Chaplain's Reflection: sharing faith

Chaplain Erin Tuineau

Chaplain Erin Tuineau

I am a big fan of the Australian social researcher and commentator Hugh Mackay, and so it is no surprise that I recently bought his book Beyond Belief: How we find meaning with or without religion.

In this book, he points out that in the 2016 Census 52 per cent of Australians identified as being Christian, but only 8 per cent of them attend church weekly. And there is also the interesting situation where enrolments in faith-based schools have risen over recent years, but church attendance has steadily declined over the last 50 years. Mackay also reveals that, while many Australians are hostile towards institutionalised religion, they often have a warm regard for individual believers.

When taking all of the above into consideration, it seems that people are more ambivalent about 'religion' in our society, or Christianity in particular, than is sometimes thought. While Christianity would not be considered popular in Australia, at least in light of church attendance figures alone, there is something about it that still appeals to a number of people.

Obviously, the church as an institution has lost the trust of many people, particularly because of the number of child sexual abuse crimes that have been perpetrated by priests; however it has been possible for many individuals to see beyond this dark past and still hold on to the goodness that Christianity has to offer. I think in reality many of us are probably both attracted to and repelled by the church. I know I certainly have been over my lifetime.

I was raised by Anglican parents and so, as a child, I went to Sunday school but, at the age of 12, my mum gave me the choice to either keep going to church or not. I chose not to go, although I can't now remember why this was the case. Nevertheless, from the age of 12 to 22, I did not attend church services – well, not on any regular basis. I was still confirmed at the age of 14 because my relationship with God remained real and meaningful to me. But I simply did not 'get' church. I figured I could do just fine without being a part of a faith community. In hindsight, I can see that I was probably lucky that I could still talk about my faith with my parents, and two very close friends from school who were both Christian.

The funny thing was that, even though I did not go to church, I still had a close connection with it through my parents. In my early 20s, I was asked to be one of the youth group leaders. It was at this point I realised that I might need to start attending church services again. I found this to be a challenge at first, as I was not quite sure where I fitted in. I had become so used to my faith being a relatively private part of my life, and was, therefore, not used to the experience of sharing it with others, let alone strangers. But as the months went past and then the years, church became a great source of nourishment for my faith journey. For the first time ever, church made sense to me.

At this point it is worth highlighting that the word 'religion' actually derives from the Latin word 'religio' which means 'to bind'. Many have understood this Latin word to refer to the way that individuals are 'bound' together by their common belief in and desire for God. Our being 'bound' together with others in a faith community is a powerful thing. There really is nothing quite like praying, singing hymns, making sense of who God is in the Scriptures, and sharing Holy Communion with others. It allows the deepest part of who we are to be expressed.

While being bound to a community in such a profound way is rather wonderful, it is also a little scary. I say this because it requires us to let go of our other desire to be autonomous and 'set apart' from others, which our individualistic culture encourages us to strive for constantly. I have even heard some people say that when you are part of a church community you no longer have a 'private life'. This is because you find yourself amongst people who want to know how you are 'really' going, and whom you want to share your life with. This can take a bit of getting used to but is also very liberating as well. Being embedded in a community of faith also has this way of bringing out our vulnerable side, and that can be a  daunting, too, as most people have got used to building protective barriers between themselves and others from a young age.

In light of the above, it may seem that we have to give up a number of things that we have thought were good for us when we enter into a 'religious' community, and I do wonder if that is why so many Australians 'skirt' around the edges of Christianity and the church (which I know did for over a decade). Of course, some individuals stop going to church because they have been deeply hurt by individuals in it, and this is a serious problem that must not be ignored. My thoughts, then, are probably more focused on those who have not experienced the latter.

I will end by saying that I know the word 'religion' has lost its original Latin meaning in our modern times, but my hope is that people will rediscover it and not be so resistant to exploring how religion can enrich their lives.

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