IN The Mercury of 11 October, 2005 the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Dr Peter Jensen, was quoted as saying — in what was clearly an important, carefully considered and wide-ranging address — that:

• Families were under increasing pressure to meet financial and social demands
• “… prosperity has been purchased at a fearful price to relationships.”
• “Work has become all-demanding … sport and children’s activities impact more and more on Sunday and Christian fellowship seems to be an optional extra, even for believers.”
• Those in their teens and 20s showed a “deep unwillingness to commit. For them, accepting Christ would mean a totally unacceptable restriction on their moral freedom — unacceptable and unimaginable.”
•“The bad name of the church Australia-wide (has made) people want to dissociate the church from Jesus.”
•He also refers to “a distrust of any authoritative institution, a recognition that church membership makes demands, (and) bad experiences of boring and irrelevant church services.”
•And “proven allegations of child abuse and cover-up, which tarnish the wonderful work done by so many.”

It clearly was a major address and it comes across as a very comprehensive and, importantly, very honest appraisal of the state of the Anglican church at the present time. I expect that the other “traditional” churches would have a broadly similar view of situation. As for those variations on the theme — including those which conduct mass open-air services which attract so many politicians during election campaigns — I don’t know what their view is but they may be doing somewhat better than the Anglican, Catholic and other traditional churches. The traditional churches are seemingly going backwards at present — not merely treading water mdash; and some very potent antidotes need to be ingested urgently if they are to survive.

Not being a churchgoer

For purposes of this discussion I should properly declare myself as not being a churchgoer and nor am I one who wears his spiritual and ethical convictions on his sleeve. However, like many of my friends, I would like to think that I led a decent life by christian standards. Over nearly seventy years I have done some things of which I am not proud but, equally, I believe that over the decades I have increasingly led a life that would not have been cause for any significant concern in any confessional situation in any church any where. I would guess that the same claim could legitimately be made by the vast majority of my fellow citizens who are not churchgoers.

So what then for the future of the traditional churches in our society? I think an important introductory observation — and it is implicit in the preceding paragraph — is that not being a churchgoer should not infer an abandonment of christian principles. Certainly there have been structural and other changes in Australian society — many of them unpleasant, some negative but many positive — that have changed the patterns of peoples’ lives and, doubtless in many cases, been one of the contributing factors in the increasing decline in congregations.

In this context, Archbishop Jensen notes the “deep unwillingness to commit” to Christ on the part of Australians, especially those in their teens and twenties, with sport and social life being of higher priority. He makes what I am sure is an entirely valid point and it is probably a direct reflection of the increasingly diverse and numerous choices, enticements and opportunities which now confront all of us, especially younger people. Equally, however, many or perhaps most of these young people may well lead lives of a kind that would not bring anything but endorsement from the clergy. But, as the archbishop declares, they don’t go to church.

Perhaps one of the principle reasons why congregations have declined is that potential worshippers are disinclined to make a spiritual and moral commitment to institutions that have been so deficient in keeping their own houses in order. Again, it is a mark of Archbishop Jensen’s honesty that he readily concedes this point — indeed he specifically mentions sexual abuse in this context — and his view would doubtless be shared by his Catholic counterparts. However, it is one thing to concede the point but quite another to do something about it. Sadly, the problem of sexual abuse has been with the christian churches for two thousand and five years, through the Reformation, the Inquisition and all their other major mile posts.

One strike and you’re out

There really are no longer any options for the churches other than the very simple one of one strike — and one strike only — and you’re out. That should be and be seen to be a ruthlessly pursued policy of all the churches. They may be their brothers’ keeper but the sexual predator is — one brother they should not keep. If the christian churches choose not to adopt this approach then the current withering on the vine will accelerate, dramatically. There are people all around the world, including very young and innocent people, who are living in the horrible shadow of having been sexually abused by priests. The churches owe it to them to get their houses in order and keep it that way.

Further, I believe that, upon engagement and assuming it does not presently exist in the form I recommend, priests should be required to sign a contract of employment incorporating a provision whereby they would be subject to immediate dismissal in the event of being guilty of any form of sexual abuse. In this context there is the likely prospect that many would resign at their own initiative if they are told they are under investigation, irrespective of the severity of evidence that may ultimately be brought forward. If initiatives of this kind are not taken — if the churches are not seen to be absolutely ruthless in this hypersensitive area— then they can surely expect a continuing slide towards oblivion.

Another area in which the churches have been slow to adopt a rational position, at least in Tasmania, is on the matter of brothels. Due more it seemed to legislative bungling than to socially responsible policy-making the Tasmanian government recently required the closure of all legal brothels in the state. The churches were apparently supportive of this initiative but I can’t see why. Do they want those who were previously using legal brothels, that were subject to formal certification and policing, to be making furtive forays down back alleys and negotiating with lowlife pimps to spend time in a sordid bedroom or against a picket fence with a woman — or a man or indeed a child — who can provide no credible evidence of his or her sexual health? It is absolute nonsense and carries the rank odour of either policy incompetence or, in the event of church pressure, mindless stupidity.

And don’t tell me that all such problems will be readily addressed by increased policing. We can just imagine an officer in a police car taking a call from base on a busy night — with sundry robberies, bashings, break-ins and the like to attend to — and explaining that his colleague Constable Applecart is up a dirty lane trying to establish whether the two citizens writhing against a fence, with their pants around their ankles, are engaging in sex for money or just saying good night. The fact is that the police have higher priorities than that and, in any event, the pimps and the prostitutes will be more than one step ahead of the police most of the time. It has been ever thus.

Out-dated conservatism

The fact that the Catholic church continues to reject the notion of female priests is yet another factor that enhances its image of out-dated conservatism. Forgetting the occasional public comment on this relic of times past, if my crude survey is any guide then quite a few lay Catholics favour change in this area. It is simply out of kilter with the times and owes more to the constipated processes of policy development within the church than to any sensible logic or compatibility with community attitudes. I believe the same thing applies to the ban on married priests.

In short, the traditional churches seem to me to bathe in an aura of yesteryear, to be stodgy, slow to accommodate change and disinclined to experiment and yet, given the legitimate worries canvassed by Archbishop Jensen, the need for urgent attention is readily apparent. I have no ready prescription for their salvation but I would like to see them survive and flourish because they have been — and can continue to be — an important integral element in our society. They continue to discharge immensely important welfare and missionary functions but these too will wither on the vine if the numbers of churchgoers continue to decline.

I have no ready solution at hand but the traditional churches need youth, they need funds, they need to modernise their image — without being glib or slick— and they need to address these challenges urgently. They need more proactive engagement with young people; more engagement with the people at large, for example through the media; more proactive promotion of social problems in Australia and the appalling plight of the Third World, especially Africa; more public positions on other matters in which they can claim a legitimate interest. Above all, the spokespeople should be younger, more articulate, more vibrant. I think the churches can succeed in this mission but if they continue in their present state of apparent torpor; if they continue to just ring their hands; if they continue to push forward pallid, bland, seemingly negative, boring, hand-wringing, elderly public spokespersons then their end is indeed nigh.

For what it is worth, I wish them well because, if the pace and nature of change continues as it has in the recent past, they will be overtaken by events, including some religious institutions that might be considered long on pizzazz and short on substance. That would be sad indeed because to be left with only a temporal power and a few glib and noisy God botherers would be the worst of all possible worlds.