The ferment within Christianity during the twentieth century and which continues into the present century is incalculable. The transitions which have occurred in geographical spread, cultural diversity, theological approaches, and doctrinal controversies have been simply phenomenal. The numerical growth of the church in Asia, Africa and South America alongside its numerical decline in Europe and Australasia is merely the tip of an iceberg of epochal proportions.
The more local transitions we have experienced in the UCA have been part of those much larger global movements. These transitions have been unsettling, puzzling and disorienting for those who have lived through them. Any attempt to understand our local experiences independently of the larger global transitions will lead only to misunderstanding. In reality, the roots of the cultural forces which have seen Australia’s mainline churches lose numbers, status and influence are deeper than is often realised.
For the duration of the UCA’s life, Christianity in Australia has been shaped by social and cultural forces over which the Church has had precious little control. It is sometimes suggested that things could have been different: ‘if only the church did… x, y or z.’ But this kind of ‘if only’ lament is, I think, misguided. Behind it is often a kind of ‘catch-up’ ecclesiology: ‘if only we catch up with the changes in society, we’ll be more effective in mission’ – or so the argument goes. But this underestimates the extent to which the power of even the most innovative, energetic, faithful and authentic missional strategy is often overwhelmed by the currents of change that have taken Australian society in directions few would have predicted even two decades ago, let alone the nearly four decades ago when the Uniting Church was born.
It is not just that we’ve become a more overtly multi-cultural and multi-faith nation, we’ve arguably become more captive to the ideologies of neoliberal economics, more influenced by a jingoistic nationalism, remained persistently ambivalent towards reconciliation between Australia’s First and Second Peoples, and become less hospitable to our global neighbours seeking refuge. All of these are in tension with the gospel proclaimed by the church.
Nor is it just that the cultural place and influence of the Churches have changed. It is also that social attitudes to Christianity have diversified. If Christianity is characterised by enormous internal diversity, the attitudes towards Christianity from beyond the church are perhaps even more diverse. Alongside conventional unbelief or indifference, there is a kaleidoscopic mixture of ignorance, goodwill, hostility, curiosity, tolerance, incredulity, nostalgia, welcome and suspicion. In short: there is no single contemporary cultural posture towards Christianity. Accordingly, neither can there be any single posture of the church towards the contemporary culture.
Such diversity points to the fact that there are vast tracts of Australian society that are not sitting around waiting for the church to catch up. They have simply moved on from the church, the story of Jesus, and the patterns of life to which he calls. They have happily and consciously chosen worldviews and values that are alternatives to Christianity. A ‘changed’ Christianity or ‘new ways of being church’ may engage the curious and the fellow-travellers. But there is no reason to think that the indifferent, the suspicious and the incredulous won’t remain as indifferent, suspicious and incredulous as they already are. These postures to Christianity are deeply ingrained in segments of our society. To argue this is not to indulge in a defeatist or nay-saying pessimism. It is, instead, to be ruthlessly realistic.
The temptation in such circumstances is to turn inwards. Obviously, some ways of turning inwards are destructive and myopic. But our circumstances also invite a positive kind of turning inwards – or, better, turning to the centre, to the central claims, promises and demands of the gospel. This is perhaps the great opportunity of embracing our post-Christendom context. Rather than take our bearings from social expectation or acceptance, we can learn again to take our bearings from the gospel of Jesus Christ and the New Testament witness to his way of grace, forgiveness, friendship, mercy, humility, sacrifice and hope.
Many will likely dismiss this as a platitude. It is entirely the opposite. For surely this is the most demanding calling of the church – to be a community of grace, forgiveness, friendship, mercy, humility, sacrifice and hope. All of us know that the creation of such communities is hard work. It is also a reminder that now stripped of its historically-accidental accumulation of cultural prestige and status, all the church has to offer the world is an odd message of the life, death and resurrection of an unusual young Jewish man who lived a life of strange obedience to the one he called ‘Abba’. Some of our neighbours will accept it, some will reject it. The church’s vocation is to live it.
Geoff is author of Jesus Christ According to the Basis of Union (Mediacom, 2013) and blogs at www.xenizonta.blogspot.com.au