Death and resurrection are the central themes of the main Christian festival of Easter. And this Easter, these themes are becoming uncomfortably close for thoughtful church leaders.
With the recent damning revelations of clergy sexual abuse aired at the royal commission still painfully fresh and with church attendance figures on an accelerating downward slope, the mainstream Christian churches are in trouble.
While most church leaders will deny it publicly, anxiety levels are high. Some observers are suggesting that the churches, if they are not already in their death throes, are heading in that direction. Will there be any hope of resurrection?
The last census, in 2011, revealed that just over 61% of Australians identified with Christianity. A century earlier, the figure was 96%. Only one in seven of those claiming to be Christian in 2011 attended church with any regularity.
Of the 30% of non-Christians, a handful – just over 7% – claimed affiliation with another religion, while 22% ticked the “no religion” box. The “no religion” category was significantly higher than the Anglicans, once the largest denomination in Australia, which recorded just 17%. In 2011, only the Catholic Church, with 25%, accounted for more Australians than the no religion category.
The 2011 figures were the outcome of a steady decline in church affiliation over recent decades, and were not obviously impacted by the sexual abuse crisis of the past ten or so years. Religious marriage services, for instance, have been outnumbered by civil ceremonies since 1999 – which by 2011 accounted for 70% of weddings.
I suspect the decline might be about to accelerate. This year’s census, due in August, will probably show a dramatic decrease in church affiliation, but this time a significant leap instead of a further gradual reduction.
That is the sense of people close to the ground in the mainstream churches. Across the board, many parish churches are noticing a faster decline in attendance numbers.
This has prompted huge anxiety in some quarters, resulting in frantic searches for the program or person that will turn the ship around. And a “blame game” – who can be scapegoated for this ongoing failure?
Certainly there are faults and failures to lay at the churches’ doors. The revelations of sexual abuse of vulnerable people by clergy and church workers reveal the hypocrisy behind the Christian churches’ historical obsession with preaching a strict and narrow sexual morality, not only to their members but to wider society.
This is an obsession, incidentally, that is noticeably absent from the teachings of the founder of Christianity. Jesus of Nazareth was far more concerned with justice and mercy for the poor and marginalised.
The charge of hypocrisy, so often levelled at the church in the past, can no longer be denied. The abuse revelations have made any number of churchgoers turn away in disgust, particularly in the Catholic Church. That has been dramatically demonstrated in Ireland, where mass attendance dropped 20% between 2008 and 2014.
Increasingly, people are no longer prepared to be told that sex is only to take place in marriage – and then only in marriage between a man and a woman – when the evidence of clergy sexual abuse has been laid bare in the media. And that’s before we get to rules forbidding abortion, contraception and divorce.
But the steady decline cannot be ignored either. It suggests that contemporary Australian life priorities, developing over the past few decades, are playing a significant part in the changing pattern of church attendance.
In a 24/7 world, where people are working long hours, where they can shop at all hours online if not in stores, where their lives are dominated by digital technology and an endless array of entertainment possibilities, the option of attending church is slipping below the radar.
The aspirational lifestyle, marked by an obsession with home renovation, food, entertaining, and overseas holidays, often places religion and spiritual issues at the lowest level of priority.
Modern lifestyle is out of kilter with traditional church worship. The quiet rhythms of prayer and sacraments, the emphasis on selfless living and generous giving, sermons and hymn singing are alien to many people.
It is why the only churches recording growth and attracting younger people are the Pentecostal churches, known for their fast-paced worship, celebrity-style leadership, and tendency to preach a “prosperity gospel” that legitimises aspirational living. Behind the hip veneer, they nevertheless preach a hardline fundamentalist gospel that possibly offers a sense of security to a spiritually rudderless generation.
The mainstream churches will need to truly believe the Resurrection hope they will preach this Easter.