2016-06-30
Hundreds of millions of years ago, geological evidence reveals that Australia was part of southern Asia's land mass but floated away when the continents split. When it severed its land connection, it developed its own evolutionary pattern. We identify this land with kangaroos, koala bears, and wallabies--marsupials seen nowhere else in the world. The aboriginal population in Australia was so unique that when this land was discovered by Europeans, the native people offered scientists an opportunity to study primitive human life in what seemed to be an almost perfect prehistoric setting.

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:

  • The newly elected Anglican archbishop of Sydney, Dr. Peter Jensen, is an ultra-conservative evangelical who uses biblical texts to justify everything from his refusal to ordain women to his oppression of gay men and lesbians. Jensen saves special wrath for those he deems to be Christian liberals. In another age, he might lead an Inquisition. Today, he contents himself by seeking to purge or to silence those disturbing voices who periodically invade his antiquated world. He seeks to control the thought forms inside his diocese, banning from his churches those who do not affirm his narrow sectarianism.

    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.

  • The newly appointed Roman Catholic archbishop in Sydney, the Most Rev. George Pell, has continued the stance of overt homophobia that marked his rule as archbishop of Melbourne, engendering enormous backlash and face-to-face confrontation with the gay community. He brooks no alternative voices for his own interpretation of the Catholic position. The Roman Catholics have nonetheless produced their own internal critics--courageous priests and lay people. The lay critics are ignored and critical priests are normally purged, silenced, banished to the bush, or forced to resign. It is a repressive religious tradition. Catholicism in Australia does not offer much hope for the future.

  • The United Church is much more diverse and as a result fights a civil war constantly between its fundamentalist and progressive wings. It has produced on one side female clergy of national reputation, such as Dorothy McMahon, who was pastor of a major church in downtown Sydney and an out lesbian; and on the other, demigogic pastor-turned-politician Fred Nile, whose negative comments toward any 21st century idea is readily expressed. This diversity makes the task of defining this group more difficult.

  • Yet in Australia, perhaps more than in either the United States or Western Europe, I find hope for a Christian future. There is, first of all, a deep and abiding spiritual hunger in this land. There are voices articulating a new vision of Christianity. These voices have moved beyond the traditional symbols of original sin, human sacrifice, and having one's misdeeds "washed in the blood of the lamb." Their vision now is of life not fallen but incomplete or unfinished; Jesus is not seen as a human sacrifice who was God's rescue operation but is instead someone who calls and empowers us to be more than human life has yet been. There is also a conscious attempt to purge from Christian practice that view of the Eucharist that reveals a thinly disguised cannibalistic liturgy suggesting that we eat the flesh and drink the blood of the savior. Leaders are emerging in all the major Christian bodies who seem to have the ability to create something new.


    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.

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