Many people love house
hunting. We hated it. It was February, the hottest month, and we had
recently arrived in Melbourne from Tokyo. My wife, Younju, was seven months
pregnant. Our two boys were aged four and three.
I would get up early
on Saturday morning to buy The Age, and then prepare a long schedule
of home inspections. But usually by about the third or fourth house Younju
was wilting and the boys were fighting. We ended up buying a nice place, but
in retrospect we wish we had spent more time looking.
Something struck me as
I went from house to house, listening to agent after agent. One of the
features so often stressed was that the house in question was convenient for
this or that particular private secondary school.
As a boy growing up in
New Zealand I had not known a single non-Catholic child enrolled at a
private school. Such institutions barely existed. I played hockey at
secondary college and I recall the sense of excitement that always attended
away matches against King’s
College, Auckland’s elite private school. It was like travelling to
England, with gracious old buildings, sprawling fields, tall trees and a
sense of genteel tranquillity. It was not until I started studying law at
Auckland University that I actually came to know any private-school
graduates (and I found them to be surprisingly normal people).
Yet in Melbourne it
seems that inordinate amounts of conversation revolve around which private
school to send your kids to. Fair enough. Education is important. We now
have three sons at primary school and are far from immune from such talk.
But what I cannot
understand is why so many posh private schools are associated with our
Protestant churches. Why on earth do these churches feel that it is their
duty to operate schools in places like Camberwell and Kew, and in similar
leafy suburbs in other cities? I am still searching for that bit of the
Bible where Jesus instructs his followers to provide a superior education
for the eastern-suburbs elite while virtually ignoring the needs of
underprivileged kids from the western suburbs.
Perhaps there are good
historical reasons why the churches felt they should establish schools that
allowed parents, through a degree of self-sacrifice, to choose a Christian
education for their children. But today these schools have become out of the
reach of numerous families. And, to justify the high fees they charge, they
must provide a lot more than do the government schools. So the
Christian-education side is often downplayed in favour of technology labs,
music studios and whatever else is needed to attract enrolments.
The result is that,
for me, these elite private schools, associated in some way with many of our
Protestant denominations (the Catholic Church runs schools too, but they are
aimed at all Catholics, not an elite), symbolise the church’s continuing
accommodation with the establishment. I would suggest that if the church
were serious about its role it would sell all its highly valuable school
land, and use the money to provide superior educational facilities for the
In 1997, attacking
clergy support for Aboriginal land rights, a Queensland politician said that
the church in Australia had “missed the wavelength” of the 20th century.
Given that some
observers believe the 20th century has been, in the words of Weekend
Australian columnist Phillip Adams, “100 years of horror”, with world
war, nuclear weapons, and the emergence of death as “a key ingredient in
mass entertainment”, it might not have been such a bad wavelength to miss.
Would that it were so.
The depressing truth is that the church in Australia seems to have been all
too often on the same wavelength as our century, not to mention the century
before. Many of our churches seem to be unable to kick the habit of siding
with the establishment, sometimes against the interests of the ordinary
Jesus mixed with the
poor. He changed water into wine to keep the festivities going at a wedding
party. Meanwhile, church leaders have sometimes tried to impose a wowserish,
middle-class British morality on Australian battlers, quite distinct from
the true liberating joy of the gospel. During our national shame - the
episode of the Stolen Generation of Aboriginal children - many in our
churches were working alongside the authorities.
wavelength of our society has been changing again; growing numbers of people
have tuned out the concerns of the world and are tuning into themselves,
their feelings, their neuroses, their navels. And within the church there is
a boom in “Christian counselling”.
Part of the problem
might be that the church has become a captive to - though some would argue
that it is a willing collaborator with – what is known as the enlightenment
view of modernism. In his book God’s Earth, Catholic priest and
Collins noted that this view has four characteristics:
A commitment to a
passionate, almost irrational belief in the myth of progress; the relegation
of religion to the sphere of the private and personal; a focus on the
importance and the rights of the individual; and a commitment to a
rationalistic and technocratic understanding of life.
accommodation with this position probably derives in large part from the
power of the media, who have the ability to set the priorities for public
discourse. Christians nowadays too easily get caught up in what is on
television or in the newspapers, and they start to lose sight of the kingdom
of God. The church has let the secular world set its agenda.
The outcome of this
trend is clear. People have found the church offers them little they cannot
find elsewhere, and have stampeded out of their pews. Our religious leaders
often lack the power - not to mention the will - to act as any kind of force
on moral issues. Morale is drooping. Respect for the clergy is low. For many
the church has become irrelevant. Yet amidst all the gloom are signs to
When I was a
stockbroking analyst in Tokyo, it was my job to write reports that would
help our sales staff flog shares to the punters. We even jokingly suggested simplistic
slogans, such as, “Buy in gloom, sell in boom”. Now, in the depths of the
gloom that infects the church in this country, could be the time to be
buying shares in Christianity. Who knows – we might even see a boom.
Our stockbroking sales
staff did not want us to write anything too complicated. The KISS principle
(“Keep It Simple, Stupid”) was paramount. Just give the punch points, was
the standard demand. The punters didn’t need detailed arguments.
Here, then, in no
particular order, are my punch points concerning the outlook for
Christianity in this country:
have stressed repeatedly throughout this book, there is a spiritual vacuum
today in our society. But one outcome of this is that people of all ages,
especially men, are tearing off the hard, shellac-like crusts which have
protected them from being hurt in the world, and are trying to find greater
meaning to their lives. Some are afflicted by great feelings of loneliness
boomers, who rejected the church in droves, are aging and are facing
mortality. Many are starting to search, for the first time, for answers to
questions of life and death.
youth and young adults generally do not - unlike many of their parents -
have bad experiences of church (because they were not forced to attend).
Many young people, too, are sincerely searching for meaning in this world.
detrimental consequences of our actions in removing God from our lives -
such as giant, devouring casinos in the hearts of our cities - are beginning
to become obvious. Parents, in particular, are worrying that their children
lack a central, guiding moral force.
thoughtful people are starting to see that religion - with its emphasis on
service and duty - is a necessary component of a properly functioning
collapse of Communism, the false god of the 20th century, has demonstrated
again that human-centred religions don’t work, no matter how theoretically
sound is the “religion” and no matter how sincere the “worshippers”.
influence of Sigmund Freud is dropping. I discussed this in the Introduction
to this book. New studies are revealing a positive, dynamic relationship
between religious belief and mental health.
generation of feminist theologians is breaking down the patriarchal
traditions that have long existed in the church, by pointing out things that
were in the Bible all along - for example, that it contains references to
God as feminine, and that Jesus was a radical who treated women and men
equally, at a time when this was virtually unthinkable. A growing number of
Australian churches have women clergy.
post-modern culture, many have downgraded science, in reaction to excessive
claims for science’s powers, leading to a greater openness towards the
is even aiding religion, with a flood of new research that is bridging the
gap between the two, challenging old assumptions that the world is a closed
network of cause and effect with no room for the supernatural
I can see my own
journey as illustrative of many of the preceding trends, and I suspect my
journey is being replicated by many other Australians. The past couple of
decades have seen a big move towards New Age spiritualities of all kinds,
from Tarot cards to a belief in the healing powers of crystals. Yet
certainly, many of these New Age seekers remain unfulfilled. That is why
they jump from one guru to another. And it is also why there is a surge of
interest in the West in Christian spirituality and mysticism - based on the
life and teachings of Jesus - which boast nearly 2,000 years of tradition,
and with roots that date back even further.
There is one more
factor to consider, one that could prove crucial: the church is no longer
inextricably bound to the establishment. For the first time in 200 years,
most Australians no longer regard the church as an arbiter of their
behaviour, or even as particularly important in their lives. (As I have said
already in this book, even after church attendance started dropping, people
generally continued - until recently - to adhere to Christian-based notions
The result is that
throughout Australia hundreds, perhaps thousands, of young (and often not so
young) Christian leaders are preaching the authentic gospel of Jesus with
renewed vigour. It is a message of service, of duty, of humility, of
self-sacrifice and of justice. It is, at times, an anti-establishment
message, and it is certainly counter-cultural. It is the message of a
community called by God and working to remain true to the primacy of Jesus’
Gospel teachings, without fear or bias. It is also intensely spiritual.
Jesus was a radical
who fought against the powers of his day. He fought for justice and
reconciliation. He preached the need to support the underprivileged, the
underdog, the battler. The entire church, at last unconstrained by its
previous establishment links, is now free to do the same. It could even
result in a boom in Christianity in Australia. I’d be buying shares now. I’d
invest my life savings.
Come to think of it, I
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