Australian Culture and Society

Pilgrims or Tourists? The Origins of World Youth Day

Tuesday, July 8th, 2014

An initiative of the late Pope John Paul II, World Youth Day has become the largest regular gathering of young people in the world, attracting hundreds of thousands, and on occasions, millions of participants. The size and scale of the event has resulted in its comparison to the Olympic Games and it has also necessitated significant organisational and logistical effort and financial support (Norman & Johnson, 2011, p.372).

Much research was showing that a growing number of young people were abandoning ‘institutional religion’, rejecting the core principles and teachings of religious traditions (Horell, 2004; Hughes, 2007; Crawford & Rossiter, 2006) and questioning the existence of God. However, Pope John Paul II believed that they were in fact yearning for the transcendent, desiring a relationship with God.

In an effort to rejuvenate the faith practice and Christian identity of western societies, World Youth Day was intended to be a systematic approach to reach out to and actively engage young people in the life of the Church, especially amongst those who were disconnected. Young Australians have participated in each of the international World Youth Days. During the early history of World Youth Day this involved fewer than thirty pilgrims, mostly drawn from Antioch or similar groups and movements.

The very structure and nature of World Youth Day is underpinned by the practice of pilgrimage and since its very inception participants have been described as pilgrims. The motivations for going on pilgrimage are many and varied. It has been suggested by some sociologists that given the increasing number of people who experience feelings of dislocation and rootlessness in post-modern society, pilgrimage can provide an opportunity to search for personal consciousness, meaning in life and connectedness with others (Graham & Murray, 1997; Lowenthal, 1997; Olsen & Timothy, 2006).

Prior to World Youth Day XXVIII in Madrid the author conducted extensive research with pilgrims from the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney, as a means of ascertaining why young people are drawn to the international gathering and to identify their attitudes towards faith, religious practice, community and self. The author’s research (2010-2013) indicates considerable differences in the attitudes of school aged pilgrims towards faith, religious practice, community and self when compared to the views and perceptions of the adult pilgrims. While they are less connected with Church, they are by no means disaffected or indifferent to the Gospel message.

Many of the school pilgrims consistently referred to a ‘sense of searching’, to describe their understanding of self and their relationship with God. When he initiated World Youth Day, Pope John Paul II may well have had in mind St Augustine’s words, ‘You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you’ (Confessions, Chapter 1), and their particular relevance to young people.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 23, No. 2, Pages 17-19

Profile of Australian Christian Clergy

Tuesday, July 8th, 2014

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) classifies ‘ministers of religion’ within the broader social and welfare professional occupation, and defines the occupation as people who perform: “spiritual functions associated with beliefs and practices of religious faiths, and provide motivation, guidance and training in religious life for the people of congregations and parishes, and the wider community” (ABS 2006, p327). This article uses ‘clergy’ to describe these people, although in many denominations, this will not correspond with official usage of the term.

Between 2006 and 2011, according to the Censuses, the number of clergy identifying with a Christian denomination increased by nine per cent, from 14,386 to 15,702. Clergy numbers in most denominations either increased or remained stable during that period, with the exception of the Catholics who decreased by around six per cent. The largest increase in clergy numbers between 2006 and 2011 was in the ‘Other Christian’ category, increasing by 41 per cent, from 1,333 to 1,878. This group includes some small denominations and independent churches. However, the largest group of ‘Other Christians’ were people who simply wrote in ‘Christian’ – a total of 1,233 people. (Interestingly, the number of Australians who simply wrote in ‘Christian’ on the Census also increased by 41 per cent during the same period). It is quite possible that many clergy who identified themselves simply as ‘Christian’ were working in non-denoninational situations such as government school chaplaincy.

A study by Edith Cowan University into government school chaplains found an increase in numbers from 653 in March 2007 to 1874 in August 2009 (Hughes and Sims 2009, p.9).

The age of clergy provides further insight into the present clergy profile within each denomination as well as giving an indication of what the future needs for the denomination may look like. Overall, the 2011 Census showed that 10.4 per cent of Christian clergy were aged 65 years and over. By comparison, in 2006, nine per cent of Christian clergy were in that age group. Not surprisingly, denominations with the oldest clergy age profile also had very low proportions of young clergy. Just five per cent of Uniting Church clergy and seven per cent of Catholic clergy were under 35 years.

While some denominations do not allow women to be ordained into church ministry roles, the reality is that more and more women are employed to serve church communities in Australia, either in a lay capacity or ordained in a denomination which does allow female ordination. The Census showed there was a considerable increase in the number of women in ministry between 2006 and 2011 in every denominational group except one (the Eastern Orthodox). Some of the women in ministry are school chaplains: the Edith Cowan university study found that in 2009, 60 per cent of school chaplains were female.

The number of Christian clergy in Australia continues to increase, and at a faster rate than the rate of Christian identification within the general population. A higher proportion of the clergy have university degrees than ever before. Much of the growth in numbers of clergy in the last decade or so has occurred as a result of women entering into ministry roles. There has also been an increase in the proportion of overseas born clergy. The challenge for churches and denominations is developing ministry roles which bridge the gap between the churches and the wider community.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 23, No. 2, Pages 1-7

Commonalities and Differences: The Midi-Narrative of Students in Australia and India

Tuesday, July 1st, 2014

In 2006, a British team studying young people born in 1982 or after (Savage, Collins-Mayo et al. 2006, p.7) adopted the term ‘midi-narrative’. They distinguished ‘midi-narrative’ from ‘meta-narrative’. A meta-narrative, they said, was a story on a grand scale about how the world works. In contrast, they said: “the world view of our young people operates on a more modest scale of the here and now, rather than something beyond. Yet it is not an individualistic, mini-narrative. It is communal on a small scale (me, my friends, and my family): a midi-narrative” (Savage, Collins-Mayo et al. 2006, p.38).

Similarly, in Australia, there is little agreement or clarity on how the world works. The ‘meta-narrative’ of former times has faded. However, there are clearer ideas and more commonality in young people’s discussion about what their own lives and lives of those around them are about. There is a widely accepted ‘midi-narrative’ that most young Australians recognise and own for themselves (Hughes 2007, p.170).

While there are many similarities and some differences between young people in Britain and Australia, one might anticipate that, in other cultures, the ‘midi-narrative’ plays out differently and religious faith operates differently. Research amongst young people in Thailand found that most Thai young people, whether they were Buddhists, Christians or Muslims, thought that religion was important and provided moral principles to help them be good people (Hughes, Suwanbubbha et al. 2008, p.364). These studies indicate that there are strong midinarratives among young people in many cultural contexts.

In my visit to India in October 2012, I had the opportunity to talk with four groups of young people. In exploring the midi-narrative of these young people, my discussions with these students began by asking them to describe what was the ‘good life’: what young people want in life and what makes life worth living. All groups of students affirmed that the heart of a good life was relationships with friends and family. Students also spoke about the qualities of these relationships. A good life was found where there was love and acceptance of each other, where people supported each other. Some students spoke about the importance of communication and trust, respect and understanding.

Most of the girls at the Indian college were Hindus. One was a Christian and another was a Moslem. None of them felt that religion or spirituality made any difference to their understanding of a good life or the sort of society in which they wanted to live. They saw religion as being about tradition, family and culture. In practice, it meant participation in festivals. At that level, they were happy to be involved.

The patterns of primary responses among these students in India were similar to those of students in other parts of the globe. At the heart of a good life are relationships with friends and family and feeling good about life. Religion may be fading in contemporary societies in many parts of the world, but that is occurring in different ways. For some young people it is an individual matter and may be personally rejected or embraced. For other young people, it is part of the heritage which has little impact on the ‘midinarrative’ of contemporary life, but which remains a significant component of identity.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 23, No. 1, Pages 13-16

Church Attendance Rates among Young People: Some Notes

Tuesday, July 1st, 2014

How many young people in Australia attend a church? The question is a simple one. Obtaining an accurate answer is not. The following discussion demonstrates some of the issues in achieving reliable information in research.

NCLS Research suggests that 25 of the attenders in a typical congregation of 125 would be under 15 years of age. Another 15 would be aged between 15 and 29 years (NCLS 2012). This means that on a typical Sunday, approximately 14 per cent of all children under 15 and 8 per cent of young people aged between 15 and 29 years would be in a church.

The Australian population censuses provides very detailed and reliable information about identification with religious groups, but does not provide any information about levels of involvement. Sample surveys, such as the Australian Survey of Social Attitudes, indicate that 27 per cent of those who identify with a denomination attend a church monthly or more often. However, this figure varies greatly from one denomination to another and from one age group to another, and cannot be used to infer how many young people attend a church. When young people do interviews, even over the telephone, there are selection and ‘social desirability’ factors which come into play. To some extent, people will present the best account of themselves in interviews. They may not be lying, but will skew the information to sound good. For example, the person who attends a church for several weeks in a row, then misses a month, will say they attend weekly. They do attend weekly … sometimes.

Surveys of school students indicate that if both parents attend a church monthly or more, their children are more likely to attend. In surveys of young people attending church-associated schools, of those young people who attended church: 52% attended with both parents, 20% attended with just the mother, 6% attend with just the father, and 22% attended without either parent attending frequently. If both parents attended monthly or more often, only 4 per cent of their children said they did not attend as frequently. However, 48 per cent of all young people whose mothers attended a church indicated that they themselves did not attend, and 24 per cent of young people whose fathers attended a church said they themselves did not attend.

More research is needed on who does and does not attend a church among young people, and what forms attendance take. For example, the surveys suggest that many young people attend if they have a particular role such as playing in a band. Such research would be best achieved by asking young people themselves through a random survey. However, the discussion above demonstrates how difficult it can be to achieve a reliable random sample of young people. It could also be achieved by more detailed questions in surveys of adults in which they are asked to report on the frequency of attendance of their children We hope that more reliable and comprehensive information will be available in the future.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 23, No. 1, Pages 7-8

The Missing 1.8 Million

Tuesday, July 1st, 2014

In the September 2012 Pointers, it was recorded that the number of Australians identifying with a Christian denomination had increased from 12.76 million to 13.15 million between 2001 and 2011. December 2012 Pointers noted that during that period, 766,758 migrants had arrived in Australia who identified with a Christian denomination in that same decade. With these migrants, there should be at least 13.5 million Christians in Australia instead of 13.15 million. The figures do not add up: there are some people missing.

There are three reasons why people may be ‘missing’. The first is that they have died. Those who 75 years of age or older in 2001 would be 85 years of age or older in 2011. As shown in Table 1, 587,923 people were missing from this cohort. It is likely that most of these people have died. Indeed, younger cohorts would also include a few people who had died.

A second reason people may be ‘missing’ is that they were overseas when the Census was taken. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in the financial year 2011 to 2012, Australians made more than 8 million short-term overseas trips (ABS 2012c). The average period for these trips was two weeks. This would mean that approximately 309,000 persons were ‘missing’ overseas at the time of the Census. The number of overseas trips made by Australians has increased considerably since 2001 when just 3.4 million trips were made. Thus, the difference between the numbers of Australians overseas on short trips in 2001 and in 2011 is approximately 180,000 people. The Christian portion of this number would 110,000.

The numbers who ticked the ‘no religion’ box on the Census increased from 2.9 million to 4.8 million between 2001 and 2011. Part of this increase was due to the number of births. With many younger people and few older people describing themselves as ‘no religion’, the number of births far exceeded the number of deaths: 792,141 births compared with an estimated 38,000 deaths. Apart from births and immigration and people who had previously not answered the question about religion, the ‘no religion’ numbers increased as a result of people who had previously identified with a Christian denomination or other religious group changing their identification. It is estimated that at least 525,000 people who had identified with a Christian denomination in 2001 ticked the ‘no religion’ box in the 2011 Census.

The major reason for the change in identification is that religion is simply seen as irrelevant to life (Hughes 2012a). For many young people, the issue of identification with a religious organisation does not arise. They live well without reference to it. While older people often feel some attachment to religious labels, even if they rarely, if ever, attend religious services or engage in other religious activities, young people place comparatively little value on that heritage. Finding ways of engaging young people with the Christian faith is a major challenge for Christian organisations.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 23, No. 1, Pages 1-4

Immigrant Ministers of Religion

Tuesday, June 24th, 2014

Among the recent immigrants to Australia are 1,362 classified as ministers of religion. Of these, 1,242 were Christian, 22 were Buddhist, 32 were Hindu, 11 were Muslims, 25 were Jews, 19 were of other religions, and 11 described themselves as having no religion or as not stating their religion (possibly secular celebrants). It has become common in a number of denominations to seek ministers of religion or priests from overseas in order to supplement the dwindling number of clergy available in Australia.

The total number of people whose occupation was described as minister or priest counted by the 2011 Census was 15,700. The 1,362 recent immigrants constitute a significant addition to religious personnel in Australia, constituting 8 per cent of all ministers and priests. On the one hand, these immigrant clergy can bring a richness to these situations from their very different experiences in other places. On the other hand, there are many anecdotal accounts of miscommunication, sometimes due to accent, sometimes due to confusion of culture, and sometimes due to the minister’s lack of familiarity with English.

The Catholic Diocese Maitland-Newcastle has conducted an initial review of its Overseas Priest program. This review involved interviews with a number of priests and a cross-sectional survey of the perceptions and experiences of parishioners. Most of the overseas priests in this Diocese had come from India.

Overseas priests themselves were struck by some of the differences from their home dioceses, particularly the small congregations and the very few young people present. On the other hand, they noted that they had benefited from engaging with priests from a different culture. They had also appreciated the level of professionalism learnt and the trust placed in them by the other priests and the parishioners (Report, p.10).

The team also felt that the whole community, through theological reflection, dialogue and discernment, should be involved in discussing the expected long-term positive and negative consequences of dependence on overseas priests. Such reflection and discussion should address the underlying problems including the shortage of priests and declining Mass attendance (p.23).

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 22, No. 4, Pages 8-10

The Impact of Recent Immigration on Religious Groups in Australia

Tuesday, June 24th, 2014

Since World War II, immigration has played a huge role in the development of religious faith in Australia. That role has been most evident in the place that many of the world’s religions now have in Australia. Since 1971, the number of Australians associated with a religion other than Christianity has risen from just 0.1 million to 1.5 million. However, many millions of the immigrants have been Christian and some denominations would hardly exist today without the enormous influx of members that immigration has brought. The 2011 Census shows that the story of immigration and its impact on the religious life of Australia is a continuing one.

Analysis shows that the proportion of immigrants in each denomination is closely associated with the rate of growth of the denomination (see Hughes 2012). The religious groups which grew most rapidly over the past 10 years have been those groups with the highest proportion of immigrants. Immigration is the major source of growth in most religious groups, both Christian and others. There is only one exception to this: the growth in the numbers describing themselves as ‘no religion’. Most of the growth in this group is occurring among Australians born of Australian parents.

Most of the remaining growth in the population is the result of more births than deaths occurring in Australia. Hence, it would appear that no Christian denomination is keeping up with normal population growth among the Australian-born population. While recent immigration has made a huge difference to many of the other religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam, these other religions have also been growing rapidly through births within Australia. Many immigrant families have children soon after they arrive. Hence, migrants not only boost numbers from overseas but also have an impact on the numbers of children in Australian communities. It is interesting to note that between 2001 and 2011, 23,000 more women than men migrated to Australia.

Between 2001 and 2011, immigrants arrived in Australia from all over the world. The Census counted more than 250 countries as their places of birth. However, just four countries provided 43 per cent of Australia’s migrants between 2001 and 2011: India, England, China, and New Zealand. An additional two countries, South Africa and the Philippines, brought that total to more than 50 per cent of all immigrants. Immigrants from Sri Lanka, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan are highlighted in the media because of the issue of ‘boat people’. Yet these people are a very small part of the flow of recent immigrants. Together they constitute just 5 per cent of the immigrants who came to Australia between 2001 and 2011.

Assumptions are often made about the religion of immigrants based on the major religions in the country of birth. For example, since 85 per cent of all Indians are Hindu, one might expect most Indian immigrants to be Hindu. However, only 54 per cent of Indians who have migrated to Australia recently have been Hindu.

Churches need to ensure that they are equipped and ready to welcome immigrants. As the immigrant patterns change, so there is a need to adjust languages and other facilities to cater for the new groups at both denominational and local level.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 22, No. 4, Pages 1-8

Religion Around Australia: Changing Populations

Tuesday, June 24th, 2014

In regards to religious identification, different geographical areas throughout Australia have always revealed different pictures, particularly when one compares the capital cities to non-urban areas. States and Territories differ. Inner city areas can be different from the suburbs. Urban areas are different from rural areas. Different geographical areas have their own histories and traditions, and different denominations are stronger in some areas than in others.

Each decade sees Australia increasingly urbanised. Between 2006 and 2011, the population of the capital cities grew by 9.2 per cent. While populations in some farming areas are declining, overall, the population outside the capital cities also grew, albeit at a slower rate: 6.7 per cent, partly due to the mining boom. Of those people living outside the capital cities, two-thirds (65.6%) identify with a Christian denomination. This compares with just 58.8 per cent of the population in the capital cities.

Between 2006 and 2011, 316,000 people immigrated to Victoria from overseas. By far the largest group were 62,300 Indians contributing to 97 per cent growth in the Hindu community and an even larger growth in the Sikh community. Nearly 44,000 arrived from China and Hong Kong, 24,500 from the United Kingdom, 21,000 from New Zealand, 14,000 from Sri Lanka, 12,300 from Malaysia, and 11,400 from the Philippines. 341,000 people immigrated to New South Wales from overseas in the five years from 2006 to 2011. The largest groups were Chinese (51,000), followed by Indians (43,000), United Kingdom (33,000), New Zealanders (20,000), Philippinos (14,000) and Koreans (12,000).

Tasmania had the slowest growth rate of all States: 3.8 per cent. It received few migrants from outside Australia compared with other States: just 10,400 between 2006 and 2011. There were similar numbers from China and from the UK (1,300 from each) and 800 from India. With a slow growing population, it is hard for the Christian community to grow. Indeed, it was the only State in which the numbers identifying with a Christian denomination actually fell (by 4 per cent).

Overall, the historical patterns of religious identity throughout the states and cities of Australia are slowly changing as new immigrants add to the picture. A big challenge for churches and denominations is how to minister in an ever-changing demographic and religious environment. The Census data provides an important tool for local churches as they seek to understand their community and ministry within their local context.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 22, No. 3, Pages 6-8

The Persistence of Religion: What the Census Tells Us

Tuesday, June 24th, 2014

When the 2011 Australian Census figures were first released on 21st June 2012, the percentage of Australians ticking the ‘no religion’ box made headlines. Newsreporters noted how Australia had become more secular. On talk-back radio, people either celebrated or lamented the increased numbers of atheists in Australia. However, the real story of the Census is somewhat different: it is a story of the persistence of religion. Between 1971 and 2011, the population of Australia has grown from around 13 million to more than 21 million people. At the same time, the number of Christians identifying with a Christian denomination has grown from 11 to 13 million.

The newspapers reported that the proportion of people describing themselves as having ‘no religion’ had increased to its highest level in recent Australian history. As a proportion of the population, between 2006 and 2011, they grew from 18.7 per cent to 22.3 per cent of the population. However, most of that increase was not due to people ‘dropping out’ of the Christian faith. Much of the increase was due to people who had previously not responded to the question ticking the ‘no religion’ box.

Buddhism remains the largest of the other religions in Australia with a total of 529,000 people. Islam is the next largest with 476,000. Hinduism is the third largest other religion in Australia and has been the fastest growing religion over the last decade. In ten years, the numbers of Hindus has increased by almost 200 per cent. With around 276,000 Hindus in Australia, they are now considerably larger than the Pentecostals! Sikhs were quite a small group in the population in 2001, with just 17,000. In 2011, more than 70,000 identified themselves as Sikhs, making them more numerous than those identifying with The Salvation Army.

There are many reasons why people tick the ‘no religion’ box. We can investigate these by looking at other surveys. At the heart of it, people saying they have ‘no religion’ are people who do not wish to identify with a particular religious group or denomination. It does not mean that these people are ‘atheists’ or that they are ‘secular’.

There is a growing proportion of Australians who describe themselves as having ‘no religion’, who within the next five years are likely to make up about one-quarter of the population.However, the numbers of people describing themselves as having ‘no religion’ does not draw a picture of atheism or secularity, but rather the rejection of religious identification and, in many cases, arises out of rejection of religious institutions.Other religions continue to grow, largely because of immigration and because many recent immigrants are now having their families here.The imminent demise of religion has been very much exaggerated.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 22, No. 3, Pages 1-5


The Church and Family Life in Australia

Tuesday, May 27th, 2014

The following paper was delivered by Stephen Reid at the 6th International Lausanne Researchers Conference in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in April 2011. Whilst the paper looked at family life in the Australian context, comparisons to other countries was possible through analysis of data from the International Social Survey Programme (ISSP) and the World Values Surveys (WVS).

Australia has seen significant changes in family life over the last few decades. The composition of family households is changing steadily, as are many of the issues facing families. In Australia in 2006, family households made up 71.7 per cent of the 7.1 million households, down from 73 per cent ten years earlier. As the following table shows, the proportion of households comprising of couples with children continued to decline from 36.6 per cent in 1996, to 34.3 per cent in 2001, and then down to 32.8 per cent in 2006. By contrast, lone person households rose from 22.8 per cent to 24.4 per cent during that same period.

In Australia, while church attenders generally have more conservative attitudes on certain issues than those who don’t attend, church attenders vary considerably in their attitudes. There can also be huge differences in the attitudes of people within denominations, particularly the larger denominations, such as Catholic or Anglican. In society, the ideals of family life, marriage and relationships, and the reality of life can be quite different. There are some indicators showing that the basic structures of community life in Australia are not always functioning well.

Another indicator that the basic units of social life are often not experienced as satisfactory is the issue of loneliness. For many people, living alone is a lifestyle choice. But for many others living by themselves means loneliness. Many people who live alone would prefer to spend less time alone. In a 2006 time use survey conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 37 per cent of 25-44 year olds living alone said they would prefer less time by themselves. For those aged 65 or older living alone, one-quarter said they would prefer less time alone.

Certainly the church has made a significant contribution to family life in a number of ways, including:

  • family-friendly focus of events and worship,
  • children-oriented ministries,
  • marriage seen as a sacrament, binding for life,
  • lower rates of divorce among attenders,
  • provision of rites of passages

While churches may have contributed to lower rates of divorce, there has been a cost. People who are separated or divorced often feel their situation is not acceptable to a church and it is common for people to cease attending church at the time of separation.

In the past parents have looked towards the church in assisting them to instil values and beliefs in their children. Perhaps more than ever the church has an important role in promoting values. The competing demands placed upon families today are very different from what they were just a few decades ago. Social networking, global mass media, work/family balance, and technology have all contributed to the changing face of what is family. Change will continue. Families come in all shapes and sizes – even within the church.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 21, No. 2, Pages 9-11