Veteran researcher, ordained Uniting Church minister and prolific author, Rev Dr Philip Hughes, is not deterred by the figures emanating out of the latest publication from the Christian Research Association, Life, Ethics and Faith in Australian Society.
The figures confirm what many Christians intuitively surmise –traditional churches are ageing, the biggest growth in Church is from first and second generation immigrants and the impact of religion is declining in Australian life as a whole.
However Dr Hughes believes this merely presents the Church with opportunities to think differently as the research also shows that a spiritual and religious dimension of life does make a difference.
Life, Ethics and Faith draws on the latest statistics from the 2011 Census, the 2009 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes and many other sources. The data and commentary cover a diverse range of topics from housing and occupations; immigration and religion; voluntary work and crime under the heading of ‘People and Life’. In the section titled ‘Ethics and Values’ topics include finding meaning, morality, attitudes to human life and political values and under ‘Religion and Spirituality’ are topics around religion and spirituality, religious practices and clergy.
Dr Hughes said one of the most visible indications of the decline of the impact of religion is who couples use to officiate their weddings.
“The proportion of people who have been married by religious celebrants has dropped quite steeply over the last 20 years – from 60 per cent to 28 per cent. That is a huge change in one generation.”
The 130 pages of facts and figures are filled with interesting titbits and revelations.
For example, while on the one hand there are indications of seismic shifts in attitudes to sexuality, in particular homosexuality, there is less acceptance now of extra marital affairs than 20 years ago.
“There has been a sense that commitment in a relationship is taken more seriously now than it was,” Dr Hughes explained.
“The structure of relationships is not quite as important, the essence of relationships and its commitment is seen as more important to people’s wellbeing.”
If churches are wondering why they are struggling to achieve the same kind of commitment from people as in the past, it might have something to do with the nature of authority.
Those who describe themselves as spiritual or religious believe it rests with them, not any organisation.
Dr Hughes said it is almost seen as immoral to give that sense of authority over to an organisation.
Christian education in schools is the main feature in this edition of Crosslight.
Dr Hughes has spent a lifetime involved in education, both at a secondary level from a governance perspective and at a tertiary level. Crosslight asked him how this latest publication could inform educators about the provision of religious education into the school environment.
“If young people are being brought up with that strong sense of the individual’s responsibility in making decisions, then that’s where you need to start. You cannot go into the school situation assuming there is any sense of loyalty to traditions of faith. Nor can you go in expecting that you can teach on the basis of the idea that Christianity has been good in forming our society.
“You need to be doing it in terms of helping young people make broad choices about life, rather than bringing them up in the traditions they may or may not have known in their childhood.”
Dr Hughes has prepared a 50-page paper for the Major Strategic Review offering his insights on the environmental context of the Vic/Tas synod and the ministry implications that context poses. Life, Ethics and Faith also provides some clues for a Church navigating significant change.
“The connecting point for the Church and for vast areas of the population will be through providing means by which spirituality can be nurtured, apart from requiring people to become part of weekly meetings and congregations,” Dr Hughes said.
“It doesn’t mean the end of congregations but it does mean we need to look at other ways we play a part. There are wide open possibilities for engaging with whole sections of the population as long as they don’t see us as trying to get them on to the seats on Sunday and as long as they really feel that we are about their wellbeing including their spiritual being.”
The research demonstrates that those for whom spirituality and religion are important have higher levels of satisfaction in life and have a stronger sense of meaning.
The understanding that the spiritual and religious dimension of life does make a difference has been acknowledged throughout the ages, and it appears this postmodern era is not so different after all.
By Penny Mulvey
Available at: www.cra.org.au P: 03 9819 0123