What is the current state of play in the Anglican Church in Australia*? That’s a big question and the following are a few perspectives.
It used to be that there were three evangelical Dioceses in Australia – Sydney, Armidale and North West Australia. It was that way for a long time. Today we can be encouraged by a big shift. Many Dioceses have changed or are changing! It is a fundamental realignment. Even in Dioceses where evangelicals are in a minority, there are great signs of change and growth. This showed up more fully at General Synod in both the range of speakers from right across the country and also in the election results.
This growth and change can be attributed to many factors (in no particular order):
- Two strong theological Colleges in Moore and Ridley (are they the two strongest Anglican Theological Colleges in the western world?)
- Healthy and encouraging episcopal ministry in many places
- The work of BCA/CMS
- EFAC’s role in being a fellowship and a place of encouragement for gospel ministry and biblical preaching. People know each other across our country because of the many Conferences held over many decades
- Healthy models of good parish ministry and good quality clergy and high calibre lay leadership
- An ongoing commitment to ministry with children and families and young people
- Strong student ministry
- Church planting and evangelism
- People’s willingness to participate in Synods both nationally and in their own Dioceses
- Community care expressed in all sorts of ways in all sorts of places
- Work in schools
- Cross cultural ministry and the growing number of language specific (non-English) churches
- Indigenous ministry and partnerships
There is much one could say here as well, but here are five major challenges.
- The future of the parish
In many parts of the country the parish system is struggling to survive. This is particularly the case in remote rural Australia, as well as in parts of our major cities where the demographic realities (aging congregations) are now pushing many churches into precarious places. The first step is often moving to part time ministry and then the cobbling together of unviable churches as a way of continuing on. Most people go to the church of their choosing and this has big implications as to the shape and relevance of the so-called local church. How many micro churches can a Diocese sustain and how do we manage decline while responding to new opportunities for growth?
- Rebuilding during an ongoing health crisis
Generally speaking, many churches are 20% to 30% smaller in mid-2022 than in mid-2019. This has been very tough as people are having to manage two things simultaneously: maintaining ministry in a context where the impact of illness is a week in and week out reality and having less people overall. At the same time, many people are seeking to rebuild ministries that may have fallen away during these past two years. The overall sense is that many people are both exhausted and somewhat disheartened.
- Children’s, Families and Youth
There has been a general decline in the number of children, families, and young people with whom churches are connecting with. While there has been a necessary focus on being child safe, this has made the task of raising volunteers much more complex and challenging. New innovative ideas are needed for connecting with non-church children and families as well as young people. Helping young people (and their parents) to navigate the complex sexual and identity issues of our day is incredibly demanding and pastorally challenging.
- Ordained Ministry
At present there is an increasing concern that the number of people offering for ordination is not sufficient to meet the ongoing needs into the future. Whether this is a temporary blip, or an on-going trend is unclear. Many (one could even suggest, far too many) clergy are being asked to go into unhealthy churches in the hope of pulling off a revival. While this is possible and does happen, in many cases it leads to people being crushed and often leaving ministry. In the main, most clergy would prefer to work in a team rather than on their own. It is easier to start a new church than to turn around an established church.
For the last decade or more there has been a huge conversation going on about mission and how we enable our churches to become missionally effective. These conversations have been important. At the same time, it has become increasingly complex and to some extent overwhelming. There are so many ways forward being promoted that it can be confusing and disempowering for many people. In the midst of all of this discussion and ferment we seem to have lost sight of simply seeking to see people come to faith. In a context where the wider culture is seemingly running against us, this passion for the gospel and for reaching the lost needs to be recaptured and encouraged. In God’s providence the language specific (non-English) ministries set a shining example for us.
Bishop Stephen Hale
Chair, EFAC Australia and EFAC Global
*Contention around orthodoxy and marriage were addressed in my report on General Synod in the last edition.