Moral authority depends on authentic witness

Christianity in Australia may be at a low ebb but Christians can rebuild their credibility by the way they live their lives

By Paul Arnott

April 5 2018 


Christianity in Australia is under the pump.

First, there is the issue of child sexual abuse by clergy, and the cover-ups. Many abusers, instead of being sacked, were moved from church to church, thus providing them with more young people to abuse. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has shed light on this sad and sorry saga of Australian church life, but hopefully provided a measure of healing for sexual abuse victims.

Second, Richard Dawkins and his fellow polemicists continue to argue that the world would be a far better place if all religion was abolished; and there are vocal atheists working to ban all CRE teachers and chaplains in schools.

Third, the same-sex marriage debate set Christians against non-Christians and Christians against Christians.

Finally, the growing push, in the words of Barney Zwartz, the The Age’s former religion editor, “to banish religion entirely from the public sphere”. (See pages 1 and 11.)

Neil Ormerod, Professor of Theology at the Australian Catholic University, suggested in The Age on 10 February that, “The abuse crisis has been a major de-evangelising moment in the church’s history”. Professor Ormerod, co-author of the recently reprinted book, When Ministers Sin: Sexual Abuse in the Churches, asserts that church sexual abuse “has exposed the church to massive scandal and robbed its bishops of any claim to moral authority, all in their effort to prevent scandal and protect the aura of authority the bishops once held”.

I believe the abuse has not only been “a major de-evangelising moment” for the Roman Catholic Church, but for the entire Australian Church. Although the abuse was perpetrated by a small number of individuals it has done a huge amount of damage to the credibility of Christianity around the nation. I sometimes wonder if we realise the full extent of the long-term impact of church sexual abuse on the credibility of Christians. The director of St Mark’s National Theological Centre, the Revd Dr Andrew Cameron, suggested at the 2015 national Christian Management of Australia conference that Australian Christian churches will live with the fallout of the sexual abuse scandal not for years, but for decades.

In the current climate it would be easy for Christians to withdraw from engagement with the non-church world and retreat to lick our wounds in silence. However, despite our many failings and flaws, we are called to both live and speak for Jesus, to witness to the presence of God in our nation (Acts 1.8). It would be unwise to mistake the voices of those calling for the banishment of religion from the public square for the voices of all Australians. More than half the Australian population still self-identifies as Christian. The anti-Christian voices are predominately those of certain sections of the media and academia who seem intent on lambasting Christianity at every opportunity.

However, I have no doubt that Australians are sick of hypocrisy in both church and politics. Aussies are quick to spot frauds and are sick and tired of those who say one thing but do another. We respect people whose actions match their words.

I believe we need to spend far more time listening to non-church people and connecting with people in daily life. In the same way that many non-church Australians misunderstand Christians, Christians misunderstand non-church Australians. St Francis of Assisi said that we should “seek first to understand rather than to be understood”. James, the brother of Jesus, reminds us that “we should be quick to listen and slow to speak” (James 1.19 – NLT). We also need to go deeper with God, to be open to new ways of being Christian.

Are we open to the new things God may be wanting to do in Australia? Are we willing to let go of some the old ways of being church? A friend told me recently that she and her husband are seeking to listen better to their neighbours, by holding a regular BBQ in homes in their neighbourhood. They all belong to the local soccer club. In her experience people are seeking out those who are willing to listen and are asking questions about meaning and purpose in life. I have had a similar experience speaking to people in our local shopping centre about a whole range of issues in their lives.

It has been said that people don’t care how much we know until they know how much we care. At a time when the stocks of Christianity in this nation are at such a low ebb we need to rebuild our credibility as Christian people by the way we live. In the words of Tim Winton, we need to let our lives be our witness.

The Revd Paul Arnott is a former ABC current affairs journalist, an Anglican priest and the head of Christian Ministry Advancement’s Q4Connection for Christians in their retirement years.