Australia’s Sunday Suburban Secularisation

In our society, we used to refer to Sunday as the “day of rest”. This was taken for granted week-by-week in the 1950s. For the generation of my parents, the generation of those now twenty or thirty years senior to me (I was born in 1951), that was when Sunday was still the day of ‘going to church’. This didn’t mean that everyone went to church, but as the day for going to church it was still viewed as the day of rest, and respected as such by most people. Most people included my dad who never went but insisted I go to Sunday School even when I told him I didn’t want to go. Most of my school friends and neighbours, especially those who were not Catholics, went to Sunday School. The Catholics, as families, went off to Mass and during the week the Catholic children our age went to the local Catholic Parish school. But at my State School it seemed that Sunday School – whether Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist or Congregational – was what we school-children did on Sundays, usually Sunday mornings.

By the mid-1960s, many of those who went with me to Sunday School in the 50s, had started to avoid church and even if they did the “right thing” and got confirmed, as many in my cohort did, they didn’t then stick around to become church members or regular churchgoers. Many who went with me to the local Anglican parish church and were confirmed in the 1960s, as I was later to discover, didn’t actually seem to believe what we said we believed in the liturgy when the Archbishop placed his hands upon our youthful heads. Those were the years that the brave ones began to say they didn’t believe all that religious stuff, and they were also the ones to ask difficult questions in the Religious Instruction classes that we still had to endure in State High Schools in the 1960s.

RI classes were a real trial, but as a consequence of becoming confirmed, I decided that I should join the lunch-time gathering of the Inter-School Christian Fellowship.

But it took some time for the true character of this ‘spiritual’ state of affairs to become evident to me and even to this day, I suspect, there were ‘spiritual’ changes in the lives of my fellow confirmation candidates that simply were not talked about.  My peers who had been confirmed developed a view of themselves in an inexorable drift away from believing what confirmation class had taught us we were doing by giving an affirmative answer in the confirmation service. (John Stott Your Confirmation Hodder 1958).

I may be wrong but I suspect that many have grown so used to a kind of secularised urban maturity, that they may not even remember what they were affirming in the confirmation service. And if so would it be surprising that they have simply become oblivious to the changes that were taking place in their own hearts. Some did notice, and some were embarrassed.

Some teachers seem to have been aware of these changes among students, for instance when I became ISCF leader in my Matriculation year. One teacher told me some years later that he noticed it and interpreted it kindly in terms my “getting religion”. But from his comment, many years later at an open day, I got the distinct impression that he thought it was merely the onset of an adolescent complex, an adjustment to an increased hormonal activity.

But then how would a young person respond when, having taken seriously the public affirmation of his or her baptismal vows at a service of “confirmation”, the confirmed candidate then became increasingly suspicious that that confirmation for many, if not most, of his fellow candidates, signalled the beginning of the end of their involvement with the church? Was it really the last stop before they drifted away altogether from any public allegiance to Jesus Christ? That is what it seemed to be. And if so, what did that imply about the entire confirmation process itself? How was the young Christian to interpret the significance of a public affirmation of faith in Jesus Christ in a church service that as the year’s passed seemed to mark the onset of a spiritual parting of the ways from many peers?

Now I am aware that my discussion has shifted somewhat. I started off this blog with a discussion of Sundays in the 1950s, and that brings us to the stark contrast to how Sundays are now lived in these early decades of the 21st century. When Sunday was so closely associated with the Christian way of life, and a “day of rest” at the end and beginning of the working week made sense in terms of a Christian way of life and Christian world-view.

What are we to conclude about that “confirmation” in the 1960s? The problem was that the sustained effort to retain the twenty or so confirmed candidates over a period of 2 or 3 years could not stop the drift away as many no longer saw any need to join in public worship. Of course, we cannot discern a general trend merely from my sketchy remembrances of what was and was not done with the youth of the parish after they were confirmed. But questions are raised and we have to  conclude that that particular parish, like many other parish churches and congregations in other denominations, has simply had to learn to live with the emergent lack of belief among those baptised (or ‘Christened’) and confirmed, So has the church then become the social source that has unintentionally produced a “been there, done that” sceptical spirituality from its former Sunday School students? The agnosticism of young adults of my generation was well and truly on the march, and our retrospective judgement is that the church in its variant denominational manifestations was simply unable to halt the declension from any profession of Christian faith.

To return to the question of Sundays: these days, Sundays seem even busier than Monday to Saturday as people rush here and there to find ‘rest’ and ‘recreation’. And this is especially so for young men and women who take advantage of what is thrown up to them in sporting opportunities. Many have chosen, and many more are in the process of chosing, sporting careers for themselves, playing their ‘fave’ sports to get their weekly pay packet. At first it may only augment their pay from their ‘other’ work, but for some it becomes a full time, even life-time, engagement. And in some sports the lure is indeed pure lucre.

That’s just one of the aspects of our life by which we say things have become ‘more secular’. Back in the 1960s, Sunday Television Sporting programmes (World of Sport) were broadcast only after midday. Now we are but ten days away from what one Murdoch tabloid robotically refers to as the ‘historic’ first AFL game to be played on Good Friday. These days Sunday morning television will only stop on Sunday morning for half an hour for the BBC Songs of Praise which still seems to hold its ABC rating. But my elderly friends, having experienced the drift for so long, anticipate its demise. They say it won’t be showing at that time slot in a decade’s time. They may be right, but the judgement itself – of the seemingly inexorable commercialised encroachment upon Sundays, as it is upon everything else Monday to Saturday – is something to which we should carefully listen.

I have three ‘hats’ at the local aged-care facility, what I prefer to call a village. For almost three years now I have convened a group of residents who have joined together to read the bible and pray together for themselves, their little community, and the world in which we live. As well, for a full decade I have shown films, first at Coorabin until it was closed in the face of much community and resident anguish, and then at the supervening for-profit facility. I have also been called upon to help with the community library service, first via the mobile library and more recently in a revamped supply delivered to the 4 year-old aged care residence. When Coorabin was so peremptorily closed, in my volunteering I took on what could be called a ‘pastoral care’ role as well, and so took the opportunity to convene the monthly Sunday morning bible reading and prayer ‘litany’.

When I talk with others about what I do at this aged-care residence, it is usual for discussion to consider films and the library. I am rarely put on the spot about why I continue in the first Sunday of the month to join together with a group of residents in reading the bible and praying together for their community. It would please me if that happened. And yet, I still have to think and pray about what I am doing. It is not just something I do today because I did it last month. It is not merely a formality, and it is not motivated by a desire to keep a 1950s version of Sunday morning alive for those who hitherto have been used to ‘church going’. As with the films and as with the library, it is important to be open and public about what we are doing when we  gather together to read the bible and to pray. In this ‘secularised’ culture, society, mindset, we Christian bible readers and pray-ers need to speak out clearly about what we are doing. We do what Christians have been encouraged to do wherever they are and whatever their circumstances may be.

So to close here is my attempt to formulate why we convene as a monthly gathering to read the Bible and to pray. We formulate this in the face of an increasing ‘social secularisation’, or at least the increasing evidence that the primary forces that shape our way of life on Sunday as much as Monday-to-Saturday are those of an individualistic, mechanistic and utilitarian ‘spirituality’.

We join together in reading the bible and praying together as disciples of Jesus Christ, God’s only son, Mary’s son, the one who redeems us and brings us to God. We join knowing we live today late in the human journey and we are very much aware of our needs, and the needs of those around us. And here we are , even as we live in these senior days of our life that God has bequeathed to us, closer each day to entering our rest and God’s kingdom, closer today than it has ever been before. But we believe Jesus has come and met us through His Spirit. And so, we meet together to pray that He continue to walk with us, just as He has promised, as He continues His rules over all things. And we meet to acknowledge this rule over all things in our life – including the all crazy things that are going on in our world – events far away and those closer to home, including us here in our retirement home with all that happens to us here, now, at this stage of our lives. Since all the things are under His watch, we can rely on Him all our days, since everything will find its completion when God decides it is time for His rest, His sabbath, the very good culmination that He has been intending for His work ever since the beginning. And so we meet in response to His persistent invitation which comes to us again and again.


4 thoughts on “Australia’s Sunday Suburban Secularisation

  1. Allan Carter says:

    There is a song from a musical (I forget which) where the first line is ‘Sunday, sweet Sunday, with nothing to do.’ How true this used to be because it was supposed to be a day of rest. The Sunday lie-in was traditional. Hardy souls went off to 6.00 Mass, then returned home to bed suitably glowing with the presence of the Paraclete. Then there was Sunday brunch and later the ‘Sunday Drive’. Teenagers went to church, not out of any holy intent, but because the Youth Group provided opportunities for shenanigans because parents thought that their off-spring were being versed in Christian values when in fact it was the Seven Deadly Sins. Nowadays it is a time for shopping, going to the movies or indulging in viewing sporting contests. Have we lost something in Sunday becoming little different from the other six days? I think we have as reflection, ,silence, contemplation and the gentle communication with others are no longer part of the Sunday experience. We all need a new Sabbatical!

    • Thanks Allan, as always you keep this blog fresh with your humour. My Sunday song favourite is not the one that the Idler’s Five sang at “Coffee Club” one Sunday night after Youth Service at St Edward’s South Blackburn in the late 1960s. When I suggested to the Five that they might sing us some Gospel – they complied with “Never on Sunday!” – and I don’t think many there really understood what was going on. My favourite Sunday song is Mahalia Jackson “Come Sunday” – it’s actually Christianly apocalyptic about the Sabbath when, according to the earliest chapters of Genesis and the Apocalypse of John, that it will all come together not with the final siren (that can only alert Sunday evening football crowds of Monday’s grind coming up) but Mahalia Jackson reminds us that when God Himself announces his work is complete. God’s sabbath. I guess that there are such Gospel riffs that allow the Christian church even in our utter brokenness and debilitating spiritual neurasthenia to pray meaningfully for “A Closer Walk with Thee”.

  2. Byong-yong says:

    Dear Bruce,

    Just to compliment you for your beautiful and meaningful ministry with the seniors.

    We, Abba Book House, just published the Korean version of the Myth of Religious Neutrality, and I would ask you to pray for this book to be known to those who are interested in Christian scholarship

    for His Kingdom in academic area.

    With Christian love,


    • Marvellous Byong, my good friend! You know Roy’s book has been one of the inspirations for Nurturing Justice! So we are certainly “on the same page!” Many blessings and we hope for good sales and I’m sure that Roy will be delighted to hear this wonderful news.

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