The parable of the life boats

by Haus - Wikipediaby Peter Corney

A cruise ship is making its way across the Pacific Ocean on a beautiful calm tropical day. The passengers are strolling along the deck, swimming in the pool, sun baking or playing deck games.

Suddenly without warning the emergency alarm sounds shattering the calm. The crew hurriedly gathers the passengers on the boat deck. They are told that a fire has broken out in the engine room and the ship is in danger of sinking. They must launch the life boats.

Four life boats are launched and because of the natural law of association the first life boat is quickly filled with all the pessimists’ on board. The conversation in this boat runs like this: I knew I should never have gone on a boat trip … I don’t suppose there is another ship for thousands of miles … they’ll never find us …. they say dying of thirst is very nasty … Someone has brought their guitar with them and has begun to sing nihilistic songs by Kurt Cobain and REM. No one has taken any initiative to get them organised and rowing, after all what’s the point, they are thousands of miles from any land and anyway in what direction should they row? And, as someone pointed out: Even if we found an Island, global warming and rising sea levels means that we wouldn’t last long there any way.

The second life boat gathers all the hedonists. Most are still dressed in their bathers and sports gear. They have also managed to wangle a case of champagne on to the life boat and some glasses. As their boat pushes away from the sinking ship you can still hear the laughter and the chink of glasses. Some are even diving off the life boat and swimming back and forth, after all it’s a lovely day. Some one is heard to say: Hey this is so exciting … I wonder what time the boat or plane to pick us up will arrive?

The third life boat has gathered all the optimists, they are already organised and rowing strongly as a team in an unwavering direction; there is no doubt in their mind that there is an Island just over the horizon.

There had been a conference (junket) on deconstruction and post modern literature on the cruise for lecturers from university arts faculties. They have all gathered in the fourth life boat. Some have managed to bring their copies of Derrida and Foucault and other impenetrable books with them. Ironically they are the only boat with a chart and compass, the problem is they can’t agree on how to read them! They are engaged in a furious debate about the meaning of the arrow and the north symbol on the compass and the chart. The argument is that originally they were drawn up by men in a world dominated by patriarchy and therefore are tainted with gender bias and can not be trusted. The arrow is really a phallic symbol of male sexual dominance. In any case what is a map but one person’s perspective of the way things are. This boat is obviously not going anywhere!

Meanwhile, unknown to our boats a storm is gathering just over the horizon.

Each of these “boats” represents different attitudes to life and reality that anyone trying to communicate the Christian faith in a contemporary setting faces.

Christ and culture

The 2007 J. Spencer Nall Memorial Lecture

‘Christ and Culture’ (The challenge – To conform or to transform?)

The key issue I want to address is whether we as Christians will allow ourselves to conform to the culture we are part of or will we seek to transform it by the values and Spirit of the Kingdom of God?

In the past three of the forces that have shaped culture were:

  1. The family, the clan, the tribe
  2. Religion – what people believed
  3. Commerce – how people grew, produced, exchanged, bought and sold things.

From time to time the influence of each of these waxed and waned but there was a kind of balance.

In our time a dramatic change has taken place. The third force, commerce, has joined itself to the most powerful and ubiquitous instrument our world has ever seen – the modern media – in all its dazzling and inescapable forms. This now threatens to overpower the other two.

The marriage was joined through advertising and marketing. Apart from some minor serious journalism that influences very few people, the popular media is primarily about delivering audiences to advertisers. Advertisers are about turning audiences into consumers.

Modern consumers are created by the construction of what has been called ‘Hyper Reality’. (1) Hyper Reality is a construction of desirable but artificial images. “You can be this or feel this if you buy this, wear this or drive this.” These images are then marketed for consumers. Hyper Reality is the product of consumerism. The process is reinforced by the promotion of discontent. “This mobile phone plan is better than the one you’ve got!”

The problem of course is that Hyper Reality is mostly fantasy and delusion. Eventually everyone is mugged by real reality. The consumer path leads inevitably to disillusionment because we know that the acquisition of things on its own does not lead to happiness nor does it construct real personal identity.

In the powerful and disturbing film ‘Fight Club” the writer of the screenplay puts these words into the mouth of one of the disillusioned young men who seek in the violence of the fight club some authenticity, some reality in their empty, superficial, consumer lifestyle.

“We are the middle children of history – no purpose or place. There is no great war for us to fight, no great depression. Our great war is a Spiritual war. Our great depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’ll be millionaires, and movie gods and rock stars. But we won’t. We’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.” (2)

It seems to ‘Jack’, the central character, that to feel really alive, to find meaning, can only be discovered through some existential experience of extremes, in their case the violence and the physical pain of the fight club.

Disillusionment leads to depression, anger and violence. It also leads to self-medication to ease the emotional pain or fill the vacuum. This is one of the reasons we now have an epidemic of alcohol and substance abuse. It may also explain the growing incidence of youth violence.

But the results are not only personal and individual they are social and global. Rampant consumerism leads us deeper and deeper into the environmental crisis and accelerated climate change – it is simply unsustainable.

Modern progress has reached a critical point where it is now eating itself, destroying its own achievements; it has turned into social regress.

While we are one of the wealthiest countries in the world with one of the most sophisticated health systems – Diabetes is skyrocketing, juvenile dental health is declining, one in four children have a mental health problem and Beyond Blue tell us that one in five adults suffer depression.

What is required is an alternative Christian Community that models a different lifestyle, one that says no to hyper reality and lives differently. A community that lives simply but joyfully, that is temperate and restrained but generous, disciplined but gracious.

The media Juggernaut is now the shaper of values and meaning for most Western people. It is in the process of overpowering the other two traditional shapers of our culture – the family and religious belief. Even the democratic political process is now captive to this monster.

I begin at this point to emphasise the size and seriousness of the challenge before us.

But this year we have celebrated the 200th Anniversary of an event that can give us great hope – the abolition of the slave trade in British Territories in 1807. A campaign by English Christians led through the British Parliament by William Wilberforce. This is an outstanding model of Christian mission and the transformation of culture.

It was a long campaign. It took them 18 years to get the abolition Bill passed and another 26 years to get all the slaves freed – 44 years! But they persisted.

Why was it such a struggle? It was a long struggle because of the social, economic and political climate of the times. The English upper classes were terrified of a French Revolution on English soil. The parliament was distracted by other issues. England was constantly at war with France and their American colonies. England’s growing wealth was tied to the colonies and the Slave Trade. The British Navy depended on recruiting merchant ships at times of war and the Slave Trade encouraged the building up of the merchant fleet. One of Wilberforce’s most bitter opponents was the national naval hero Lord Nelson! Britain’s leaders were fearful of any social reform at this time.

I mention this to encourage us because we also face a social climate that is not conducive to our values and we can easily be discouraged. But they did it and so can we!

Their campaign methods are instructive and a model for ‘faith based activism’. They mounted a media and petition blitz to coincide with Wilberforce’s Parliamentary Bills. (10% of the English population signed the Petition!) They assembled damning evidence of the barbaric nature of the trade. They developed a logo of an African man in chains with the words “Am I not a man and a brother?” The famous potter, Wedgwood, even mass-produced it as a pottery plaque! They produced books, posters, they held rallies, they wrote to MP’s. They created a national organization and a huge grass roots movement. John Coffey comments: “There were even boycotts on consumer goods, as up to 400,000 Britons stopped buying the rum and sugar that came from the slave plantations”. The churches were mobilized and “hundred’s of Methodists … signed a petition against the slave trade in the Chapel at the Communion Table of the Lord’s Day.” (3)

The abolitionists were profoundly influenced by the radical New Testament teaching on relationships.

A fascinating example of this is found in Paul’s letter to Philemon. It was written to accompany a runaway slave, Onesimus, as Paul returned him to his owner, Philemon. It appears that both had been converted to Christ through Paul’s ministry. Paul’s appeal begins as a very personal and emotional one (v8-13) but ends with a radical theological idea. He calls on Philemon to receive Onesimus back “no longer as a slave but… as a beloved brother… both in the flesh and in the Lord” and as “a partner” (v15-17). In other words as a blood brother, as a brother in Christ and as an equal partner, like Paul, in their common enterprise – the Gospel! This is a radical request to a Roman slave owner.

In Colossian’s 3:10-11 and Galatians’ 3:26-29 Paul expresses this idea powerfully in the concept of our unity in Christ through baptism. “As many of you as were baptised into Christ have clothed your selves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Christianity draws us into a radical new identity through a radical new community. All our old communities of identity; gender, race, ethnicity, education, economic and social standing are relativised by our baptism into Christ. The old communities of identity often divide us, our new identity unites us. In addition, this particular unity is set against a broader unity laid out in the Bible – the idea that because every person is created in God’s image we are all bound in a common relationship. This together with the doctrine of the incarnation means that every person is precious and must be treated with dignity and respect. The English abolitionists logo expressed it well – “Am I not a man and a brother?”

These concepts of respect for every person and relational responsibility are touchstones of Christian ethics and social decision-making. Eventually this teaching undermined the Pagan ideology that was the basis of slavery. By the 12th C slavery was largely abolished in Christian Europe and by the 14th C rare, with the exception of some parts of Spain with it’s proximity to North Africa. But the rest of the story is not so happy or consistent and it raises the question of Christianity and culture.

In the 16th C two extraordinary acts of moral apostasy took place in Christendom. In 1548 Pope John 2nd issued a decree that it would now be acceptable for a Christian to possess slaves. Then in 1560 Queen Elizabeth 1st, defender of the Protestant faith of England, commissioned John Hawkins, sailor, merchant, naval hero and buccaneer, to get England a slice of the lucrative Trans Atlantic slave trade. The Queens decision was driven purely by economics and so began England’s long and immoral involvement in the transporting and trading of West African slaves from 1560 – 1807, 250 years and some three million slaves.

When European Christian’s looking for religious freedom settled in North America, they later developed the new nation with slaves! Founders of the “Republic of the free” like Thomas Jefferson kept slaves. Eventually they fought a bloody civil war over the issue. There were Christians on both sides arguing for and against slavery. Slavery was not officially abolished in the US till 1865. The effects of that bitter struggle still continue in American society today.

The British “Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge”, an early overseas mission agency, owned slaves in the West Indies. Following the common and barbaric custom they were physically branded, in their case with the word “Society”.

These disturbing examples raise the critical issue of the relationship between Christ and culture. How does a movement that morally transformed the Pagan world lose its bearings so easily on an issue that is fundamental to its core values?

At times Christianity has had an extraordinary morally transforming effect on its culture.

In his fascinating book “The Rise of Christianity” the sociologist Rodney Stark gives a very convincing account of why Christianity moved from a tiny minority to the majority religion of the Roman Empire by the time of Constantine’s conversion – just 320 years! It was because morally they out lived, out loved, out cared and out served the Pagans. Their treatment of women, children, slaves, the sick and the poor, their racial inclusiveness, their hope, simply overpowered the inequality, racism, corruption, violence and despair of first and second century Pagan culture. (5)

But, as we have observed, at other times Christians have been seduced and compromised by the culture in which they are set. They have been drawn into moral and theological reductionism, where they reduce core values and beliefs to fit the world view and practice of their times.

Borrowing and adapting categories developed by H.Richard Niebuhr (6) as he reflected on this question, the relationship between Christianity and culture can be described in the following ways:

(1) Christianity under the culture. E.g., Persecution by the Roman Empire in the first three centuries; Byzantine Christianity oppressed by Islam under the Ottomans’; the Church under Communism in Laos or China today.

(2) Christianity against the culture. E.g., Where the Church is actively opposed to the dominant culture as in the Confessing Church in Nazi Germany with Bonheoffer and Niemoller or the Solidarity movement opposed to communism in Poland in the 1980’s.

(3) Christianity over the culture. E.g., Where the Church dominates and controls the culture, exerting power over it as in the Holy Roman Empire from the Middle Ages to the 15thC., or Geneva under Calvin.

(4) Christianity withdrawn from the culture. E.g., Where the Church disengages and withdraws into ghettos or closed communities like the Anna Baptists in the 16thC or the Amish in North America or the Exclusive Brethren and some forms of fundementalist pietism today. The motive may be fear of contamination from the culture or a desire to create The Kingdom on earth in an ideal community.

(5) Christianity absorbed by the culture. E.g., Where the Church is seduced by the dominant cultures values and conforms to them, adapting its values and beliefs to fit the culture. The contemporary Western Church reveals many examples of this like prosperity gospel teaching or ordinary Christians adopting the same materialism and consumerism of those around them or the retreat from classical Christian beliefs and Creedal faith. Apartheid in South Africa, tribal conflict in East Africa, and the culture of violence and confrontation in Northern Ireland are all tragic examples in the recent past.

(6) Christianity transforming the culture. E.g., Where Christianity acts like salt and light in the culture, reshaping its values and affecting public policy, like Wilberforce and the 18th and 19th English Christian social reformers. It is worth noting that in the examples of Northern Ireland and Africa mentioned in (5) above that Christians are now leading the reconciliation process and have moved to a transformational stance.

In Australia today the sixth relationship is the one I believe we should be pursuing.

Earlier we looked at the challenge of the contemporary media and consumerism. Another major issue is the contemporary trend towards social fragmentation. This is one of our great transformational challenges. I mention this because it links to the same fundamental issue faced by Wilberforce and the abolitionists – what really unites us as human beings.

We are a culture caught between contradictory desires. Because we are made in the image of God we are made for unity – unity with God and others. But because of our fallen natures we tend to disunity and fragmentation.

We are constantly conflicted – caught between the God placed desire for unity and community and the other desire for ever expanding individual choice – a desire that our Western consumer culture constantly feeds.

On top of all this, globally we now live in a socially and politically fragmenting world. The old unities of national, ethnic and cultural identity are all under challenge and stress by globalism and mass migration.

W.B.Yeats’ poem captures the feel of our times:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity. (7)

The world seems decentered! And yet the deep desire for unity and community persists.

One of the biggest challenges before every Western democracy today is maintaining a healthy multiculturalism.

Strongly influenced by our Christian heritage we continue to work at multiculturalism. There is a vigorous discussion going on about the need to redefine the essential core values of a multicultural democracy but we continue to work at the goal. Why? Because it is a unity dream – unity in diversity.

But can the dream stay alive in a decentered and fragmenting world? Can the dream overpower the nightmares of Racism, Xenophobia, extreme nationalism and fundamentalism?

Can the dream of unity and community stay alive without the revitalisation of its spiritual and moral source?

Let me remind you of that source – it is the N.T. and the Gospel.

Col 1 “…in him (Christ) all things hold together … God was please to have all his fullness dwell in him and through him to reconcile to himself all things… by making peace through his blood shed on the cross.” (8)

Gal 3 “…there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (9)

Can we re-cast this vision of Christ as the source of unity, the centre for a decentered culture – the way to coherence in an incoherent world?

Can we re-cast this great transformational vision?

To be a transformational force we must remember that the Church and the individual Christian can never be neutral to the culture; we either work on the culture or it works on us. Therefore we should be constantly assessing and critiquing the culture and our part in it with the values of the Gospel and the Kingdom of God. Passivity is not an option! But as we critique it and ourselves we must stay engaged because the surrounding culture is the arena of our mission. When Jesus said “as the Father has sent me so I send you” he was sending us into our culture with the good news of the Kingdom of God. Eugene Peterson in “The Message” translates Rom 12:2 “Don’t become so well adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead fix your attention on God and you’ll be changed from the inside out.”

A question we should be constantly asking ourselves is: “In what ways am I allowing the culture I live in to compromise or reduce my Christian faith and practice?”

Wilberforce and his circle of friends in the “Clapham Group” used their influence to reshape British society in the early 19th C. Indeed many of the social values we take for granted today in Australia were pioneered by them. They created 69 different societies dealing with a great range of social issues including prison reform, child labour reform, factory reform, public education, gambling reform, the prevention of cruelty to animals – the list goes on. They also formed many evangelistic and overseas mission agencies. They managed to hold together what we have often separated – social justice and evangelism. They were very clear that individuals needed to be brought to personal faith in Christ; they understood that God desires to reconcile people to himself and to transform them. They were also clear that at the same time society could not be allowed to be dominated by greed and self interest, it had to be moderated by public policy that protected the poor and the powerless. Society also needed to be transformed. Nothing has changed these two needs in 200 years.

In this anniversary year of the abolition of slavery in British territories and the recognition of the profound influence of the “Clapham Group” we could take up the challenge to form “Clapham Circles” today and try to influence our profession, our business, our company, our political party, our community with the values of the Kingdom of God so that both individuals and our society might be transformed.

Peter Corney


(1) Mark Sayers “The trouble with Paris” DVD Room 3 Productions 2007

(2) Chuck Palahnuik, from the movie script of ‘Fight Club’

(3) John Coffey Cambridge Papers Vol 15/2 2006

(4) St Paul The letter to Philemon N.T (NIV)

(5) Rodney Stark “The rise of Chistianity” Random House 2006

(6) H.Richard Niebuhr (1894-1962) “Christ and Culture” First published 1951. Torch books 1956

(7) W.B. Yeats “The second coming” 1920

(8) St Paul The letter to the Colossians 1:15-20 (NIV)

(9) St Paul The letter to the Galatians 3:26-28 (NIV)

Recommended Reading

“Saints in Politics” by E Marshall House (George Allan & Unwin, 1976)

“Vital Christianity – the life and spirituality of William Wilberforce” by Murray Andrew Pura (Clements Publisher Toronto 2003)

“Jubilee Manifesto – a framework, agenda and strategy for Christian social reform” Edited by M. Schluten and J. Ashcroft (Published by IVP. UK)

“Christ and consumerism” Edited by C. Bartholomew and T. Moritz (published by Paternoster 2000)

“Above all earthly powers – Christ in a Post Modern world” by David F. Wells (Published by IVP UK 2005

“The culturally savy Christian” by Dick Staub (Jersey-Bass 2007)

“Just generosity” by Ronald Sider (Baker 2007)

“Justice in the Burbs” W & L Samson (Baker 2007)

What sort of church do we want to be … need to be … should be?

by Peter Corney

The future of the Diocese of Melbourne in the next twenty years

This address is about the future. They say that in relation to the future there are three kinds of people: Those who let it happen, those who make it happen and those who wonder what happened!

It is tempting to begin with structural and institutional issues and there are plenty of them! The future shape and size of parishes, the question of mergers and rationalization, the cost of maintaining the traditional suburban parish model with shrinking and aging congregations, our unwieldy synodical structure, our need to develop new models of missional congregations, church planting and the limitations of parish boundaries, the better use of our property assets, etc., and I will return to some of these issues. But I want to start somewhere more fundamental with what I believe is the big theological issue before us.

A choice has been constructed for us by a section of the Diocese of a future led in one of only two directions; the direction of a broad liberal Church or that of a caricature of a narrow constricted Church. There is also abroad a number of misleading ideas like the notion that a broad liberal Church is normative Anglicanism and that this will produce a Church more engaged with its society. The alternative to this that is painted is a caricature of a narrow conservative Church that will be disengaged. I want to challenge this construction and move the focus of our choice to a different and more helpful place.

The idea that a broad liberal Church is the Anglican norm just doesn’t fit the facts. Any objective survey shows that in reality it occupies only a part of our very diverse history.

When it has prevailed it has proved to be very uncreative. In the late 18th and early 19th C when it had a run its followers were called “Latitudinarians”. As the name suggests they wanted to be characterized by breadth not narrowness, moderation not emotionalism. They were partly a reaction to the strong theological debates of the Puritan era and, as they perceived it, the emotionalism of the dissenters and early Methodists of their own times. As one Latitudinarian Bishop famously said “enthusiasm is a horrid thing.” They were also strongly influenced by the rationalism of “the age of reason” and the developing natural sciences.

Unfortunately the condition they produced in the English Church could be described, to use a modern phrase, as “not dead but deeply unconscious!” As one writer of the time put it “a sacred dullness” fell upon the Church, “sleep crept from pew to pew”.(1) Sermons became dull, lifeless lectures that bored the hearers into a spiritual as well as a physical torpor. This is the world of the novels of Jane Austin, George Eliot and Anthony Trollope. The Countess in Eliot’s “Scenes of a clerical life” on one occasion says with some feeling of her Vicars sermons that “It’s the cold in the pulpit that affects me not the cold in the pew!” That’s a serious comment given the damp unheated churches of 18th and early 19thC England. Sermons were full of dull moralisms but without any social or cultural critique of the moneyed classes or the low morality of the Restoration court. As a result an incipient Pelagianism crept into the Church. This atmosphere and the avoidance of emotion contributed to the climate of spiritual and emotional hunger that helped prepare the way for the Evangelical revival of the late 18th and 19thC.

The idea that a broad liberal Church leads to a greater engagement with society just doesn’t fit the facts. It was the Puritans with their radical political critique and desire for a true “commonwealth” who engaged with the big socio/political questions. It was the Dissenters, Methodists and Evangelicals who tackled the issues of justice and fairness for the poor and working classes and who formed the basis for the beginnings of organized labor. (The first leader of the British Labor Party was an evangelical Christian, James Keir Hardie.) It required conviction and courage not blandness to challenge the establishment in the highly structured society of that time. It is also worth noting that along with their socio/political engagement both the Puritans, the Methodists and the Evangelicals recovered a passion for the preaching of grace and vital worship. So many of the hymns we love came from this period. They brought together the three great emphases that we desperately need today – passionate worship, passionate evangelism and a passion for justice.

Some Evangelicals lost this three fold emphasis for a time but in the 1970’s it was recovered through the influence of the Lausanne Movement and the leadership of John Stott. But there is always a danger that we can narrow moral issues down to only the personal and individual level and fail to see the radical implications of structural and corporate evil. This happens when the Gospel is disconnected from its New Testament Kingdom framework and so the implications for the whole of culture. Evangelicals need to keep in mind the great record of their forebears and their passion for the gospel in word and deed.

Let me give just one more example. The Anglo Catholic movement in the 19th C. was born out of a renewed vision of the glory and holiness of God. It expressed that in a revival of dignified and awe filled worship, beautiful hymns, evangelism and a passion for working with the poor. While strongly influenced by the Romantic movement of the time they nevertheless produced a holistic theology. In 1923 a noted Anglo Catholic Bishop, Frank Weston said: “You cannot claim to worship Jesus in the Tabernacle if you do not pity Jesus in the slums.” Father Tucker’s work during the great depression and the development of The Brotherhood of St. Lawrence in Melbourne is a direct outcome of this emphasis. The movement developed and staffed schools, hospitals, and missional orders to work among the poor and marginalized. Sadly as the movement gradually departed from the classical orthodoxy of their founders and embraced a liberal theological agenda the passion waned till now the movement and its ministries are but a shadow of the past. Passion leaks, if the original vision of God fades it will not be renewed!

These passions do not arise from a bland liberalism they arise from the recovery of a

“Vital orthodoxy”, classical Christian faith, historic orthodoxy, the great tradition, the faith of the creeds, the faith grounded in the Word of God and enlivened by the Holy Spirit. A community enlivened by the Holy Spirit who holds this faith will have a much greater chance of being captured by the Biblical vision of God. It is that vision that will drive us to passionate worship, passionate evangelism, and a passionate concern for social justice. The key is the vision of the Holy God not a God reduced to fit the prevailing plausibility structure and moral framework of contemporary Australian life. In the history of our Church the passion for worship, evangelism and justice has always arisen from a recovery of this vision. Theological liberalism slowly sucks out the oxygen of classical belief that produces passionate faith.

So we must reject this false choice that has been constructed for us and the misleading ideas on which it is based, that is our first and key decision.

(By Passionate Worship, Passionate Evangelism, and a Passion for Social Justice I mean the following:

“Passionate Worship” is where peoples experience and vision of the Holy God brings forth a profound desire to worship with awe and love and deep feeling and where people are able to express these desires and feelings in the idiom of their own culture.

“Passionate Evangelism” is where people have a sense of urgency and concern to share their faith because they realize that the Holy Love of God can only be approached and experienced by sinful people through Christ the mediator of grace.

“A Passion for Social Justice” is where the vision of the just and Holy God drives people to live and act justly like God and to work to conform their societies values to the character of God.)

Let me turn now to other matters.

First a statistical snapshot:

  • 1981 235 parishes
  • 2006 216 parishes
  • In 25 yrs a loss of 19.
  • In the last 5 yrs -13 amalgamations and 7 closures, one new parish.
  • Estimated total attendance on an average Sunday:
  • 1981 50,000
  • 2006 21,000
  • In 25 yrs a loss of 29,000.
  • From 1991 to 1998 we lost 22,000 Christmas communicants
  • From 2001 to 2005: 5,000
  • Our current age profile: 40% are over 60 yrs, 11% are under 30 yrs.
  • Currently we have 275 “worshiping congregations”, if you remove the attendance figures of the 10 largest congregations you get an average attendance of approximately 62 per w/congregation.
  • Currently 6% of active clergy are under 35 yrs, 59% are over 50 yrs.

(Figures supplied by Diocesan Registry and NCLS data.2001)

There are four ways of looking at where we are as a Church at the moment:

  1. We are an institution /organization in serious decline and so we need renewal, revival, reform, radical transformation. Internally our core motivation is low and our current structures are proving ineffective for our core mission.
  2. We are an institution /organization in a social and cultural environment that is hostile to our core meaning and purpose, to our world view, our values, indeed to the very way we organize, meet and express ourselves. So we need to consolidate, and sit it out till the environment changes. Survive till the Post Christian, Post Modern climate changes!
  3. Nostalgia – let’s hang on to or remake the past.
  4. Denial – never underestimate the power of denial!

My own position is that the only creative way forward is to start with the first view – renewal, reform, radical transformation. So the rest of my ideas proceed from that basis.

A metaphor: Pioneers –> Settlers –> Establishment –> Rural decline –> New Pioneers

Let’s think of the Church in terms of rural Australia: First we have the “Pioneer phase”, it’s rough, tough and basic, then the “Settler” phase, the homes are built the farms established, then the “Establishment” phase. In the “establishment’ phase there is now a small town, a shire office, schools, banks, some small businesses, etc… Then comes rural decline – the world changes, the economy changes, technology changes, the markets for rural products change, etc… Now there are fewer jobs for young people, the population begins to fall, the banks close, the Doctor leaves, the kids go to Melbourne, etc…. The decline cannot be ignored it’s a painful reality. After a difficult period people begin to adjust and then in some rural areas they begin to reinvent! They enter a “New Pioneer” phase.

They consolidate farms, go for economies of scale, they plant new crops, bring in new breeds, some specialize in super fine wool and value added production techniques, spouses take second jobs off the farm, the way farms are staffed and run changes, the shire attracts a new technology business with low rates and other incentives, they start their own rural bank with some other towns, they begin a tourism campaign, B& B’s spring up and the old store becomes a coffee shop! Etc, etc… Renewal begins!

Like rural Australia we must enter the “New Pioneer” phase or continue the slow painful decline. Well what will that look like for us in concrete terms?

First, we must recognize that the Church militant only lives by continuing to reproduce its self in living people with a living faith. Institutions, structures and buildings are not unimportant but they can survive while the Church dies.

The primary places where we reproduce, nurture and disciple people with living faith are the family and the local congregation. Sector ministries are important, Christian schools are important, particularly as places of interface and mission with parts of society that the local congregation does not normally reach, but the primary places of reproducing and nurturing faith are the family and the local congregation.

The local congregation and the Christian family are the fundamental expression of Christian community. The local congregation is vital as a primary support for the Christian family. The local congregation is also a base from which we initiate outreach and service to the wider community. It is also the base that provides the resources of people and money for non parochial ministries. It is a key place where future leadership is nurtured and ministry gifts identified. If we have strong healthy growing congregations we will have a strong, healthy and growing Church. So strategically this is where we need to focus, where the “new pioneering” needs to be concentrated.

The Diocesan framework has a variety of roles but its priority role must be to revitalize parish ministry. It can no longer be “business as usual” we have to move to strategic action mode. If we want a different future we have to create it.

There are at least 10 key areas relating to the local congregation that we must address:

(1) The leadership/ministry area. We need to recruit leader/pastors not pastor/ maintainer’s. We need people who can innovate and initiate, who can regenerate communities, entrepreneurs. Men and women with gifts and abilities in communication, recruiting and motivating others, building teams and community, the ability to teach, persuade and build vision – in a word, leaders! We no longer have the luxury of accepting well intentioned sincere pious people who think they have a call to pastoral ministry but are not strong in leadership gifts. We can not continue a “Vicar of Dibbly syndrome” unless we want to be trivialized as a charming anachronism or an historical theme park. Remember they are laughing at us not with us! We also need to move the general recruiting age to a younger profile. Movements are renewed by the young not the middle aged! In terms of recruitment, training and placement strategy we need to have parallel tracks to the conventional one that are more flexible. The traditional track of 4years study and 4years of curacy can not be the only model E.g.: We need apprenticeship models and recognition of prior learning. We need approaches that allow growing and healthy congregations with good models of ministry to have a larger role and authority in the process. We need to encourage intern schemes, “Gap” programs and participation in multiple staff teams as part of training.

(2) New models of ministry/congregations. We need to think outside the traditional Anglican box. The conventional model of the cross generational family village Church needs to be expanded and in some cases abandoned. The future is in a variety of models of different styles and sizes, large and small. In some cases mergers and consolidations will be appropriate. Preferably strategy should dictate these rather than economic necessity. There is significant evidence that mergers out of economic necessity in fact diminish numbers rather than enhance them. Particularly if the leadership that oversaw the decline remains or the new leadership is not strong. The small suburban congregation of 60- 80 with a vicar and the usual suite of buildings and an aging membership moving on to fixed incomes has a very limited future economically.

(3) Church planting must be encouraged in established areas as well as new housing developments and new experimental alternative missional congregations encouraged to reach into the diverse “urban tribes” of Melbourne. The rules on parish boundaries will have to be relaxed.

(4) We need to take more initiative to encourage the planting of new settler / ethnic congregations but in association with English speaking ones so there is some integration and second generation involvement assured. The staff need to be integrated with the established congregation. There is a spiritual vitality and energy in many of these new immigrant Christian communities that we need.

(5) Redeveloping, redeploying or realizing the assets of existing property to promote and fund new initiatives. We are asset rich but cash poor. But this needs to be done against a master plan.

(6) Develop a master plan for each region in relation to questions of property, new missional initiatives, new church planting and congregational revitalizations. This plan would determine what properties we sell, keep, redevelop, what congregations we merge etc. E.g.: Each university should have an excellent student focused congregation in its student catchment area staffed appropriately.

(7) Youth and student ministry must become a major priority. This is where the future leadership will be drawn from. E.g.: The diocese should allocate funding for training youth and student workers as well as ordained clergy.

(8) Congregations must become focused outward on missional outreach, in word and deed.

(9) The development of a strong sense of community. As community breaks down further in Australian society this will become enormously attractive.

(10) The central leadership and administration must develop a permission giving culture and not be drawn into a negative compliance and control syndrome. The current social climate of over protection, litigiousness and fear of risk reinforces the tendency to compliance and control. This must be resisted! We need diocesan leaders who are relaxed and very flexible and willing to take risks with new models and approaches. The leadership needs to be very focused on our core values and mission but flexible at the edges, willing to develop new alternative parallel programs alongside old ones. The institution must create a structural framework that allows the social movement of people with enthusiastic living faith to revive. Only rewarding creativity and growth, openness to new models, flexibility, and relaxing the institutional rules and attitudes will do that.

In the process of tackling these strategic structural issues we must remember that structural renewal does not always produce spiritual renewal. The two must go hand in hand.

Second, there are a series of “myths” we must challenge if we are to go forward.

(1) The denominational franchise myth – all Anglican congregations must look alike. In a “Mosaic culture” contextualizing is a key, this will produce variety.

(2) The myth that the cross generational family village church is the only model. It will continue to be a valid model but only one among a variety of ways of organizing Church.

(3) The myth that people under 45 are denominationally loyal. Denominational tags are increasingly irrelevant to contemporary people and of little influence in their decisions about attendance of a congregation. That will be decided by the variety of programs offered, the quality of worship and teaching, and whether there is a healthy children’s and youth ministry.

(4) The myth that local communities are residentially stable. At least 17% of Australians move every year and 40% every 5years. This means that Christian communities have to be constantly rebuilt. Welcoming systems, the constant development of voluntary leaders and clergy being willing to hang in for the long haul are all vital.

(5) The myth that the pastoral maintenance model of ministry grows churches. This model has in fact presided over decline. In a high change culture leadership and creative initiative are crucial.

(6) The myth that new churches are only planted in new housing areas. New Congregations must be replanted in established areas as well as new ones.

(7) The myth that in a mass media urban culture personal faith is still caught by association or socialization. In fact the power of the mass media is so great that it socializes young people out of faith. Young people, including the children of Christian families, need to be brought to a personal decision and a “conversion experience” if their faith is to survive in this culture.

(8) The quality vs. quantity myth. The idea that numbers don’t matter its quality not quantity that counts. This is a false dichotomy – both matter! Ministry to the few means that the majority are left out. This can be an irresponsible position and an excuse for failure.

(9) The myth of the charming amateur. The notion that the bumbling parson who runs a somewhat chaotic service and organization is charming, authentic and attractive and anything else is merely slick and superficial. If attendance is a any measure of this myth then clearly the majority of punters have voted with their feet. Frankly we can do without the Rowan Atkinson image!

Effective new paradigm churches have challenged all these myths.

Third, we need to become a church that lives creatively rather than defensively with the following tensions:

(1) Between denominational distinctives and contextual relevance. This is a common tension for all denominations today. But the overriding priority must always be the mission imperative not the preservation of denominational culture. If there is a choice to be made the mission imperative must take priority. Sometimes that may mean celebrating or reviving a tradition. Sometimes it will mean radically reshaping a tradition, at other times it may mean abandoning it altogether. The mosaic culture demands variety not a bland uniformity of Churches and so the expression of the heritage will vary from place to place. It is naïve to think we can dismiss our denominational history and traditions but they must always be subject to the principle of making effective the mission imperative.

(2) Between our distinctive Christian values and contemporary Australian culture. There is an ever present pressure that can seduce us into cultural conformity, it must be resisted. (E.g.: The “Prosperity Gospel” or novel alternatives to the Christian understanding of the identity of the family and the divine intention for human sexuality, etc.) Unless we are a community of distinctive values, lifestyle and belief we have nothing to offer our culture. A community without boundaries is destined to disappear. As Thomas Oden has written of the circle of faith “A center without a circumference is just a dot, nothing more …to eliminate the boundary is to eliminate the circle itself.”(2) The future of the Christian community lies in our obedience to two imperatives – distinctiveness and mission. We must live and work in the creative tension between the two commands – “Be holy for I am holy” and “Go and make disciples.” Without boundaries we are destined to disappear, but equally if we fail to focus beyond our boundaries we will disappear.

(3) Between the prophetic role in politics and the active role. Over the next few years there are a number of critical socio/political issues that face us as a nation. The Christian faith has a unique and important contribution to make to each of them.

They are:

  • Industrial relations and extreme views on privatization.
  • The environment, global warming, water, energy, etc.
  • Multiculturalism, immigration, refugees, religious fundamentalism.
  • The future of Indigenous Australians.

Our theology of creation, incarnation, relationships, reconciliation, justice, compassion, community and unity in Christ speak powerfully to each of these issues. The question we face is will we just take a so called “prophetic stance” and only speak out or will we also become more practically engaged in the political process? Given that the interface between politics and religion is very much alive again in Australia it may be hard to avoid this question.

Finally let me close with the biggest challenge of all, which if we fail, all the above becomes irrelevant.

The need to be a church that can retell the Gospel story so that it connects and engages with the people of our contemporary culture.

A parable – “The shattered story”

Imagine a 14th C. Church which has a series of beautiful stained glass widows that tell the Biblical story of creation, fall, and redemption. They begin on the south side with a window nearest the chancel arch that depicts Adam and Eve as the crown of God’s creation, and then the fall and their ejection from the garden. As we proceed along the south wall the windows continue the story. There is the flood, the Ark and the rainbow of promise. Then we see the call of Abraham, we move on to King David and then to the great prophet Isaiah. When we turn to the north side wall we begin with John the Baptist and Christ coming to be baptized, then there is the healing of the blind man and the Sermon on the Mount. As we approach the chancel arch on the north side we come to the last supper and the betrayal window. As we walk up through the chancel into the sanctuary there on the east wall above the Holy table is the powerful crucifixion window with its ruby red and almost blue black glass with touches of gold. Then our eyes are taken upward by a mosaic of the resurrection and ascension to the apex of the arch to rest finally on the great east window of three intersecting circles. Each circle containing a symbol, one for God the Father, one for God the Son and one for God the Holy Spirit. The light shines through the glass in brilliant colors of transcendent beauty.

The whole is a magnificent artistic depiction of the Judeo-Christian view of history and reality, the great story of creation, fall and redemption.

But a catastrophe is about to overtake this place. There is a great earthquake and the building is almost completely destroyed. Such is the magnitude of the shocks that every window is shattered, even the mosaic on the east wall is shaken free and destroyed.

Later if you were to approach the building, although now a ruin, its shape is still discernable, but the windows and mosaic are broken and scattered in a thousand fragments on the stone floor of the remains of the building.

Imagine visiting the building some years later and finding a child sitting on the flagstone floor. She has never known the building as it was. She is playing with the fragments of mosaic and stained glass. As you watch she moves them into little random patterns of color and shape, lost in her game. As you observe this scene you wonder how you could explain to her what all these fragments really mean, what they once represented.

This child represents the people of post modernity playing in the wreckage of western culture.

To quote Jean Baudrillard on the deconstruction of all meaning and absolutes “..all that are left are pieces. All that remains to be done is to play with the pieces. Playing with the pieces – that is post modernism.” ( 3.)

Our task now is for us to so engage with God and His Word that that we will be empowered afresh by the Spirit – empowered to retell The Story so powerfully and meaningfully that it engages and makes sense to this generation and delivers them from their world of fragmented meaning into the love and grace of Christ the Lord of all.

(1) “Charles Simeon Preacher Extraordinary” Grove LS18 1979 p5.
(2) Thomas Oden “TheRebirth of Orthodoxy” Harper Collins 2003, p131.
(3) D.Groothuis “Truth decay” IVP 2000 p169.

Peter Corney July 2006.

(Address for meeting sponsored by CMS, EFAC, New Cranmer Society, and Ridley College. July 15th 2006)

Faith and Reason – Adversaries or Partners

By Peter Corney

The French Revolution in the late 18th Century began France’s great secular experiment. The age of Reason had arrived. Reason was now to be supreme. (Mind you it is worth remembering that it was ushered in with most bloody and frequently unreasonable actions!) Of the many extraordinary events that took place at that time one in particular stands out in my mind.

On November 9th 1793 the Revolutionary Convention declared that God did not exist and that the worship of Reason was to be substituted instead. A woman wearing a veil was brought before the Convention, one of the Revolutionary leaders taking her by the hand declared – “Mortals, cease to tremble before the powerless thunders of a God whom your hearts have created. Henceforth acknowledge no divinity but Reason. I offer you its noblest and purest image; if you must have idols, sacrifice only to such as this.” Then the veil fell from the woman and revealed was the Paris opera singer Madame Maillard. She was then put on a magnificent carriage and taken by the crowd to Notre Dame Cathedral. There she was elevated on the altar to take the place of God and received the adoration of all who were present!” The next day a “Festival of Reason” was held in Notre Dame Cathedral – the church was declared a Temple of Reason and a stage and a mock mountain built inside the Cathedral crowned with a Temple of Philosophy.

The elevation of Reason to this supreme place by the enlightenment led many Christians to be very suspicious of reason and intellectuals and philosophy. The 19th Century saw the rise of Biblical criticism, Darwinism and Scientific Rationalism – which reinforced these fears and suspicions. Christians also saw people in their own ranks so elevate reason and become so sceptical of emotions and enthusiasm that their faith became dry and arid, where the Holy Spirit was a proposition to believe rather than a person to know. So Faith and Reason became adversaries, not partners.

But once Christians pitch faith and reason against each other we can expect to reap a very negative inheritance further down the track.

Some examples

  • Shallow Christianity
    • that lacks a depth of knowledge and understanding.
  • Subjectivism
    • a Christianity that is too dependent on experience and emotion
    • that develops a hyper or false spirituality that seeks to justify all decisions and actions on subjective guidance.
  • Privatised faith
    • restricted to the personal and private.
    • that fails to think through the implications of the Christian faith for our work, our professions, for society, for “The public square.”
    • does not engage the culture.
  • Cultural conformity
    • while emphasising personal faith it fails to critique its own conformity to the culture it is part of.
  • Powerless evangelism
    • An evangelism that doesn’t engage the mind, that replaces argument with dogmatic statements.
    • That fails to engage the intellectual idols of our day. That does not have the intellectual “grunt” for effective apologetics.
  • Marginalised from the culture’s intellectual debates:

Richard Lovelace in his history of Evangelical Renewal says this: “The leaders and shapers of the Reformation, the puritan and pietist movements and the first two evangelical awakenings included trained theologians who combined spiritual urgency with profound learning, men who had mastered the culture of their time and were in command of the instruments needed to destroy its idols and subdue its innovations : Luther and Calvin, Owen, Edwards and Simeon.”

He goes on to make the telling point that this was not true of the later movements of renewal in the first half of the 20 Century. The key people in these movements were evangelists like D.L.Moody, Billy Sunday and Charles Finney, who did not have the same depth of learning. This loss of intellectual command proved to be a critical weakness as secular humanism’s full impact hit the west like a nuclear bomb in the 20 Century.

Among other disasters this led to the loss of control of the main stream seminaries to liberal reductionist theology – a legacy the church is still paying the cost of today.

Theological colleges like Ridley College, founded in the1920s, were set up originally as alternatives to the official denominational Colleges that had been overtaken by liberal theology.

  • Fundamentalism is another negative outcome, it grows out of the conflict between faith and reason and fundamentalism leads to some very devastating outcomes for the Christian church:

(a) It leads to an intellectual reaction within the church that produces a reductionist liberal theology. Christians who have not had their serious questions addressed eventually throw the baby out with the bath water.

(b) It leads to ridicule and dismissal by the general culture.

(c) It leads to the loss of a generation of Christian young people who grow up without being intellectually equipped to deal with the withering fire of secular humanism when they hit university or the work place. As they leave the trenches of their homes and churches they are cut down without even returning fire.

Bertrand Russell was arguably one of the great minds of the 20 Century. At 18 he had a faith but could find no one who would address his questions. Eventually he abandoned his faith and became one of the great protagonists for secular humanism in our generation.

On the other hand consider C S Lewis’ influence. A brilliant mind captured by Christ and used so effectively in Christ’s service as a powerful apologist

So what should our attitude be to faith and reason?

Jesus gives us a clear starting point in Mark 12:28-34.

One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord our God , the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding, and with all your strength, and to love your neighbour as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

In this passage Jesus makes it clear that we are to love God with our whole being, including our minds – and notice how the teacher of the Law who asked him the question understands the answer; (verse 33) we are “to love God with all our heart and mind.”

Paul in Romans 12:1-2 makes the same point but from a different angle. He says:

We are to offer ourselves as living sacrifices to God – our whole life and person is to be set apart for God – this, he says, is our spiritual act of worship.

Then in verse 2 he says we are to embark on the project of personal transformation by renewing our minds, and by refusing to let them be shaped by the patterns of this world i.e. the world that does not honour or serve God.

“Therefore I urge you brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

We renew our minds by informing them with God’s word under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and not just once a week in church!

Do you spend as much time reading, thinking and discussing your Christian faith as you do all the other media you are surrounded by and saturated with?

We live in an age where we struggle to swim in the tidal wave of information and images that pours over us daily.

To constantly renew our minds with God’s truth in this context requires real intention and discipline.

The tools, the books, the opportunity for fellowship and discussion and learning are all there. The decision is ours.

Tolstoy has a great image in one of his novels that illustrates the difference between a Christian with a static view of Christian knowledge and one who continues to grow in the understanding and application of their knowledge of God’s Word.

There are two pictures:

  1. In the first picture we see a man standing under a solitary street lamp in a dark street. It’s the only light and it throws a circle of light around the lamp pole to which it is fixed. If the man walks too far from the pole he eventually walks outside the circle of light and into the darkness. He is free to do so but if he does he no longer has any light to show him a safe path.
  2. In the second picture we see a man carrying a lantern on a long stick. He is walking ahead confidently, the circle of light constantly accompanying him and lighting the way ahead.

The Christian who is growing is the one who carries the light of God’s Word with them into all aspects of their life and is constantly using that light to shed understanding on the way ahead , constantly grappling with the complexities of life in the light of God’s Word, constantly seeking to understand it more clearly and more deeply as it applies to life and work, education and government, family and community, popular culture, etc. etc.

Augustine the 5th Century Christian leader and thinker said, “A Christian is one who thinks in his believing and believes in his thinking.”

In other words – faith and reason are partners not adversaries. That should be our attitude and practice.

But this partnership is still incomplete without a 3rd partner – “obedience”.

The ultimate purpose of believing and understanding is to love God and our neighbour – to obey the great commandment.

  • The Christian faith is essentially relational. The essence of it is to be in a right relationship with God, a relationship of love, forgiven-ness and worshipful obedience . This is the relationship we were made for and so the one in which we are most fully human and most fulfilled. So faith and reason are meant to bring us into a relationship of loving obedience to God and love for others.
  • Further, the biblical view of wisdom and understanding is profoundly ethical. It is not just about logical process and knowledge and cleverness but right action.
  • Righteousness and wisdom are inextricably connected in scripture.

These three ideas of relational faith, understanding (or wisdom) and obedience are summed up clearly in Job 28.

Job asks: “Where does wisdom come from? Where does understanding dwell?”

God answers: “The fear of the Lord , that is wisdom and to shun evil is understanding”

What do these three ideas mean?

Faith = awe filled trust in God

Reason = a tool that assists us to know and understand God’s Word to us.

Obedience = to do what God commands and calls us to .

These 3 produce wisdom.

The last issue I want to look at briefly is the relationship between reason and revelation.

By revelation I mean how and what God has revealed of himself to us in the history of his people, in Jesus and in the Apostolic witness to Jesus and the record of these things in the Old and the New Testaments – the Bible.

The Christian who holds to classical orthodox Christianity will have a basic commitment to the Bible as God’s Word and as their primary authority.

But this raises a key question: how are we to read it and interpret it? How does our trio of faith, reason and obedience apply to our study of the Bible?

1. Faith

We come in faith believing God has revealed himself to us in his Word. But we come in “relational faith” ie. we come believing that God is in relationship with us through his Holy Spirit and he wants to communicate with us. So we expect to “hear” not just information about God but God’s Word to us, a word that will nourish us and transform us.

2. Reason

We come with the God given faculty of reason to understand. And so we read:

  • intelligently, thoughtfully, not superstitiously.
  • within the rules of language and grammar and context and historical background.
  • we seek to understand what the original writer was trying to convey under the inspiration of God when he wrote.

3. Obedience

Having understood, having “heard” – we then seek to obey – by reshaping our mind and attitudes to a Christian mind and by putting it into practice in our life.

So our reason has a very important place and role. Reason only becomes a problem when it seeks to become ‘autonomous’. When it breaks away from faith and obedience.

Eg. When we allow it to become an instrument to justify and rationalise a breach by us in our relationship with God or an act of disobedience or rationalise away some moral challenge we don’t want to obey.

Remember our reason like all our faculties is affected by our fallen natures. It’s not as though we carry reason around with us like a mobile phone or a calculator, some self contained instrument that is unaffected by the rest of our nature that we can turn off and on like some objective tool.

Reason will help us discover wisdom, and knowledge contributes to wisdom. But wisdom is bigger and deeper than reason or knowledge , it is knowing and doing what is good and right and true. So obedience must accompany faith and reason.

Reason is easily seduced by the prevailing “plausibility structure” in society. A plausibility structure is what a culture at a particular time finds easy to believe , what’s plausible to it.

Anything of course that fits the current plausibility structure seems reasonable and anything that doesn’t seems unreasonable!

We always need a healthy scepticism about the prevailing plausibility structure because it keeps changing!

There are 100’s of examples that we have all fallen victim to in:

  • food and health theories
  • education theories
  • political scenarios
  • social engineering experiments
  • government programmes

Dean Inge said, “He who marries the spirit of the age will be widowed in the next.”

Earlier I mentioned liberal reductionist theology. It is partly a product of the plausibility structure trap. It keeps reducing the Christian faith to fit what people find plausible. Instead of critiquing the current cultural thought with the Gospel it critiques the Gospel with the current cultural thought.

The damage it creates in the church is increased by the fact that it continues to use the classical language and symbols of the faith but radically changes their meaning or evacuates them of their original meaning. By the time faithful lay people wake up congregation after congregation is ready for the body bags. Great tracts of the Anglican and Uniting Churches in this country have been destroyed by this or emaciated to the point where they are waiting for the ecclesiastical undertakers!

Dr Graeme Cole used to say, “The alternative to theological liberalism is not fundamentalism but intelligent orthodoxy”.

If fundamentalism is faith in conflict with reason and liberal theology is reason in conflict with revelation then intelligent orthodoxy is revelation, faith and reason in partnership, with revelation as the senior partner!

Autonomous reason becomes completely feral when it begins to submit God to its own moral judgments.

Camus wrote: “When man submits God to moral judgment, he kills him in his own heart.”

Reason is a good servant but a bad master.

The Beeson Divinity School in the US was one of those seminaries created by an earlier generation to re-introduce Biblical, but thinking theology back into the American church, it’s motto is this: “Minds ablaze, hearts on fire.”

That’s a great motto – training a generation whose hearts are on fire with the Spirit of God, passionate for the Gospel but with minds ablaze, intellectually lit up and equipped to tackle the ideas and challenges of their culture.

Three questions to take away:

  1. How much time each week, apart from church, do you spend developing a Christian mind? Reading, thinking about or discussing serious Christian material?
  2. What is the proportion in relation to the rest of your reading, viewing and thinking?
  3. If you have young teenagers – how intellectually equipped are they as Christians to face an aggressively secular university and work place? Are we doing enough as a congregation to intellectually equip our young people?

The Owl of Minerva – Can the West recover from gorging on greed?

By Peter Corney

The Owl of Minerva
Photo by takomabibelot

On Saturday March 21st this year The Age carried an unusual graphic with the lead story in the business section. The story was about the international financial crisis and excessive executive payouts. It showed an engraving of Adam and Eve being expelled from the Garden of Eden and an angel standing guard at the entrance, except that the entrance was to a bank! The bi line was, “Where to after the fall?”

Like most of us I had been ruefully reflecting on the state of things since the global financial meltdown, including my super fund! But the Age graphic started me thinking more deeply. I was further stimulated and disturbed by the reflections of five eminent economists and social commentators in the May issue of The Monthly on Kevin Rudd’s February article on the global financial crisis. Maybe there is no quick way back to the West’s financial affluence and security, no way back to Eden. Maybe this is the beginning of the big shift in the geo – political tectonic plates, the epochal change in the balance of power. Perhaps this is the sunset of the West.

My mind turned to a favorite film – Blade Runner. In Ridley Scott’s iconic film we find ourselves in Los Angeles in the future (2019). The setting is bleak; ‘ecological disaster, urban overcrowding, a visual and aural landscape saturated with advertising, a polyglot population immersed in a Babel of competing cultures, decadence and squalid homelessness.’ *  But juxtaposed with this social decay is brilliant technological achievement. High above the teeming filthy streets live the wealthy few in luxurious gated skyscrapers.

In one of the early scenes we find ourselves in the head office of a high tech corporation who are the creators of Cyborgs – advanced robots who are almost indistinguishable from humans. But some of the Cyborgs have gone feral and hunting them down is the core of the films plot. A ‘Blade Runner’ is a bounty hunter of rogue Cyborgs.

As we view the interior of the luxurious penthouse office we see an Owl perched on a stand. Then the Owl takes flight, passing in front of the vast plate glass windows behind which a brilliant orange sun is setting.

The symbolism is deliberate. The Owl has always been seen as a symbol of wisdom. In Roman mythology he accompanies the Goddess Minerva, Goddess of wisdom. But it was the German Philosopher Hegel who famously wrote …the Owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk…, by which he meant, that philosophy only comes to understand an historical condition as it is passing away.

This image right at the beginning of Blade Runner is telling us that the films bleak vision of the future is what the sunset of our epoch will look like – the twilight of Modernity and Post or Hyper Modernity.*

The question for us is: As the Owl spreads its wings and the sun sets on Western Culture is our wisdom about the cause of its decay clear and sharp enough to enable us to transform it from it from decay to renewal? Or, to change the image, has the West fallen so far from the values and world view that produced it and delivered us something close to Eden that we can’t get back?   (* For a fascinating interpretation of the film along these lines see Jay Clayton ‘Concealed Circuts’ in Raritan Quaterly Review No 15 Vol 4)

Would Jesus have worn a mitre? A plea for simplicity, humility and relevance.

By Peter Corney

When I was ordained in 1963/4 at St. Paul’s Anglican Cathedral Melbourne there wasn’t a mitre in sight. Archbishop Frank Woods was the presiding Bishop. In fact mitre’s and copes did not appear reguarly in St Paul’s untill Bob Dann became Archbishop (1977 – 83), although Frank Woods, inspite of opposition in the Cathedral  Chapter, had worn them on occasions. This was a novelty for Melbourne because of its evangelical origins in Bishop Perry.

Melbourne followed the traditions of the reformation settlement in the Church of England as it had come to be expressed in England for over 400 years, the tradition of simplicity of vesture for the clergy and bishops.

The courtly trappings of the mediaeval church were left behind. The episcopal mitres (crowns), the richly embroidered robes of satin, the regal purple, the bejewelled accoutrements of the mediaeval royal court were seen to be inconsistent with the Gospel.

They did not sit well with Jesus of Nazareth, suffering servant and friend of the poor. They seemed incongruous with his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. Nor did they fit with the message of salvation by grace alone through faith alone and not by works. There was no place here for human pride, pomp and ceremony.

Even the architecture of the Gothic church, modelled as it was on the mediaeval court with its ascending steps to the elevated throne – from knave to chancel to sanctuary and altar – and the separation of clergy from the laity which it reinforced – was modified, reflecting the reformed theology. Altars were removed and Holy Tables introduced and moved down to the chancel area where the people gathered around them to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. New churches were built with a more rectangular shape as auditory buildings for the hearing of the Word, Wren was the great designer of these (1632-1723). Central aisles, long chancels and raised sanctuaries’ were eliminated and rood screens that secluded the sanctuary abandoned. Many of the London churches built after the reformation like St. Martin in the Fields, St. James Piccadilly and All Souls Langham Place clearly reflect this change. It was only after the Gothic revival and the influence of the Oxford/Tractarian movement in the second half of the nineteenth century that many churches built from then on moved back to the pre reformed semi Gothic pattern. Centre aisles returned to give focus to the sanctuary and priestly activity. (1)

Sadly the mitres and richly embroidered robes have drifted back in to many Australian Anglican dioceses. Because they often appear in Cathedrals at significant events they usually get the photo shot in the press! This is unfortunate, the symbolism is confusing and bemusing for those both outside and inside the church. Confusing for it sits so badly with Jesus and the Gospel and bemusing because it is so arcane and irrelevant and not understood. It is seen as the trappings, the pomp and ceremony of “religion” something that has frequently been the enemy of real and vital Christian faith.

One of my favorite stories from church history concerns John Huss the Czech reformer (1372 – 1415). Huss was a gifted preacher and drew large crowds, including many students, to his church, Bethlehem Chapel, near the University of Prague. Huss, influenced by the writings of Wycliffe, called for reform in the church and set forth the Scriptures as the primary authority. He was also very critical of the corruption and extravagance of the Papal court at Rome at the time. He drove home his point in dramatic fashion with a wonderful visual aid. He had two contrasting pictures painted on the walls of the chapel; one of Jesus dressed as a simple peasant, the humble servant washing his disciples feet; the other of a haughty Pope with his triple tiered crown, dressed in all his regal splendor riding on a horse. This became the backdrop to Huss’s challenging preaching. The message was clear to the crowds and the irony was made all the more pointed by being in a chapel named after the humble birth place of the Saviour. This was not popular in Rome! Eventually Huss was arrested and burnt at the stake. But he lit a fire that continued to burn in Bohemia, influencing Luther and other reformers and also the development of the German Moravian Church and missionary movement.

The origins of the mitre

The origins of the mitre are not entirely clear but it seems that in the Western church it may have developed from a cap worn in imperial times by Roman secular officials on certain occasions. The papal tiara or triple crowned hat seems to have developed from this. In the East the mitre derives from a cap used in the imperial Byzantine court. In the later empire it developed into a closed type of crown used by the emperors. It was taken over by Eastern Orthodox bishops after the fall of Constantinople. In Armenian Orthodoxy it is said to symbolize the sovereignty of Christ. In the Western church the first mention of a bishop wearing a mitre is not found till the eleventh century, although reference to the papal tiara is found as early as the eighth century.

The fact is that up to the eighth century in the West there was no distinctive clerical dress worn in or outside the church by the clergy. They wore the ordinary street dress of the day. (2) It was very important to distinguish themselves from the pagan priests and rituals of the times. Dom Gregory Dix in his authoritative work The Shape of the Liturgy quotes Celestine 1, bishop of Rome in 425 rebuking the churches in Gaul for introducing for clergy the scarf or pallium at the Lord’s Supper. This was commonly worn in Roman society by consuls, magistrates and others as a sign of office. He chides them for their hubris in these words: “We bishops must be distinguished from the people and others by our learning not by our dress, by our life not by our robes, by purity of heart not by elegance.”(3) Here, here!

The present shield shaped cap with the two fringed lappets became widely used in the medieval church. It was reintroduced after the reformation into Anglicanism by the Oxford/Tractarian movement in the nineteenth centuary along with the recovery of other pre reformed practices. The movement fitted artistically with the romantic Gothic revival in England at the time. The Cambden society was formed to furnish and dress the mediaeval revival. In their attempt to recover a greater sense of holy worship the Tractarians also attempted to make connections between the OT temple cultus and Christian worship. Great attention was paid to the sacred garments described in Exodus 39. It was noted in verses 30-31 that the High Priest wore a kind of turban with a gold plate attached and engraved with the words “Holiness to YHWH”. Was this not a forerunner of the mitre! Later enthusiasts developed the notion that the mitre was a symbol of the flame of the Holy Spirit descending on the heads of the disciples’ at Pentecost, although there seems to be no evidence that this idea was an early one in the history of the mitre. Like many religious accoutrements the alleged meaning of the symbolism is often flexible and frequently a later invention for justification. It’s like all the different meanings given to candles in church other than the need for light before the introduction of electricity!

Interestingly in 1963 the reforming Pope Paul VI, who was elected during the now famous Vatican II after the death of John XX111, abandoned the use of the papal tiara (crown) in a dramatic ceremony during the second session of Vatican II as a sign of Christian humility. Previously Popes had been crowned with the tiara in a ceremony of regal coronation.

The arguments for the use of the mitre.

Those who have reintroduced the mitre into Anglican services usually appeal on the following grounds.

First, is the appeal to continuity with the churches traditions. The problem with this argument is – which tradition? Shall we follow those of the mediaeval church or the reformed church; the post or pre Constantinian church; the apostolic church and the church of the first eight centuries or the Gothic revival of the late nineteenth century?

Second, is the argument from symbolism. It is argued that it is a helpful visual symbol in public worship. Various meanings have been attributed over the years, the current one that is popular with the wearers is that it symbolizes the descent of the Holy Spirit on the disciples, the bishop being a kind of representative figure for the church. Another is that it represents the sovereignty of Christ and the authority of the bishop as Christ’s representative. Of course this one emphasizes its origins as a crown, a connection not always readily or comfortably acknowledged by its wearers. The other is that it is simply a distinguishing symbol of the episcopal office.

A third argument is that these things provide theater, color and movement all things that communicate at alternative or additional levels to words. This is a valid point but it does not alter my main concern that the symbols should be appropriate to the subject and my contention is that in present practice they are generally not. Perhaps a simple wooden shepherds crook would be, although most young people today would never have seen one and in fact they were never used on Australian farms. What about an Akubra, a Driza-Bone and a stock whip?

The problem with symbolism is that it is powerful but complicated and culturally affected. Often a symbol will convey different things to different people. To many on the outside the mitre, the embroidered robes, the bejewelled silver crooks and gold crosses will convey power, prestige, wealth, royalty and assumed authority, even arrogance. While these things may be viewed as works of art the ironic and incongruous symbolism of a shepherd’s crook and a cross made from these materials seems lost on the insider aesthetes! They are certainly powerful symbols but they give the wrong message. They convey a sense of irrelevant pomp and ceremony. Whose side are we seen to be on when we wear and carry these things? To a younger generation today they are associated with a mythical past with bishops looking like Wizards from Lord of the Rings or a Harry Potter story. To others they are just faintly ridiculous and silly. They clearly create a distance between the ordinary every day person and the Christian faith that should represent Jesus the servant saviour. It should also be said that the Armani suits, silk ties and Rolex watches worn by the pastors of some prosperity gospel churches are just as inappropriate and incongruous.

While greatly influenced by its Jewish background the early church clearly separated itself from the cultus of both the Jewish and the Pagan temple and, as we have seen, for at least 700 years there was little or no distinction in dress with those conducting public worship between lay and clergy, they wore the ordinary street dress of the day. (4)

What we wear in church should reflect the one we claim to follow; it should also reflect our missiology and ecclesiology.

Would Jesus wear a Mitre today? I don’t think so. He might wear a hoody or a Collingwood beanie or even a baseball cap but a piece of mediaeval headgear that made him look like a lost cast member from a Harry Potter movie is most unlikely. As a carpenter Jesus may have cut a few mitres but he would never have worn one! Let’s get back to simplicity, humility and relevance.

(1) K. White “Shrines for Saints – how parish churches evolved” 1975 Grove Liturgical No 3 (Grove Books) pages 16 – 17, 23 – 28.
(2) Dom Gregory Dix “The Shape of the Liturgy” 1960 (A&C Black) pages 399-404

(3) Dix page 401.

(In the 16th C. professors of divinity wore elaborate head gear as  a symbol of their status. Erasmus the great reformer in ‘The Praise of Folly’ mocked their pride along with their obscure theological speculations in these words: ” Don’t be supprised when you see them at public disputations with their heads so carefully wrapped in swaths of cloth, for otherwise thay would clearly explode”. Pomposity and hats often seem to go together!)
(4) Dix page 404

Further information on the development of the mitre can be found in Dix on pages 405 -407 and “The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church” Ed. by L F Cross 1961. (Oxford Press)

The future of the Anglican Church in Australia in the light of the decline of the Anglo-Catholic movement

By Peter Corney

(This is an edited version of the original lecture. The full version can be found on the TMA website……)

The Australian Anglican Church, like most old mainstream churches, is in numerical decline.

Many of the reasons for the Anglican church’s decline and difficulties are shared with other older mainstream protestant denominations like the UCA and the Presbyterians,


  • The marginalizing pressure of modernity and secularism on the church.
  • The process of institutionalisation. It’s a long time since we had a revival or major radical institutional change.
  • Over-centralisation and the compliance and control syndrome that aging institutions develop to cope with anything outside the institution’s cultural framework.
  • Loss of passionate evangelism
  • The dominance of the pastoral maintenance model of ministry
  • The slowness of the majority of local congregations to contemporise their worship style and music
  • The failure to plant new churches and adopt new models of church planting.
  • Theological Reductionism and the cave-in to secularism and modernity. Many of our current leaders were trained in the 1960s when the loss of confidence in orthodoxy reached its peak. The pattern of reducing the gospel to fit the prevailing plausibility structure of society became entrenched and historic, credal Christianity was profoundly weakened.

But with Anglicanism there is another unique and very important factor that has accelerated and contributed to our decline – that is the role of the “Anglo-Catholic movement”, sometimes referred to as “Tractarianism”.

This movement has been greatly influential in Australian Anglicanism. By the 1960s it had become the dominant force in most dioceses in Australia, even assuming its style as the “Anglican norm”.

At its most vigorous and vital, its influence was profound – theologically, liturgically, architecturally and aesthetically, pastorally, governmentally, and particularly on the way the nature and role of ordination and ministry was understood.

It developed at its height, numerous institutions, parachurch organisations, orders and societies for education, welfare and mission. E.g. The Brotherhood of St. Laurence, Mission to Streets and lanes, Bush Brothers, hospitals, schools, religious orders like “The Community of the Holy Name”, retreat centres, a theological college, “Crafers” in SA. It was also the primary support base for the Anglican Board of Missions (ABM).

But by the 1960s it began to run out of stream as a movement and has now lost its vitality and momentum. With the exception of the Brotherhood of St. Laurence, almost all of the organisations above have died or been absorbed into other organizations like Anglicare – or, as in the case of ABM, have had considerable difficulties.

And here is the point! Having developed such influence, its decline and loss of vitality at the very time the church was under so many other pressures from the late 60s and 70s on has had very serious consequences for Australian Anglicanism.

A brief historical sketch of the movement

The movement began in the first half of the 19th Century in Oxford in 1833. It became known as the Oxford movement. Its most famous name being John Henry Newman, later to become Cardinal Newman.

They became known as “Tractarians” because of a series of tracts or papers they produced on major issues of theology and church life. They also inspired an association of artists, architects and designers called the “Camden Society”. Their influence on church architecture and interior design was very great as there was a church building boom in the late 19th Century. The Camden Society reinforced the Gothic revival of the 19th Century in the U.K

They were really a “renewal or restoration” movement. In their case they wanted to take the church back to some of its pre-Reformation roots and traditions. They made a careful study of the Early Fathers. They were concerned about personal holiness and committed discipleship and so the recovery of the spiritual disciplines in the Christian life.

They were also concerned to restore a sense of awe and beauty and holiness to worship. This led them to recover a more elaborate and symbol-rich liturgy. They were concerned about the aesthetics and the accoutrements of formal worship. They wrote many beautiful hymns:

Blest are the pure in heart,

For they shall see our God;

The secret of the Lord is theirs,

Their soul is Christ’s abode.

[Rev John Keble, 1818]

They wanted to restore what they believed was lost and among the things they believed we had lost was a particular pre-Reformation concept of the Lord’s Supper and Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist. This also led to a greater emphasis on the priestly identity and role of the minister, particularly as the celebrant (or president) at Holy Communion.

They had a very high view of Scripture and the creeds and were deeply orthodox and theologically conservative on credal fundamentals. They were not a theologically liberal or reductionist movement.

They also emphasised a more central and Catholic notion of the role of the Bishop and the diocese – “The Ignation” idea of the church being the people gathered around the Bishop and the Bishop standing in direct historical succession to the Apostles.

They also set forward a vision of Christian service and commitment that challenged a whole generation of young men and women to start new religious orders to serve others in evangelism, welfare and education.

Later they developed a strong emphasis on “Incarnational Theology”. At one of their conferences in 1923, Bishop Frank Weston, a noted Anglo-Catholic said: “You cannot claim to worship Jesus in the Tabernacle if you do not pity Jesus in the Slums.” Father Tucker’s work during the great depression and the development of the Brotherhood of St Laurence in Melbourne is a direct outcome of this emphasis. This emphasis led to some outstanding work and ministry.

But by the late 1960s, the vision was running out of energy. Today it is almost exhausted. Many of the movement’s institutions, societies and organisations have collapsed,been absorbed into other organizations like Anglicare, or are terminally sick, e.g.

the female orders that ran the schools and hospitals have almost completely gone.

  • The “Bush Brothers” are no more.
  • Their theological college, “Crafers” has gone.
  • The Brotherhood of St Laurence is still going but is now a highly secularised agency.
  • The Anglican Board of Mission has shrunk to one office for the whole of Australia and has had to realise most of its assets to survive.
  • The Retreat House is gone.
  • Their student ministries are almost non-existent.

And with one or two notable exceptions, the parish churches they dominated for years are now small, struggling and aging.

Outstanding people like Archbishop Strong and the Rev Dr Barry Marshall were among the last of their inspirational leaders and thinkers. In recent years they have not produced people of this caliber.

It’s a sad story, but the bigger tragedy is that they have taken large sections of the Australian Anglican church down with them.

Why? What happened?

The answer is important because it has very significant lessons for all of us. “Those who do not learn from history are bound to repeat its mistakes.”

What happened is that the movement gradually embraced a series of theological trends that eventually sapped its vitality. It lost touch with its theological and ideological core – the very things that had produced its energy and passion. As someone said: “Passion leaks” – it must be constantly renewed by its source.

This is a brief summary of the trends that, once embraced, eventually ate the heart out of the movement.

1. It drifted away from the credal and biblical orthodoxy of its founders and gradually embraced a reductionist liberal theology. Most people in ministry now who have been influenced by this movement could be more accurately described as “liberal catholic”. They have retained some of the outward expressions of the movement but departed from its core theological ideas.

When a movement that has a highly symbolic and formal liturgical expression of Christianity goes down the theologically reductionist pathway, what you end up with is “religion” – form without substance. What happens is that the meaning of the symbols becomes more and more mysterious and fuzzy as the orthodox core is reduced, lost or reconstructed to fit the spirit of the age. The appearance of Christianity is preserved but the essence is lost. The signs and symbols are retained but their first order meaning is changed. Reductionism is a familiar pathway for Liberal theology.

In spite of its claims to be broad and open, Liberal theology is frequently intellectually narrow and provincial. It becomes trapped in the immediate landscape of the spirit of the age and what its host society finds plausible or implausible.

2. The second trend was to allow a recovered incarnational theology to become unbalanced. The idea of the importance of “presence”, particularly presence with the poor, eventually over-powered the importance of proclamation. So instead of a balance of “the whole gospel for the whole person” confidence in preaching was eroded and the link between word and deed fatally weakened. The inevitable eventually happened: preaching, evangelism and proclamation were devalued and diminished.

Historically the very opposite trend happened in many parts of evangelicalism before and after WWII. It wasn’t till the Lausanne Movement in the early 70s that evangelicalism recovered a proper emphasis on social justice and restored the balance of deed and word. This was largely due to the influence of evangelical leaders like John Stott in the UK and Ronald J Sider in the US. [1]

There were two other negative results for Anglo-Catholicism that came from its unbalanced incarnational theology. Because Biblical teaching and preaching was diminished, this produced a poorly taught laity.The second result was the development of an insipient “Pelagianism” – salvation by good works. Being good and kind to others came to be seen as the essence of the Gospel.

3. As reductionist liberalism ate the heart out of its theology, the distinctiveness of Anglo-Catholicism was left to depend more and more on its particular liturgical, symbolic and cultural expressions.

Many people associated this with elements of so-called “High Culture” – classical music and art. It was, and is still seen in some circles, as a more cultured and sophisticated form of faith expression. The result of this rather snobbish attitude was that the movement began to attract people and clergy who were more drawn to its style than to the core ideas and earlier passions of personal holiness and a desire to evangelise and care for the poor and marginalised.

These more “effete”[2] recruits often displayed a worldly sophistication that Newman and his friends would have felt very disturbed by. These new followers were not so drawn to sacrificial ministries to the poor or in difficult places or in highly committed “orders”.

The other effect was that this style was well out of step with ordinary Australians and further marginalised Anglicanism from the mainstream of Australian life. We were fast becoming a boutique church.

4. Because the emotional tendency of the movement has been to look backwards to a very late-19th Century English expression of Anglicanism, the movement failed to assist the process of really grounding Anglicanism in Australian culture. The model of the English village church is a sentimental and anglophile vision that has been fostered by the movement and helped to alienate us from Australian culture.

I am sure that many of you have seen and chuckled at the TV show “The Vicar of Dibley”. At one level it is amusing; at another level it is very disturbing for the thoughtful Christian, because what it does is to trivialise us and, by association, trivialise the Gospel.

Once we can be identified as eccentric, odd and quaint, we can be dismissed as a harmless anachronism, an amusing curiosity, a source of nostalgia, a bit like a tableau in an historical theme park – but of no serious threat or challenge.

Sadly, there are Anglican clergy who think this is wonderful and positive: they imagine the world is laughing with them, while in fact it’s laughing at them!

A gutted Anglo-Catholicism leads to this sad scenario – “The Vicar of Dibley Syndrome.” It’s not what Newman, Pusey and Keble desired. To them it would be better:

  • To be violently disagreed with
  • To be a challenge to people’s beliefs
  • To hold views and ideas and behaviour that people find confronting and disturbing
  • To be a John the Baptist to Herod
  • To be a Paul before Felix
  • To be a Christ before Pilate

than be dismissed as a trivial, harmless and amusing anachronism.

5. They focussed on a pastoral maintenance model of ministry and so did not grow churches. The emphasis on the priestly role fed this trend.

6. Because of the tendency to look backwards nostalgically to the English village or cathedral model and ethos, and their commitment to more formality in worship, they were very slow to embrace contemporary and informal styles in worship and music. They were totally unprepared for the rejection of formality in the 70s and 80s by the “Boomers” and very few ever worked out how to minister to them effectively.

All the liturgical experiments and changes from the 1975 Prayer Book to the 1995 Prayer Book were basically changes to the written liturgy. They were helpful, but basically the project completely misunderstood the fundamental change that had taken place in the minds and emotions of the average punter as to how the style and ethos of the service should be set and the worship conducted. Pentecostalism and contemporary evangelicalism understood this and swept the field.

7. The Parish Communion Movement of the 1920s and 30s was a child of Anglo-Catholicism. The idea was that the principal service of the day should be Holy Communion and that everyone should be present including youth and children. This view has had great influence but it had several very negative effects:

(1) Other non-eucharistic services disappeared. This created a barrier for non-communicants and fringe people. It also made outreach and guest services difficult to hold in a way relevant to outsiders.

(2) Because it downplayed Sunday Schools, insisting children be in the whole service, the Sunday School movement was undermined and children’s and youth ministry suffered. A generation of clergy had little interest in either and this was a disaster for the future.

8. The issue of women’s ordination created a crisis in the Anglo-Catholic movement. The traditionalists were opposed but their offspring, the liberal Catholics, were pro. As the traditionalists are now a minority, their bitter rearguard action failed. This has left many unhappy legacies and further weakened the movement.

The issues surrounding gender and sexual politics have been a major pre-occupation of the movement in recent times, and so it has had little energy for other fundamental issues.

To conclude

Anglicanism is essentially protestant and its formularies were forged on reformed anvils. The Anglo-Catholic movement, for all its early achievements in ministry, really took Anglicanism too far to the Catholic right – we are now seeing a major correction to that trend.

It must also be remembered that, historically, in Australia the major dioceses of Sydney and Melbourne, including almost all their Provincial dioceses, and others such as Tasmania were founded by evangelicals. (Bishop Perry the first bishop of Melbourne was an evangelical – he also created the first lay representative synodical government in the Anglican Communion.) That history is now reasserting itself.

[1] See the very influential and popular book by R J Sider, “Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger” (Hodder, 1977) and “Issues Facing Christians Today” by J. Stott (Marshall Morgan & Scott, 1984).

[2] “Too refined”.

Belief in an Age of Unbelief – responding to the “New Atheism”

God-Delusion-700195by Peter Corney

(Delivered at SHAC Commnity on 14th March 2010)

This weekend Melbourne has hosted an internationally publicized conference entitled “The Rise of Atheism”. The headline speaker is Richard Dawkins, biologist, author of “The God Delusion” and well known promoter of Atheism. Also the widely read English writer A C Grayling will be present, and the usual local suspects, Peter Singer, Phillip Adams, Catherine Deveny etc.

Richard Dawkins is the current flag bearer for a new, articulate and very vocal group who has captured the media spotlight. They include the very talented and acerbic journalist Christopher Hitchens who has written “God is not Great”, a play on an Islamic chant. It was Hitchings who coined the phrase “Islamofascism” to describe today’s militant Islam. Then there is Sam Harris who has written “The end of Faith” and Daniel Dennett who wrote “Breaking the Spell”. They are sometimes referred to as the four horseman of the apocalypse!

These writers have a common theme – religion is the main cause of division, violence and conflict in the world, it is, they say, the root of all evil, not only a delusion but dangerous to society. It is the enemy of reason and scientific truth. The enlightenment is under threat….it must be defended from deliberate attacks from organised ignorance. The passion with which they promote their views can be quite intolerant  and narrow. Ironically these are the attitudes they claim to oppose.

They also make some very sweeping claims. Eg: Dawkins implies that no scientist worth his salt could be a theist! In fact many of the worlds leading scientists past and present are Deists or Theists and many are Christians: Here are just a few examples: Max Planck (father of quantum theory) John Barrow (the theoretical physicist and current Professor of mathematical sciences at Cambridge,) John Polkinghorne (a particle physicist and a previous holder of the same chair at Cambridge), John Lennox (currently Professor of Mathmatics at Cambridge,) Simon Conway Morris (the Prof of evolutionary paleobiology at Cambridge, someone Dawkins should know well professionally), Francis Collins (head of the international Human Genome Project.), Allan Sandage (the famous Astronomer.) Someone I know personally, Dr.John Pilbrow (emeritus Prof of physics at Monash Uni,) is a committed Christian. One could go on. In fact many of the academic and research scientists that I have known are not only theists but Christians.

Now because a significant number of leading scientists and philosophers are theists or Christians does not prove the existence of God. But it does support the idea that belief in God is not unreasonable. It certainly runs counter to Dawkins implication that belief in God is something that only the uneducated, prejudiced, and intellectually feeble embrace.

Dawkins is highly intelligent and it must be acknowledged that he and his associates present some very challenging and persuasive arguments in their books.

But there are now a number of well written rebuttals by Christian scholars and professional philosophers. Like John Haught’s “God and the new Atheism a critical response….” The Anglican theologian Alister McGrath has responded with “The Dawkins Delusion”, he is an Oxford theologian but began his academic career in molecular biophysics. (A list can be found attached to this paper)

Most interesting among the recent responses is the respected British philosopher Anthony Flew who for most of his academic career did not believe in God but has now changed his mind.

Flews early writing was recognized for many years as part of the classic argument against theism. His recent book, in which he explains why he changed his mind, is entitled “There is a God”. The book is very significant because it explains how academic philosophy has moved on from the philosophical presuppositions of Dawkins and coy. They are really working from a now discredited logical positivism. The idea that – the only statements that are valid and meaningful are those that can be empirically observed, ie: tested and verified by sense experience, or scientific study and experiment. The effects of logical positivism have carried over into popular culture and remain widespread . Comments like “Well hasn’t science disproved the Bible and Christianity!” are typical.

Every culture and period of history has what sociologists call a plausibility structure, ie: what the people of a particular time find plausible or easy to believe (and what they find difficult to believe.) Logical Positivism and its twin, scientific rationalism, have greatly influenced the plausibility structure of most contemporary Western people, even though they may never have encountered those terms, particularly people over 50years of age. Younger people who are more influenced by a post modern framework of thinking are often more open or flexible in their plausibility structure. They can flip easily between modern and post modern. Eg: the ease with which they embrace the idea of the spiritual and supernatural as well as modern technology. We will return to this idea of plausibility structures later.

This phenomena, the rise of the new atheism, raises a number of questions that I’d like to try and address today.

Is it new?

Is it a broad popular movement gathering strong momentum?

What is driving this new militant and vocal atheism?

Is there a significant decline in religious adherence in Australia today and is there a connection  with the new atheism?

And what should our response be as Christians?

Addressing the questions:

1. Is it new?  No! It is basically the old arguments recycled. ( In Dawkins case with a heavy emphasis on evolutionary theory, which as a biologist is his field of expertise.)

2. Is it a broad popular movement gathering strong momentum? No! Not really although it has a high media profile. Those who choose conscious atheism is still a minority section of the population in the West.

The recent Age Neilson Poll (18/11/09) showed that:

68% of Aus believe in God or a universal spirit.

( In another poll by CPX, 54%  said they believed in Jesus and that he rose from the dead!)

In The Age poll 50% say religion is an important part of their lives.

In the developing world belief in God in some form is almost universal and Christianity in particular has been growing rapidly for years now particularly through Pentecostalism. But also in the main stream denom’s. Eg: In Nigeria there are 11mill active Anglicans alone!

  • Christianity is now the majority religion in South Korea.
  • It is estimated that there are now in excess of 50 mill. Christians in China, and the Fallen Gong religious movement is also numbered in the 100’s of millions, and this in spite of years of active atheist propaganda and active suppression by the state.
  • In addition we have resurgent Islam all over the world, and a resurgence of Hinduism in parts of India. (This is associated with Hindu nationalism.)

The factor of religion is now so important in international relations   that Tony Blair has formed a special organization to harness faith in the service of international political solutions.

So in the bigger picture atheism is not growing, in fact it is diminishing.

But having said that there is definitely a decline in Christian adherence in Australia and the West in general.

Let me say something about the categories of belief and unbelief in western culture, and in Australia in particular – six categories:(I’ve borrowed some of these from Tom Frame’s book “Loosing my Religion”.)

  1. Believers who are active and committed adherents
  2. Believers who are inactive (a signif. % Christians)
  3. Vague believers – there is a God or a supreme being
  4. Non belief – neutral, never considered it, indifferent.
  5. Unbelief – non dogmatic agnosticism
  6. Disbelief – conscious atheism

Bishop Tom Frame in his book  estimates that the majority of Australians are now in the category of unbelief, ie: they are ‘non dogmatic agnostics’, not really sure. I don’t think he is right about that. The research does not support that they are a majority, but I certainly think they are a large proportion now and growing. But the point is these people are not conscious atheists. In The Age Neilson Poll 24% say they have no religion or do not believe in God and the % is highest among the under 25’s (Gen Y) and going up. So is conscious atheism growing at the same pace as the decline of Christianity?   No!  But non belief and unbelief are growing (c’s 4&5) and the situation with the under 25’s deserves our close attention.

3. What is driving this new and militant group of public apologists    for Atheism?

I think there are three things:

(a) The rise of militant Islamic fundamentalism, the West’s reaction to it, and the increasing violence and suffering that has resulted.

(b) The growth of “Creationism” (the young earth view) within Christian fundamentalism.

(c) The decline in Christianity in the West. They smell the blood in the water!

Let me develop these three and then think about how we should respond.

(1) The bloody conflicts around the world and international terrorism have in most cases a religious factor. The response of the west has been described as a new crusade and is seen as such by many in the Muslim world.

People like Christopher Hitchens see militant Islam in eg: its Iranian revolutionary guise or the Taliban in Afghanistan as the new religious fascism of the 21st C. They see it as the enemy of all we have achieved through the European enlightenment over the last 300 years.

The running sore of the Israel / Palestinian conflict is deeply embedded in religious issues.

The terrible conflict in the Sudan is between Islamic and Christian tribes.

So it is very easy to frame an argument that religion is the great cause of evil, hatred and violence in the world, get rid of it and we will be free of the hatred and the violence and the suffering.

But little if no attention is paid by these writers to the fact that the most bloody regimes in the recent past were militantly atheistic. It is estimated that over 40 mill people lost their lives in the atheistic, communist regimes of Stalin and Mao. A whole nation was traumatized and over 2.5 million lost in the Killing fields of Kampuchea by the fundamentalist Marxist Khmer Rouge, and no one knows what the toll is inside N. Korea.

Therefore the idea that atheism will deliver us from evil, violence and mans inhumanity to man seems rather implausible when you reflect on its recent track record.

Dawkins says that religious faith is the problem but I think he confuses faith and conviction. Unbalanced fanatical conviction that is driven by religion or atheism or a political ideology, that has no restraints or any moderating values like love and compassion, is frequently destructive. Nietzsche said “Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies”.G.K. Chesterton made a similar point when he warned “Beware of the well lit prison of a single idea” passionately held.

Of course the truth is that it is the darkness in fallen humanity that is the cause of wars and hatred and the quest for power. “The heart of darkness”, as Conrad put it, is in us all. It is only the radical message of the gospel that is the answer to that darkness. Only Christ and the cross can both judge and free us from our evil and guilt.  Only the transforming power of the Holy Spirit can change our hearts and enable us to live above our weakness’s.

But Christians must confess, that in spite of our knowledge of the gospel, we have at times been seduced by our national or ethnic culture and its inevitable pride, its prejudices, its fears, its tribalism – and that has then led us into being accomplices in the abuse of faith as a tool of discrimination, division and the oppression of others. (Eg: Serbian Orthodoxy and the Balkins conflict in recent times)

We can forget the clear NT statement that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female but all are one – that the gospel calls us to a new identity that transcends race and culture. When we forget this we can fall back into the darkness.

When we forget that forgiveness and reconciliation are central to the gospel we can easily embrace revenge and retaliation  – When we allow faith to becomes aligned with a political ideology – then the darkness overpowers us and we too can resort to coercion and force rather than love.

But when rightly understood and practiced the Christian faith transforms not only individuals but families, cultures, tribes and nations with love, forgiveness and reconciliation.

On the other hand – Atheism offers no radical answer to the darkness in the fallen human heart. At its best it offers only the existentialist position – to will, to decide to do good in the face of evil, to fight the plague even though ultimately you know that it has no lasting effect or meaning, and you even have no objective way of determining what the good is. Like the Dr in Camus’ famous novel “The Plague”. You go on fighting the plague trying to save lives but in the end the plague wins.

Jean Paul Sartre the French atheist and existentialist said : “Atheism is a cruel long term business.” (And I would add, not many have the strength or courage to follow it with complete consistency.)

(2) The second thing driving the new atheism is the growth of Creationism within contemporary fundamentalist Christianity. “Creationism” is an interpretation of the Genesis creation account as taking place in 6 literal 24 hr days and rejects the Darwinian evolutionary theory and believes in a young earth (10,000 yrs, not Billions.) This has stirred up people like Dawkins who is a biologist. His other reason for visiting Australia is to promote his new book on evolution and Darwin’s work “The greatest Show on Earth”. Dawkins feels that Creationism is anti scientific and irrational and is taking us back to a pre enlightenment world view.

(It should be said that there are a variety of views that are held under the “Creationism” banner, like Intelligent design, some are more nuanced than others and not all who hold the various views can be fairly described as fundamentalist.)

It is worth noting that there are many thoughtful Christians who believe in divine creation and evolution and have some sympathy with Dawkins at this point. We need to make it clear that it is thoroughly Biblical to hold a view that believes in some form of evolution and a divine creator who designed, began and guided the process –God.

(3) The third thing driving the new atheism is the decline of Christianity in the West. The new atheists sense this weakness and are moving in for the kill.

I mentioned earlier that every age and culture has a plausibility structure ie: a mental framework that finds some things easy to believe and others not. The age of science bolstered by a philosophical frame work like logical positivism has made the believability of transcendent realities implausible for many western people. The idea that there is no absolute truth or absolute moral standard makes what Christianity offers no longer attractive and in fact it seems rather restrictive.

The response of the Church to this since the 60’s has been less than helpful. There have been two common reactions:

(1) At one extreme we have had the liberal theological reaction of accommodation – of reducing core truths to fit the prevailing plausibility structure.

Eg: If resurrection is unbelievable then redefine it as just the idea of Jesus coming alive in our hearts and minds.

If Jesus’ claim to be Gods divine son is implausible then deconstruct the NT text to say that he didn’t really say that, this was what the early Christians wanted to believe and so they changed Jesus’ words. What he really meant is that we are all Gods sons and daughters.

If the idea of atonement is too offensive to modern ears then re interpret the cross as merely a symbol of passive resistance to evil or a sign of identifying with us in our suffering.

You can even retain the most disturbing symbols, like the cross and the Lords Supper, but evacuate them of their radical first order meaning of substitutionary sacrifice and turn them into some kind of feel good emotional spiritual mystery. Keep them clothed with traditional liturgy music and art and no one will know the difference!

Or take the uncomfortable idea of judgment and accountability –  that Christ’s call to follow him must be responded to and the failure to do so places you outside his kingdom. You can reinterpret it to a more comfortable idea that says everyone in spite of their personal decision will find their way into the Kingdom of God.

The end result of liberal reductionism is of course a Christianity so emptied of its classical content that it has nothing radical to offer the contemporary culture. It is so seduced into conformity with it, so domesticated that it is unable to challenge the spirit of the age. Its ideas are now provincial, trapped in the mental landscape of the culture it inhabits.Instead of challenging the intellectual idols of its day with the gospel it submits to them.

(2) The second response is at the other extreme.Fundamentalism! Creationism is one expression of this. Fundamentalism is a retreat from the intellectual challenges to belief. It is a result of pitting reason against faith rather than seeing it as a partner. It is a retreat into a closed certainty.

It has some devastating results for the Church and its mission, eventually it produces:

1.  An intellectually shallow Christianity that is very vulnerable.

2. An over dependence on emotion and subjectivism

3. A withdrawal from culture rather than engagement

4. A shallow evangelism that fails to engage the mind.

5. A simplistic and uninformed approach to the Bible

Fundamentalism also produces generational faith decline:

  1. Gen. one has a living faith with moral practice but fails to pass on intelligent understanding.
  2. Gen. two has faith and practice but without intelligent understanding   is unable to convincingly pass on vital faith, and so only passes on moral practice by example.
  3. By gen. three even moral practice is weakened because its foundation of vital faith and understanding has gone. As it no longer has these, and the example of moral practice is now compromised, it is unable to pass on any of the three key things. In fact it may even pass on a negative attitude, as a result of children seeing moral compromise.
  4. So gen. four has neither faith, understanding nor moral practice.

That is how generational faith decline works. (Gen. five may begin to feel the emptiness and ask ‘what have we lost?’ or it may not.)

So liberal theology or fundamentalism are two extreme responses that weaken Christianity.

But we do not have to be limited to these two responses there is a third way.

(3) The third response is intelligent orthodoxy alive with personal faith and infused by the Holy Spirit. That seeks to bring all the wisdom and intellectual resources from the history of the people of God to bear on the issues of the day. We have been in a battle like this before. Maybe in a different shape and context but the same questions re – occur. Classical Christian orthodoxy frees us from the provincial and present and lifts our horizons to the broad sweep of history and the treasures of Christianity’s intellectual and spiritual resources.

I have defined this third way as “Intelligent Orthodoxy alive with personal faith and infused with the HS.” Our response to the new atheism must be intelligent and thoughtful but it must also come out of a living personal relationship with God – We need “Minds ablaze and hearts on fire”. Essentially Christianity is relational. It is about being in a personal relationship with God, it is an encounter with both the mind and the heart of the living personal God. That relationship must then flow out in love to others. Jesus summed it up succinctly: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.”

Finally we must confront the new atheists with two questions:

In relation to the arguments from science – the material that scientists are working with is basically, forces, particles and spaces and that is important work. But you simply cannot get to values, purpose, meaning and hope from there alone. And it is self evident that these things are part of our reality, they inform and effect every day of our lives. They must be found in a different place. This leads me to my first question for the new atheists:

(1) Do they have a meaningful alternative to belief in God?

Ronald Aronson an atheist but one of the more measured critics of theism has written a book entitled “Living without God”. He makes the important point for his side to consider – “That living without God means turning to something.” What will that be?

(2) Given the immense complexity of the universe and all living things, and the immense improbability of life happening on this planet in this solar system, why then is belief in a creator less probable than the idea of our origins being in blind chance?

It is of great interest to me that physicists and cosmologists are generally much more open on this question than biologists like Dawkins. Einstein wrote: “Everyone who is seriously engaged in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that the laws of nature manifest the existence of a spirit vastly superior to that of men, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble”

The burden of proof for the faith of  atheism lies squarely with the atheists!

Let me close with these two quotations, the first  from Richard Holloway which expresses the stark alternative to belief in God :

“The person who gives up belief in God because it brings with it certain unresolvable dilemmas ends  up believing in a dying universe in which there is no meaning anywhere, a universe that came from nothing and goes to nothing, a universe that is cruelly indifferent to all our needs. And there is no point in feeling resentment against such a universe, because in a Godless universe there is no reason why anything should not happen, and there is no one to resent or blame. We are alone in an empty universe. No one is listening to our curses or our tears. We stand, tiny and solitary, in a corner of a vast and empty landscape, and if we listen, all we hear is the bitter echo of our own loneliness.”

The second is this bleak conclusion of the Richard Dawkins of a previous generation the late Bertrand Russell – mathematician, philosopher, atheist – here is his conclusion of the alternative to belief in Christ and his resurrection: “No fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling can preserve the individual life beyond the grave;…..all the labor of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system,…… the whole temple of mans achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins