Two opposite but connected trends are at work within the Christian churches: one involving a watering down or elimination of distinctive Christian symbols and concepts; the other promoting the importation of non-Christian - "politically correct" - elements. The history of these kinds of experiments over the past twenty years ought to have indicated how misguided they are. Far from winning new converts to the faith, they will simply further confuse or alienate the few left in the pews.
At a time when many Christians in the Western world are losing contact with the fundamentals of the faith, the obvious need is for a strengthening - not a weakening - of religious identity.
In Britain, where Christianity appears to be on its last legs, this year's Church-funded Easter publicity campaign saw the dropping of the Cross from all advertising, the argument being that the Cross "carried too much cultural baggage" to be effective. No doubt newer generations of nominal Christians, having lost their links with the faith and enthusiastically embraced modern paganism, could find such a symbol of suffering and self-sacrifice alien, even if they understood what it represented. Instead the British Easter posters reportedly carried the word "Surprise," below which, in small print was the phrase, "... said Jesus to his friends 3 days after they buried him ... to be continued in a church near you at Easter." The wording is evocative of the Christian TV advertisements one encounters in Australia - which are vapid, if not meaningless, other than expressing a vague goodwill.
Such approaches assume that non-Christians or lapsed Christians will be drawn to Christianity if the Cross or other difficult symbols are eliminated. But if, as St Paul so strongly insisted, the truth of the Resurrection is the fact on which Christianity stands or falls, the Crucifixion of Christ is the pre-requisite without which the claim that Christ rose from the dead, and thereby finally established the fact of his Divinity, is deprived of its foundation.
As Dr Henry Chadwick, the former Anglican Dean of Peterhouse at Cambridge and a celebrated historian of the early Church, commented in the London Times (11.3.95), to seek to eliminate the Cross from Christianity, is to present Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark. A later contributor to the Times correspondence columns (14.3.95), Richard Crawford, wrote: "There doesn't seem very much left for us agnostics not to believe in."
Closer to home, a widely used 1995 Lenten parish discussion program emanating from the Catholic Adult Education Centre, Sydney, (see analysis on p.5 by Dr Philippa Martyr) presented Mother Mary MacKillop largely in terms acceptable to today's feminists, while downplaying her devout Catholicism and commitment to spreading the truths of her faith. She was, it was said, "innovative, courageous, resilient, politically astute, extremely direct and forthright." (So, some might claim, is Mr Paul Keating).
Mary MacKillop was the only Christian among four "heroes" presented in the publication to Catholic parishioners around Australia as inspirational Easter figures. The other three were undeniably good people - humanitarians - but all had turned their backs on Christianity. The program seemed to invite the conclusion that these secular icons were perhaps better off for keeping Christianity at a distance, and that genuine holiness need not derive from God's help via prayer, penance, sacraments, or the Mass. These are indeed confusing signals for a confused Church.
A recent article in this journal (March 1995) by Dr Max Champion of the Uniting Church, drew attention to the fundamental incompatibility between Christian and aboriginal religious beliefs. Despite this, in what has become an exercise in overcompensation for past wrongs, the present-day churches seem ever on the look-out for more opportunities to import Aboriginal religious and cultural practices into Christian study and worship.
In the above-mentioned Catholic Lenten program (which is far from unique these days) one of the "heroes" is the late Kath Walker, otherwise known as Oodgeroo Noonuccal, who, we are told, after turning her back on Christianity, honoured "the Earth-Mother as the chief life-source of all creation" and was noteworthy for championing "respect for the environment and for Aboriginal culture, as well as actively campaigning for Aboriginal rights." No doubt a remarkable woman in secular terms; but a strange focal point for Catholics during the Easter season - however politically correct.
Such moves to "aboriginalise" the Church are only a small part of a worldwide movement of "inculturation" within Christianity. In India, many Catholics have been alarmed at the extent to which in some dioceses the officially sanctioned Hinduisation of the Church has proceeded. It may still be early days in regard to Australia, but attention needs to be directed to what appears to be a growing phenomenon.
At a recent large-scale commemorative Mass in Victoria, the International Year of Tolerance was invoked by an Aboriginal Elder, the Penitential Rite included an Aboriginal Smoking Ceremony while the reading of the Gospel was preceded by an Aboriginal message stick and coal carrier which smoked throughout the reading and the remainder of the Eucharist. The accompanying Mass booklet explained that "This is the Aboriginal equivalent of incensing." The recessional hymns were of a purely secular character.
If one must speak of "inculturation", it is curious that such prominence should be given to the trappings of a religion which is so incompatible with Christianity, especially when the membership of the Catholic Church (and other mainline churches) is overwhelmingly European - and to a lesser extent, Asian.
The present danger is that, on the one hand, the Church is permitting itself to be dragged in a new direction by the politically correct cult of Aboriginal life which is clearly being exploited today for political purposes. A number of Aboriginal leaders have themselves warned against this exploitation of their culture by certain Australian political parties.
The other danger is that the shrinking band of practising Catholics will not only be further confused about their religious identity and the bold and unique claims of Christianity, but they may well be alienated. And those who have left are unlikely to be drawn back by political correctness dressed up as religion.
In the light of such developments, the general warning concerning liturgical excesses recently given by Archbishop Hickey of Perth deserves notice (see report on p.8): "Excesses are to be avoided lest the frame become more important than the picture. The essence of the Mass is not to be lost in a host of distractions. External signs, symbols and actions are meant to reveal the inner meaning of the Rite, not obscure it, because Sacraments effect what they signify."