Does Australia need the church?

Does Australia need the church?

At an Australian Christian Churches National Conference, held on 20-22 April 2021 on the Gold Coast, Prime Minister Scott Morrison addressed the gathered crowd. His talk, for the most part, focused on personal reminiscences and reflecting on how he felt God had called him in his role as Prime Minister. There were short excursions into morality, the value of the family and the importance of local community. He was critical of identity politics and tribalism, and warned of the dangers of social media, especially for young people.

A recording of the video was broadcast by the Vineyard Church. It was then distributed by the Rationalist Society of Australia, an organisation committed to a secular political Australia (the clear divide between religious institutions and political institutions), both freedom of religion and freedom from religion, and a political philosophy of liberalism (freedom of the individual, social progress and reform, and government by law with the consent of the governed).

Both news and social media, realistically unfamiliar with the Pentecostal expression of Christian faith that Scott Morrison holds to, spent much of the following days ridiculing Morrison’s understanding of evil, the devil, laying on of hands and signs. While Australia has had Christian Prime Ministers before – John Howard, Kevin Rudd, Tony Abbott, and Malcolm Turnbull, amongst others, Morrison is the first Pentecostal to hold the office.

One of the main things focused on was the claim that Morrison said “Australia needs the church.”

This is not entirely accurate. Morrison was recounting the lengthy chats he had with his father-in-law, Roy Warren, even while very young. These often ventured into the world of politics. Morrison linked those conversations with what he understood the role of the church to be:

I said, ‘You know, Roy, I can’t fix the world. I can’t save the world. We both believe in someone who can.’ And that’s why I’ve come here for your help tonight. Because what you do, and what you bring, to the life of faith of our country is what it needs, I think…But it’s so important that we continue to reach out and let each and every Australian know that they are important… That they are significant as we believe they are created in the image of God. That in understanding that, they can go on a journey that I’m very confident you can take them on, and I’m relying on you to do that, because that’s not my job. That’s yours.

While he may have been misquoted, Scott Morrison’s address does leave us with important questions – does Australia need the Church? If it does, what does that look like?

Rev. Dr Dean Drayton, ex-President of the Uniting Church Assembly, warns that understanding what Scott Morrison meant by his statement is important to answering the question. If it is from a purely political framework, which is how it was more readily framed by the media, it is fraught with problems. Historically, the separation of State and Church arose out of the establishment of the United States of America and its disunion from Great Britain:

For (Thomas) Jefferson in a democracy the constitutional right of each individual is to be free and equal. How then can the state support one church rather than others? In Europe at that time (1786) the state supported one church, but in the United States there were many churches. How could the new United States choose one church without denying the rights of individuals to choose their particular church?  250 years later that is complicated by the fact that the separation of church from the state applies to Christian churches and the assemblies of other religions as well. Morrison’s broad statement can no longer hold without him defining which church/religions does the state need. Does he mean Australia needs the church, or a particular church, or which religious grouping, or all religious groupings?

Recognising that Morrison’s actual statement had to do with the life of faith that members of the Church bring to Australia, Rev. Dr Drayton continues:

The prime minister’s focus was on the life of faith that our country needs. That is a more general question, but the difficulty is that it was given to a particular church meeting, and not to all religious groups.  In the end it either requires an answer to the question as to which life of faith Australia needs, or assumes that there is only one sort of life of faith. Whichever way that is taken, there are no easy answers.

Twentieth Century theologian, Karl Barth, in his book The Church and the Churches, understands the Church to be the ‘one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church’ of the Nicene Creed. He is quite critical of the myriad number of different denominations. In Dogmatics in Outline, Barth reminds his readers that the Church, or Christian congregation, is brought into being by divine calling and is the work of the Holy Spirit. It should never be the work of human hands and warns that when it coincides with another body, like a nation, grave misunderstandings of its purpose threaten. It must also be visible. If it is invisible, it is not the Church. That visibility may well cause public uproar as the first community did in Jerusalem. It is ruled by Jesus Christ alone, not a human democracy or hierarchy. Its most important role is the proclamation of the Word of God, Jesus Christ. If the life of the Church is self-serving, “it smacks of death.” Its aim, rather, is the kingdom of God. “For undoubtedly the Church should be the place where a word reverberates right into the world.” For Barth, the Church is to be the body of which Christ is the head and its primary task is to preach the Gospel. Its existence is not for a nation, per se, but for the whole of creation. In Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, he concludes that “The church speaks finally in that it prays for the world.”

Australian philosopher Connel Lee explores this question of Australian needing the Church from a moral and ethical perspective. He argues that the things that the Church bring to Australia are not necessarily reliant on its existence. Positive social ethics and strong political commitment to the community, especially to the vulnerable, could replace what the church does now. The question remains, however, whether this would happen or be possible without a faith-based framework to underpin it.

Philosophically, I would frame it like this- if we abolished the church right now would we be better off? And I think in some ways yes (given concerns about historical injustices within the institution- healing of harmed individuals and groups) and in some ways no (addressing issues of homelessness is a great example).

My simple answer is – until Australian society (institutions, political systems and will, welfare arrangements) becomes more just and addressing historical injustice and current (unjust) vulnerabilities to harm, we need organisations like the church (even with their baggage) in order to pick up the slack and do the important humanitarian and philanthropic work they are capable of. I would want to add too that spiritual values might also be an important way forward for humanity – as they compel us to put aside physical desires (money, things) and think more about our fellow humans – this is somethings ethics can incorporate and add to its list of what values matter when making moral judgements.

Does the Church in Australia currently make an impact on the lives of Australians? One would surely have to argue that it does – in the area of welfare. In Caring for Growth, a report submitted to The Royal Commission on Aged Care, eight of the top nine non-profit aged care providers are faith-based organisations, including two Uniting Church bodies. Their combined income for 2019 was $4.4 billion. This is only aged care. If you add in early child care, schools, advocacy, prison care, hospitals, disability support, unemployment programmes, housing and homelessness provision, and refugee care, you are looking at a nation that would potentially crumble economically and socially if those bodies shut their doors. Millions of Australians, from birth to death, have experienced the care, provision or protection of the Church, as well as other religious welfare agencies.

This, however, is not without its issues. Drayton explores a little of the problems that faith-based institutions face in the Australian context.

Over the last 30 years politicians and political parties have been working on the boundary between church and state in terms of providing grants for the programmes of the welfare institutions of the church, e.g., aged care homes, schools, job creation programmes. Yes, from a pragmatic point of view Australia needs the churches to continue doing what they do in the area of welfare support and aged care support since these agencies are by far the biggest non-government providers of welfare.  In accepting grants, they need to do their work without requiring a particular ‘life of faith’.  In major community discussions about gender and human rights, however, there are a number of religious groups that are pushing for state/political legislation for certain perceived religious rights protected which they claim are vital for the operation of their organisations.  The boundary between church and state has always been a fraught subject in Australia’s history.

A second area that the Church interacts in an important way with Australia is that of social justice. The August/September issue of New Times, the South Australian Synod magazine, is dedicated to social justice issues that matter to the life of the Uniting Church in particular and, by extension, to the citizens of Australia. It explores issues of advocacy, climate change, relationships with First Nations peoples, homelessness and suicide. South Australian Moderator, Bronte Wilson, in his opening message, explains how the Uniting Church wrestles with so many social justice concerns. Sometimes it comes to consensus on these and takes a stand in the public arena. When there is no official view, the Church “either refrains from entering the debate or contributes from a neutral position, always guided by the teachings of the scriptures.”

The Statement to the Nation, made at the Inaugural Assembly in June 1977, contains several paragraphs containing commitments that the newly formed Uniting Church proclaimed adherence to. It is worth reading these afresh 44 years later.

We affirm our eagerness to uphold basic Christian values and principles, such as the importance of every human being, the need for integrity in public life, the proclamation of truth and justice, the rights for each citizen to participate in decision-making in the community, religious liberty and personal dignity, and a concern for the welfare of the whole human race.

We pledge ourselves to seek the correction of injustices wherever they occur. We will work for the eradication of poverty and racism within our society and beyond. We affirm the rights of all people to equal educational opportunities, adequate health care, freedom of speech, employment or dignity in unemployment if work is not available. We will oppose all forms of discrimination which infringe basic rights and freedoms.

We will challenge values which emphasise acquisitiveness and greed in disregard of the needs of others and which encourage a higher standard of living for the privileged in the face of the daily widening gap between the rich and poor.

We are concerned with the basic human rights of future generations and will urge the wise use of energy, the protection of the environment and the replenishment of the earth’s resources for their use and enjoyment.

Finally we affirm that the first allegiance of Christians is God, under whose judgment the policies and actions of all nations must pass. We realise that sometimes this allegiance may bring us into conflict with the rulers of our day. But our Uniting Church, as an institution within the nation, must constantly stress the universal values which must find expression in national policies if humanity is to survive.”

This statement would suggest that there is still a vital role for the Church to play in the life of the nation of Australia and its peoples.

Dr Katherine Grocott

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