Australia also has a unique history after Europeans arrived. When the American Revolution ended, the English could no longer use Georgia as a place to deposit their criminal population, so Australia was nominated to meet that need. Australia went on to develop as a European nation in the Southern Hemisphere and remains today part of the British Commonwealth. As a progressive democracy in the Pacific, Australia is magnetically attractive to Pacific people looking for a better life. Today, Australia's population, though still predominantly European, is becoming more and more diverse, as Indians, Pakistanis, Malays, Burmese, Chinese, Japanese, Indonesians, East Timorese, and Polynesians migrate to this land.
There are three main Christian bodies in Australia: Anglicans, who reflect the English heritage and frequently act as if they are "the established" church; Roman Catholics, who represent primarily Irish and Southern European immigration; and something called the Uniting Church of Australia, which is made up of various Protestant groups, the most significant of which are Presbyterian and Methodist. There are also some independent Protestant churches, usually fundamentalist, and some niche groups, like the Unity Movement, the Unitarian Universalists, and the Metropolitan Community Church, which is a primarily gay and lesbian denomination. Australia has a small Jewish community, and there are also Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims.
In my travels here recently, I noticed two apparently contradictory trends. First, much of Christianity in Australia is caught in a time warp. Second, more than any other Western country, Australia seems to hold the best, brightest hope for a new and vital Christianity. Let's look at some of the evidence:
Shaped far more than they seem to realize by the weight of the Sydney mentality that would elect a man like Jensen, Australian Anglicans are more conservative than a modern national church might ordinarily be. Yet they have produced leaders of international significance, such as the present primate, Peter Carnley, and a rising young star serving as the bishop of Newcastle, Roger Herft, whose Sri Lankan heritage fits nicely into Australia's emerging multiculturalism. Carnley clearly states the issues facing the Christian Church in Australia and lets the chips fall where they may. He has argued for a view of Christianity that does not denigrate the other religions of the world and has authored a book on the resurrection of Jesus that takes notice of recent biblical scholarship questioning whether resurrection means physical resuscitation. He regularly incurs the wrath of the Sydney Anglicans who are not accustomed to having their ignorance challenged publicly.
On my recent lecture tour of Australia, I found an amazingly encouraging response. My call for a new Reformation was clearly perceived to be news. Of course, this position publicly produced a backlash from traditional religious groups. Local fundamentalist clergy announced boycotts, frightened church leaders tried to ban me from their areas, and readers wrote hostile letters to the editors.
My encouragement, however, was found in three realities. First, I had overflowing audiences throughout the land. Clearly, a nerve had been struck, and this response gave support and undergirding to beleaguered progressive clergy who face constant attack by traditional religious voices. Second, in Adelaide I found four Uniting Church pastors working together to build a new kind of church and to organize a way of expanding the religious horizons of their people. They have banded together to explore contemporary scholarship in their congregations and to raise a whole new vision of what a church can be. In Newcastle, I found a university chaplain who had made Christianity a vital force on his campus. In each major city, I found a core of people who had given up on the church as it is but who worked to show what the church could become.
In all these instances I discovered how interconnected our world now is. These clergy understood the need to network not just in Australia but worldwide. They were aware of American initiatives such as the Jesus Seminar and the Center for Progressive Christianity, and English resources such as the Sea of Faith. Third, these new voices have also found allies in secular organizations such as one sponsoring "The International Festival of Ideas" in Adelaide later this summer, where scholars from many fields, including religious, will meet to explore how we together can build a better world.
Australia is the first Western nation I have visited that offers me hope that there is yet a phoenix in the center of a dying institutionalized Christianity that can spring forth in a future resurrection. The seeds of a new Reformation are growing in this land down under. It deserves watching.