The mainline churches in Australia are not flourishing. Congregations and their influence in the community are on the decline. Enemies of the church rejoice and prophesy its early demise. Friends make excuses and wait in hope.

How bad is it? Recently a daily paper in Melbourne ran a series under the general heading, “Christianity in Australia.” The paper printed articles by representatives of the Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Uniting Churches.

Each representative examined the situation in his own church and gave his view on what should be done. The newspaper, in introducing the series, did not disguise how it saw the situation. It referred to a “mass swing of the sixties and seventies away from God and church,” which, it said, “shows little sign of slowing.” “Surveys show that fewer people believe in God and that regular church attendance is confined to perhaps 20 per cent of the population. It spoke of “the drought in religious vocations which has forced most denominations to prune service and teaching programmes.”

The churchmen agreed that the situation is bad. The Anglican, John Gaden, saw his church as “bumbling along on alien soil.” He spoke of its close links with Britain and saw the role of its clergy as “chaplains to the status quo.” He spoke of the production of an Australian Prayer Book as a significant event, though he found it questionable whether the Anglican church in this country “has any national identity.” Looking to the future he saw a need for Anglicans to “reach out” to people outside the churches. He looked for “a new ecumenism,” concerned not so much with merging structures as with having Christians of different traditions work together. He looked for a larger part to be played by lay people.

Not many people would argue with him. Certainly Anglicans as much as any people have a need to “reach out.” And a kind of ecumenism in which people are more concerned to work with other Christians than to concentrate on organizational structures must gain wide support.

I doubt whether the Anglican Church in Australia is quite as English as Gaden contends. But it has its problems. Few people would hold that it is making significant progress.

The second writer, George Pell, was from the Roman Catholic Church. He saw a number of changes in his church, “but the biggest change in Australia is that many of the young and middle-aged have drifted from the church and many who remain are uncertain and confused.” He noticed that many defectors no longer believe in God, a difference from earlier crises. Pell rejected euphemisms like “strategic withdrawal” and faced squarely the fact that the churches are in trouble. This is not simply a statistical matter, for “the churches are losing not numbers but people.” And the people they are losing are not being “liberated into a happy secular world; they are being set adrift.…”

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Pell welcomes the changes brought about by Vatican II. And for the future he looks above all for “a recognition of the Cross, the necessity of sacrifice, and a corporate discipline in fundamentals which is not vitiated by appeals to freedom of conscience.” He also looks for an ecumenism that will not necessarily mean one church, an ecumenism that “is not the coming together of the churches for mutual solace or to curse the darkness. It is not the rearrangement of deck chairs while the ship is sinking.” It is rather increased cooperation in the work of the church and the service of the world. But he thinks that there may be only two groups in Australia in the not too distant future, one comprising Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and Lutherans, and the other “Evangelical Protestants.”

For Pell the situation is far from reassuring. But he looks for improvement. The church may have reached the bottom of the trough. An outsider is in no position to evaluate his optimism, but his insistence on the central place of the cross is welcome. I see no effective Christian work that does not make the cross central.

The third church to contribute to the series was the Uniting Church, a Church inaugurated at a service on June 22, 1977, when the Congregational, Methodist, and the Presbyterian Churches came together (with some not inconsiderable groups remaining outside the merger). Graeme Griffin wrote that the Uniting Church should not be seen as just another denomination, for its very name “Uniting” means that it is always open to new possibilities of uniting with other groups of Christians. Once again we have the ecumenical note struck, but this time with more emphasis on organizational union.

This church is no more healthy than the others. Some people were unhappy with the union and a Presbyterian church and some Congregational churches remain. The structures set up by the Uniting Church have taken time to settle in and understandably there have been tensions. Lay people are challenging the place of ordained ministers. Griffin sees it as significant that the next moderator of the Synod of Victoria is to be a laywoman.

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Griffin makes no attempt to gloss over the problems his church faces. His second article, “Merger Brings Conflict,” stresses the tensions. But he is basically optimistic. His church is “an essay in hope” and Griffin is not lacking in this commodity.

From the survey it is plain that the mainline denominations are in some trouble in this country. It is also plain that things are beginning to happen.

A curious feature of the survey is that no attempt was made to include the evangelicals. Those in the Anglican Church are perhaps included by implication, but there are many other evangelicals. Such denominations as the Baptists and the Salvation Army went unnoticed. Some of the liveliest congregations are in such denominations.

The newspaper spoke of a “drought in religious vocations.” We have not noticed this in my college. In each of the last six years we have broken our record for the number of theological students in training—a strange drought. Other evangelical institutions report similar numbers.

Evangelicals have come together in recent years in the Evangelical Alliance, which has stimulated thought and action. Such movements as the “Festival of Light,” which have been strongly supported by evangelicals, have been very active. Evangelical books are read. The Bible is studied.

Although the whole story is far from bright, it is not as bleak as the paper printed it. When the evangelical contribution is included, there is more to be optimistic about. There is a long way to go, but at least we have begun.

Leon Morris is principal of Ridley College, Victoria, Australia.

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