On suburban Sunday mornings in the 1960s, church was the place to be. How many of those who crowded the pews in those distant days were, in any meaningful sense, Christians, it is hard to say. Going to church was expected. If you were an atheist or even an agnostic, you were definitely in a minority.
Going to church was not all duty. If you were in your teens, there were other incentives. Most churches in the growing suburbs of the major cities ran youth groups, which were good places to meet members of the opposite sex. Even the most hyper-vigilant parents could not disapprove of the youth group.
Denominations were taken very seriously. My state-school scripture classes reflected a multitude of fine divisions. There were Presbyterians, Methodists and Congregationalists, each class with its own minister or lay teacher. There were also lots of Baptists, with of course good old Church of England as the staple fare. The number of Catholic kids was small, as most were at their own schools.
Catholics and Protestants belonged to different tribes. My family, although not at all religious, were wary of Catholics, who were, we believed, likely to be less cognisant of the public good than the rest of the population. I am not sure where this belief came from. Perhaps it derived from the time of Archbishop Mannix, whose uncompromising brand of Irish Catholicism was deeply unpopular with many Australians.
I don’t think I had even met many Catholics until, in the later years of high school, some Catholic girls from a nearby convent school joined us for the matriculation years. I had vaguely expected that having been taught by gracious ethereal figures in wimples and religious habits, they would be more circumspect and reflective than the rest of us. In practice, they proved to be riotously un-devout. One told me that, if any of the girls showed any signs of wanting to become a nun, the others would, as quickly as possible, find her a boyfriend. The nuns, I learned, were not particularly revered. Some sounded quite troubled, others verged on the sadistic.
How rapidly that era of middle-class suburban religiosity changed! Attendances began to fall away as early as the 1970s, and there were fewer young people seeking to become priests and nuns, or wanting to become ministers. But the days of abundant vocations were not quite what they seemed.
As we now know, and as the churches themselves knew at the time, there was a dark side to the organised religion of the 1960s and 1970s. Even then, as I have learned from Catholic friends, many parents had their suspicions about certain priests. But there were many who, unsuspecting or possibly even desperate, simply trusted their kids to church-run schools and homes, expecting—as they were entitled to expect—that they would be well-taught and well-treated.
This essay appeared in a recent edition of Quadrant.
Subscribers read it weeks ago.
The churches, of course, responded as every institution does when it is under attack. They covered up the problem instead of confronting it. As Christians, they ought to have done better. But then as a spiritually based institution, they had a great deal to lose. They were also, as organisations, singularly ill-equipped to manage the complex human needs of their employees. In retrospect, we see clearly how the churches, particularly the Catholic Church, were almost doomed to run into a storm of child sex abuse. Schools provided an ideal environment in which priests with predatory inclinations might operate with little risk of detection.
As it usually does, public exposure of wrongdoing came too late to address the original systemic problem, which had itself largely been solved by the passage of time. While the churches still insist on running schools, most are almost entirely staffed by lay teachers.
Churches continue to be unique organisations. With a spiritual purpose, but a necessarily earthly existence, they are constantly treading a fine line between too much unworldly refinement, and too little real business savvy. The need for greater accountability—inwards, outwards and possibly upwards—has meant that past practices and assumptions have come under increasing challenge.
At a practical level, religious institutions have to find ways of financing themselves. It costs money to run the simplest church, and while some have income-generating assets, most of the funds for day-to-day operations have to come from donations—in other words, from the collection plate. The tax concessions many believe are granted to the churches—as churches—are hard to find. Places of worship are exempt from rates, but rectories are not. While church building funds may be registered as tax-deductible charities, plate-giving is not tax deductible at all.
Ministers walk a tightrope. They must maintain some sort of spiritual rigour, while still attracting new people to their congregations. Some are natural preachers, with a gift for communicating spiritual ideas in ways that resonate with ordinary folk. Others work stolidly away, showing a more personal concern and care. All run the risk of burning out, and all rely heavily on their wives (for most ministers continue to be men), to nurture the busy networks that are so essential to survival.
It is, as they say, a tough gig. While they have considerable authority, it would be a brave or self-confident minister who admonished a member of the congregation. Many parishioners are very sensitive when it comes to slights, and a bit like a doctor’s patients, can always find another congregation that is willing to take them. Perhaps, because God is a fairly hard taskmaster, many people feel they are ‘owed’ for coming to church.
The churches tell us a lot about the communities that built them. It is extraordinary that when travelling, so many people who would never willingly enter a church at home, are eager to be propelled through the great cathedrals of Europe, for they are the supreme monuments to the vision of our forebears. Somehow, the buildings mean even more than the religion that brought them into being.
The greatest will no doubt be kept up, if only because their beauty brings the tourists in. But the earnest chapels, the little boxlike churches that once housed the worship of communities long vanished, at best will be “repurposed”—at worst, bulldozed to the ground, and the land redeveloped.
The small weatherboard churches you can still see, dotted around rural Australia, have a particular poignancy. These unpretentious places were once the focus of the communities they served. Country people still pull together when times are tough. But no church can long survive where populations are declining, and in many parts of rural Australia there are fewer people now than in the days before the First World War, when many of these now-abandoned churches were built. Even in the bigger regional towns, the mainstream churches are struggling, kept alive more often than not by valiant teams of women, the sole bearers of the tradition they represent.
Australian cities do not lack people. But although the churches have tried just about everything, from hip-hop to meditation, to bring people in, something has changed within the general psyche. Sunday is now much like any other day of the week. The shops, the clubs, the pubs and the sports grounds are all open, as are many cafes. Christianity, for all its beauty, power and tradition, no longer commands the attention it once did. Many if not most Australians, without overtly rejecting organised religion, have decided they can do without it.
But if most of the churches go, where will our spiritual lives reside? Cyberspace is one possibility, but seems a poor substitute for a physical building, a place of friendship, a place of refuge, a place for making contact with the world beyond ourselves. Possibly small groups of believers will meet in each other’s houses, as the early Christians did.
Or maybe Christianity, as the most fertile and creative of the world’s religions, will reinvent itself. The church carries the framework of belief within which each member of the community arrives at his or her own personal theology. But there is no reason why those who doubt, or who want a freer form of self-expression, should not be made welcome.
Perhaps, if we use a little imagination, the churches might become the place where we could start these conversations. Maybe now we have, at last, a chance of avoiding the endless confusion of form with substance, and investigating the substance a bit more closely. If our culture is worth fighting for, then so are our churches. We would all be the poorer if they ceased to be.