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  • WYD 2008 in Sydney : Benedict XVI & Catholicism Down Under (interview)

    panorama sydney.jpgThe next World Youth Days (WYD), a Catholic event organised every two or three years, will be held from July 15th to July 20th in Sydney, Australia. The Catholic Church isi expecting 125,000 international visitors and it will be the opportunity for the pope himself to visit Australia for the first time.
    I’ve asked Marion Maddox, an Australian scholar specialist in Churches-State relationships and director of the Centre for Social Inclusion at the Macquarie University in Sydney to tell us in what context these Days occur and what kind of impact they may have on an Australian youth who seems not likely to be interested in the conservative discourse of Benedict XVI.

    jmj2008.jpgThe Roman Catholic Church has chosen Sydney to hold its 2008 World Youth Days (WYD). Is there any chance this could attract young Australians?
    I find it quite hard to understand what WYD is trying to achieve. It is presenting itself as aimed at youth, with a focus on freshness and modernity; but at the same time, it's a celebration of a certain kind of Catholic traditionalism. For example, Cardinal Pell has asked to have St Mary's Cathedral in Sydney designated as an official pilgrimage site which will entitle those who visit it for prayer st mary sydney.jpgduring the WYD celebrations to a plenary indulgence; confessional booths are being set up around the city (despite the fact that, until recently pressured by Rome to restore the traditional confessional, Australian Catholics had scarcely used it, preferring the collective 'third rite' confession during Mass). I expect that the event will attract young Catholics, particularly those of a traditionalist mind-set, but it seems to have been designed more as an event for reinforcing Catholic identity than as an attempt to attract the unconverted.

    Does the organization of these WYD in Sydney interest Australians, beyond the Catholic circles?
    The main impact WYD is having on non-Catholic Australians so far is negative. Newspapers are asking questions about the amount the rocks sydney.jpgof government money supporting it; roads will be blocked and Sydney's already overstretched public transport system will be even more strained; city office workers have been asked to take the week off work if possible so as to minimise overcrowding; special laws impose a A$5000 fine for "causing annoyance" to WYD pariticipants; police have said that anyone participating in a protest (eg groups representing survivors of clergy sexual abuse) will have to have their placards and messages approved beforehand. All this has contributed to public cynicism and irritation.
    Of course, this may change once the Pope arrives and the negative news stories are overtaken by positive events.

    What is the current situation of the Australian Catholic Church? The pope himself seems to consider an attempt to reconquest part of the lost ground (the “new evangelisation”) rather than a visit to a conquered land.
    sicdgif_logo.gifAustralian Catholics are predominantly made up of three waves of migrants: first, poor Irish workers and convicts, and the clergy and religious who came to look after them; then, after World War II, southern European (especially Italian) workers; and, most recently, Catholics from Vietnam and other Asian countries.
    Catholicism is Australia's largest denomination, with around 26% of the population, but Australia is culturally very secular and only a minority of that 26% would attend Mass regularly. While church attendance figures (for all denominations) have fallen since the 1950s, that was an unusually religious period; since European settlement, religion has played only a minor part in Australia's public culture and little or no part in national identity. So, if the Pope is attempting to regain 'lost ground', he might need to ask himself whether the church really ever had that much ground. Historically, Catholics suffered a lot of discrimination in Australia (for example, in employment) and were looked down on as poor and under-educated. The last half of the last century saw that turn around, with generous government support for Catholic schools, for example. Catholics used also to be strongly associated with the political Left (the Australian Labor Party). In terms of voting patterns that is still true, though not as strongly as in decades gone by. But Catholics, once extremely rare on the conservative side of politics, are now strongly represented in the parliamentary parties of the Right.

    Is the Australian Catholic Church conservative or liberal?
    Both; in recent years, the liberal voice has been more prominent, especially on issues of justice, peace and the environment. Catholic organisations were very important voices in drawing public attention to the previous government's harsh treatment of asylum seekers, for example, and have often been strong advocates for the poor, for workers'rights, and for Indigenous peoples.
    pell.jpgHowever, Australia's most senior Catholic, Cardinal George Pell, is generally regarded as conservative, particularly on theological issues but also on social issues. Also, different parts of the Catholic church have different political flavours. Some of the most prominent liberal voices represent religious orders rather than the church hierarchy, for example.
    It has to be said, too, that even the more liberal parts of the church are not always good at standing for the oppressed when the question concerns the church itself. A recent example is the letter from the Australian Catholic bishops unanimously criticising a retired bishop, Geoffrey Robinson, who wrote a book about sexual abuse in the Catholic church.

    Is it right to say that Australia is a deeply secularised society?
    Yes. Around 70% of Australians claim some religious belief or affiliation, but only a very small proportion make it a central part of their lives. Around 9% of Australians say they go to church weekly.

    rudd.jpgIn your book God under Howard(1), you explored the relations between politics and religion under the conservative government of John Howard. The new Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd presents himself as a strong Christian from Catholic origin but doesn’t seem to be willing to use it in politics. Does he exemplify the position of many Australian Catholics?
    Actually, Kevin Rudd is an Anglican; he was raised a Catholic but became an Anglican in adulthood (though when I interviewed him in 1999, he told me that 'the possibility of doing a Cardinal Newman [ie converting to Catholicism] always remains'. He has talked a lot about his faith, particularly before he became Prime Minister. One of his early moves to establish a profile as a potential leader was to write a pair of magazine articles about the German Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. (I suspect he might be the first Australian Prime Minister in a very long time who could even name a 20th Century theologian, let alone write a learned essay about one!) Since the election, his faith comes through less in explicit statements than in more symbolic ways; for example, his February 2008 apology to the 'Stolen Generations' (of Indigenous Australians taken from their families in childhood) had a decidedly liturgical feel. Mainline churchgoers tend to see religion as something that might well inform one's politics but about which politicians shouldn't be too explicit. For most of Australian political history, politicians thought so too. The recent interest in our representatives' personal faith partly reflects the Americanisation of Australian politics and an increased focus on politicians' personal features generally (marriage, family life, personality etc).  Given that only a small proportion of voters actually do go to church regularly, we have to look for the wider effects of politicians' religiosity. God Under Howard argues that secular Australians quite like a certain amount of religiosity in our politicians. Politicians have a reputation for being cynical and self-serving; but, when they emphasise a religious identity, it reassures us that they stand for some higher set of values (even if they are values that few voters actually share).

    Australia is a country of immigration. How the immigrations of the last three decades have influenced the profile of Australian Christianity, in particular Catholicism? More widely, what is the place of religious issues in the debates on multiculturalism?
    Each wave of migration has brought a new ethnic dimension to Australian Catholicism. Also, each wave of migration has created a new group of easily-identified newcomers who can become the target of racist or other kinds of fears. At the moment, the big multicultural discussion about religion is to do with Islam. Ten or fifteen years ago, it was whether and how Indigenous peoples' religious traditions should be protected eg by laws preventing mining or development on sacred sites. Fifty years ago, the point of tension was antagonism between Catholics and Protestants (though the word 'multiculturalism' was not used back then). Religion itself is usually not important in such debates; often criticising religion is a way of distancing others without mentioning race. 
    1. Marion Maddox, 2005, God Under Howard. The Rise of the Religious Right in Australian Politics, Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 386 p.

    Pictures of Sydney : Sydney Webcam.

  • "No Label" Churches: Evangelicals in Wellington Central (New Zealand)

    b4d4c73da6a741c8559a7d244f9e526c.jpgSunday, December 16 2007. At 5 pm, Arise Church presents its “Christmas Production” at the Opera House on Manners Street, in Wellington Central. The room is full, mothers with young children have been installed on the balcony and the stalls are mainly occupied by young Pakeha (New Zealander from European descent), with some Pacific People too. The service is arranged as a kind of concert-show: a set of rock music, Christmas songs and choreographies, before the young Senior Pastor John Cameron jumps on stage for a short (30 minutes) but energetic sermon. To make it short, Jesus Christ is bringing us the light to save us from darkness and this is the only gift which lasts longer than a Christmas night. Even if consumption doesn’t provide the “long-lasting peace” of the conversion, there was a happy winner some minutes before in the room, when John Cameron invited the public to look under their seats for a small coloured sticker, to win…a Mp3!
    But the first purpose of this event is to win new converts, with an insistent call to those who want to step forward and “give their heart to Jesus”. Launched in November 2002, Arise Church is one of the Evangelical Churches with no denominational label who strive to attract the New Zealand young generation to a Christianity apparently relieved of its constraining, institutional and “old fashion” components. Its services usually take place at the Paramount Theatre on Courtenay Place, one of the favourite places of Wellington nightlife.

    It’s also here, in the Wellington Central district, that the Greens, the New Zealand ecologists, gained their highest scores in the 2002 and 2005 elections (around 16 per cent). Despite friendly relations with some progressive Christians (like the left wing of the Methodist Church), the Greens are for many Evangelicals the symbol of the secularisation of the New Zealand society. They notably gave raise to the last mobilisation of the Evangelical networks with a Bill adopted in 2007 by the Parliament and called by its opponents the “Anti-Smacking Bill”, forbidding corporal punishment of children: a law seen as an “anti-family” law by the Christian Right who is now trying to get enough signatures on its petition to organise a referendum.
    Wellington Central has also, according to the 2001 Census, the highest rate of graduated people (with 36 per cent of its population aged over 15 having a University degree, 3 times bigger than the national average) and the highest rate of 20-30 years old (26,7 per cent) (1). So maybe not the good profile if you want to fill an Evangelical church…

    c8875e3a1955ce20535a2d209aaad142.jpg And yet, there are several Evangelical Churches encountering a real success there, adapting their expression (music and service’s style), their message and their organisation to youth’s expectations. Some of them have kept their classic denominational label, like the Elim Church (one of the oldest Pentecostal denominations, established in the beginning of the 20th century in Great-Britain). But many are “no label” Churches, a strategy also chosen by some youth missionary organisations – Youth for Christ for example has been renamed Incedo in New Zealand – to distance themselves from institutional Christianity. Equippers, a branch of the Apostolic (Pentecostal) Church of Great-Britain, is one of the latest launched in Wellington and holds its services in Wellington Central and in Porirua, a suburb where many Pacific People live.

    Another no label Church: Sunday, November 25, close to Courtenay Place, a service at the Street. No insistent call to conversion here, the services mostly strive to make people (both Church members and newcomers) feel comfortable and even the rock music band doesn’t attack eardrums. Evangelisation is relational: this Sunday, a man comes on stage to explain how he took the opportunity of a fishing trip to get in touch with two persons in his neighbourhood. They haven’t talked about religion yet, but certainlyc1a236b2db09610860567afc81802416.jpg time will come… It would be difficult to find a softer approach. The functioning of the Church itself is more relational than institutional. A disinstitu- tionalisation process, related to the evolution of the New Zealand society? Not only. The Street is not a new Church created to catch the mood: it is in fact one of the oldest Evangelical Churches in Wellington, stemming from the Open Brethren movement. Its story gets back to 1913, when the Vivian Street Assembly decided to turn to the inner-city deprived families, a mission work which gave birth to a Church ten years after and got its own building in 1928. In the 50s, the Church moved to Elisabeth Street, at the bottom of Mount Victoria. Its official name was then the Elisabeth Street Church, but it was more simply called the “E Street”. In 2002, the growth of the Church led it to move to Hania Street, the E disappeared and the Church finally kept only the name of “The Street”.

    e40ba633aa3dfdaaec700cec66326ab7.jpg In the valley leading to Johnsonville and Porirua, North of Wellington, the Rock church is one of the more trendy Churches of the area. Evangelical and Charismatic, this Church took its name (besides the implicit biblical reference) from the place where it was established, in a former quarry. It could also indicate the style of music that can be heard there. Its functioning is relatively close to The Street’s organisation, with a pastoral team (please don’t call them by their titles but by their first names), Life Groups, youth groups, training sessions and an evangelisation that is mainly relational, at the risk of tightening its social sphere of influence to one milieu – the Pakeha middle classes. The founder of the Church, Anthony Walton (coming from the New Zealand Pentecostal movement of New Life Churches) is also a former leader of Future New Zealand, a political party allied with the Centrists of United New Zealand until 2007 (he was also the Deputy leader of the alliance, called United Future) when they broke up after a disagreement on the “Anti-Smacking Bill”. The Rock is also supporting Blue Print, a new youth Church based in a café in Wellington Central, which presents itself as “a Church for the un-churched, a movement for the lost and disenfranchised”.

    1. Raymond Miller (ed.), New Zealand government and politics, 4th edition, Oxford University Press, 2006:395-96.

    Photos: Y. Fer et G. Malogne-Fer ©

  • Asian Diaspora in the Pacific: a state of current research

    A workshop “Asian Diasporas in the Pacific, history of representations and contemporary issues” (parts 1 & 2) hosted by the Asia-IMASIA network’s biannual conference took place in Paris on September 26th 2007. An opportunity to draw a first state of current research on these Asian Pacific communities, often considered in the Pacific islands as an ideal-type of “foreignness” symbolising wider evolutions such as economic globalisation, cultural and religious diversity, migration and urbanisation. Here are some outlines.

    933a12904d9e1781873e95853ba91cf7.jpg The last report of the UNFPA (United Nations Found for Populations) in 2006 underlined the fact that Oceania has the largest concentration of immigrants in its population (15,2 per cent) of any region, mostly in New Zealand and Australia. Paola Voci, lecturer in Chinese language and cultures at the Otago University (Dunedin) sent us a communication on the Chinese community in New Zealand. According to the 2006 Census, 9.2 per cent of New Zealand population is now from Asian origin, 2/3 of it concentrated in Auckland area. The more numerous community are Chinese people – 147570 and a 40.5 per cent increase between 2001 and 2006. The other main groups are Indians (104583, +68.2 per cent) and Koreans (30792, +61.8 per cent).
    The New Zealand migration policies explain for a large part the deep religious diversity that can be observed today: Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, but also Korean or Samoan churches, etc… a cultural patchwork combined with the diversity of Protestantism (see for example my post on August 16th 2006 on Brethren communities).

    34763013c52ff599f2a83b1a86945efe.jpg In Fiji, as I wrote in last December, the several coups that occurred since 1987 are all related to the coexistence in this country – with a proportion close to 50/50 – of indigenous Fijians (“Ethnic Fijians”) and Fijians from Indian descent (“Indo-Fijians”), who were brought to Fiji at the end of the 19th century by the British colonial authority to work in the sugar cane plantations. The majority of them are Hindus, with about 15 per cent of Muslims and a small Christian minority.

    Some Christian churches, like the Methodist Church which makes 36 per cent of the population (66 per cent of the Ethnic Fijians) today advocates a conception of Fijian identity based on the land (Indo-Fijians are not allowed to be land owners), traditions and Christianity. They promote the establishment of a Christian state that would lead to the exclusion of Indo-Fijians from the government. What they call “reconciliation” sometimes means nothing else than the conversion of Indo-Fijians to Christianity, considered as the only way to provide national unity.

     The Pacific Chinese communities are often very active in commerce (in many islands of French Polynesia, “to go to the Chinese” means to go to the deli). They have been stigmatised for long by colonial (and sometimes religious) authorities or local populations, especially during economic crisis. In the interwar years, the French colonial milieu in Tahiti was particularly focused on the “Chinese peril” b6ae7ae04303f9a6343e19880d10c0a1.jpgendangering a Polynesian people described as “primitive, naïve and infantile” by the Abbot Rougier. Unfortunately, similar reflections can still be heard sometimes in today conversations. The history of the Chinese in Tahiti has been presented in several publications and academic works, among the more recent ones: the book of B. Saura, Tinito (Au Vent des îles, 2002), Identité hakka à Tahiti by Ernest Sin Chan (Teite, 2005) – who participated in the workshop – and the Ph.D. dissertation of A.-C. Trémon, “Les Chinois en Polynésie française. Configuration d’un champ des identifications”, defended in 2005 at the EHESS.
    My own research on Pentecostalism in French Polynesia led me to analyse the circumstances of the rise of Pentecostalism within the hakka community of Tahiti, in the beginning of the 60s, and the establishment of the first Pentecostal church in French Polynesia, the Alleluia Church – a Chinese speaking church (see my article “Pentecostalism in French Polynesia, a hakka story”). The Catholic church has also established a Chinese parish in Tahiti, following the guidelines of Vatican II Council for a better understanding of local languages and cultures.

    3140c5d9863da4a298a661c8259896cf.jpg In many Pacific islands, Chinese storekeepers have been targeted by riots linked to political tensions: during demonstrations against the Tongan government and for democratic reforms in November 2006 (see also my note of September 13th 2006), several Chinese shops were burnt in the centre of Nuku’alofa, the Capital city. In Honiara, the Capital city of Solomon Islands, several hundreds of Chinese storekeepers got in similar troubles in April 2006, as underlined by P. de Deckker in an article published in June 2007 (Tahiti Pacific magazine): they were accused to have financially supported the campaign of the newly elected Prime minister – who finally had to step down.

    Other Asian communities are less exposed and have not often attracted the interest of researchers. This workshop gave us the opportunity to hear about the Javanese community in New Caledonia with J.-L. Maurer (who has published in 2006 a book untitled “Les Javanais du caillou. Sociologie historique de la communauté indonésienne de Nouvelle-Calédonie, Maison des sciences de l’homme) and Dominique Jouve (who has studied the representations of New Caledonia Javanese and Vietnamese in literature). Virginie Riou also presented the journeys of Tonkin workers and they descendants in New Hebrides – Vanuatu – from 1920 until today.

    Besides, the small Pacific states play a significant role in the relations between Western and Asian countries as well as in the competition between Taiwan and Continental China, who are both seeking their diplomatic support within the UNO Assembly. Fabrice Argounes (a Ph.D. student at Science Po Bordeaux), and Sarah Mohamed-Gaillard (INALCO) presented the historical, geopolitical and economic dimensions of these issues. According to P. de Deckker in the article quoted above, “Taiwan currently has the support of the Marshall islands, Kiribati, Palau, Tuvalu and the Solomon islands”. This represents 1/5 of its diplomatic supports, after having lost the support of Tonga (in 1998), Nauru (in 2002) and failed to get the support of Vanuatu (in 2004). A hard competition, in which financial help to fragile island economies play a major role.

    * Illustrations: a celebration within the Chinese community in Auckland (New Zealand); Hindu temple in Nadi (Fiji); Chinese New Year at the Maria no te hau cathedral in Tahiti; Chinese store in Tahiti (this photo is part of a remarkable series that can be seen on the blog “Tahitian Guy”.