Opinion

Religion on the nose

Dr George Browning offers his opinion on why religious faith is on the decline in Australia

By George Browning

November 23 2017Will escalating disengagement with Christianity by the average Australian punter be the unfortunate legacy of the marriage equality debate?
 
Bishop Michael Stead (assistant Anglican Bishop in the Diocese of Sydney) was asked a question like this on Radio National following the announcement that Australians had decisively voted ‘Yes’.
 
His answer was that Australia is becoming more and more secular and that Australians are increasingly disengaged from religion, not out of a reasoned rejection of its beliefs and propositions but out of ignorance, apathy and disinterest.
 
I agree that there is a very sad and growing illiteracy about religion in the general population, but I disagree that apathy adequately explains a fairly rapid decline in religious or Church affiliation. It seem to me that those of us who have a responsibility to engage with the general population in matters of faith have to accede that many have weighed values that the Church appears to represent and have found them wanting.
 
Those espousing the ‘No’ have argued they are being faithful to ‘the Word of God’. But to which part of that Word are they being faithful?
 
The general population clearly understands that intimacy and companionship are essential within the human condition. The ‘Word of God’ agrees. Indeed, scripture states this is because all exist out of and within the embrace of God: we are born to intimacy as a bird is born to fly. “It is not good for man (human) to live alone”. Lack of intimacy, for whatever reason, can lead to behavioural aberrations harmful to the person and the wider community. It is clear that while the majority of the population are intimate with a member of the opposite sex, a significant minority can only find this deep level of intimacy within their own gender. For others there is profound ambiguity. It is thoroughly desirable that society recognises and ennobles relationships which are stable and hopefully lifelong. A secular and pluralist society, as ours is, expects its elected representatives to enact legislation that protects the rights and freedoms of all.
 
It could therefore be argued that because of its appreciation of the necessity of intimacy, the ‘Word of God’ gives communities of faith the special responsibility of nurturing safe and secure intimacy for all. That members of the LGBTI community wish their intimacy to be given public status, hopefully as a lifelong commitment “in good times and in bad”, has to be in the interests of society as a whole.
 
In my 50+ years in ordained ministry I have been aware of a number of gay clergy who entered heterosexual marriages because, at that time, they perceived this was the only way in which they could find acceptance, either by God, the Church or the wider community. In most cases these relationships ended in tears and in two cases brought the people concerned and the Church into serious disrepute. 
 
As Psalm 19 wonderfully portrays ‘the Word of God’ is made known to us in the natural order and in written text. The natural order speaks to the text and the text speaks to the natural order. Neither science nor religion invent, both are on a constant road of discovery, discovery which is richest when held in dialogue, not in isolation.
 
This is not to say that religion is to conform to contemporary mores and culture - absolutely not. But it is to say that eternal truths must be constantly re-interpreted in the light of new understandings of the natural order. Within the space of my lifetime science has helped us understand the complexities of human sexuality and the dangers in which we put individuals and society as a whole if we deny or refuse to accept differences of identity. Cleary the majority understand this. Far from this being a weakening of a moral code, it is perhaps the reverse, it is an encouragement to abandon fleeting, opportunistic and often exploitative gratification for long term mutually life giving relationships. The ‘no case’ has characterised the Church as being incapable of understanding the higher moral priority.
 
For a moment let us look elsewhere.
 
Western culture is described by some as being gravely ill through affluenza – I agree. Affluenza is rarely critiqued by the conservative Christian community most well-known for the battles it wages on gender and sexuality. And yet of the two issues, it is the latter, greed and material acquisition, about which the written word has far more to say. Far from applying ‘the Word of God’ to this overwhelming affliction of modern society, the Diocese of Sydney (which infamously invested $1m in the recent ‘No’ campaign) was so immersed in it that in 2008 it lost a staggering fortune, having borrowed money to invest in what it thought was a bull market. ‘Prosperity Gospel’, much beloved of mega churches, their pastors and adherents, conforms Christianity within contemporary culture. It has nothing to do with teachings of the New Testament and is thoroughly disconnected from the revelation of God we see in Jesus. 
 
Affluenza is in danger of bringing our current civilisation undone, because of gross inequity, because of our refusal to respond to the environmental crisis and because internationally the labour of the poor maintains the lifestyle of the wealthy. Where is the application of the ‘Word of God’ within this foreboding context?
 
‘Conservative’ religion, be it within Judaism, Christianity, Islam or any other identity appears to be consumed with mimicking the free market in a competitive scramble to recruit as many adherents as possible to a particular brand of heaven with almost total disregard for transformative and sacrificial service of the world we share with each other. No wonder then the ‘Word of God’ is not only irrelevant, but grossly self-serving of those who interpret it to reinforce position and advantage.
 
I recently led ‘chapel’ in a local school. I asked the school student leadership to nominate the subject they wanted me to address – science and religion. In the Q&A I was flabbergasted to realise that an overwhelming majority of the school community believed that religion and science were incompatible and one had to choose between them.  
 
It seems we have arrived at a point of terminal decline for institutional Church in this country, not because the country has become ‘more secular’, but because we have so diminished the ‘Word of God’ that it appears to have nothing of value to say and no dialogue to have with the growth of human knowledge. The good news of course is that the voice of God can never be silenced; it is just that we can no longer expect to hear it where once it could be heard.

Dr George Browning is the former Bishop of Canberra and Goulburn. This is a slightly edited version of an article he wrote for his blog on 18 November 2017. See http://www.georgebrowning.com.au