Thursday, 19 April 2018

Religion in Australia: an overview

Note:   This is a chapter in my book on "A Yank's-eye View of Australia", written as an introduction to Australian society for Americans living in Australia or planning to do so.  This is my chapter on Religion in Australia

In some ways it’s ironic that, as I work my way chapter by chapter through writing this book, I began writing this chapter on a day when Christians are observing Good Friday and Jews are celebrating Passover.   There’s nothing profoundly theological in this comment.  It’s merely an observation of an interesting coincidence between my writing and what’s going on in the wider world.

I have to state a conflict of interest here.  I’m a person who’s described as a “Minister of Religion” by the people who license marriage celebrants here in Australia.  South of the Mason-Dixon Line in the US, I’d be called a “preacher”.  I’m a retired minister in the Uniting Church in Australia.  (I’ve also worked as a staff member of an ecumenical agency and have been a member of interfaith dialogue groups, so I feel I have a good grasp of what happens in other churches and faith communities as well.)

Some of the sections in this chapter are oriented to members of particular faith communities.  If you really want to skip the sections for communities other than your own, you may.  However, if you’re interested, please read the sections on faith communities other than your own, anyway.

As with the previous chapter on politics and the following chapter on race and class, I’ll put up a “pedantry alert!!!” for this chapter.

Some reasons why Australia at least seems to be a far less religious country than the US

Is Australia really a far less religious country than the US?

Personally, I suspect not.  I admit there is a lower percentage of the population actively engaged in formal religious observances in any given week in Australia, as compared to the US.  Nevertheless, I believe that the typical Australian is as apt as the typical American to be interested in and engaged with issues of spirituality.

There are a number of good reasons why the US seems to be a much more religious society than Australia:
  • Australians are more apt than Americans to identify with religious denominations (Catholics, Anglicans …) that regard their fringe adherents as part of the church’s community, rather than as people outside the faith (or even as “pagans” needing “salvation”).
  • Americans are more apt than Australians to be members of ethnic communities (African-Americans, Hispanics…) with a traditionally high level of personal, active involvement in faith communities.
  • Americans are more apt than Australians to be members of denominations (Baptist, LDS …) that regard weekly participation in public worship as a bare minimum level of involvement to be regarded as a fully practicing member of the church community.
  • Americans are more apt than Australians to be members of denominations that encourage a certain flamboyance in how their members express their faith in the wider world.  As a result, Americans who are practicing members of faith communities are more apt than similar Australians to talk about their beliefs.
  • Conversely, given the lack of stigma existing in Australia (compared to the US) over not being a person of religious faith, Australians of secular world views are more apt than similar Americans to talk about their beliefs.
  • Many working class Australians tend not to be “joiners”.  Their reluctance to involve themselves in religious congregations is matched by their reluctance to be involved with other community groups.
A few differences - historical and contemporary - in the relation between the faith communities and the wider society in the US and in Australia

The early British colonies in what became the US were established in the early seventeenth century.  This was still part of the era of the Reformation, when people were passionate about religious issues.  In contrast, the early British colonies in Australia were established in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, at a time when organised religion was somewhat “on the nose” for many Europeans.
Many states in the US (including Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Utah) had an overtly religious dimension in the motivation for their founding.  The only comparable Australian narrative is that of the Barossa Germans, with their importance in the establishment of the state of South Australia, Australian Lutheranism, and the Australian wine industry.

In the convict era, the churches – particularly the Protestant churches - tended to function as part of the system of social control which kept order among the unruly convicts.  This has led to a perception of the faith communities as being society’s moral and ethical “cop on the beat”.  I personally experienced this one afternoon in Launceston, Tasmania, in 1983.  Crossing a city street against a red light while wearing a clerical collar, I was greeted on the other side of the street by a drunk coming out of a pub who said, “Hold on, mate, I thought your job was to tell the rest of us to obey the rules.”

Sectarian tensions between Protestants (largely British in their ethnic background) and Catholics (largely Irish) continued strongly into the 1950s and 1960s in Australia.  (The split within the ALP, which led to the founding of the DLP, was complicated by the fact that most of those who left the ALP for the DLP were members of the conservative wing of the Catholic Church.)  In contrast, most Americans were largely over this sectarianism by a generation beforehand.  (The concerns expressed by some evangelical clerics over John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism in the 1960 presidential election were largely seen as saying much more about the mentality of the clerics than about anything related to JFK.)  The persistence of sectarianism well into the mid-twentieth century in Australia resulted in the “traditional wisdom” being that religion is socially divisive.
Another difference between the Australian and US contexts involves the teaching of religious education (RE) as a voluntary subject in government-operated schools.  This is still a possibility in most states, in contrast to the US, although it is available in fewer schools than it was a decade ago.  The decline in the teaching of RE in state schools seems largely to be a result of the increasing predominance of aggressive evangelicals in the leadership of the agencies offering RE to schools.  Nevertheless, unlike the US, government-operated schools in Australia are not a no-go area for religion.

Another area that is not a no-go area for religion in Australia, unlike the US, is entertainment-oriented television programmes.  If it suits the nature of the character, it is not unusual for a character on an Australian TV drama or sitcom to be portrayed matter-of-factly as a practicing member of a faith.  (Other than Jed Bartlet in The West Wing, and the Simpson family, I can think of few characters on US dramas or sitcoms openly portrayed as practicing lay members of any faith community.)  Clergy and other religious professionals are portrayed matter-of-factly, and usually rather positively, on Australian TV sitcoms and dramas, while the one consistently positive portrayal of a cleric of which I can think in a US sitcom or drama is Father Mulcahy in M*A*S*H.
A few differences between churches and synagogues in the States and those in Australia

Even if you’re a person who describes yourself as “not all that religious” or as the increasingly popular option of “spiritual but not religious”, you may still find it a good idea to establish some links with the local congregation most closely linked to your own heritage, unless you really see yourself as having burned all your bridges behind you, religion-wise. 

Being part of a good congregation can be:
  • a source of personal support and encouragement for you, and
  • a first step to becoming involved in your community,
even if you don’t share the congregation’s (or its denomination’s) full “package” of beliefs.

Please note, the nearest congregation of your preferred denomination or faith tradition may not always be the best one for you.  Don’t be discouraged if your first visit to a church, synagogue, or other place of worship is disappointing.  Check out a few others.  Don’t be afraid to “shop around” for a congregation in which you fit in.
Whatever your faith background, you will find a few differences between most congregations in the US and most congregations in Australia.

  • Australian congregations tend to be smaller than those in the US.  The definition of a small church in many American denominations is a congregation with a Sunday attendance under 100 people.  In Australia, this would be considered a moderately large congregation.  While Australia has some “megachurches” on the American evangelical model (including Sydney’s famous Hillsong Church), it also has many more churches whose average attendance is under 50 people.  The smallness of most congregations can be more than a bit off-putting to those who prefer to be anonymous worshippers when they attend church or shul.
  • Given that donations to religious congregations are not tax-deductible in Australia, Australian congregations generally have less money to spend on their programmes and staff salaries as congregations in the US.  This explains a number of the other differences between American and Australian congregations.
  • Australian congregations tend to have a smaller range of activities other than weekly worship compared with the wide range of activities that many congregations in the US have.   A moderately large surburban congregation in the US may have three youth groups (for different age levels), two women’s fellowships, a men’s group, and a couples’ club, as well as multiple adult study opportunities.  A congregation of the same denominational tradition in a similar neighbourhood in Australia may have one youth group, one’s women’s group, and one midweek discussion group.
  • Australian congregations are less dependent on the work of paid staff and more dependent on the work of volunteers than congregations in the US.  A congregation will have a minister, priest, rabbi, imam, or pastor (if not full-time, then part-time).  Paid secretaries and caretakers for congregations are fairly rare.  Associate or assistant pastors are even rarer.  It is possible to find paid organists and choir directors in Australian congregations with strong classically-influenced musical traditions (or other paid musicians in churches with a pop music culture), but the typical church organist or pianist in Australia is an unpaid volunteer.
  • In many denominations in Australia, two or more smaller congregations may share a minister, priest, or pastor.  While this is common in rural areas in the US, this is also common in urban and suburban communities, as well as rural communities, in Australia.
And now, to look at the particular situation found in particular faith communities in Australia.

If you’re Catholic ….
The Catholic Church is the largest single Christian denomination in Australia.  You’ll find at least one Catholic parish in most Australian communities, large and small. 

You’ll probably find many of the same arguments over spirituality, worship, and inclusion going on in Catholic parishes in Australia as in you will in parishes in the United States.  If you want to be part of a dynamic parish that reflects the values of the Second Vatican Council, you’ll find at least one in just about every Australian city.  It may not be the closest church to where you live.  Don’t be afraid to “shop around” for a parish where you feel you fit in.
As in the US, there have been issues surrounding the appointments of a number of unhelpfully conservative diocesan bishops in recent decades.  Most lay Catholics (and most priests) in Australia have welcomed the appointment of more inclusive (and more pastorally astute) bishops once Pope Francis has been able to assert his control over the appointments process. 

The findings of the recent Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has had a profound impact on many Australian Catholics.  While the Catholic Church is not (by any stretch of the imagination) the only church or faith community affected by this issue, it has been impacted strongly.  As in the US, child sexual abuse has been a greater problem in some dioceses more than others, and among some religious orders more than others. 

Between the arguments over liturgy, spirituality, and inclusion in recent years, combined with the controversies over clerical child abuse, don’t be surprised if some of the people in your parish seem a bit battle-weary.  This sense of conflict fatigue is common among Australian Catholics today, even if there has been a greater sense of hope and optimism among Australian Catholics following the election of Pope Francis. 

If you’re Eastern Orthodox ….
The largest Orthodox Church in Australia is the Greek Orthodox Church.  It is found in a much wider range of communities than the others.  (However, Eastern Orthodox Churches of any background are much easier to find in urban communities than rural ones.)

There has not yet been an attempt in Australia to bring together a number of Orthodox Churches of a variety of ethnicities into a single Church, such as in the US.  Each Orthodox parish and diocese in Australia has a definite ethnic identity.

Nevertheless, the different Orthodox Churches are all committed to ministry with Orthodox Christians of all ethnicities.  If you can’t find your particular strand of Orthodoxy in your community, Orthodox churches of other ethnic backgrounds will welcome you.
If you’re an Episcopalian ….

The Episcopal Church has always seemed to me to be one of the brightest spots in the American religious scene.  In my observation, some groups of people with which it has had a particularly significant ministry include:
  • recovering evangelicals,
  • Catholics who feel they’ve burned their bridges with Rome, for one reason or another,
  • bored liberal Protestants,
  • classical musicians, along with others who appreciate classically-influenced sacred music.
  • LGBT+ people who also affirm themselves as reasonably traditional Christians,
  • and people who, while not weekly worshippers (or intending to become so), still want to worship well on their occasional visits to churches for Christmas, Easter, weddings, baptisms, and funerals.
The Australian equivalent of the Episcopal Church is the Anglican Church of Australia.  (Don’t be put off by the name.  It is not linked to the breakaway conservative groups that left the Episcopal Church.)  The Anglican Church in Australia was called the Church of England in Australia until 1981.  Some people in the community – including a few communicant Anglicans – will still use this name.   Don’t let this confuse you.  (On Norfolk Island, the Anglicans are still officially called the Church of England.) 

After the Catholics, the Anglican Church is the second largest denomination in Australia. 
Like the Episcopal Church, the Anglican Church in Australia (other than a handful of conservative dioceses) ordains women as deacons, priests, and bishops.

As a denomination, the Anglican Church of Australia is a bit more conservative than the Episcopal Church.  Most dioceses of the Anglican Church will have parishes of a variety of styles.  Some parishes are very conservative and evangelical in their approach to worship and belief.  Nevertheless, far more parishes will have the same combination of quality liturgy and a broadly inclusive attitude that reflects the expectations of the average Episcopalian.  (As I’ve said earlier, “shop around” for the right parish for you.)
There are a few dioceses that have a predominantly evangelical approach:  North-West Australia, Tasmania, Armidale, and (particularly) Sydney.  But even in such conservative evangelical dioceses as Tasmania and Sydney, there will be found a few parish churches that function as oases within the general aridity of the local scene.

In Tasmania, if you’re looking for an alternative to the evangelical feel of the local Anglicans try:

Sydney oasis parishes include:

Both are located in the centre city, but can assist you in finding parishes closer to your home.

If you’re a Lutheran ….

Australian Lutherans tend to be geographically concentrated in South Australia, Queensland, and western Victoria.  Outside these areas, Lutheran congregations tend to be found mostly in urban areas.
As well, most Australian Lutheran congregations tend to represent a rather conservative style of Lutheranism.

If you can’t find a Lutheran congregation in your area (or if you find the congregations in your area are too conservative for your liking), you can always look for either an Anglican parish or a more liturgically-oriented Uniting congregation.

If you’re an African-American Protestant ….

If you’re a person of African-American heritage, and an adherent of an African-American Protestant church, you may experience some difficulties in finding a congregation in Australia that does everything that a traditional African-American congregation does for its members.

I assume that you’ll be looking for a congregation which:

  • has a generally evangelical approach to belief and worship,
  • has a strong and passionate commitment to social justice,
  • provides a warm and inclusive sense of fellowship for its members,
  • provides unconditional (and non-judgmental) love and support for each of its members in times of personal crisis,
  • sees no conflict between any of the above points, and
  • maintains a unique musical tradition, alongside everything else.
While it’s not impossible to find a church like this in Australia, it won’t be easy.  You’ll definitely need to “shop around” for a congregation, and please don’t be discouraged.  (Particularly if you’re in a bigger city, I’m sure that congregation is out there somewhere near where you live.)

If you’re a middle-of-the road to liberal Protestant ….

In the United States, there is a cluster of churches including the United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church USA, the Reformed Church in America, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the American Baptist Churches, and the Moravian Church.  These are all churches whose congregations exhibit a diverse pattern of beliefs, a wide range of worship styles, a teaching-learning approach to congregational life, and a generally middle-class and suburban “feel”.
In Australia, the situation is much simpler.  You won’t find a range of seven different denominations for this grouping on the Christian spectrum.

The equivalent to the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Australia is the Churches of Christ.  They’re more part of the “evangelical” scene here in Australia, but are among the more ecumenically-minded evangelicals.  I’ll mention them again under “evangelicals” in the next section.

There is only one major Baptist group in Australia, the Baptist Union of Australia.  They’re less conservative (and far less politicised) than the Southern Baptists in the US, but somewhat more conservative than the American Baptists.  As with the Churches of Christ, I’ll mention them again under “evangelicals” in the next section.  (There are also independent Baptist and independent Churches of Christ congregations, which are generally ultra-conservative.)
There is a Presbyterian denomination.  There’s also a Reformed denomination.  Both are strongly conservative evangelical.  I’ll also get back to them in the next section on “evangelicals”.

Australia has no Moravian Church.

The one denomination in Australia which consistently reflects the “mainline” Protestant tradition is called the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA).  (Personal note:  I’m a retired minister in the UCA.  Any comment I make about it, either positive or critical, should be taken with the proverbial “grain of salt”.)

The Uniting Church was founded in 1977 by a merger of Congregational, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches (with some conservative “continuing” movements choosing not to enter the UCA).  The UCA is the third largest denomination in Australia.  As is the case with “mainline” churches in the US, a wide (and sometimes confusing) diversity exists from one congregation to another in terms of worship styles, patterns of belief, etc.  As I said with other denominations, shop around for a congregation in which you feel you can fit in.
The Uniting Church is strongly committed to its relationship with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people and has many indigenous congregations.  As well, the UCA has a variety of immigrant congregations worshipping in languages other than English.

The Uniting Church ordains and commissions women to every ministry within the church, lay and ordained.  The Uniting Church also ordains LGBT+ ministers (at least in some presbyteries) and has committed itself to be a safe place for LGBT+ people.  (However, the UCA has not yet – as of April 2018 - authorised its ministers to celebrate same-gender marriages.)
If you’re an Evangelical ….

Evangelical churches in Australia are far less politicised than evangelical churches in the US.  Evangelical churches in Australia haven’t yet sold their soul to the far Right.  The Faustian bargain between evangelical churches and the far Right in the US has not been duplicated here.  Of course, most members of evangelical churches here still hold to very conservative views on such issues as gay marriage, abortion, and euthanasia, and their churches will express these conservative views.  However, evangelical churches in Australia haven’t got to the stage of endorsing candidates or parties in elections.
People of an “evangelical” style of Christian faith will find a wide range of churches to suit their needs. 

  • Those who want an evangelical style of faith, but combined with a more formal approach to worship (and some decent intellectual content), will normally find this in Reformed or Presbyterian congregations, as well as in evangelical congregations within the Anglican or Uniting Churches.
  • Those who like their evangelical worship to be a bit more casual, and with a “warm and cuddly” congregational life will find the Baptists to their liking.
  • Those who want to add an ecumenical attitude and a commitment to social justice to congregations that are evangelical, casual, and “warm and cuddly” will normally look to the Churches of Christ.
  • If you’re an evangelical with a thing for brass bands or military-style uniforms (or if you want to become part of an Australian cultural icon), there’s The Salvation Army. 
  • If you want to go for a full Monty evangelical church, with a rock band playing for the service and with a “motivational speaker” style of preaching, there’s the various Pentecostal groups.  As well, there are some Baptist, Churches of Christ, and even a few evangelical Uniting congregations which also do the full Monty evangelical thing.  (By the way, speaking of Pentecostals, the Assemblies of God here are called the Australian Christian Churches.)
If you’re a Latter-Day Saint ….

That most quintessentially American of conservative Protestant churches, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (a.k.a. the Mormons), is active here in Australia.  The Mormons here are very committed to relating to members of other faith communities, but sadly have met mostly with mistrust and prejudice.
If you’re a practicing member of the LDS Church in the States, your transition to becoming a practicing member of the Church in Oz should be almost seamless.  Show up on Sunday at your new local chapel and you’ll receive a warm welcome and probably a few dinner invitations (as well as a job or two to do in the Ward).  Don’t be surprised if your old Ward in the US has already contacted your new Ward in Australia and told them to expect you.  (With almost every other denomination in Australia, I’ll say “shop around for a congregation that suits you”, but not with Mormons.) 

If you’re a Quaker …..

The Religious Society of Friends (a.k.a. Quakers) tends to be an urban community here in Oz.  If a town is big enough to have a Friends Meeting, it’s usually also big enough have a Greek Orthodox Church.
Meetings for Worship among Australian Quakers follow the traditional Quaker pattern of a silent meeting in which worshippers who feel led to break the silence and speak may do so.  In the US, this is the prevailing practice among Friends in the Quaker heartland around Philadelphia and elsewhere in the Northeastern US.  This is also the prevalent pattern among Friends in the British Isles.  (The practice among Midwestern Quakers of a spoken worship service led by a pastor is unknown among Friends in Australia.)

Australian Quakers are strongly committed to the Peace Witness of the Society of Friends and actively teach pacifism.  They also view themselves as a conscious bridge between Christianity and other world faiths.
Along with the Progressive and Masorti strands of Judaism, the Religious Society of Friends is part of a small handful of faith communities in Australia that will celebrate same-gender marriages at present.

Quakers maintain one school in Australia, the Friends’ School in Hobart.
If you’re Jewish ….

Jews have been part of Australian life since the earliest colonial days.   Australia has had two Jewish Governors-General, Sir Isaac Isaacs and Sir Zelman Cowen.  General Sir John Monash commanded the Australian forces in the First World War.  Numerous cabinet ministers, both in ALP and Coalition governments, have been Jewish.
Australia’s Jewish community is smaller than the vibrant Jewish community in the United States, both in real terms and in terms of a percentage of the wider population.  The Australian Jewish community tends to be concentrated in the larger cities.  As a result, most synagogues of any tradition are in or near state capitals, mostly in the metropolitan areas of Sydney and particularly Melbourne.

The equivalent of Reform Judaism in Australia is the Union for Progressive Judaism, with congregations in the six state capitals plus the ACT, as well as Queensland’s Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast. 
The equivalent of Conservative Judaism, occupying a position between Orthodoxy and Reform, in Australia is called Masorti.  The Masorti community in Australia has congregations in Melbourne and in Sydney. 

The largest number of synagogues in Australia relates to Orthodox Judaism.  As with the other strands of Judaism, Orthodox synagogues in current use are also found mostly in the larger cities, although there are some unused, colonial-era synagogues in smaller towns. 
The historic synagogue in Hobart, the oldest synagogue in the Southern Hemisphere, is used both by Progressive and Orthodox congregations.

Progressive and Masorti rabbis will celebrate marriages for same-gender couples.  Orthodox rabbis will not.
If you’re a member of any other faith community ….

Other faith communities (Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Baha’i, and others) are also found in Australia.  Most members of these communities are comparatively recent immigrants, or the children and grandchildren of immigrants.  A growing number of western converts can be found among these communities, particularly among the Buddhists and Baha’is. 
The communities, and their places of worship, are mostly found in the larger cities.  However, there are some Muslims, the descendants of Afghan camel drivers who came to Australia in the 19th century, living in central and northern Australia, often in isolated areas. 

The Muslim community in Australia has found itself living under political pressure from extremist groups since 2001, as in the US.  The Sikh community has also experienced some political pressure because of being confused with Muslims (largely because of the turbans worn by the men).

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Bob. A good overview for Australians too. you could add Burwood to your list of Anglican oases in Sydney perhaps. Does the Episcopal Church call their clergy father?


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