Thursday, January 19, 2006

The high cost of losing our religion - Opinion -

The high cost of losing our religion - Opinion -
"...If church-going women floated into women's liberation groups, she said, a lot of time was spent raising their consciousness about what an oppressive institution it was: "If you started to think about your life as a woman, the first thing you would do is reject Christianity."

Church attendance began to decline, along with the number of candidates for ministry. In the 1950s, 44 per cent of all Australians attended church at least once a month. According to National Church Life Survey research, this figure fell dramatically in the 1960s, to 30 per cent in 1972.

What is increasingly obvious is that, in the midst of the excitement and turmoil, those driving the social change of the 1970s failed to seriously understand the power of religion as a social force.

Many scorned those who tried to reform the church and argued it should be rejected entirely. Comments such as those of the theologian Mary Daly were typical: "For women to seek ordination in the Christian church is as destructive as it would be for black people to seek to become leaders in the Ku Klux Klan."

Their rationale was understandable, but intellectually, this was a major stuff-up. It's not a question of what they believed, but one of whether they recognised the importance of reforming the church...."

I wasn't sure if I really wanted to comment on this article from the Sydney Morning Herald, as its tone betrays a strong sense of antipathy toward "conservative" Christians. Some of the issues raised, however, deserve scrutiny.

For the author, Julia Baird, the bottom line is that when feminists and other liberal and radical groups rejected the Church in the 1960's and 1970's, they ceded the Church to the conservatives. In so doing, they deprived themselves of an important platform for effecting social change, and the result is that today the Church in Australia is dominated by conservatives

That may be partially true, in that the more orthodox and traditional members remained behind.

The underlying assumption that the "liberals" are better equipped and more willing to work for social justice than the "conservatives" is not realistic. See George H. Gallup's article, Dogma Bites Man, for the results of some polling data that suggest otherwise.

It appears that nearly all the "mainline" denominations are losing members and that more conservative denominations are gaining members. The reasons are complex, but some suggest it has a lot to do with the willingness of churches to state clearly what they believe and what expectations they have of members. According to Beau Weston, "What people want most out of religion is religion. Liberal churches that work hard to accommodate the secular world by offering a refined, intellectual, reasonable faith keep losing people to the even more reasonable pleasures of the newspaper, the golf course, and the warm bed." This same quote appears in Presbyterian evangelicals -- They just might be on to something (Presbyterians Today). The PT article discusses many issues related to membership gains and losses in Presbyterian congregations.

Baird does correctly point out that blaming it all on a liberal exodus is probably too simplistic:
"...It would be simplistic to blame a swag of 1960s activists alone for the resurgence and dominance of conservative religion in political life today. Especially when journalists have so often been dismissive of religion, and tardy to understand its potency and personal sway...."
But then she concludes with this:
"...But I cannot help but wonder if the "smart-arses" of the boomer activists and intellectuals had tackled the corruption and decay in the churches as well as the state, instead of simply turning on their heels, if many politicians would be singing from a different hymn sheet today."

Wondering is always appropriate. The problem here is that there is no indication "corruption and decay" is or was the problem in Australian Churches or elsewhere in the world, nor is there any way to know that the loss of members would not have eventually taken place even if "boomer activists" had not rejected the church. In fact, this article points out that the Uniting Church in Australia (described by Blair as representing the "progressive wing of protestantism) has continued to lose members, experiencing a 22% drop in attendence from 1991-2001, compared with conservative denominations that have grown in size and influence.

Instead of wondering about the past, why not become engaged with the Church and its mission?

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