Surveys highlight decline of mainline Christianity

Surveys highlight decline of mainline Christianity

Michael Gilchrist

The weakening impact of Australian mainline Christianity on its membership and on the wider community - evident enough from personal observation - is confirmed by recent Catholic and Anglican research.

The Anglican Church faces the same problems of a decline in belief and practice as Catholicism, as a recent piece of research, the 1992 publication of the Anglican General Synod Office: Report to the Bishops' Conference, by Margaret Rodgers, confirms. This report concentrates on statistics of Anglican Baptisms and Admissions to Holy Communion and Confirmation between 1980-1990. The author concludes: "... we are ministering to a decreasing number of people and our Church is becoming a less significant spiritual force in the life of the community."

The Anglican Report shows a decline in Baptisms between 1980-1990 from 18,389 to 15,583 in 14 dioceses, which extends a similar decline between 1963-1973 in three other larger dioceses. The decline in Admissions to Confirmation in the same 14 dioceses - more significant, since this reveals a fall-away by young people - was steeper over that period, from 8,861 to 4,412, and followed a similar decline in the three large dioceses, 1963-1973, from 13,134 to 7,676. Marriage figures for 1985-1990 showed that barely half Anglicans marry in an Anglican church.

Given the pattern in the American Evangelical Church, with the loss of one-third of its membership since the 1970s, a similar advent of women's ordination in Australian Anglicanism will simply hasten the downward trend.

The parallel condition of Australian Catholicism was highlighted by a headline, "Convent girls know little of Christianity", to a report in the Adelaide Advertiser of May 19,1992, which referred to a recently published study of Catholic girls in Sydney schools. The Catholic statistical survey and analysis, published under the title Sponsoring Faith in Adolescence (E.J. Dwyer, 1992, Sydney, RRP $29.95, 314pp), was prepared by Sr Carmel Leavey O.P., Margaret Hetherton, Sr Mary Britt O.P. and Sr Rosalie O'Neill RSJ. Sr Carmel Leavey, along with Br Marcellin Flynn, has long been justly respected for her scholarly research into the changing beliefs and practices of Catholic students since the early 1970s.

Fr Tom Doyle, Director of the Catholic Education Office, Victoria, admits in his Preface to Sponsoring Faith that "readers may find the authors' conclusions disturbing" while the authors conclude that "our measures reveal a religious profile ... which does not provide much consolation." The study in question surveyed 266 Catholic girls at three Sydney schools, (two Catholic and one Government), representing an approximate socio-economic and ethnic cross-section of the overall Catholic school population. The study found, for example, that:

  • 77% affirm at least a tentative belief in God and Jesus;
  • 57-58% describe themselves as religious or say they have some intention of modelling their lives on the teaching and example of Christ;
  • 35% have a "Positive" self-estimate of their understanding of "the Christian story";
  • 13% can explain Church teaching on the Incarnation and only 2% can give "an adequate explanation of the Kingdom of God";
  • 32% said they read religious books;
  • 42% believed that life after death was certain.

Comparisons with earlier research data were particularly revealing:

  • Whereas 48% of a similar sample of Catholic students in 1970 thought their work with secular subjects complemented their Christian beliefs, in 1989 the figure was down to 11%;
  • In the total sample, 90% went to weekly Mass in 1970, 63% in 1981 and 43% in 1989; at one of the sampled Catholic schools ("Sion") the drop was from 96% to 37% between 1970-1989!
  • In 1970,63% of "Sion" students said they had daily habits of prayer; in 1989, the figure was 35%;

Revealingly, the survey found that (p.155) "what data we have suggests surprisingly few differences between the State and Catholic school Catholics in religious outcomes." This contrasts with pre-1970 research by Dr Hans Mol (Religion in Australia, Nelson, 1971) which found significantly higher levels of belief and practice among Catholic school Catholics compared with State school Catholics, allowing for other variables.

Jesus and the Church

The authors of Sponsoring Faith conclude: "If Jesus Christ is to become the integrating symbol around which young people can build their lives, they need a secure grasp of the credibility of the New Testament, particularly of the Gospels. They need also a clear grasp of the relationship between Jesus and the Church. The credibility of the Church itself is obviously important and always a potential stumbling block" (p.234). But they noted an apparent reluctance to evaluate the religion program, an "area which provides the chief raison d'etre of the Catholic school" (p.235) and called for the introduction of "criteria for evaluating the quality of administration and staff in terms of faith content and competency, [and] the quality of teacher education" (p.246).

One wonders how the students surveyed would have fared with such 'difficult' topics as Catholic teaching on contraception, extra- or pre-marital sex, women's ordination or the authority of the Pope and bishops, given the poor scores on 'basics.' (Br Marcellin Flynn had already found low acceptance of Catholic moral teachings among the surveyed students in his 1985 study, The Effectiveness of Catholic Schools).

The case for additional doctrinal content in R.E. programs remains undeniable - and in the Catholic secondary school, this must mean, at the very least, apologetics, Church history and Scripture study. But where are the thousands of Catholic teachers today who are willing and able to mount such programs? And even were Catholic Education Offices prepared to read 'the signs of the times', and to take the forthcoming Universal Catechism seriously, what of the situation in Catholic teachers' colleges (where the Monika Hellwig brand of Catholicism is prescribed) and a generation of parents and teachers taught a virtually content-less 'experiential' catechesis since the late 1960s?

The problem is almost too overwhelming to contemplate - yet something drastic obviously has to be done.

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