By Archbishop Philip Freier
7 August 2022
There has been some interesting commentary about the results of the 2022 Census, particularly in respect to religious affiliation. This question is optional but was answered by 93 per cent of those who completed the census. That high response suggests to me that it is a relevant question that Australians have clarity about and about which they are willing to identify their own position. As it has been in previous censuses, Anglicans were the second largest Christian community with about one in 10 Australians identifying as Anglican. Compared with the 2001 census, when Anglicans were 21 per cent of the Australian population, this represents a very significant decrease in terms of the proportion of the total Australian population. Similar declines are recorded in other denominations as well.
Quite apart from the internal dynamics that these changes activate within Australian Anglicanism and many other Christian communities, there is a risk that the decline of Christian identification lessens the engagement of Christians in the public life of our society. It is a paradox that over the past two decades there has been a strong growth of Anglican community service organisations as well as Anglican schools across the country. In Melbourne the financial turnover of our three largest community service organisations, Anglicare, Benetas and the Brotherhood of St Laurence, exceeds that of the diocese, including all of the parishes, by many times. The combined Anglican schools would be greater by another order of magnitude again.
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I’m glad that we enjoy a very constructive relationship with our agencies and our colleges and schools. They are separately constituted bodies and seek to interpret their Anglican and Christian character in some very creative ways. Of course they are not the parochial church that is, by and large, the constituent element of the diocese as an organisation. It is in the parishes and authorised Anglican congregations that the foundational responsibility of the church to “make the Word of God fully known” is exercised. It is vital that we continue to forge strong connections with the congregational life of the Church and its community service and educational organisations.
Back in 2011 I held a conversation in Federation Square called “Better to give than to receive”. I asserted then that Australian society and public discourse was marked by “an optimism about a secular ethic, but a doubtfulness about the value of explicitly Christian motivation”. I think that the past decade has confirmed that observation, at least as evidenced in our press and broadcast media. The census figures may well be further evidence of this disposition.
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We are embarking on a further stage of our “Reimagining the Future” project. The first step was to offer resources to each of our parishes; this next step will be to work more intensively with a cohort of around 30 parishes that have emerged out of COVID with significant challenges to their ministry vitality. At the heart of this work is the conviction that the life-giving power of the Gospel to transform human life is as important to our society as it ever was. God’s faithfulness exceeds our human response, we will always be faced with the reality of this gap.
In some seasons the headwinds of secularism and even cynicism about faith seem greater but I suspect that every generation has needed to face the fact of its unique task of proclaiming the gospel in its own cultural context. If the census is any guide, contemporary evangelism will be met with clear views about religion and religious people. Some of these views will be unsympathetic or perhaps even hostile. Notwithstanding this possibility, it is vital that we are out and visible in our community, engaging with people and not retreating into sectarian isolation. Pray for the next steps of “Reimagining the Future” and for our combined Christian witness in the world around us.