional Catholicism. Miley’s ‘take’ on the decline of Anglicanism is quite different. An adult convert to Christianity and academically-trained art historian with several degrees, she can criticise the Australian Anglican church in ways that people brought up in the tradition cannot. She notes:

Several years ago I became a Christian. Many things about the church surprised me then, and many still surprise me. It is a strange institution, unlike any other I have encountered, yet its members largely regard it as normal. It seems to me that it is the culture of the church, not the tenets of the faith, that makes it difficult to enter (p. 3).

Miley’s dissection of Australian Anglican church culture is devastating: she accuses the church (both the institution and its members) of timidity, chronic ‘niceness’, an obsession with sex and sexuality, the equation of middle-classness with Christianity, racism, irrelevance, conformity, sectarian hostility, and a host of other failings. The Anglican church in Australia, she avers, is not going gently into that dark night, but actively committing suicide. The evidence she musters is strong and convincing. What is interesting, therefore, is that the book is very positive. Miley loves her faith and believes fervently, she is well informed about the nature of contemporary society, and she is not afraid to propose a programme for change.

The problem is that most Anglicans will not agree with her, and it is unlikely that the church will implement her comprehensive reforms. Why not? Because Anglicanism is a profoundly divided denomination. Differences between ‘low’, ‘broad’, and ‘high’ church Anglicanism make them almost three different churches. The last three appointments to the position of Archbishop of Canterbury, leader of the world Anglican communion, make this clear. Robert Runcie (1980–1991) was ‘high’, favouring a closer relationship with Roman Catholicism. George Carey (1991–2002) was ‘low’, with charismatic/Pentecostal tendencies. Rowan Williams, the newly instated Archbishop, holds ‘liberal’ views on subjects such as homosexuality, which have already caused a ruckus within the communion.

Miley is a forward-thinking liberal like Williams, strongly committed to the core of Christianity but willing to regard certain issues as negotiable, as part of culture, not doctrine. Change must and can happen—the changes precipitated by the Reformation ‘were so enormously successful that they carried the church through the next four hundred years’ (p. 4). The great change needed now is de-institutionalisation, since Western people no longer desire membership of institutions. Miley stresses that Jesus did not found a bureaucracy, and that Christianity is about acceptance and empowerment, salvation, and forgiveness:

most spiritual people in Australia today are simply not prepared to believe that people are evil or condemned because they were born homosexual or Hindu, female or Buddhist, black or Muslim. They believe that if there really is a God such as religious people talk of, then God must be tolerant, loving and accepting, not narrow, biased and arrogant (p. 54).

Both books recognise that the wider community hungers for spirituality.

Her strongest opponents within the church will be ‘low’, like members of the evangelical Sydney diocese, led by Archbishop Peter Jensen. Their position is akin to that of Pope John Paul II within Catholicism: doctrine is constant and cannot be revised or changed, and the only way to ensure religious revival is to preach authoritarian and hard-line Christianity, giving no quarter to developments in the social milieu.

The Sydney Morning Herald has recently covered ‘Jensenism’ extensively, sparked by Peter Jensen’s preaching tour of England to muster support for the anti-Rowan Williams lobby. The tour reached a climax with his brother Philip Jensen’s sermon calling on evangelical Christians to assert that theirs was the only true faith and that all others (including versions of Christianity such as Catholicism) were false. Responses from members of other faiths decried Philip Jensen’s advocacy of an aggressive policy of evangelism as inappropriate and insulting. This newspaper coverage indicates that the wider public is wrestling with the proper role of religion in general, and Christianity in particular, in a multi-faith society.

Miley’s attitude to the evangelical faction is uncompromising: their interpretation of Christianity ‘conflict[s] so extensively with accepted Anglican beliefs that the persons who hold them cannot be Anglicans. They may be good and sincere Christians, as are members of other denominations, but they are not Anglicans’ (p. 121). Herein lies the central difference between the vision of the future McGillion and his contributors articulate for the Australian Catholic church and the vision Miley articulates for the Australian Anglican church. McGillion’s book argues that if the Australian Catholic church is out of step with Rome, Rome is deficient, not Australia. Miley believes that the Australian Anglican church is out of step with Canterbury and the historical unfolding of the Church of England. For her, this points to deficiencies in Australia.

Both books recognise that the wider community hungers for spirituality and meaning-making, and that Christianity has failed to connect with these seekers, who often find solace in other religions like Buddhism. Miley is more radical than the Catholic writers: she believes that the church should give up privileges such as tax breaks and exemption from legislation such as the Equal Opportunity Act. She also opines that it would be better for the Anglican communion as a whole if the dissident sectarian dioceses seceded and formed new denominations, despite the loss of valuable property and investments.

It is true that revising and updating Christianity for contemporary Australia would probably result in some conversion to flexible, realistic, and liberal churches. However, the difficulty with books such as Miley’s and McGillion’s is that they tend to be read by self-selecting audiences: Anglicans or Catholics familiar with the problems they describe and with the culture of the churches in question. Whether these readers embrace or reject the analysis does not much matter. The spiritual seekers who might welcome a revitalised Australian Anglicanism or Catholicism also have the option of choosing among Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Wicca, and a host of other religions. Within this almost limitless range of choices, the Christian denominations will never again enjoy the dominance once theirs, however much they might adapt and change.


Campion, E. 1982, Rockchoppers: Growing Up Catholic in Australia, Penguin, Harmondsworth.

Carey, H. 1996, Believing in Australia: A Cultural History of Religions. Allen & Unwin, Sydney.

Flannery, T. (ed.) 1999, The Birth of Sydney, Text Publishing, Melbourne.

Carole M. Cusack is Lecturer in the Department of Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney. Her research interests include factors influencing religious conversion, secularisation, and the growth of ‘New Age’ religion, and European mythology.

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