Aussies are Different! (Pg 2)

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Julia Gillard

Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard

Despite the number saying they have no religion, a 2012 survey by McCrindle Research found 52% of Australians believe Jesus rose from the dead and a huge 80% accept he died on a cross. This suggests that although Australians are increasingly staying away from church they still retain some acceptance of the Jesus story. “People are fine with Jesus, but they have issues with the church. They like the product but they don’t like the retail outlet,” McCrindle Research commented.

When Australians say they have no religion, we are left wondering what concept of religion is it that they say they don’t have. Some media commentators presume their ‘no religion’ reflects the hostility found in the writings of authors like Dawkins and Hitchens whose aim is to put an end to religion and eradicate any forms of belief in God. But does that truly reflect the Australian attitude? A more accurate portrait would surely conclude that in the main, Australians simply don’t want to talk about religion and are more likely to display indifference than hostility.

The truth is, Australians have never been particularly religious. Unlike America, where the first Europeans immigrants were dissidents escaping religious persecution in Europe, our English forebears were an irreligious lot who had fallen out with the state for quite different reasons. When at the last moment a chaplain was assigned to the first fleet, the Australian church got off to a bad start. When the Pilgrim Fathers first stepped onto American soil freedom of religion was foremost in their mind. When the convicts landed in Australia, Jesus was probably no more than a swear word.

Such a different beginning plays out in many different places. For instance, Australia’s Julia Gillard took office as Prime Minister in 2010 as a declared atheist, unmarried and childless. It is almost impossible to imagine the same happening in the USA where the political risks would be too high. In Australia it barely rates a mention. Then when it comes to church/state relationships we have, despite our secularity, a government funded school chaplain program staffed mainly by evangelicals. It wouldn’t happen in America.

Being labelled one of the most secular countries in the western world is a little more complicated than the label suggests. More research is needed to understand and explain what it is about our particular attitude to religion and to Jesus. Perhaps because of our English roots, and our predilection to all things American, we unconsciously assume their ways of following Jesus and being church will be the same. But clearly we are not.

While there is probably little that the late Ted Noffs of the Wayside Chapel, Sydney, and I might have agreed on, I do agree with his suggestion that Christianity has never been truly Australianised. Despite our long indigenous history, modern Australia is a young country and perhaps it is time we stopped importing our spirituality and worked it out for ourselves.

Without doubt, Aussies are different to every other country in the world. Perhaps our larrikin behaviour and ‘she’ll be right’ attitudes change our views on far bigger concepts than we realise. What are your thoughts?

Stephen L Baxter

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2 thoughts on “Aussies are Different! (Pg 2)

  1. Rhys McFadden says:

    I love the question you’ve raised here Stephen. So I hope you and your readers will be able to bear my convoluted response for it is a question that I’ve considered long and hard. In my mind to a large degree the rejection of the established Church by the majority of Australians goes way back to the elite establishment of the Poor Laws in the early 1600’s in mother England, where poverty was virtually outlawed.

    If you look through the reasons why people were deported in 1788 and over the ensuing years, it is quite telling. The youngest kid, nine year old John Hudson was sent to Port Arthur for seven years, for nicking ten yards of ribbon and a pair of silk stockings. So what interests would a nine year old have in these items? I’d reckon his next meal! Things were so tight in the mother country, people had to resort to such measures to survive. The Youngest girl was 13…Elizabeth Hayward was deported for pinching a cotton dress and bonnet. Now what thirteen year old girl doesn’t want to look pretty? (Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes worthwhile read)

    I absolutely agree with your statement that “When at the last moment a chaplain was assigned to the first fleet, the Australian church got off to a bad start”. For history shows the “Chaplains” were given magisterial rights and belonged to the gentrified elite that didn’t lift a finger the redress the poverty of the ordinary people. In fact they intensified their pain eg: Samuel Marsden, “the flogging padre”. Evan McHugh’s book “Bushranger” is a fascinating insight into these matters, recording that early prisoners were subjected to two thousand lashes for petty indiscretions – the poor blighters were literally whipped to death. If I was one of those, I wouldn’t want anything to do with the establishment that supported such abuses either!

    What is fascinating is the response to the Wesleyan Preacher Carvosso’s arrival and preaching in 1820 in Hobart (revivals.arkangles.com/docs/EarlyEvangelicalRevivalsInAustralia.odt). This was some 16 years after settlement…but I can’t help but consider there was some nascent memory of the legacy of John Wesley who grew a movement among the poor, widows, fatherless and his major project was prison reform. Wesley’s influence was such that by the end of C17, one in thirty English men, women and children found a living hope in Jesus and assembled in societies. Classes and bands outside the established church. So that when Carvosso began reminding people of Jesus through the Wesleyan lens, it so resonated against the hardship experienced at the hands of the ‘chaplains’ reminding them of the goodness of Jesus as expressed through the Wesleyan’s that it stirred to the point of the first revival in Australia?

    I can’t help but wonder if McCrindle’s statement that “People are fine with Jesus, but they have issues with the church. They like the product but they don’t like the retail outlet,” has some sort of connection with that…I wonder if a more accurate assessment is that Australians aren’t so “secular” but rather they have rejected the form of the Christian church, not the essence of the message and have a very grass roots spirituality that the established church has failed to recognize?

    So while as you rightly say “The truth is, Australians have never been particularly religious”, we are a deeply spiritual people as evidenced by the way we enter one anothers struggles during bushfire, flood and calamity.

    Consider Henry Lawson’s recounting of one of Peter McLaughlin’s sermons in his short story “shall we gather at the river” (Joe Wilson’s mates, “Shall we gather at the river” 245-255). The so called drunken and godless Lawson is so enamored with McConnell’s connection with his community (over an against the itinerant circuit riders disconnect) and his incarnational spirituality he says of himself in response to McLaughlin’s message that day, “How I wish I could return to that morning and start over again as I did that day” or words to that effect (which sounds like repentance and faith to me!).

    So I think while the majority of second, third and fourth generation Aussies have rejected the form of Christian religion through the established church, I continue to find ordinary Aussies who resonate strongly with its essence, and delight to embrace the hope of Jesus. Surely this means our challenge as Australian followers of Jesus is to discover authentic and alternative ways of engaging those who would never step inside the “God box” during the “sacred hour”.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Rhys. I’m with you when you suggest that while, “Aussies have rejected the form of Christian religion” they are open “to embrace the hope of Jesus.” My friend Mal Garvin, founder of Fusion, would heartily agree There’s work for us to do here in appreciating the unique way Aussies approach questions of life and meaning, and adapting our message and churches to suit.

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