The crisis of the established churches should be a matter of great concern to all of us. Irrespective of our beliefs, the guidance of religious organisations is a fundamentally important part of our national life. The broader moral framework that governs our lives will always change and evolve. Without some kind of sustained spiritual input, this framework will ultimately degenerate into a bleak utilitarian shell that debases us all.
The traditional relationship between church and community has been profoundly undermined by the tidal wave of social, economic and technological change in Western societies since the 1960s. None of the various strategies employed by different churches has really arrested the subsequent decline in the role of mainstream religion in contemporary life. Modernising ritual, political advocacy, doctrinal dogmatism and community activism have all failed to retard the inexorable decline in church participation.
As I'm a largely agnostic Anglican, this decline worries me a great deal. The source of my concern provides some clue to a possible way forward for the churches.
The driving force behind the waves of change which have left the churches behind is individualism. Growing affluence and technological innovation have opened up opportunities that were denied to previous generations. Compared with our forebears, we enjoy extraordinarily high levels of material wellbeing. Our ability to exercise choice, to indulge our desires, and to minimise social obligations has never been higher. Spiralling levels of debt and consumption are fuelling a rampant materialism that shows no sign of abating.
The individualism of earlier generations was tinged with social responsibility. Even stalwarts of private enterprise and individual responsibility banded together in churches, service clubs and community organisations to help others. Although this still happens, it is slowly being eroded by a more virulent form of individualism that is little more than naked selfishness.
The costs of this trend are everywhere. Our society is awash with loneliness, social isolation, stress and alienation. Social problems like gambling addiction, drug abuse, violent crime and youth suicide continue to grow.
Fighting this new wave of individualism is where the opportunity, and the responsibility, of the churches lies. Although much of the contemporary work of the churches could be seen in this light, it is generally too narrow, to dogmatic and too negative.
Promoting an outdated view of human sexuality or decrying the evils of gambling provides no basis for a revival of religious participation. Rallying a dwindling band of faithful around peculiar obsessions is no strategy for resurgence.
Hand-wringing introspection is likewise no solution. Although debates about female bishops and gay priests have an intrinsic importance, they sometimes seem to overwhelm the broader agenda which our churches should be pursuing.
The community backlash against modern individualism is already well underway. Australia Institute survey data (pdf, 129Kb) show that 24 per cent of working-age Australians, across all social groups, has voluntarily “downshifted” from their previous level of income and material wellbeing. Overwhelmingly their motivation is the desire to strengthen their relationships. Whether with immediate family, friends or the community generally, more and more Australians are putting better relationships ahead of higher incomes.
In doing so, they are displaying a need for personal, and even spiritual, fulfilment that is inherent to the human condition. Historically, the churches have played a central role in meeting this need.
If the churches’ message is a positive one about stronger, healthier relationships, their relevance will rapidly increase. Instead of focusing on condemning particularly kinds of relationships, or particular activities that damage relationships, a more outward and engaging focus on improving relationships would help the churches and help our society. The relationships theme dovetails perfectly with Christian theology, so this change in emphasis need not undermine the role of traditional scriptural teaching. Core church messages like “love they neighbour” and “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” are all about relationships.
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