Happy and Glorious

Letter from Australia, August 1999

 

AUSTRALIANS ARE becoming more self-centered, materialistic and disengaged from the national agenda, with a surge of optimism coexisting with fear that society is threatened with serious breakdown.

Well, that's the bleak conclusion of the annual snapshot of the nation's "Mind and Mood" by respected social researcher Hugh Mackay. The "Lucky Country" according to Mackay is best characterised by optimism coexisting with a pessimism "that still runs deep in our national psyche". The study follows the central conclusion of last year's report that Australians were turning inwards as they sought to insulate themselves from uncertainty, and that Australia was becoming a tougher, less compassionate place.

The sense that society was in some form of transitional phase causes Mackay to observe that "attitudes towards marriage, crime, the media, politics are in such a state of flux (and so often contradictory) that it is hard to escape the conclusion that the accelerating rate of social change is taking its toll".

Much to the horror of Australia's social engineer's and self-appointed intellectual elite Mackay's research finds "a curious lack of passion about the national agenda". His findings point to the electorate being "utterly apathetic on the issue of Australia becoming a republic". The report identifies two recurring themes on this issue: first, that many people believe the proposed referendum is not about enough of a change; and, second that there appears to be a growing idea that there is nothing wrong with the present system. Mackay concludes, "As things stand, it looks as if the republican model being proposed in the November referendum will not be adopted".

The republican option being put before the people in November is described as the "minimalist model". It provides for a President, appointed by a two-thirds vote of the Federal Parliament to replace the Governor-General. Apart from the whiteout of the Queen and Governor-General and insertion of President no other changes are proposed to the Constitution. Theoretically under Australia's federal system the Commonwealth of Australia could become a republic while individual Australian states could retain the Crown!

Opposition to this republican model comes not only from those, such as the Prime Minister John Howard, who see no reason to change the present system, but also from a vocal group calling themselves "The Real Republicans". This group gathered around three highly independent populist figures from Queensland, NSW and Victoria are highly critical of the method of selecting any president. Reflecting a strong groundswell in the electorate they want any president elected by a popular vote not appointed by politicians. In addition, there are those who argue that Australia needs to embrace wider constitutional reform than merely "a resident for president" does.

Under Australia's procedure for constitutional change any proposed amendment must be carried at a referendum by a majority of voters across the nation and in a majority of the states. This means that even if a majority of people voted for change it would fail unless four of the six states voted in favour.

Australia's track record on constitutional reform is not encouraging for the republicans. Of the 41 referenda proposed to change the Constitution since Federation in 1901 the electorate have only endorsed 8. No proposal for change that has not attracted the unanimous support of the major parties on both sides of politics has been enacted. Indeed in 1976 a proposal to change the constitutional nexus between the size of the House of Representatives and the Senate, which was supported by both the Government and the Opposition, was rejected by the people mainly through the "No Campaign" waged by two rebel government senators.

Elizabeth II may well retain Australia as one of her other realms across the seas into the next century.

The apathy and pessimism that Hugh Mackay describes as pervading the collective mind is also evident in the Anglican Church of Australia. Rather than serving as a beacon of hope to the Australian community the Anglican Church continues to suffer from declining and ageing congregations. The annual national meeting of the Australian Bishops received a detailed briefing from the Revd Dr Philip Hughes of the Christian Research Association about population and church trends across Australia. The CRA is responsible for the periodic National Church Life Surveys (NCLS).

Dr Hughes told the assembled prelates that since 1983 there had been a significant increase in the number of Australians who record themselves as 'religious'. There had been an increase in the belief in sin, the soul, heaven, life after death and associated issues but a decline in belief in God! Archbishop Ian George of Adelaide (a liberal who would be at home in ECUSA) reported to his diocese that "Dr Hughes believes that...a much larger number of Australians are looking for meaning in life, for real security and that the difficulties that the 'good life' has now run out in this lucky country have begun to cause people to ask real questions."

Then in a rare expression of frankness from a member of the hierarchy Archbishop George tells his people "It is clear though that the Anglican Church, as we have it, is not responding too effectively to that search." Indeed Archbishop Peter Hollingworth told his people that Dr Hughes' findings predict "that in the next ten years the Anglican Church will lose 25 percent of its people who are presently active in the life of our church".

At the last meeting of Australia's General Synod, in February 1998, Sydney's Archbishop Harry Goodhew vainly tried to force the national church to take seriously the findings of the NCLSS and address issues of evangelism and ministry. Dr Hughes' latest finding reveals that of the people, who now claim 'no religion' in Australia, 30% grew up as Anglicans! But what can you expect when the successive liberal ascendancy waves in religious education and church leadership peddled a consistent diet of relativism and the denigration of the deposit of faith and church tradition. To date there is little evidence that the church hierarchy have any capacity to move beyond the same mantra of working parties, strategy planning and endless liturgical reform that have so convincingly failed to arrest the malaise.

In Archbishop George's own words "the numbers of Anglicans in this diocese have fallen significantly since 1991 from almost 170,000 when it was 18.2% of the population". The Diocese of Adelaide has higher proportions of people over 65 than almost any other diocese in Australia. The Adelaide Diocese is fifth numerically in size of population but eighth in terms of Anglican population. Again by Archbishop George's own admission "we have slipped a great deal since the turn of the century". But this is the diocese that under Archbishop George and his predecessor and now retiring Primate, Dr Keith Rayner, traditional Anglicanism was jettisoned in favour of a raft of innovative causes and practices.

Certainly at the level of everyday ministry the pessimism and low morale is only too evident. Across the church the patterns of Human Resource Management played out only too often demonstrates that the church has failed to embrace any of the notions of "value added" or "affirmed labour" that are now part and parcel of contemporary secular vocations. Time and time again individual clergy will speak (always off the record of course) of the indifference if not outright hostility and bullying displayed by their clerical superiors. Stress levels among the clergy are reported as being on the increase and vocations continue to be increasingly difficult to attract from the ranks of those under 40.

Not only does this point to poor Human Resource Management it makes a mockery of any proclamation of a Gospel of Love and Joy.

Martin Hislop has left the Diocese of Ballarat in the Province of Victoria to return to live in England.

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