Clergy of all faiths urgently needed cultural training to deal with an Australia that had changed beyond recognition since the 1990s, according to one of Australia’s leading religious authorities. Melbourne Anglican priest, UNESCO officer and university academic Gary Bouma told a UN Interfaith Harmony Week lecture at Melbourne University in February that Australia was now “one of the most diverse nations in the world”.
by Stephen Cauchi, The Melbourne Anglican
Learning to cope with differences among ethnic and religious groups was the key to combatting terrorism as well as to successful living, productivity, business and relationships, said Professor Bouma.
Clergy given cultural training even just 20 years ago “were trained into a society that doesn’t exist anymore,” said Professor Bouma. “If you’re ministering now, you’re ministering to a very different society.
“If you’ve got someone who was born some time ago they need training in what it’s like now otherwise they will be making very silly decisions.”
Professor Bouma said all professions could benefit from diversity training but especially clergy. Migrant clergy, both Christian and of other faiths, had a particular need, he said.
Every year hundreds of Catholic priests, mostly from India, came to Australia, he said, as well as Muslim imams and mosque leaders and Hindu leaders.
“Some clergy from overseas were saying, ‘of course you can beat children,’” he said.
A two-day Monash University multi-faith seminar offered last decade in Victoria and Queensland showed that diversity training for clergy could be done successfully, he said. A mix of faith leaders attended the seminar, said Professor Bouma. Initially the gathering was awkward, but very quickly the groups intermingled.
“They realised that as religious leaders they all had the same problems – congregations, communications and relationship with the larger society. Having the diversity in the room was utterly critical.” Representatives from police, social services and government also attended, he said.
When global controversy over offensive Danish cartoons of the prophet Mohammed erupted shortly afterwards, the seminars proved their worth, said Professor Bouma. Because Muslim leaders had met the police at the seminar, successful non-violent protests were held in Australia, he said – a marked contrast to violence overseas.
Professor Bouma said the results of the 2016 census, due in April, would reveal just how diverse – and irreligious – Australia had become. However, those nominating themselves as religious “are increasingly likely to take it more seriously than the old nominal Anglicans ever did.”
Society was becoming increasingly divided between the religious and non-religious, said Professor Bouma.
“There are those who couldn’t give a hoot, like most of our children. They don’t know anything about it. Religious literacy is at an incredibly low ebb,” he said. For example, “less than 25 per cent of marriages conducted in Australia last year were done by religious personnel.”
Diversity in Australia encompassed not just religion but gender, family structure, regional location, ethnic, health and wellbeing, economic, age and generation. “There’s all kinds of diversities out there – of which religion is only one,” he said. The diversities are growing and multiplying.
“There’s so much diversity, even among Anglicans. Somebody says that they’re an Anglican and you have to keep listening to hear whether they’re my kind of Anglican.” Diversity in Australia was markedly different to diversity in Europe, he said – for which we deserved a “pat on the back”.
“Australia has said we’re going to live together, together,” he said. “Our multicultural policies are built on getting people to interact with each other… and we’ve been successful at it. “That’s not true in Europe. Europe is more interested in separate communities that survive and thrive, but which don’t get fully interactive.”
Professor Bouma stressed that different groups in society needed to have a relationship with each other prior to tackling terrorism. A concern “first and foremost” for combatting violent extremism would not foster relationships between diverse groups, he said.
He said the most striking trend in Australian diversity was the rise of people who were not religious – a group that had gone from 1 per cent of the population in 1966 to 19 per cent in 2006. By 2021, the figure would be around 32 per cent – one in three. “They are not amoral or uncaring people,” said Professor Bouma. “They do a lot of volunteering… and they have interesting discussions about their worldview and morals.” “Once it was just a case of religious diversities getting together to talk over stuff,” he said. With the rise of the non-religious, “that’s no longer the case.”
Professor Bouma is chair of intercultural and interreligious relations at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation and is a professor of sociology at Monash University. He has written over 30 books and 360 articles on religion, has served in leadership roles with the World Conference of Religions for Peace and the Christian Research Association, and was awarded the Member of the Order of Australia medal in part for services to interreligious relations. He is also an associate priest with Saint John’s Anglican Parish in Malvern East.
Originally published in The Melbourne Anglican, March 2017, p4.
Reproduced with Permission, The Melbourne Anglican
Download a PowerPoint used by Prof. Gary Bouma in this presentation.