Two Australian denominations face big challenges

Change and decay in all around I see,
Oh thou that changest not abide with me!

Two Australian denominations have been given reports that reveal decay and a need for change that questions the viability of their current structures.

The Anglican Church is painfully aware that its network of dioceses (regions) is not viable following its General Synod (national church parliament) last week, while a recent Uniting Church census also underscores decline.

“With 90 per cent of Australia’s population now living within 100km of the coastline and that trend continuing to strengthen, it presents enormous challenges for Australia’s inland dioceses,” says the Viability and Structures Task Force report paper for the Anglican General Synod.

For example, the Murray Diocese in South Australia has 1300 people in church attendance; Bunbury in Western Australia has 1600; and the Northern Territory and  North West Australia, which did not report their figures, probably have considerably fewer. To support a Bishop and accompanying structure with such a small base of attendance is very difficult and various scenarios to change boundaries have been suggested.

Only four dioceses reported growth, and the report commented that it could be “attributed to just one or two parishes”—on the grounds, presumably, that they were so small in numbers.

Nine dioceses face significant financial problems—in particular Bathurst, which owes the Commonwealth Bank $37 million following a disastrous foray into establishing new schools.

Bishop Andrew Curnow of Bendigo told the synod that the report was a mirror to look honestly at the church, though not in despair, the Melbourne Anglican reported. “We do not need a great big pot of money,” he said. “We can turn this Church around.”

The General Synod asked the their standing committee to respond to the viability report. This might mean holding a special synod meeting.

A 40 per cent decline in the numbers at church since 1991, and a weekly Sunday attendance of less than 100,000 are key findings for the Uniting Church census released earlier this year. Only 12,500 children in Australia attend a Uniting Church service weekly.

The median worship service attendance per congregation is 35 people. This means that half the congregations have fewer than 35 attending and half have larger numbers. Of the 35 people at the median, 3 would be children.

The number of Uniting Church congregations (local churches) has declined by 31 per cent since 1990. Only 20 per cent of congregations run youth groups, but encouragingly 40 per cent run Sunday schools.

The Uniting Church census failed to capture Aboriginal and Islander churches and migrant churches, and many of these churches are growing, according to Lu Senituli, a member of the QLD Synod (Church Parliament) who commented in Journey, the UCA Queensland paper.

Because the Anglican and Uniting churches are broad churches, with liberal and more evangelical parts, the question of whether theology influences attendance and growth lies in the background of the reports.

In the Anglican Church, the presence of the evangelical diocese of Sydney makes things clear. Unlike other dioceses, it is the only one with better than expected attendance, according to the report’s criteria based on Census data.

In Sydney, 68,000 Anglicans are in church each Sunday. In Melbourne 21,000 Anglicans are in church on Sunday. It was pointed out at General Synod, Eternity understands, that the growing churches were evangelical such as City on a Hill in Melbourne, and the Trinity group of churches in Adelaide.

90 per cent of Uniting Church people under 50 years of age are evangelicals according to Rod James, Adelaide leader of the Assembly of Confessing Congregations (ACC) in the Uniting Church. He reports this figure in the latest edition of ACCatalyst, basing it on the number of conservative or evangelical groups in the UCA. One of the significant ones is the EL250 group, which represents largish suburban churches especially in South Australia and Queensland.

2014 Anglican General Synod papers here. Look for book 8.

Uniting Church National Update June 2014 here. Scroll down to find census PDF.