Category Archives: Thoughts

Critical comments about the 40 years of the UCA’s Basis of Union

A RESPONSE TO GEOFF THOMPSON FROM JOHN GUNSON (author of God, Ethics and the Secular Society: does the church have a future? reviewed in Crosslight.)God-ethics-and-the-secular-society-COVER

Rev Dr Geoff Thompson’s Disturbing Much, Disturbing Many: Theology provoked by the Basis of Union, received some attention in Journey On Line in July 2016.

[Both books available from Morning Star Publishing] [Thank you to Rex Hunt for helping us to observe this debate].

Rev John Gunson –

The Uniting Church is this year celebrating the fortieth anniversary of our formation, our coming together.

One of the things worth focusing on must surely be the Basis of Union –  the expression of the faith of the church upon which three separate denominations came together.

Geoff Thompson has done us a service here in his recently published book about the Basis entitled “Disturbing Much  Disturbing Many – Theology  provoked by the Basis of Union”.   I would like to continue the conversation, both because it is important to the future of the Uniting Church, and because Geoff’s analysis expresses only one point of view in our churches and because it is factually wrong about aspects of the Basis, while other aspects of his theses need challenging.

Disturbing-much-disturbing-many_FRONT-COVER.13.5.2016The title of Geoff’s book is apt.  I was certainly greatly disturbed by what Geoff has written.  The framers of the Basis expected their work to “disturb much and disturb many”, probably because they knew it was much out of kilter with how many of those in the three churches would have expressed their faith, but there is very little evidence that such an expected theological disturbance took place, or lasted for long.

As one who was involved (not on the Joint Commission itself, but in other ways preparatory to union), I have a different understanding of much that Geoff asserts about the Basis and its function and significance.

Geoff believes that the Basis of Union was intended as the forever definitive theological basis of the Uniting Church.  Some of those on the Joint Commission may well have believed that, or at least hoped that would be true.

What in fact determined the theological position expressed in the Basis of Union was the pragmatic need to find a basis upon which three very different denominations with widely diverging theological positions could come together in union.  In other words it had to avoid looking like a normative/typical statement of any one of the three negotiating churches.  e.g. “That’s Presbyterian.  We can’t agree to that.  That is a takeover.”  So let’s agree on one of the historic creeds that we give lip service to as part of the church’s history – a kind of neutral ground.  Nicea is more or less recognized across the major expressions of the church as the first definition of faith to come out of an ecumenical council and its attempt to unify the many different theological positions of the time.

Let’s conveniently forget that this supposed “divine revelation” was implemented under Roman Imperial threat for the convenience of the Roman state and empire, and its consequent continuing orthodoxy for the next 1300 years also imposed by the State which everywhere controlled the church.

Geoff refers to God’s “inscrutable ways” to explain the otherwise nonsensical and inexplicable.  The God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth is here seen operating totally out of character with what he reveals in Jesus, and in terms of a revelation that he obviously denied to his “only-begotten” “incarnate” “Son”.  Geoff quotes some lonely scholarship that suggests that even if Jesus didn’t claim Messiahship he acted Messianically.  But he makes no case that Jewish messiahship is seen by Judaism as implying anything vaguely approximating the incarnate son of God dying for our personal salvation.

Since the Reformation, with the church increasingly freed from the control of the State, and with the benefit of the European Enlightenment(s) and Biblical and theological scholarship freed from “church” control and censorship, many branches of the church were moving on from Nicea.

Our union 40 years ago happened at a time when neo-orthodoxy /Barthian theology was resurgent (that doesn’t mean it was right).  Had we come together in the 19thcentury we would have had an entirely different  Basis of Union, and Geoff would have been arguing my case – that the Basis of Union was certainly not “for all time”, but simply the best and most pragmatic way to get agreement/union between the churches at the time, and thus subject to review and change.

The second factor at work 40 years ago was the ecumenical spirit of that time.

Dominant in the life of our three churches, it brought home to us powerfully the scandal of denominationalism and disunity.  I, along with many others, was heavily involved in ecumenical activities and the work and scholarship of the World Council of Churches and the Australian Council of Churches.

Congregationalists (my background) historically did not look on themselves as a denomination but as a reforming movement in the life of the church, and we urgently desired and worked for both the continuing reformation of the churches and the unity of the church.  That was a much higher priority than a particular choice of a confession of faith we could all agree about at the time.

We believed that the Basis was a necessary pragmatic concession, in order to achieve union – which we could each interpret in our own way, in spite of its Greek philosophical thought forms, themselves incomprehensible to most.

The majority of Congregationalists would probably not have entered into the Uniting Church if they had not believed that the Basis of UNION was a starting point on which we could come together, not a permanent “once and for all” expression of the faith of the Uniting church.  Such a confession would have been called “The theological basis of the UC’, not the basis of UNION.

To make absolutely sure this was the case, Congregational representatives on the Joint Commission insisted on the inclusion of Paragraph 11.

To those not privy to the background I have described above, Geoff’s interpretation of Para. 11 may seem reasonable.  But, in fact he explains away its essential meaning and purpose, and in fact is quite wrong.

I knew personally the Congregational representatives on the Joint Commission.

Geoff mentions both Henry Wells and Maynard Davies and refers to some of their correspondence.  Maynard was a member of my congregation and I knew his thinking intimately over nearly a decade of close association.

Maynard believed that modern scholarship was giving us new knowledge and understanding of our sources and our faith, and that he expected the Uniting Church to take it seriously and not reject it because it did not happen to reflect literalist interpretations of Bible or creeds or Barthian or any other interpretation of the faith of the church.

For Maynard (along with most Congregationalists) the church was always a church under reformation, and not to be imprisoned by a 1000 year old statement of faith, nor a 1000 year old interpretation of it.  He didn’t believe, as Geoff does, that God wants to be understood in a way that makes no sense to most people today –  thatwhile scholarship and knowledge has moved on, yet God and his works are best understood expressed in the limited knowledge and ancient Greek thought forms forced on the church by a Roman Emperor.

Maynard Davies would have approached each meeting of the Joint Commission with the words of Pastor John Robinson ringing in his ears, as Robinson farewelled the Pilgrim Fathers on the Mayflower, fleeing persecution from “orthodoxy” in England for a new life in America in 1620.

Robinson urged them : “I charge you before God … to follow me no further than you have seen me follow Christ.  If God reveal anything to you by any other instrument of His, be as ready to receive it as you were to receive truth from my ministry, for I am persuaded that the Lord has yet more truth and light to break forth from his holy word. …..  The Lutherans cannot be drawn to go beyond what Luther saw  … and the Calvinists  … stick fast where they were left by that great man of God, who yet saw not all things.  This is a misery much to be lamented.”

A third and powerful factor also determining the Basis of Union was the vision expressed in the deliberate wording of our name – the Uniting Church in Australia, not the “United” church.  In coming together we all believed that this was only the first step in a larger on-going process of union, beginning with the Anglicans with whom preliminary discussions were already underway, and ultimately, some dared to hope, even with Baptists and Roman Catholics. (See paras 1&2 of the Basis.)

To even start conversations with Anglicans and Roman Catholics we knew we had to have a theological/creedal basis with which they would readily agree.  Nicea made obvious sense.  Further, in support of this goal, great consideration was given on the Joint Commission as to the possibility of including Bishops in the polity of the new church.

Again, all of this was about achieving a starting point, and assumed an ongoing reformation and reformulation of the faith, not a capitulation to the churches with whom we hoped for union, but from which we had since the Reformation distinguished ourselves.

Ecumenism, unity, and the scandal of denominationalism was the driving motivation, formulation of the faith secondary and pragmatic.

Ecumenism and ongoing church union is no longer a central priority of the Uniting Church.   The priorities of 40 years ago need no longer delay our urgent attention to a ”fresh confession of the faith” and the ongoing reformation of the church.

These then are the major misunderstandings and misrepresentations in Geoff’s position, but other aspects of his book are perhaps even more disturbing.

While Geoff rightly refers to and recognises the diversity within the unity of the

Uniting Church, he believes that any departure from what he sees as orthodoxy, orthodoxy based on a once for all revelation by God, is somehow a capitulation to what he calls a modern “relativist” culture which characterises the intellectual world of today.

He declares his belief that “the Creed’s homoousiospoints us to the real intellectual, ethical, cultural and spiritual radicalness of the Christian faith.  It is a reminder that Christianity has reasons for arguing that the love of enemy, generosity to the poor, a relationship with God based on mercy and grace, the universal scope of God’s love, the summons to resist all dehumanizing and unjust ideologies, the realities of freedom and hope ….have a ground in the one who is the Creator and Lord.”  And “that God is not especially impressed by religion or spirituality, that true lordship is servanthood, that forgiveness is unconditional ,”

Geoff contrasts this orthodoxy which he believes points to the radicalness of Christian faith with a number of contemporary scholars whom he believes are captured by the relativist spirit of our age, and whose intent, he declares is either “to dismiss the church and its faith”, or some like Crossan (widely regarded as probably the leading New Testament and Historical Jesus scholar today because of his meticulous and objective research) whom he claims has a deliberate intent to “modernise or re-invent the faith.”

This is so far from an accurate and honest assessment of Crossan that one is tempted to wonder whether Geoff has actually read his research.

But the more important point here is that many, if not most, “progressive” Christians give assent to precisely that “radicalness of the Christian faith” that Geoff refers to above, except that they trace its genesis, not to “the one who is creator and lord”, but to the historical Jesus himself.

If the result of the best contemporary scholarship that Geoff finds so threatening is a radical Christianity that is agreed by both ‘orthodox’ and ‘progressives’, then to make such a fuss about the importance of orthodoxy is to suggest that our particular theology is more important than the life lived.

The Church in Australia moves inexorably through decline to imminent death.  Geoff sees no need to work at reforming the church to reverse this decline because it is the world that is the problem, not the church and its practices and its theology.  As a teacher of theology training our future ministers for the front line, I believe Geoff has an obligation to present impartially all the best scholarship, not just that with which he agrees, and certainly not to denigrate that with which he disagrees and is in fact outside his particular discipline.

Does the Uniting Church have a strategy and program to ensure that both/all versions of “radical Christianity” receive equal exposure and are in active dialogue both in our churches, and in particular in our theological colleges?

Both interpretations of faith involve Jesus at the centre.  Let’s start from there, or just accept that so long as we live what the Christ- life means, whether we find Nicea central to that is a matter of personal choice.

At least the secular world, that has turned away from a Nicean statement of Christianity, needs a chance to hear and respond to a more contemporary version , based on a more historically accurate version of the man from Nazareth.

That is why Para 11 is in the Basis of Union, and why Congregationalists came into the Uniting Church.

John Gunson.

A note on John Gunson:

The author is a retired minister of the Congregational Churches in Australia (now Uniting Church). He is a graduate in Arts and Theology from Melbourne, and later completed post-graduate studies in Theology and Christian Education in the USA. He has served parish churches in Australia and the USA, and been Director of Christian Education for the Congregational Churches in Australia.
Retiring early he sought to test his growing questions about theology and the church by undertaking secular employment, where his final lob was as Manager Human Resource Development with a major state road planning and construction authority.
He has been actively involved in the community on issues of social justice and in particular the conservation of the natural environment.

A note on Geoff Thompson:

BAgrSc Hons (Melb), BD Hons (MCD), PhD (Cambridge).  Co-ordinator of Studies: Systematic Theology at Pilgrim Theological College within the University of Divinity. Previously Director of Studies: Systematic Theology at Trinity College Queensland (2001-2013) of which he was also Principal from 2010-2013. Geoff’s research has focused on Karl Barth, Karl Rahner, the functions of doctrine in the church, the relationship between practical and systematic theology, the theology of the Uniting Church (especially the Basis of Union). Current and future research is focused on the relationship between Christology and Discipleship and the theological significance of secular or non-Christian appropriations of, or responses to, the Christian narrative.

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ULURU STATEMENT FROM THE HEART – via APCV

Spokespersons for the AUSTRALIAN PROGRESSIVE CHRISTAN VOICE [APCV] today urged fellow Australians to accept the invitation of the ULURU STATEMENT OF THE HEART” to “walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future”.

Australian Progressive Christian Voice is calling on the Prime Minister, other political leaders, the media and all Australian institutions to give strong, compassionate and urgent  leadership as the nation processes the Uluru statement and its legitimate proposals. As in the 1967 Constitutional referendum, APCV believe there is widespread goodwill in our nation to be harnessed for this historic journey.

Chair of the APCV, Rev Dr Peter Catt, Dean of St John’s Cathedral Brisbane, endorsed the Statement’s claim that “with substantive constitutional change and structural reform, we believe this ancient sovereignty can shine through as a fuller expression of Australia’s nationhood”. Dr Catt added: “There is nothing for non-indigenous Australians to fear here.”

Rev Dr Noel Preston AM (of the Uniting Church) added: “The Uluru Statement is the culmination of widespread consultation. It is a modest but significant appeal for substantial progress in the unfinished business of reconciliation between the First Australians and us, the other citizens of our nation.”

Dr Preston further observed: “When the constitution of 1901 was drafted the voice of the original Australians was not present. It is now time to right that wrong.”

“As progressive Christians we especially appeal to our fellow Christians and the leaders of all faith communities to give support  to a process which should lead to a referendum in the near future and subsequent decisions by the federal Parliament.”

These decisions include the recognition “establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution” and (not in the Constitution) a Makarrata Commission “to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history”. (“Makarrata” is term meaning “the coming together after a struggle”). END

CONTACT  Dr Noel Preston  0419 789 249 and 07 3822 7400 or

n.preston@griffith.edu.au

Noel Preston  1 June, 2017

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OVERSEAS AID: A MORAL AND PRACTICAL IMPERATIVE

OVERSEAS AID: A MORAL AND PRACTICAL IMPERATIVE

There is little of the policy of the current government that resonates with John Donne’s truth that no man is an island unto himself. With the reduction of Australia’s overseas aid at an all-time low of 23 cents in every hundred dollars of national income, the shoreline of our island home marks the boundary of our official compassion.

The guardians of our collective wealth, our treasurers, plead the need at home and budget repair. Countries in a more stretched financial situation than us do much better. For example, in the United Kingdom at the urging of David Cameron, Parliament embodied the British commitment of 0.7% of GDP into legislation.

The Australian Commonwealth Government aid represents 1% of the national budget.

So Australian charity largely begins and ends at home. But at stake are national interests. Our meagre engagement with the world surrenders our capacity to address three global challenges from which our Antipodean remoteness cannot shield us: inequality, climate change and movement of people. This has significant moral implications for Christians as Matthew Anslow of TEAR Australia explains,

“The fundamental failure of the Government is not so much the immorality of failing to   increase aid to 0.5% of GNI by 2015 as per our commitment; it is failing to positively invest in a more moral world for the twenty-first century.

Now, this is not to say that aid stands alone in its moral status, especially given there are other policy priorities in our budget that include a strong moral claim. But foreign aid is a signal that we, as Australians, are willing to face up to the world’s broken political economy and our place in it, and deal with the downsides of globalisation, even as we enjoy basking in its benefits.

We should thus look again [at] the Zacchaeus story [Luke 19], and be reminded that our liberation is intrinsically connected to the liberation of all peoples.

Foreign aid is the expression of the idea that Australians are willing to look beyond our borders and immediate interests, and act to build a better world-system where everyone has a seat at the table, where all have a fair share of the world’s resources.”

According to an Oxfam study, “the globe’s richest eight men have a staggering net wealth of $621bn – co-existing in a world of extreme poverty where one in 10 people are surviving on less than US$2 a day, and where one in nine people go to bed hungry every night.”

People are not moved to uproot themselves from home and embark on perilous boat journeys when their homeland is secure and respects human rights. These values, secured by a vibrant civil society, are threatened by destabilising gross inequality, a situation ameliorated by programs of Australian aid organisations now subject to crippling cutbacks ? programs that strengthened civil society and improved governance in societies. Political capture is taking place with those at the top, the wealthiest, excluding the poorest from the common wealth and services. The resulting instability and the inevitable consequences of climate change will create a tsunami of refugees when sea level rise displaces the inhabitants of the Ganges, Irrawaddy and Mekong deltas. Enhancing local capacity to mitigate and adapt to the consequences requires aid. Reducing our own greenhouse emissions and establishment of distributed renewable energy systems can both head off the worst of climate change and lift the poorest out of poverty.

Politicians feel they can get away with savage cuts because there are thought to be no votes in overseas aid and some argue that it disempowers the recipient. Yes, fostering trade is important but projects carefully crafted between aid organisations and local partners are incontrovertibly effective. Australia ranks as an outlier among countries with whom we like to compare ourselves. These aspire to contribute 70 cents in every hundred dollars of national income to overseas aid as recommended by the Sustainable Development Goals. We lose our self-respect, our humanity and imperil our long-term interests.

Bill BushBill Bush

Bill is a member of the Uniting Church, taught in Malaysia for two and a half years as an Australian Volunteer Abroad. On his return to Australia he worked as an international lawyer in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade with responsibility for treaties and Antarctica. Since leaving the public service he has been heavily involved in drug law reform and social justice issues.

FURTHER READING

TEXT:

Action Aid – http://www.actionaid.org/australia

World Economic Forum, Outlook on the global agenda, 2015, trend 1, deepening income inequality at http://reports.weforum.org/outlook-global-agenda-2015/top-10-trends-of-2015/1-deepening-income-inequality/,

World Vision Australia: https://www.worldvision.com.au/home2203201701

Commonwealth of Australia, DFAT, Australian aid: promoting prosperity, reducing poverty, enhancing stability, June 2014 http://dfat.gov.au/about-us/publications/Documents/australian-aid-development-policy.pdf  and  http://dfat.gov.au/aid/Pages/australias-aid-program.aspx

Robin Davies, Measuring Australia’s foreign aid generosity, from Menzies to Turnbull at http://devpolicy.org/measuring-australias-foreign-aid-generosity-menzies-turnbull-20170203/.

General Assembly of the Unitied Nations, Resolution 70/1 adopted on 25 September 2015 on Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development  [the Sustainable Development Goals] at http://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/RES/70/1&Lang=E

Matt Grudnoff, Charity ends at home – The decline of foreign aid in Australia (The Australia Institute) at http://www.tai.org.au/sites/defualt/files/P168%20Charity%20ends%20at%20home%20-%20foreign%20aid%20by%20foreign%20minister%20%28C%29_1.pdf.

Lowy Institute, The facts on foreign aid spending at https://www.lowyinstitute.org/issues/australian-foreign-aid and a fact check here https://theconversation.com/factcheck-what-are-the-facts-on-australias-foreign-aid-spending-71146

AUDIOS

Helen Szoke CEO, Oxfam Australia, “Strategy, not charity: why we need effective aid now”, 21 September 2016 at http://ces.org.au/forums/2016/Szoke-audio/SzokeSpeech.mp3

Rev Tim Costello, “Fortress Australia – myth or reality?” Dinner forum, Thursday 27 August 2015 at http://ces.org.au/forums/2015/Costello-audio/CostelloSpeech.mp3

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The Kingdom of God: Why Progressive Christians think it is important

The Kingdom of God: Why Progressive Christians think it is important

For modern and postmodern readers, the phrase “Kingdom of God” seems archaic. The idea of Kings and Queens who sit at the top of a hierarchy and who “reign” seems highly romantic, or if you know any history, highly dodgy. The tyrannical self-centred nasty Kings far outnumber the benevolent ones. However, this is not a bad starting point. The way the gospel writers use the “Kingdom of God” challenges expected ideas of Kingship (and Empire, the Greek translation of Kingdom) and opens up new possibilities. In a sense, it is akin to Derrida’s discussions of Democracy in which the term is deconstructed, showing up the underlying power relations that distort current realities and impede future possibilities.

Unfortunately, for many years, actually millennia, most churches chose to ignore the critique of Kingdom explicit in the Gospels. This came to a head in the West when the church began to identify itself as the total embodiment of the Kingdom after they became a State religion under Constantine and his successors. The Russian Orthodox church under Putin is currently making the same mistake.

The Kingdom of God portrayed in Scripture is a strange, uncanny place that overturns expectations and which does not lend itself to easy definition. At the start of the Beatitudes we hear “How blessed are you who are poor: the Kingdom of God is yours” (Luke 6: 20). In our context this is like saying blessed are you who are on welfare and struggling to survive, working at poorly paid jobs and not making ends meet, sick with insufficient healthcare, homeless because you have fallen through the cracks of the welfare system, an Aboriginal person still suffering from historical and ongoing oppression or a refugee whose life is being made difficult by the State. This is far from the expected Kingdom where the rich and famous have pride of place. Later Jesus is recorded as making this very explicit when he says “In truth, I tell you, it is hard for someone rich to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Yes, I tell you again, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for someone rich to enter the Kingdom of Heaven” (Mt 19:23-24). The disciples are recorded as being astonished by this response.

Matthew in his gospel often uses the term Kingdom of Heaven as a synonym for Kingdom of God. This appears to reflect the Jewish scruple which substituted metaphor for the divine name. Unfortunately, later Christians often replaced Kingdom of Heaven with simply “Heaven” depriving the term of its immanence. Hence the problem for the rich person of entering the Kingdom of God/Heaven is delayed till after death, as is the blessedness of the poor who also have to wait till they die and so then supposedly enter the blessed state. This is clearly not what is meant in the Scriptures. “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is close at hand” (Mt 4:17): “The Kingdom of God is very near to you” (Lk 10:10): “I tell you truly, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Kingdom of God” (Lk 9:27).

Announcing the good news of the Kingdom of God is central to Jesus’ teaching (Mt 4:43). Yet paradoxically much of Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom is done in parables which on first reading or hearing are not altogether clear, a point Jesus himself is recorded as acknowledging (Mt 13:10-11). One of the reasons for this seems to be that for Jesus, the Kingdom of God is not a concept but a reality that is both about to happen, is happening and will happen and that only those who follow him can hope to grasp the reality by entering and helping to create it. The Kingdom of God is not just another concept or principle that can be held at arm’s length and thought about. To begin to understand it, you need to help build it. The poor have a head start, the rich have huge difficulty getting to first base.

The Beatitudes adds other groups for whom features of the Kingdom of God becomes a lived reality: the gentle, those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst for uprightness (or justice), those who are merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted in the cause of uprightness (Mt 5:4-10). This is an action plan for the new community of the Kingdom that is unfolding.

In his actions, Jesus also teaches that the Kingdom of God is a place of healing. This is made explicit in the response Jesus gives to John the Baptist when he asks if Jesus is the Messiah or should they wait for someone else, “Go back and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind see again, the lame walk, those suffering from virulent skin diseases are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, the good news is proclaimed to the poor” (Lk 7:22).

There is an expectation on Jesus’ part that his followers will continue the work of the Kingdom in the here and now.  One of the clearest theologians I have found who has written on the Kingdom of God is the American Walter Rauschenbusch who was writing at the beginning of the 20th century but whose prose still feels amazingly fresh.

The Kingdom ideal contains the revolutionary force of Christianity. When this ideal faded out of the systematic thought of the Church, it became a conservative social influence and increased the weight of the other stationary forces of society. If the Kingdom of God had remained part of the theological and Christian consciousness, the Church could not, down to our own times, have been salaried by autocratic class governments to keep the democratic and economic impulses of the people under check (Rauschenbusch, A TheologyLen Baglow for the Social Gospel, 1918).

To enter the Kingdom of God is to embark on a great adventure. Personal survival is not guaranteed. Jesus and most of the apostles did not live long lives. It is costly in terms of personal wealth, security and fame. The goal of a just, loving, equitable and peaceful kingdom seems not only improbable but impossible. And yet! What a wonder it is! To work always for a better world. To be amazed, surprised, humbled, grateful for the ongoing love present in the world.

Len Baglow

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How religion rises – and falls – in modern Australia

From A Progressive Christian Voice (Australia) Inc.

Professor Gary Bouma

April 14, 2017

Gary BoumaIn the past 50 years, the nature and shape of religion in Australia has changed dramatically. While secularisation and religious decline was one way of telling this story, it has become increasingly unsatisfactory.

Religion has not gone away, nor has it retreated into the private sphere as predicted, even though increasing numbers declare they have “no religion”. These changes have major implications for social policy and research.

Religion is constantly in the news. It seems to fuel global events, frightens politicians, and is claimed to influence the voting on moral issues.

In the 2011 Census, Australia became at the same time both less religious and more religious. While a rising number declared they have “no religion” (22%), the number declaring a religion also increased significantly. This was partly due to 17% fewer people taking the option of not responding.

The declaration of “no religion” is becoming particularly evident among young people – the so-called millennials. In the 2011 Census, nearly 30% of Australians between 25 and 34 declared that they had no religion.

Research in the UK reports many young people are turning their backs on formally organised religious communities that seem incapable of according women full dignity or recognising and celebrating love among LGBTIQ people.

Increasing proportions of young people have been raised by parents who declare they have no religion. In the UK, the likelihood of children of religious parents being religious themselves is about 50%. But those raised in non-religious households are very unlikely to take up religion. Similar figures are likely for Australia.

From recent research overseas and in Australia, there appears to be three broad types of orientation to religion, and not just the two predicted by secularisation theory, which is no religion or faith celebrated and practised in private.

Also, there has been a tendency to essentialise the religious/secular divide and to ignore the diversity of ways in which people are religious.

First, there are those who associate with formally organised religion because they find it informs their lives and motivates them to do service. They are public about this, and about their efforts to put faith into practice. Religion is important to them and informs the way they seek to shape and reshape society.

Recent focus groups among millennials reveals some who are religious are exclusivist, believing they have “the truth” and that everyone should have the same religious belief as they do. However, most are confident in practising their own religion while being comfortable to let others be themselves – whether religious or not.

While probably a smaller percentage of the population than 50 years ago, those taking their religion seriously cannot be ignored in any analysis of what is happening today. A recent National Church Life Survey (NCLS) revealed 14% of Australians said “religion was very important” to them, and 11% attend worship weekly.

However, this group is highly diverse. It includes many varieties of Christians along with those who are Buddhist, Muslim, Hindus, Sikh, Jewish, and others.

Second, there are many ways of belonging to a particular faith. As one billboard declares: “there are 1.6 billion ways of being a Muslim”. The internal diversity of religious groups is huge.

Among the “nones” there are at least two groups. First, there are those who fully reject or simply ignore religion. It is meaningless and pointless to them.

While a few may be actively anti-religious, most simply do not care about religion, but do not mind if others follow one. The NCLS revealed 36% of Australians said “religion was not important”, and another 25% said “religion was of little importance”. Similarly, 68% said they never (or less than once a year) attend any kind of religious service.

The second group among those who declare “no religion” includes those who actively engage in spirituality, practise meditation, ask questions about the meaning of life, seek ethical ways to live their lives, and reshape society.

According to the NCLS, 28% of Australians claim to “have had (and another 25% believe it is possible to have) a mystical or supernatural experience about which they have no doubts about its reality”. Given that 11% claim to attend religious services once a week (and 7% once a month), supernatural experiences are not limited to religious organisations.

This second group of “nones”, sometimes referred to as SBNRs (spiritual but not religious), needs further research to understand the ways people are engaging with questions of meaning, seeking to promote personal and social wellbeing and improve their world.

The fact they are not associated with existing organisations does not mean these activities have become privatised. They are simply differently organised and networked.

The diversity of ways Australians are and aren’t religious or spiritual impacts on social policy, education, and interreligious relations.

First, the diversity is not among just an increased number of monolithic blocks of identity. No-one speaks for all Christians, or Muslims, or Buddhists, or Hindus or Jews. Intrareligious relations are at times more difficult among people claiming the same religious identity. Alliances on issues will form between people from different religious groups, which are internally divided on the issue.

Responses to census categories indicate one level of increased diversity but do not reveal the huge diversity within the categories. Nor do they reflect the fact that increasing numbers of Australians, given the chance, will claim more than one category.

Overlooking diversity both within the ways of being religious and the ways of having no religion neglects the many forms of spirituality, wholeness, caring, sacred spaces and meaning found within and alongside formally organised religion.

Gary D Bouma Emeritus Professor of Sociology, Monash University

Disclosure statement

Gary D Bouma is an Anglican Priest in the Diocese of Melbourne.

Article first published on The Conversation

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Why they killed Jesus

Why they killed Jesus.

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The Romans didn’t kill Jesus because he performed miracles or healed people on any day of the week. He wasn’t killed because he taught (or criticized) spiritual truths or religious practices. They executed him because of his subversive politics and his perceived threat to the stability of the Palestinian region of the Roman empire.

They killed him for his work in organizing a labor movement of disgruntled Galilean fishermen who were sick and tired of being oppressed by unjust Roman taxation. They killed him because he dared to disturb the peace of the “Pax Romana” by causing that ruckus at the Temple courtyard seeking to “reclaim it” from those who were colluding with Rome. They executed him because he was proclaiming a rival empire – a kingdom (literally an “empire”) of God – and their perception of him claiming to be the true King of the Jews – and their perception of that as calling for a coup d’état in Israel.

They executed him because his followers were viewing him with the political terms of “Lord,” “Son of God,” “Lord of lords,” “Prince of Peace,” and “King of kings” – instead of Caesar who had been claiming those titles for himself. Jesus didn’t die to appease God, he was killed by those who who worshiped Caesar as god.

In sum, Jesus’ execution was the inevitable consequence of someone living so radically, loving so unconditionally, and teaching so many subversive and counter-cultural things that defied the ruling powers that be — esp. after the disturbing scene he caused in the temple courtyard where he called out the hypocrisy and collusion of the temple leaders and Rome. Authentic Christian discipleship should come with a warning label.

Jesus was, however, willing to receive the worst that Rome could dish out in order to show how the worldly myth of redemptive violence was ultimately impotent – and that the way of redemptive non-violence has the power to change the world.

xx – Roger

p.s. The top two subjects that Jesus spoke about most were politics and economics – proclaiming and describing the subversive kingdom (literally “empire”) of God; and money and our relationship to it.

Rev. Roger Wolsey is an ordained United Methodist pastor who directs the Wesley Foundation at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and is author of Kissing Fish: christianity for people who don’t like christianity

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Genuine Bullying

Playing the Bullying Card in The Marriage Equality Debate

[An opinion piece from Rev Peter Catt, President of APCV. Submitted to Fairfax Press.]Peter Catt

A few years ago I had cause to caution a member of staff over bullying behaviour towards a colleague. Her first and immediate response was to contact Professional Standards and make a complaint about me; she alleged that I was bullying her. The complaint against me was dealt with and dismissed and in the fullness of time the employee left our staff.

That employee’s tactic provides some insight into the way power dynamics can play out in our community. Over the past few weeks we have seen the Marriage Equality debate become the latest arena in which this power play is occurring.

Next week Western and Orthodox churches will rehearse the drama that lies at the heart of the Christian faith, the events of Good Friday and Easter Day. On Good Friday churchgoers will reflect once more on the events of Jesus’ unjust execution. In St John’s Cathedral we will read the story in dramatic form. Real people will play the characters in the story and so make it come to life in our midst. We will be reminded that those who wielded political power colluded with the religious authorities to destroy Jesus, whom they saw as a troublemaker. Those at the top of the power tree understand that even a non-violent challenge can change the world.

In the Good Friday story, as is so often the case, the populace, who were themselves subject to the excesses of the powerful, were played by the power brokers and led towards legitimising the authorities’ actions. The mob also called for Jesus’ destruction.

On Easter Sunday we will hear of the world being turned on its head. The disciples encounter Jesus anew and the efforts of the powerful are unmasked. The victim is proclaimed as innocent.

This is a radical insight. Until the time of Jesus most people believed that victims were deserving of their fate. Illness was understood to be a punishment and falling under the power of another a sign of faithlessness. This outdated way of dealing with victims is still used by some today when they talk of or to victims. Victims of rape are told that they ‘asked for it’, Domestic Violence victims can be persuaded that they were the cause of their partner’s outburst, those who are subjected to school yard bullying can be lead to believe that they attracted the attention of their oppressors, and the suffering we inflict on the people who are seeking asylum, now detained on Nauru and Manus, is justified using similar logic.

The story of Easter day confronts this. For nearly two thousand years an alternative narrative, driven by the idea that the victim is innocent, has been seeping into our hearts and minds. Our culture, even for those who do not claim allegiance to a church community, has been shaped by the new way of looking at victims. The victims are innocent. They are not the guilty parties. Our modern day interest in progressing and defending human rights is based on this understanding. Victims do not deserve their fate. The perpetrators have to be challenged. The system has to change.

As this narrative has found its way into our communal psyche it has led to different way of looking at those subject to the abuses of power. It has encouraged us to empower the powerless, to provide the voiceless with a voice and to bring the invisible into our view.

Those who wield power never give up power easily. They can see that the Easter day narrative, with its focus on the innocence of the victim, gives a certain amount of power to victims. To be recognised as a victim is to have access to some degree of empowerment. It is the first step in giving one access to support, to the support of allies and the overturning of injustice. As a result some who wield power are beginning to seek ways to harvest this source of empowerment for themselves. They seek to proclaim themselves as victims or to label those who challenge them as perpetrators so that they can have access to the power that being a victim provides.

The bullying employee recognised this and sought to take the narrative of being bullied to herself. She wanted access to the power and protection that being the victim can provide.

For several months now I have been observing this dynamic gathering steam within the Marriage Equality debate. Last week Peter Dutton claimed that equality advocates had bullied businesses into supporting marriage equality and some Christians are claiming victim status. Most of these claims are light on when it comes to specifics and seem to reflect the fact that those against marriage equality are feeling vulnerable as they anticipate the certainty of marriage equality coming to Australia.

Not liking something doesn’t make one a victim. Neither does another gaining equality with you. Lost of privilege and status and a changing world can make us feel vulnerable, but they do not make us victims. Genuine bullying needs to be called out in the marriage equality debate as in all aspects of our living. To claim the status of victim as a way to hold on to power diminishes the plight of those who are truly suffering and we need to call that out as well.

Peter Catt is Dean of St John’s Anglican Cathedral, Brisbane. He is chair of the Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce and President of A Progressive Christian Voice (Australia).

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More on “What is Progressive Christianity?”

EyeLen Baglow, administrator of our partner A Progressive Christian Voice Australia has extended the discussion on the critical question of What is progressive Christianity?  This commentary can be found at: A Conversation on Progressive ChristianityLen draws on an interview with Marcus Borg, Progressive Christianity.com, and a long list of diverse thinking theologians which is a wonderful resource because Len has given web links to each of them. Enjoy.

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The Churches and the Environmental Imperatives for all of us

For many decades the churches of all faiths have given serious thought and produced powerful statements supporting environmental action that placed the onus on individuals and governments to aEnvironmenatla changeddress related issues of social justice, being good neighbours, saving the planet and changing lifestyles. The challenges have become more urgent and the voices of concern, protest and action become more shrill.

This is an issue that unites all sectors of faith – evangelicals to progressives – and there are many good examples of effective responses.

The Micah Challenge that grew following the year 2000, when Australia joined 188 nations in a historic and inspirational commitment to “spare no effort” to free men, women and children from abject poverty and achieve eight Millennium Development Goals by the year 2015, Micah Challenge began mobilising Christians to hold the Australian government to account for its promise to contribute our nation’s fair share towards these goals. The results speak for themselves.

The Australian Religious Response to Climate Change has played an important role in advocating and bringing all faiths together and share their responses to climate change. Major religions and denominations have made official statements that can be read at this site. A couple of the links are currently not live. It is worth noting that the Muslim Faith topped the leader board in the Clean Up Australia program with 1000 volunteers on 26 sites. The Islamic Declaration before the 2015 Paris Agreement was a very strong statement of responsibility and obligation.

Green Faith is an interfaith coalition for the environment that was founded in 1992.  They work with houses of worship, religious schools and people of all faiths to help them become better environmental stewards.

They believe in addressing environmental issues holistically, and are committed to being a one-stop shop for the resources and tools religious institutions need to engage environmental issues and become religious-environmental leaders.

The Queensland Churches Environmental Network is a commission of the Queensland Churches Together  facilitating the Church’s call to love and care for creation as a vital expression of faith. A major QCEN event was the meeting held in Toowoomba, titled ‘Impact of Mining on Rural Communities and the Environment’, where the conversation with several people from different parts of the Darling Downs was about the impact of mining on their communities and the environment. On Sunday 26th March QCEN is hosting a gathering on climate change in Brookfield (see previous post). Two recent QCEN reports are:

Ecology, War, and the Path of Reconciliation Clive W Ayre (Uniting Church) and

Green Churches: Ecology, Theology and Justice in Practice Coleen Geyer (Uniting Church)

The Uniting Church Assembly through Uniting Justice Australia has passed many resolutions related to the environment not the least being: For the sake of the planet and all its people which includes strategies for engaging congregations, individuals, communities and government in strategic and responsible action for the dealing with environment and climate issues.

We welcome other appropriate links to share with our members.

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A reflection: Films that break the ‘conspiracy of silence’.

Our friends at A Progressive Christian Voice have recently posted the following commentary:

BEYOND ‘LION’ TO FILMS BREAKING THE “CONSPIRACY OF SILENCE”

by Ray Barraclough

Recently in cinemas around Australia tears were shed in response to the dramatised film Lion depicting the perilous journey of a young Indian boy losing touch with his natural Indian family. But there are hundreds, possibly thousands, of such stories in our own land.

And the children involved did not become lost but were actually forcibly removed from the arms of their families. The Royal Commission, which heard numerous testimonies from what was termed ‘the stolen generation‘, produced its report entitled Bringing Them Home [1997]. It contained dramatic accounts that could be the basis for not just one but many films depicting this Australian phenomenon.

The film Rabbit Proof Fence [2002] took viewers into this sad landscape. But there are many more such stories that Australians need to see on their cinema and television screens.

Bernard Lewis observed that:

History is the collective memory and if we think of the social body in term of the human body, no history means amnesia, distorted history means neurosis. [1]

Suppressed history and neurotic memory – both flow from what has been called ‘the conspiracy of silence’ in nationalistic Australian history. Timothy Bottoms, in his book entitled Conspiracy of Silence, documents what he terms ‘Queensland’s frontier killing times’. [2] But Queensland is not alone in this. No Australian state is devoid of such testimonies, such killings.

It is a challenge to the Australian film industry that that silence be broken. Brief and fleeting utterances have been given of the bigotry and violence that became cloaked in that Australian silence. Thomas Kenneally’s novel, The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith (made subsequently into a film) attempted to give insights into the life of Jimmy Governor and the ripples of violence that still affect this country’s memory.

Every year on 25 April we are saturated with Anzac memorabilia, leavened with religious salvific terms such as ‘blood sacrifice’ and martyr-like language of men shedding their blood for the Empire and their country.

Admittedly the numbers who died at Gallipoli vastly outnumber those who died at Myall Creek and Coniston. But what of indigenous people – women, men and children – whose blood was shed for defending their own land? Can not a drop of Anzac memorial water be spared for them?

What Australian town, shire, or city, pauses even for a moment on the 10th of June or over the days beginning on the 15th August, to remember and reflect upon the massacre of Indigenous people that occurred respectively at Myall Creek (10 June, 1838) and at Coniston (from 15 August, 1928).

And there are records in white history that document these events. The two trials over the Myall Creek massacre [3] and the records of a Board of Enquiry [4] into the Coniston massacre, would provide ample material for a full length film script to reduce the enveloping silence.

Even an arch-conservative figure such as Tony Abbott can refer to the treatment over history of the Indigenous people of this land as ‘the stain on our [Australian] soul’. [5]

Fortunately in Australia there are film-makers prepared to make films that will break the Australian ‘conspiracy of public silence’ about at least two of the numerous massacres thRay Barracloughat occurred throughout the length and breadth of this country? Notable is the 2012 production of Coniston by Rebel Films, directed by Francis Jupurrurla Kelly and David Batty. [6]

If our nation cannot bring itself to publicly remember Myall Creek and Coniston, perhaps commercial films depicting these events can break the amnesia and neurosis of our country’s limited memory.

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1. Bernard Lewis, Notes on A Century – reflections of a Middle East historian, Penguin, New York 2013, p.5.

2. Timothy Bottoms, Conspiracy of Silence – Queensland’s frontier killing times, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2013

3. For an account of the massacre and subsequent trials note Mark Tedeschi, Murder at Myall Creek – The trial that defined a nation, Simon & Schuster, Cammeray, 2016

4. Police Magistrate A. H. O’Kelly presided over The Board of Enquiry which was established on 27 November, 1928. One Board member was J.C. J. C. Cawood, Government Resident in Central Australia, and Murray’s immediate superior. Cawood revealed his own disposition in a letter to his departmental secretary shortly after the massacre: “…trouble has been brewing for some time, and the safety of the white man could only be assured by drastic action on the part of the authorities … I am firmly of the opinion that the result of the recent action by the police will have the right effect upon the natives.” Cawood to Secretary Home & Territories Dept 25 October, 1928. NAA A431 1950/2768 Part I.

5. Speaking in Federal parliament on 27 May, 2013, Tony abbott said: We have never fully made peace with the first Australians. This is the stain on our soul.

6.The documentary film entitled Coniston was awarded the best Docudrama award by the Australian Teachers of Media (ATOM) on 21 November, 2012. It was screened on ABC TV on 14 January, 2013.

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