Somewhat to my surprise, I have, in recent years, become a Christian. I am still not quite sure how this change happened, or what it means. I am certainly not an orthodox believer. But I have found my way into a strange kind of faith—partly willed, partly organic, by turns frustrating and sustaining.
To end up as a Christian is to swim against the Australian tide. Most of my contemporaries have, with varying degrees of relief, jettisoned religion. I respect their reasons for doing so. But my experience may, possibly, suggest a way back.
I had spent most of my adult life way beyond the reach of the church, as an atheist or as a Buddhist. But something about traditional Anglicanism had always drawn me, first when I was confirmed in my early twenties, and later, when my mother was dying, I found myself, one evening in early summer, walking through the door of my local church.
After a lifetime of not quite fitting in, it was wonderful to find somewhere where I felt at home. Christians will take anyone, I suppose—that’s the point of it. But my new friends have shown me a kind of community that I did not know existed. I have been an analytical person all my life and am not about to stop now. But whatever errors I make, I know my more conservative friends will forgive me. With the delicacy of Australians, they will leave my search to me.
When I first started going to church, I was very unsure about the nomenclature of belief that seemed to require one’s assent. Then it just seemed natural to give the responses. The language of metaphor becomes, over time, the language of faith, and faith is quite different from belief. Belief implies certainty, whereas faith contains both commitment and uncertainty. But if you pay close attention, you find something else. Even faith must be transcended by love. For without love, we are nothing.
We know this, but how to translate this insight into a practicality of living defeats all but the most saintly of us. Contemporary theological writings offer a plethora of differing perspectives. At their most useful, these scholars give us a reasoned and reasonable confidence to think for ourselves. The forms of worship we adopt are, as the prolific British theologian Keith Ward has argued, in every case the legacy of many centuries of change, disputation and development.
It is obvious, though, that in twenty-first-century Australia, organised forms of religion, as represented by the churches, are eroding away. While most Australians (just over 60 per cent according to the most recent census) classify themselves as Christian, Christians represent a declining proportion of the total population (a century ago, the figure was 95 per cent). Of this group, the proportion going to church regularly is also falling.
It is the traditional churches that seem to be suffering the most. Total attendances at both Catholic and Anglican churches are in decline. In rural areas, the fall in numbers has been greater than in the cities. Without a growing population base to support them, churches in the country are particularly at risk. From within, many churches are full of life, of people caring for and about each other. But in overall terms, the institution they represent is shrinking.
There will always be those who are drawn to ministry. And while they are still about, middle-aged and older women will continue to be the mainstay of many congregations. There are many reasons for this. Census data tells us that women, in general, are slightly more likely to be religious than are men. By and large, women still do the emotional work of families, and many continue this role in a religious context. Some are finding refuge from non-religious or difficult husbands. In any society, older women are also the most negatively-constructed group. The Christian religion gives us work to do and a measure of autonomy. Increasingly, the religious professional carrying the service is a woman.
Yet it is the schools the churches run, and the not-for-profits they own, rather than the churches themselves, that constitute the bulk of their social activity. Given the predatory behaviour of at least some of the male clergy in the past, the fact that lay teachers and other professionals do most of the extra-religious work is to be welcomed. But there is a paradox at work here. The more successful their schools become, the fewer Christians they seem to be turning out.
The result is that the organised churches, considered as religious entities, are nowhere near as prominent, in the lives of most people, as they used to be. Anglican bishop Tom Frame, in his book Losing My Religion: Unbelief in Australia, fears that the meta-narrative, the over-arching story, of Australian Christianity will soon be lost. The churches, he believes, will concentrate on large catchment areas. They will become more introverted, less socially oriented, less liberal. Evangelism beats the quiet assurance of the prayer book, the rotund tones of the organ. Certainty trumps doubt.
This may well be the path of the future. But if they simply become more conservative, the churches will have missed a significant opportunity for growth. We know that many people have a belief in God. We know that the reason they do not attend church is that they find religion to be irrelevant to their lives. For most Australians, the morality that they practise comes from family, or peers, or cultural tradition.
So what should the churches do? Should they just forget about the marketing, and be themselves? Should they become more, or less hard-line? Should their congregations stand on street corners, and spread the good word in person? The problem is that most Australians run a mile from this sort of “good news” proselytising. We do not want to be “converted”. Nevertheless, I think there is an opportunity in this country for the exercise of a truly significant spirituality, not because Australians are somehow unspiritual and in need of special attention, but because there is already a firm tradition to draw from.
Don’t be fooled by the thongs-and-barbecue image. Despite the increasing materialism, I think most Australians are natural Christians, even if they never go to church. When we had nothing, we looked out for each other. Now that we are richer, on the average, I hope that we are still looking out for each other.
We have never been subjected to the apparatus of power and of class that crippled so many European societies. Many of our forebears were rejects and outcasts. Blessed with a wide brown land which resists cultivation, we do not have an over-large population. We break the hearts of our intellectuals, but never their bodies or their minds. We are the supreme pragmatists. If it does not seem relevant, we ignore it. In what sense, then, might Christianity come closer to us?
I do not think it is the form of worship that needs to change. There is, in any case, a veritable smorgasbord of forms from which to choose. But the churches should be more ready than they are to acknowledge that they do not have all the answers, and only some of the questions. They should acknowledge that belief and non-belief need each other. They should acknowledge the importance of doubt, not as a dire problem that must be overcome, but as a simple reality.
It is possible, too, for Christians to learn from other traditions. As a Buddhist, I learned not to over-theorise myself. I learned that my ever-present personal identity was not as important as I had thought. I learned that thoughts are not realities. I learned the importance of equilibrium. I learned practical methods for generating compassion. I learned that the only way to beat the dark stuff is with love. Jesus said exactly this, of course. The right prayer is always answered.
There is too much still to absorb from the teachings of Jesus—and our thinking about them—to let these possibilities die. There are many ways to belong, just as there are many ways to believe. The Christian conversation has not stopped. It may just be renewing itself.
Dr Jenny Stewart is a Canberra-based writer and former academic.