Reply to Scott Cowdell, Feast of the Assumption, 15 August, 2013
Dr Muriel Porter
A summary report of Dr Porter's address
Dr Muriel Porter, in her presentation at the dinner, said operating out of an incarnational theological perspective alone could not work any longer, simply because people were not coming anywhere near the Church to hear its message, and were probably suspicious of it anyway.
She said Anglo-Catholics needed to identify what was the Good News and how they could put it into a "preachable, teachable, communicable theology of salvation — and how and where do we go about it".
Nineteenth century Anglo-Catholics "went out into the hard places in cities in particular, where more respectable clergy and congregations preferred not to go".
"We all know the stories of the Anglo-Catholic fathers working in the London slums, and the first Anglican religious sisters in this city working with the prostitutes and destitute people in the slums of inner Melbourne," Dr Porter said. "They were there, with them, acting out their faith.
"And in the more respectable suburbs, Anglo-Catholics were salt and light as they encountered people in their suburban lives. In particular, we have seen the rites of passage as a place where we can spread the light of the Gospel in ways that fit our incarnational pattern. Marriage, baptism, funerals — they have been important times for us to proclaim the message of the God of love in ways not as confrontational as those of some other Christian traditions.
"But fewer and fewer people are coming to the church for marriage, to have their children baptized, or even to be buried. The big bluestone parishes of the upper middle-class suburbs are still seeing a reasonable number of these events, but even there the numbers are dropping dramatically. So those important opportunities are disappearing very quickly. Only 30 per cent of marriages now across the board involve churches and/or clergy, and that will only diminish further.
"The reality is that we are really now in a post-Christian age in this country. The mainstream media knows this — that's why they take no notice of us anymore unless it is about sexual abuse. Incidentally, the sexual abuse crisis has caused us — all the churches — enormous damage. After all, the churches have taught a harsh moral code, and yet, look at what has happened. Many people now have absolutely no contact with the Church at all, and given what they see with the sexual abuse crisis, they have some justification in dismissing us as hypocrites. So operating out of an incarnational theological perspective alone cannot work any longer, simply because people are not coming anywhere near us to hear our message, and are probably suspicious of it anyway."
Dr Porter said in the 2011 Census, 56% of Melbourne respondents said they were Christian but only 11 per cent of Melbourne's population claimed to be Anglican.
"But very few of those who put 'C of E' on the census form ever have anything to do with the church," she said. "Our average weekly attendance across the city is probably about 20,000. Sixty-six per cent of attending Anglicans are 50 and above, with 33 per cent of those more than 70. That means that lots of people, and particularly younger people, are completely untouched by the Gospel. So we really do have a mission field on our doorstep — a radically different situation to what most of us grew up with. It has all happened quite quickly and taken us by surprise.
"There is a level of mild panic around. Our Evangelical friends want to get more 'bums on seats' because they operate primarily out of a theology of rescue. They believe, quite simply, that if people are not 'saved' according to a specific formula, then they are destined for hell... Thus they need to get people into the church to be saved and to be discipled. This is a powerful impetus for evangelism, and is the reason I believe why they are so successful — because they have a real imperative to do outreach, and they are quite clear about their message. Simply — you must be saved; come to us and we'll show you how. Mind you, the caricature of this theology is what has turned many people from the church!
"Now we Anglo-Catholics don't have that same imperative. Our theology of salvation is more nuanced, more holistic, more universal, less formulaic and prescriptive. But by its very nature, that can make it rather too fuzzy. What exactly is our message? How could we frame it in clear, simple, terms? What do we have to sell? How can we communicate the Gospel message — preaching the coming of the kingdom of God — in ways that make sense, and are attractive, to 21st century secular Melburnians?
"Where do we proclaim our message? Rites of passage are no longer frequent enough to make them our primary place. What of our worship? We Anglo-Catholics set great store by our worship, and we are happy to welcome people as fellow travellers. We cherish belonging ahead of believing. We don't require that people who come to us become fervent disciples. But we have to admit that our worship is mainly for the cognoscenti. It is hard for seekers to enter. Evangelicals who have become Anglo-Catholics point out that evangelical worship is easy to enter. No prior knowledge is required. How can we overcome the problems our worship presents without damaging the great treasure we have?"
Dr Porter said Anglo-Catholics had to work harder at making worship accessible and at "grafting in" seekers and newcomers with good Catholic introductory programs.
She said she did not live out her baptismal life because she was frightened of an angry God but because she wanted to be at one with the living God.
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.