BISHOP BILL WRIGHT: How to fix the church?

Census results that show declining numbers of Christians always attract some comment. There’s a section of the community that positively delights in rushing to explain why the church, or often ‘religion’ itself, has had its day in an enlightened, scientific and liberal age.

There are others who reflect more soberly on what it might mean to live in a society that lacks the underlying structure of shared beliefs that we’ve been used to. And then there are others who observe that, despite the hullabaloo about decline, half the population still does identify with one Christian church or another. One academic commentator on Newcastle radio observed, wisely I think, that the census numbers probably reflect a change from the days when people with no real connection to a church still thought they should put down something. He pictured the scene where the bloke would ask his wife, ‘Your mother was Anglican, wasn’t she?’ Now they’re more likely to just enter a factual ‘No religion’. He was inclined to think that there’s social pressure now to say that you don’t believe, that it’s difficult and embarrassing at a barbecue to confess that you still belong to a church, still hold a faith.

Those who think about these things in a longer perspective see things a little differently. One might recall that at the end of the nineteenth century in Australia the rate of church attendance was about the same as it is now. In the great age of aspiration to respectability, the 1950s, when in popular memory all Catholics went to Mass, the true figure was much nearer half. In that longer perspective, the decline in the place of religion in Australian life is more like a return to normal. Henry Lawson or Norman Lindsay would feel quite at home in the sceptical disdain for churchiness that prevails today.

All these discussions, however, reflect a focus on the place of religious adherence in society, on the church as a social institution. The recent Royal Commission, too, steadfastly regarded the church as a social institution, as was its mandate. The Commission stopped short of the radical view that the church is a wholly malignant institution, responsible for all the wars of all time, the repression of women down all the ages and a barrier to scientific enquiry and human progress in general. It did, however, see the church as a badly broken institution, with a potentially dangerous culture, that the state had to fix by regulation. There is, of course, a good deal of truth in this. In the field of the Royal Commission’s inquiry, the church had performed appallingly badly, criminally, as an institution. Still, there are ironies in the idea of the state ‘fixing’ the church, when, from the kings and emperors of the middle ages to the dictators of the twentieth century, the great tradition of church reform has been the struggle to keep the civil powers from taking control of the church and using its structures to their own ends. Hopefully this time, there will be a productive interaction between church and state about how best to order things for the common good.

When church people worry about the state of the church, it’s not usually its success as a social institution they have in mind. We worry about what might be called its soul. How is it as a community of faith? How deeply are its members in relationship with God, inspired by Christ, led by the Spirit? How well do they live the great command of love of God and neighbour? How ready are they for lives of love and service? Pope Francis is particularly good at poking fun at those who are fixated on religious stuff – liturgy, dogma, orthodoxy, programs, organisation – and think it’s very important to get it all right, but who don’t seem to really know a God who is good and loving, patient and forgiving. And what bothers the pope bothers people everywhere. Those devout people that the pope characterised as ‘sourpusses’ seem to pop up in most parishes, and they suck the joy out of Christian life. How do you change hearts? That’s always the reform believers want.

You won’t be surprised that I don’t have the answers. I have, however, just come from an afternoon where a group of us sat around sharing stories about our most treasured ‘encounters with Christ’. Person after person spoke of moments when we were suddenly caught up in the presence of God, the warmth of love, the rapture of being forgiven, the peace of finding direction from the Other. Some of the memories went way back, others were recent, but all were fresh. You watched people reliving the moment, you relived your moments, and the experience of the love of God was a power again, right there in the conversation. We talk about ‘spreading the Good News’. I have just been reminded of how much good news we bear within us. The church should be where that is shared and celebrated. That’s a cultural change to be desired.

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Bishop Bill Wright Image
Bishop Bill Wright

Most Reverend William (Bill) Wright is the eighth Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle and is the pastoral leader of more than 150,000 Catholics in the region.