Address by Rev Dr Bruce Kaye
It is very appropriate that we are celebrating the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Christian Research Association by engaging in a four day roundtable on Shaping Australia’s Spirituality.
Tonight at this dinner we pause our debates to celebrate a great achievement in the life of Australia Christianity and we do so with an enduring sense of thankfulness for the good hand of God upon this project.
How did the CRA come into being? What forces were at work at the time and how has it developed in its first 25 years? These are questions to reflect on at this celebration.
CRA was established in 1985 with the support of a group of Protestant churches and a number of other inter-church organisations. The National Catholic Research Council joined the group the following year in 1986.
The seedbed out of which CRA grew was shaped by significant wider dynamics.
The 1983 Roy Morgan Research Australian values survey, part of an international project begun in the Netherlands, was a sign of movement.
In the preceding decade evangelicals came back from the Lausanne Congress encouraged to take more seriously the social implication of the gospel and Vatican II inspired a younger generation of Roman Catholics with the drive to modern relevance in the Council’s decrees.
Individual churches began to look at social issues as did inter church agencies such as the Inter Trade and Industry Mission, ZADOK, and World Vision. The joint church controversial manifesto Changing Australia was published in 1983 reflects this revived interest in social engagement.
The dynamics of declining church attendance and the relation between gospel and society were in fact the Australian version of trends appearing in most western societies. These trends had a long history and were brought to dramatic focus in the turbulent 1960s and 70s.
These were the decades of student revolutions, of the Age of Aquarius, and they also presaged the collapse of the post-war church attendance boom. Throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s many people saw the grand 18th-century secularisation theory coming to fulfilment. They could see before their very eyes the Enlightenment dream of the triumph of human knowledge and the exhausted collapse of religion, especially Christianity and its institutional churches.
Yet in these two decades things could also be seen that would give rise to a major deconstruction both of the Enlightenment and its secularisation companion. Some sociologists in North America were turning away from broad social theory to a more specific empirical approach. At the same time a group of historians in Europe, led by Hugh McLeod in Birmingham, began publishing particular case studies of patterns of de-christianisation in European countries. Both these movements have grown in the last 40 years to such an extent that the comprehensive secularisation theory, whose fulfilment was so triumphantly proclaimed in the 1960s, is now widely discarded and more divers patterns of secularity are being identified.
Hans Mol was a Research Fellow at ANU 1963-70 and had been influenced by Reinhold Niebuhr in his theology and also by the empirical sociologists in North America. His 1971 book, Religion in Australia, brought these two themes to bear on the Australian situation.
These international changes and their local expressions were the context out of which the CRA was formed.
I recall going to a meeting in the church hall at Leichardt Methodist Mission, which my memory tells me was chaired by Peter Marshall, then working with ZADOK. Neville Carr, then working for World Vision, was also present and he became the chair of the group that was established as a result of the meeting. The meeting discussed a number of things very little of which I can now recall. However I do remember that one of the very important things discussed was how to raise the money to fund the project. World Vision contributed a substantial sum of money, I think around $20,000 in the first year and more subsequently. Under the leadership of Harold Henderson World Vision supported Neville Carr in his role with CRA and continued their financial support.
I was given the task of going to the diocese of Sydney and asking for, I think, $10,000. I duly took Donald Robinson to lunch told him what an excellent project had been imagined and how important it was for the Anglicans to support it, not just because they had some significant resources but also because they needed to get a better handle on their situation in society. Happily Donald Robinson was one of the few people with whom I had maintained a correspondence during my fifteen years in Europe and counted him amongst my close friends. He was able to tell me within a week that the money would be forthcoming and I duly reported back to our group.
Under Neville Carr’s chairmanship the new group advertised for staff and Philip Hughes was appointed. There were others involved, I remember Peter Bentley in particular.
Six years after the forming of the CRA the National Church Life Survey was established principally by the Anglican Home Mission Society in Sydney and the Board of Mission of the Uniting Church New South Wales Synod. Dean Drayton and Peter Kaldor led this project and they began a significant working relationship with CRA.
You will not be surprised that in the early days there was a great deal of vigorous debate about the nature of the enterprise. The various stakeholders had interests. The field of the sociology of religion and the history of religion were beginning to be influenced by new approaches.
In part, I think, arising out of these debates, CRA has had a strong interpretative element in its work. It was more affected by the academic disputes in the disciplines of the university and engaged more with academic sociology.
CRA has been a great collaborator. It has collaborated with the world of academia both in terms of engagement with academics and also in terms of its capacity to attract academic research grants and contracts to do academic work. It has collaborated with government agencies and won significant contracts to do important work in recording, researching and reporting on religion in Australia. It has also won significant church contracts. In the midst of all of this it has also managed to take its own research initiatives because it has been able to sustain sufficient institutional viability not to be captured by its collaborative activity.
The great success of the last 25 years has been built on the commitment of a small group of staff led by Philip Hughes. Philip has written so much, thought so much, imagined so much, that it is hard to think of the contribution CRA has made to Australian Christianity without immediately thinking of his extraordinary work. There are other names that will have an honoured place when a complete history of CRA is written. However, here I simply draw attention to the fact that the CRA has been a small organisation and its vitality and viability has been largely a consequence of the extraordinary contribution made by the staff.
I do not intend to discount in any way the contribution made over the years by the board. They have raised the money, maintained institutional continuity and provided the oversight and encouragement to enable the work to be done.
Looking into the future the interpretative role of CRA’s work will, I believe, be vitally important. There is something of a resurgence in Australian theology going on at the moment. May I say, as a theologian, that we need to pay attention to our context in the theological work we do and the CRA will have an important role in that process. Philip Hughes wrote in 2005
Many contemporary theologians and leaders of the churches reflect with great skill on the biblical text. They apply great scholarship to understanding the history of the traditions of the church. But when it comes to relating this to the contemporary world, many rely on hearsay, hunches and a little participant observation. I believe it is still true that not one theological College in Australia employs a full-time professional sociologist, psychologist, or expert on the analysis of culture, to assist in the formation of faith in the contemporary world. Few theological colleges take the contemporary context seriously. As a result of great deal of the theologising that goes on in Australia, bracket and many other parts of the Western world, ignores many of the major issues of culture: issues of the business world, of economics and politics, of world peace and the impact of globalisation, of mass media and mass forms of community.
This is one of the most important themes in the work of the CRA. Making sense of the contemporary context of faith.
Long ago this country moved from a colonial Anglican monopoly in religion, to a multi-church christian monopoly. More recently we moved to a multicultural and multi-religious society and are now moving to a dispersed plurality not only in religion by in professed values.
Older narratives of our nation no longer engage with these new realities and yet we need as a nation, and also as Christians within that nation, to discover some kind of narrative within which we can understand our own individual and community lives. That narrative will have to take account of the character of our secularity, our plurality, our institutions and values, and the character of the faiths we profess.
In the next 25 years I am sure that the CRA will have to engaged with these questions and I am equally sure that the foundations laid in the last 25 years will provide a solid basis for that engagement. For the present we celebrate the foundations that have been laid and we do so with thankfulness to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.