Clergy look out at empty pews but they’re not losing faith

Photo James Roddis
That old-time religion has lost its appeal for more and more Australians, but one church minister says belief is about much more than ‘the Sunday show’. James Roddis reports.

The 2016 census revealed that for the first time in Australia’s history the number of people professing “no religion” has now overtaken the number of Catholics.

But Christian clerics say they are not concerned at the statistical evidence that Australia has become increasingly secular.

The nation’s religious make-up has undergone a dramatic shift in the past 50 years. The census data for 1966 showed that 88 per cent of the population was Christian; the comparable figure for last year was barely more than half – 52 per cent.

Swinburne University chaplain Darren Cronshaw, a father of three, a teacher and researcher in addition to being pastor of the Auburn Life Baptist Church, admitted: “Yes, church attendance is declining.

“People are more owning the fact that they’re not religious”, but he added there were still “healthy signs of growth and mentality with young people”.

Reverend Cronshaw said he wanted to “build community, not within [a religious] service but in more meaningful ways”, seeking to go “beyond the Sunday show”.

“Helping people connect faith and spirituality” was more important than encouraging church attendance.

Rev Cronshaw – who trains and competes in triathlons – was clearly at ease taking a less traditional view of the role of religion in society. “I’m here to connect with people”, he said, seeing himself as approachable and welcoming rather than authoritarian, less of a religious figure and more of a community leader.

The Anglican Archdeacon of Box Hill, Ian Morrison, attributed the decline to the fact that “the 1960s were the highest point in attendance”.

Acknowledging his role “keeps me busy”, Archdeacon Morrison said, “There are people who are identifying as ‘no religion’ comparative to the ‘60s where everyone had a religion. That just wasn’t done.”

Nationwide, “people are less frightened” about identifying as having no religion, with the result that there is much less of a stigma attached to such a declaration these days than there was 50 years ago.

While openly “disappointed that baby boomers haven’t ensured that their families were necessarily exposed to [a] religious upbringing”, he said he was unconcerned about declining church attendance.

The old stigma appears to have been replaced in the view of many by suspicions surrounding clergy of many Christian sects following the uncovering of widespread child abuse by Catholic priests.

Rev Cronshaw said sometimes “people tend to be awkward” when he mentioned his occupation, but often he found them curious or eager to discuss their approach to matters of spirituality and meaning.

Archdeacon Morrison said he enjoyed “being a priest, by and large people are accepting of that”, but admitted “the molestation of children … has left a stigma that’s difficult for all priests”.

Asked what they would say to anyone who stigmatised all clergy for the sexual misdeeds of some, both said they would want to understand why rather than simply attacking the person.

Rev Cronshaw said: “I’d be much more inclined to adopt a curious posture, I’m curious to learn from people.”

Archdeacon Morrison said: “I would rather hear what that is and talk with them about their own experience. It depends on them.”

Similarly, on the marriage equality debate, both men supported the yes vote.

Rev Cronshaw condemned it as “very polarising and more damaging than not”, saying it had led to “unfortunate vilification”.

He said he was “disappointed in the Government” for holding the survey, viewing it as “a waste of money”, but he did consider it “an issue that needs to be debated and resolved”.

However, Archdeacon Morrison saw “marriage as a civil function” saying that he had already “changed through the centuries.”

The Archdeacon said he was in favour of same-sex marriage but noted that his denomination was opposed to it.