We are on the verge of a new beginning.
Arguably, this is where Christians must always find ourselves. The census statistics have been released, and the news media are making much of the drop in numbers of people who identify with a religion. 30% of Australians declared that they belong to no religion at all.
How do you feel about this result? I must say, it doesn’t surprise me at all. I am old enough to remember the times, when, if you were a regular member of any church congregation, and you didn’t turn up at church on Sunday, the vicar or minister would probably visit during the week to find out why. Had you been ill? Were the children sick? Was there some other problem?
I grew up a faithful member of our local Anglican church. I attended Sunday School almost every week, unless I was sick, and from the age of about 7, I sang in the church choir. That meant a practice after school on Wednesdays, and two services (at least) each Sunday. Mum was a staunch (founding) member of the Young Wives group (Mothers’ Union), Flower Guild, and other things. Dad was a Churchwarden.
Expectations of parishioners have changed. We no longer expect to attend church every week. In fact, some come much more seldom. Church has changed, and will continue to change. We have also changed as people, as a culture, and as a society. Both St. John’s and St. Mark’s now have excellent facilities, and are welcoming places, but that alone will not shelter us from decline.
The expectations of our communities have also changed. There are some people who believe that the church will always be there, to honour the significant moments of their lives. Their children can be baptized, their marriages solemnized, their deaths mourned and their lives remembered in the traditional ways. Midnight Mass will always happen, and there will be another Easter Egg hunt! Is this still relevant, or even possible? Perhaps they have no idea how the church continues to exist?
If churches are declining – or even dying – there are those in the community who will be glad. Those who say “thank goodness! They were the cause of all wars – nothing but an institution riddled with corruption and abuse!” Others will be annoyed that the church of their ancestors will not be there to be the scene of their wedding, or funeral. I remember many conversations with local people in Flinders when the Uniting Church closed. Many were angry and incensed – believing that it was a scandal – that they should not be allowed to close! I would ask them how often they attended? Did they contribute financially? Were they a part of the congregation?
I have also had conversations with families inquiring about weddings or funerals, who were quite shocked that we asked for a donation or a fee. After all, weren’t their taxes paying for the churches in generous Government grants?
You may be surprised how many people do not understand that parishes are funded by the weekly or monthly regular monetary donations of the parishioners – including the payment of stipends for their priests and deacons.
So, where does all of this leave us? We must be careful not to become downhearted! Perhaps it is far better that people answer the census question honestly. After all, the results mean that 70% of Australians do align themselves with a religion. This is an enormous acknowledgement of the importance of Spirituality in human existence, and the belief that there is a higher power, a real meaning to our lives.
For Christians, this takes a particular form. We are called to love one another in radical and powerful ways. The Church is you and me – not the buildings – however safe and beautiful we might make them! They are empty and soulless without us. It may very well be that the Church, as we have always known it, is dying. One of my Deanery colleagues described it in terms of Jesus’ walk to the cross. He walked through the jeering crowds, despised and ridiculed by many – and obviously heading for a dreadful end! Yet, his death was our beginning – it resulted in Resurrection and hope. It remains an enormous and powerful message. It is a mystery and a conundrum.
If the Church must walk to its end through the jeering and sneering of the crowds, we are called to accompany it to its death.
But there is a hope within us.
What might the Resurrection of the Church look like?
Dare to dream. That is what winter evenings are for.
God bless you all.