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It’s time to make faith count

It is census time. And thanks to Lockdown Six my household has already completed the form: we know we will have no visitors on the evening of 10 August 2021!

Every five years it is good to fulfil this civic responsibility. It helps the nation have up to date information which it can use for the benefit of its citizens. It even has a vaguely biblical flavour to it: ‘In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.’ (Luke 2:I) So, Jesus was born in Bethlehem, and as they say, the rest was history.

At least with Census 2021 we can stay home and be counted, and even be asked other questions. So this year, as is usually the case, there are new or additional questions.

For example, more detail is required about one’s health. There is still however, the perennial (apparently since the very first census in 1911) ‘religion question’, or as it seems to have become, the ‘no-religion question’.

In the public discussion about Census 2021, it is again this ‘religion question’ which seems to have drawn the main commentary. Should we even still have this question? After all, it is the only question in the census which is voluntary.

In the 2016 census 1.8 million responses chose not to answer! Also the use of the ‘other box’, if you do not have your faith specified in the list, has also been raised. Should you just say ‘Christian’ and not tick, say, the Uniting Church box.

Again in 2016 the Australian Bureau of Statistics narrowed down the ‘other category’ to a staggering 150 other ‘religions’ in Australia. Is that helpful?  And are these really religions? Many it would seem are more about a cultural or ethnic identity than a reflection of one’s faith and what one believes.

Perhaps this religion question and its structure could be improved, but all the same, I would encourage you to answer it. Furthermore, if it is appropriate, even mark the Uniting Church box! As a denomination we are privileged to be mentioned by name. Our Salvation and Lutheran sisters and brothers, for example, don’t have a box to tick.

So, at a practical level the information gathered can be useful for the Uniting Church. After all, every ministerial vacancy profile form, is required to refer to this census data.

However, I think there is a more challenging reason for completing this question. The answers to this question will starkly show the Uniting Church is declining in numbers across the nation (well, that has been the case in recent times.)

This is not anything to celebrate; but it is useful, perhaps critical, to be reminded of the context in which our church is located. Australia is interestingly both an increasingly multifaith context (Hindu and Muslim believers are growing), while at the same time Australia would seem to be more secular.

In the 2016 census, Victoria and Tasmania indicated less than half of the population were Christian, and what is more, because we specifically have our own census box, everyone will see (when the results are available) the situation of our denomination.

Will the Uniting Church take this as a challenge; or will we just assume denominational decline is inevitable, and thus all we do is downsize our presence and role within Australian society?

A census over two thousand years ago changed the world. I hope, Census 2021 can be a catalyst for something similar.

Rev Dr John Evans is a retired Uniting Church Minister

John Evans

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