OPINION: Times changing, so must church

CHURCH-going in Australian society has changed and the churches have to respond. 

It is no longer a feature of our culture that a church is one of the first community buildings people wish to see erected, so they might give thanks to God, pray, learn about their faith and share in ritual actions of profound meaning. 

Though the majority of Australians still identify themselves as Christians in the census, very few of them go to church each Sunday. And they might come fortnightly or monthly, rather than weekly.

Changes in the way we commute and shop mean that people will drive to a church that engages them, bypassing buildings in easy walking distance. 

Most people are less willing to sit on rough benches with an open window and a toilet out the back, preferring more comfortable surroundings. 

Once, the church facilities were at the heart of the local community life – the hall was filled with music and dance and the grounds were used for tennis and sport.

With all of this, the Anglican Church knows that it has a vital contribution to make to Australian society. Many people want to pray, reflect and be guided by God in their daily living. 

They are pleased to see visible reminders of Christian presence in well-maintained church buildings. They look to the church to serve the local community – especially the needy. 

And despite deep concern about the church failing to practise what it preaches, people want the church to speak about the values and ethics of Christianity in public debate.

It is often not known that each Anglican parish must generate the income it needs to meet expenses.

The majority of funding comes from generous giving by parishioners, supplemented by fund-raising and endowments that often result from the generosity of past parishioners.

Over the 2012-13 calendar years, insurers of church buildings have raised the premiums by 43.75per cent.

The changes to work, health and safety legislation have turned almost every parish site into a workplace, with every volunteer a worker.

This has meant a careful review of facilities to ensure legal compliance. Developments to buildings often result in 21st-century parking requirements being placed on sites acquired and first used much earlier. 

With the Global Financial Crisis, reduced interest rates have understandably affected the capacity of self-funded retirees to assist their parish. 

It has also eaten into endowment returns. 

These factors have highlighted for us the precarious nature of some of our parishes.

Over the past decade, the Anglican Diocese of Newcastle has sought to adapt its work to its changed circumstances. Among the most significant changes in recent years has been the creation of a cohort of trained volunteer clergy, who work alongside the paid clergy and mobilised lay leadership. 

These changes have expanded the opportunity for traditional pastoral ministries and promoted an innovative mindset within parishes. 

Another significant change has been the fostering of various styles of weekend gathering. 

As a result, Anglicans – who like to gather in congregations where they can get to know everyone – have greater choice.

We have available to us now, more than ever before, high-quality research from the United States, England and Australia that can inform our thinking. We know that parishes that have grown are those that have embraced change. 

We know the parishes that have seen their attendances decline for longer must undertake more radical change or face continued decline.

Given the issues facing the Anglican Church, the parishes in Newcastle city are being asked whether it is timely to embrace some forms of strategic change. 

Despite reports to the contrary, clergy and elected parish leaders have been involved in consultation and conversation from the early stages.

They are being asked to consider whether selling a site and using the proceeds to enhance another site would be a good idea. 

They are being asked to discuss whether a community has changed so much that the best way of serving it would be through a church building in an adjacent suburb. Later in the year, most likely after the next bishop has been elected, the review group will present a report with recommendations that will then be up for further discussion.

It has been my experience as a bishop that parishioners want a vibrant expression of Anglican Christianity well into the future. They do find it challenging when a place that is their spiritual home is included in the discussion, but lovingly pray how they can make things work so that future generations may know God. 

Our parishioners are amazing. I am confident that as an Anglican community we can hear the issues, hear the voices and come up with holy strategies that serve God and the people of Newcastle.

Bishop Peter Stuart has been a bishop in Newcastle since February 2009 and is administrator of the diocese while it is going through the process of electing a new diocesan bishop.

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