September 25, 2017

West Aussies: Leading the Way in Ditching the Church Wedding

Well Western Australia may have a tanking economy due in no small part to the bust in the energy resources sector, but we’re leading the way when it comes to non-religion, especially when it comes to marriage.

According to the latest stats, West Aussies are ditching priests and pastors at a rate of knots when it comes to tying the knot, and we’re ahead of the national curve.  And  our strong, entrenched secular framework is a key component

An article in The West Australian newspaper today confirms what many of us involved in ministry in the west of Oz have known for some time; that the Indian Ocean side of the continent is the most secular place in the country.  A higher than average proportion in WA ticked the “no religion” box in the last census.

You can read the full article here.

You kinda get that vibe when you travel from WA to places like New South Wales and Victoria.  Just the volume of churches in those places, and the general size of them.  Sure the populations are bigger too, but it feels like the dots in WA on the map are further apart and smaller, making it a much lonelier experience for those of faith.

Mind you, it’s not up there with my French friend Daniel, who was the sole Christian in his high school of, wait for it, four thousand students.  Would you dare to be that Daniel? You’d expect him to be bitter, hostile and cramped for style. He’s joyous, open hearted and lives the Christian life large.  Go figure!

Back to the stats.   The number of church weddings in WA fell from more than 4400 at the start of the century to 2700 in 2015, the lowest number on record.

In 2017, some 15,500 marriages were solemnised in WA, with more than 79 per cent being performed by civil celebrants.  It’s clear that the age of the church wedding is over, as gardens, back yards and historical buildings take over in popularity.

One of the conclusions to that is that the evangelistic strategy of a religious celebrant’s licence in order to share the gospel with non-Christian couples during pre-marriage prep/counselling, is most likely a waste of time.  Whatever you think about it as a strategy in the past, it is certainly not a strategy for the future.

Indeed at the last wedding I attended the civil celebrant had her own secular sermon in which she longed for the eschatological reality of same sex marriage when she will be able to stand up the front and pronounce the rites at such weddings.  There’s a new good news story out there for marriage celebrants to promulgate.

Here are some other stats from the article:

In 2000 there were 53,251 marriages performed across the country by a religious ministers. By 2015 this had fallen to 28,419.

Almost 75 per cent of marriages were conducted by celebrants rather than ministers in 2015. At the turn of the century the proportion was 53 per cent.

Now the article isn’t just quoting stats, but making the point that the argument from religion about marriage won’t cut it, so those campaigning to keep the definition of marriage as it is are probably only preaching to the choir on this one.

But here’s the really mind-blowing stat.  40 per cent, yep, four in every ten, children in WA is born out of wedlock, a full 9 per cent higher than the national average.

Let me make a couple of observations about that incredibly high figure.  First it gives truth to the idea that children out of wedlock is tracking with secularism.  Granted that it’s not completely causal, but if the national trend towards secularism is lower than the WA trend, it makes sense that the national trend away from marriage in other parts of the country are playing catch up with WA.

And second, it means it’s increasingly harder to make the case for the ‘No” vote based on what’s good for children, given that four in ten West Aussies make no connection between marriage and having offspring.

Actually that last bit’s not quite true.  I have a friend who would love to be married to her (kind, lovely, gentle) partner, and they have two children, but he does not want to get married. So among those forty percent there are a few dissenters, with more than few couples split on the idea of marrying.  Theirs would make interesting stories, would they not?

Mind you, it’s not totally bad that children born out of wedlock are known to have been so.  My mum was conceived out of wedlock in a strict religious setting in Northern Ireland, and in order to “sort that out” she was part of what I would call an alternate “Stolen Generation”, hidden away, fostered out, lied to, lied about.  Something about the gospel didn’t quite make it through the doors of the church her family attended.

At 73 she still deals with the emotional consequences of those secretive, rushed decisions and, as a result, has a markedly strong affinity with the Stolen Generation of the Australian Aboriginal population.  She finds it hard to watch and hear their stories on TV and in film, as it brings her right back to her own broken childhood.

None of this is to say that there is no long-term difference between children born into a marriage and those born into de-facto relationships. But perhaps we need to wait for about twenty years to find out exactly how or indeed, if.

Hence it’s initially hard to argue for marriage for the sake of children in a culture in which loving de-facto couples raise their kids openly and well.  And as an extension it becomes harder to argue for heterosexual marriage as the best scenario for children, because a central building block – a covenant marriage – has already been removed as integral.  Kinda tells you the argument for the traditional understanding of marriage has been lost long before the current brouhaha.

Indeed that point is made by Liberal Senator Dean Smith who as an advocate for same sex marriage, has been pushing for a conscience vote in Parliament.  He says this:

“The data is not to be feared. Instead it highlights that couples are choosing a less strictly religious view which has pro-creation at its core, to one better characterised as a ‘couple-centred’ means of achieving personal growth, emotional intimacy with or without children.”

I’d be intrigued what he means by “personal growth” because it makes marriage sound like a decision to run a marathon or go on an overseas study holiday, or some other bucket list item.

Smith’s understanding of marriage is, in my view, woefully inadequate, and centres on personal growth, not personal sacrifice, which is the centre of the biblical understanding of marriage.

But what else would I expect? His comment probably echoes what most secular West Aussies, indeed Westerners, think about marriage; that it’s simply the next stepping stone towards “the personal satisfied self”.  And that probably goes for a whole bunch of us married in churches too.

And if the personal satisfied self is the ultimate goal, and if marriage is a means to that ultimate goal, then who is to stop anyone marrying anyone at any time, or indeed divorcing anyone at any time in order to remarry in order to find true happiness or a “soul mate”.  If the goal is personal growth – go for it I say!

It’s Smith’s last comment that I take umbrage with.  While he is correct in saying that the religious argument for marriage probably has no traction any longer (a reality in which he rejoices), he is completely wrong that the campaign to retain the current definition of marriage has had to ” broaden to include more spurious arguments about free speech, sex education and the winding back of anti-discrimination laws.”

Secondary arguments they may be.  But spurious they are not.  I don’t know Dean Smith, but I lament at the lack of intellectual, historical and socio-political curiosity in our politicians today when I read a statement such as that.

Smith simply can’t see how things join up, are inter-connected, or have long philosophical fingers.  And in some senses he’s merely a product of, and a reflection of, the secular frame in which he swims.

We get the politicians not only that we deserve, but that reflect us, and Smith displays us back to us with all of the verisimilitude of a highly polished mirror.

I would have expected more nuance and intellectual rigour from a conservative politician, but then again Smith most likely reflects the values of many West Australians; deeply pragmatic, deeply individualistic, and having a strong sense of what’s right and what’s wrong without anything to attach it to.

The upside is that increasingly Christian marriages have an even greater opportunity to show deep difference in what we believe about and how we practice marriage. Give it time, the differences will show.

But they’ll only show if we don’t buy into Smith’s “personal growth” agenda for marriage. Because if we buy into that, when it comes time for our children getting married or seeking sexual partners, they’ll simply confirm and further the trends we already see in front of us.






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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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