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Australian pluralism and religion

By Bruce Kaye - posted Thursday, 8 January 2009

The question is further complicated by the fact that major public institutions in Australia were initiated at a time when Christian values and influence were pervasive in society. Those institutions were formed with a keen eye to precedents that were readily available at the time and, especially in the 1840s, in the light of the institutional arrangements inherited from England. Those precedents carried with them tacit values and assumptions. The actual formation of the institutions was also influenced by perceptions of the nature of the society in the colony.

The narrowly legal question of church-state relations for Anglicans is thus cast in a context of social values influenced by significant lines of continuity with earlier patterns. The situation of the two largest churches might be put baldly in this way. By and large Roman Catholics grew from being a dissenting minority and they formed attitudes and institutions to sustain their tradition that reflected that position.

Anglicans presumed they were the established tradition and more easily collaborated with the broader social developments. During the last quarter of the 20th century Roman Catholics have eclipsed the Anglicans as the majority religious tradition. The irony at the end of the 20th century is that Roman Catholics are struggling to transform their dissenting traditions to their more prominent position and Anglicans find themselves without the theological tools to make appropriate adjustments to their new position.


A lot is at stake in this situation because of the values implicit in our social institutions. Those values were inherited from earlier patterns and have been adjusted over time. Their serviceability for a modern plural Australia requires not so much their overthrow but their continuing development. In that process religious bodies need to get their act together on the nature of Australian pluralism and its meaning today.

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About the Author

The Revd Dr Bruce Kaye is a Professorial Associate in the School of theology at Charles Sturt and a Visiting Research Fellow in the School of History at UNSW. He is formerly the General Secretary of the Anglican Church of Australia (1994-2004) and he is the author of Introduction to World Anglicanism, Cambridge University Press, 2008 and Conflict and the Practice of Christian Faith; The Anglican Experiment, 2009. See

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