COMMENT | John Sandeman
Monday 6 June 2016
Australia’s churches are in a crisis according to The Australian‘s foreign editor, Greg Sheridan. Timidity in the face of an aggressive “God is dead” secular culture will mean that the churches will ensure complete strategic irrelevance, in Sheridan’s view.
Sheridan, who has described himself as a “believing Catholic” though “guilty of countless derelictions”, believes all of the churches are blind to changed circumstances: “They behave as though they still represent a living consensus.”
In his famous poem Dover Beach, the poet Matthew Arnold drew the desolate picture of the tide of faith going out leaving humanity without hope on “a dark long plain” where “ignorant armies fight by night”.
Sheridan is giving post-modern Australia a similar warning.
“The Christian churches now need to reconcile be of themselves as representing a distinct and not all that big minority, seeking to win conversion through example and persuasion and not to defend endlessly legal protections and enforcements that are increasingly untenable or meaningless.”
He gives two examples:
“Abortion in some Australian states is still technically illegal, but the law has no force,” he writes. And on same-sex marriage: “Once the society accepts that same-sex couples can have and raise children the law is academic, almost meaningless except in two respects.
One is that it seems gratuitous and perverse and even cruel to deny children living with same-sex parents the protections of legal marriage. And two , the change in the Marriage Act, while not affecting the reality of marriage itself could well devastated religious freedom.”
In other words the Churches should pick their battles carefully.
Sheridan suggests that religious freedom is the key battle. “It is on that ground the churches should make a bold and vigorous stand.”
Christians will differ on whether Sheridan has picked the right battle. But his larger diagnosis of the churches situation demands attention.
“Genteel decline and increased legislative circumscription await them unless they reconfigure themselves as a vigorous, self confident minority, determined to secure heir minority rights and to have their say on life and it’s purpose, come hell or high water.”
John Dickson, founder of the Centre for Public Christianity, gives a warm response to Sheridan’s call for the church to be a confident minority. But he wonders if Sheridan has wound the clock forward a bit. Australia has reserves of regard for Jesus, if not the church, in his view.
“At the Centre for Public Christianity we found Greg Sheridan’s essay in the Oz both stimulating and encouraging,” Dickson told Eternity. “It was stimulating because, as a friendly outsider, Sheridan was alerting us, Christian leaders in particular, to how we are coming across in public: he is saying that we sound like we reckon we still have special rights and privileges to be heard and obeyed in ‘post-Christian’ Australia. That’s a worry, if accurate.
“Personally, I think Sheridan overstates just how post a post-Christianity society we are. At CPX we often joke that Australia is better described as pre-post-Christian. While there is a lot of public rhetoric against the faith and a strong push in some quarters to dismantle perceived ‘Christian legislation’, most Australians are profoundly if sub-consciously ‘Christian’ in outlook – they still feel that life and history have meaning, that every human being regardless of usefulness is inestimably precious, and that Jesus Christ is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, of moral and spiritual leaders.
“We found Sheridan’s insights encouraging, too. His positive proposal felt like what CPX has been trying to do over the last 9 years, no doubt inadequately and with limited impact. His description of a public Christian voice that recognised it was a minority but was nonetheless confident and cheerful resonates profoundly with what we think we’re doing. We never want to equate cultural or legislative losses with gospel losses. Often the opposite is true. In a pre-post-Christian society, our voice should be one of grace and good cheer, eager to persuade anyone who will listen, but also happy to lose, and lose well, knowing that God is glorified as much in our mode and manner as he is in our content and apparent ‘wins’.”
Activist Wendy Francis, Queensland’s state director of the Australian Christian Lobby, brings the perspective of a long-time campaigner to Sheridan’s warning. Here is what she told Eternity:
“Greg Sheridan’s clarion call for Christian churches to contribute to the marketplace of ideas should bring a challenge to every denomination and to each Christian.
“In drawing our attention to the paradox of the average Australian Catholic parish which has an empty church and a full school, he highlights the danger of ‘doing’, devoid of the Life which gives hope.
“Greg’s piece raises an important question for the church but it is not a new one.
“In Haggai 1:5-7, God says to his people, ‘Consider your ways! You have sown much, but harvest little; you eat, but there is not enough to be satisfied; you drink, but there is not enough to become drunk; you put on clothing, but no one is warm enough; and he who earns, earns wages to put into a purse with holes.’
“We are very busy, but are we sowing productively?
“Greg’s piece, as always, is masterfully written and I say a hearty ‘amen’ to much of it, but I also find myself confused by his overall message to the Church, which seems to be, concurrently – ‘stay out of the public space’, and ‘get back into the public space’.
“He questions the church’s continued opposition to abortion, but challenges us to continue to stand against the ‘bizarre ideology of gender fluidity’ promoted in the ‘ridiculous’ safe schools programme.
“Mr Sheridan maintains that “religious belief is dynamic, protean and passionately alive”. Yet, belief in and of itself is not these things. It is who we believe in – Jesus – who is Life. I pray that in following after Him, we will be like the men of Issachar, who understood their times, and knew what to do.”
WA pastor Stephen McAlpine believes that Sheridan has correctly diagnosed the issue for the traditionalist and progressive parts of the church, but missed out the part that will see Christianity have a future in Australia. Writing on his blog, he said:
“Just as there has been a two-speed-economy here in my home city of Perth during the now, sadly, historical commodities boom, there has been a two-speed-religious-economy in Western Christianity, and only one speed will survive.
“To put it bluntly, (and in line with Greg Sheridan), the slow-speed-religious-economy is headed for disaster. And this slow speed is made up of two groups; traditionalists and progressives.
“The traditionalists have pretty much aligned with the state down the years, and include such behemoths as the Catholic Church.”
The slow part of McAlpine’s two-speed churches are also progressives.
“Such Christian groups call themselves “progressives”, never fully grasping, from what I can see, the obvious fact that they are getting progressively smaller, progressively older, and progressively ignored …
“So that’s the slow speed part of the economy. No prizes for guessing that I am with Greg Sheridan on this one. But that’s not the only story, and this is the part he could do well to contemplate. For there is a second speed to the economy. One that I believe will not only cope, but thrive in the ensuing invasion.
“Many of you reading this already recognise yourselves as being part of this second speed. You are the arm of the church that has decided that come hell or high water, you are not for turning. Even if you lose your tax exemptions. Even if the culture scorns you. Even if anti-discrimination legislation hits you hard in the hip pocket and forces your schools to shut. Even if the culture sneers that you are on the wrong side of history.
“You are not, as many detractors refer to you, the “conservatives”. That word has lost its traction in our world and means something altogether different to what I am talking of.
“No. You are not, at heart, conservative. You are eschatological. Eschatological Christians have a confidence not tied to a seat at the cultural table. Eschatological Christians don’t value the baubles and trinkets of social approval.
“Eschatological Christians don’t fear being seen as losers as much as they rejoice at being crowned victors on the last day. Eschatological Christians value above all else the approval of the rejected Messiah, who though crucified on the wrong side of political and theological history, was raised in triumph as Lord of history …
McAlpine ends with this:
“The fact is the church was a bold, vigorous self-confident minority at its nascence, precisely because it realised it was eschatological. The early church was confident that a kingdom was coming that would sweep away all other kingdoms and pretenders to the throne.
“That’s our calling. That’s our hope. That’s our future. We are not waiting for hell and high water. We are waiting for hell and heaven. Judgement and vindication. Punishment for faithlessness: Reward for faithfulness. Eternal relevance, when the cultural Caesars of this age finally bow the knee, and through gritted teeth, declare that Jesus is Lord.”
Featured image: ‘St Michael, The Archangel Chapel – Rookwood Necropolis’ by Luke Peterson. Licence at http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0.