LAMENT BY CHRISTIANS in response to the emerging reality of post-Christendom in Australia has extended along a spectrum from doom laden invocations of the imminent arrival of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, to a grouchy stoic muttering of “we’ll all be rooned.”

Then came the flood of public revelations of child sexual abuse by clergy, and of cover-ups by churches. Much of the churches’ moral standing and authority previously taken for granted despite the post-Christendom shift was suddenly and irrevocably shredded. [1]

The stories of sexual abuse were shocking. What was more shocking, if that were possible, were the accounts of the lack of regard for victims displayed by church leadership, and institutional management when the abuse was reported to them. Compassion from the churches for victims of abuse proved to have been in very short supply,,with advice from lawyers to church leadership focusing solely on institutional survival and the management of reputational preservation. Paradoxically, attempts to manage reputational damage almost uniformly only increased that damage when news of it became public.

I can remember listening to the daily current affairs account of testimony at the Royal Commission hearings in a state of deep distress. The yawning gap between the practice and teaching of Jesus, and the behaviour of church leaders in putting institutional interests ahead of the claims for justice of the victims of abuse didn’t need to be spelled out to those outside the church. The public were quick to comment publicly and vocally on this contradiction. Churches and their leadership are now facing a loss of trust across the community that will be long remembered. The pain of betrayal by the churches during this episode has been felt not only by the victims and their families, but also by many of the church’s most deeply committed members.

Against the charge of hypocrisy arising from the wide gap between their teaching and practice, the churches have no defence. It is no use church leaders pointing out that other significant community institutions, whether they be schools, police, child protection departments of state governments, the Scouts, and other organisations were also involved in egregious cover-ups, driven by motives of institutional and reputational self-preservation. That other agencies performed just as badly as the churches does not cut any ice. Churches more than ever before are being judged against the standards announced and lived out by Jesus in the Gospels. [2]

The shaming circumstances under which the social status and inherited moral prestige of the Christian churches was stripped away has supercharged their difficulties in attempting to re-vision their life and mission after Christendom. The difficulties that the churches are having with this seismic shift is evident in the public commentary of church leaders on just about any issue. Almost without exception, they manifest an undertone of defensiveness, and resentment, modulated through an unacknowledged grief at the loss of power and status.

If they cannot get beyond this soon, there is a real risk that that they will remain stuck in a self-reinforcing spiral, leading to cultural and social isolation. A toxic mixture of nostalgia, anger, and fear driving church engagement with community is precisely what we don’t need in a context in which the settings for economic, social, and environmental change, if not dislocation, are all being dialed up to maximum levels. That’s the situation in Australia. Nothing that I have read and heard suggests that the situation of the churches in the other English-speaking nations is radically different.

The Anglican lawyer and theologian William Stringfellow identified the demonic character of the drive for institutional self-preservation by the church with a theological clarity that is hard to evade. [3]  The churches seem to have rarely engaged with the theological dynamics that he identified. On this Dietrich Bonhoeffer has something important to say to us. Writing from a prison cell in Berlin in 1943, having already surrendered his own reputation, both within and outside the church, being labelled an enemy of the state, he observed that the church in Germany under the Nazi regime had not stood up for the victims of oppression and violence.

Our church has been fighting during these years only for its self-preservation, as if that were an end in itself. It has become incapable of taking the word of reconciliation and redemption to humankind and to the world. So, the words we have used before must lose their power, be silenced and we can be Christians today in only two ways, through prayer and in doing justice among human beings. All Christian thinking, talking and organising must be born anew out of that prayer and action. [4]

In response to a church that had given priority to its self-preservation ahead of concern for the vulnerable, Dietrich Bonhoeffer called for a time of public silence, accompanied by prayer and faithful action for justice. In the spirit of Bonhoeffer’s advice, I advance a ‘modest’ proposal: that for the next decade, Christian churches refrain from public advocacy on any policy issue directly related to their own institutional interests. This disciplined and deliberate silence should be accompanied by careful patient listening to those who are without a voice, to those whom the church has damaged and abused. This listening should inform communal reflection by the churches on what they hear, and what it means for their life and community engagement.

This self-denying ordinance is not meant to apply to the church’s participation in public debate on issues of social policy and community wellbeing. Far from it. The churches should continue to advocate for those in greatest need, those who do not have a voice, giving priority to the empowerment of those who are on the margins. Even better would be to provide them with the support and resources to enable them to speak for themselves. The churches’ contribution to public debate on behalf of others will need to carry an acknowledgment in the tone of our contribution, as well as the content, of our shared complicity in the brokenness of the world that we are seeking to repair.


[1] For a comprehensive account of child sexual abuse in Australia and the failure of institutions including the churches, see Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
[2] Francis Sullivan, ‘Margin Call: The Risk of Integrity‘, pp. 23–33.
[3] William Stringfellow, Free in Obedience, pp. 95–9.
[4] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, p. 389.

This is an adapted excerpt from the new book Community Engagement After Christendom (Wipf & Stock, 2022), reproduced with the permission of the author. 


© Doug Hynd is Adjunct Research Fellow at the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture, Charles Sturt University, Canberra, Australia. He is actively involved in refugee action, and is an Ekklesia associate with strong Anabaptist connections. He is author of Community Engagement After Christendom (Wipf & Stock, 2022).