by Thomas Crooks
The numbers tell the story. More than ever before, Australia is moving away from its Christian roots. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, there is a steady decline in those professing commitment to the Anglican faith, for example. There were 3.9 million Anglicans in 1996, 3.8 million in 2001, and 3.7 million in 2006. While this steady trend continues, the number of practising Buddhists continues to grow. In 1996 there were around 200,000 Buddhists in Australia, 350,000 in 2001 and 420,000 in 2006. The number of people claiming no religion has also grown from just under 3 million in 1996 to 3.7 in 2006.
Ian Crooks, a retired Anglican priest, and Margaret, his wife of more than 40 years, have been a part of the Anglican Church, and hence organised religion, for most of their lives. Now they live a semi-monastic lifestyle in their rural retreat outside Oberon, three hours southwest of Sydney. Their decision to deepen their spiritual practice seems to echo the Desert Fathers and Mothers who left mainstream society for more remote places during the reign of Constantine the Great in the fourth century. In both cases, dissatisfaction with institutionalised religion was a major motivating factor.
In 2009, Ian and Margaret took hermetic vows at the Benedictine Abbey in Jamberoo in the southern highlands. In so doing they committed to a life of prayerful obedience to the Rule of Saint Benedict, an instruction on daily life written by Saint Benedict of Nursia in the 6th Century. The Rule is nominally understood by the mottos pax and ora et labora – peace, prayer and work.
As Ian says, “Many people have a spirituality, an awareness of a power greater than this world and themselves than go to church on a regular basis. I come across many people with spirituality who have turned their backs on mainstream religion.” But why are such changes occurring? Margaret says, “I don’t know that the church is meeting people’s needs. People need rituals. They need markers in their lives to signify important events like funerals. The church offers this but they are still missing the mark.
“I wonder whether this has always been the case. It’s just that the church has less control now than it used to. The fear is no longer there now, perhaps we’re no longer frightened of hell anymore, or even believe there is such a thing,” she says.
In her inner city life, far away from the quiet solitude of Oberon, Jade Clark is engaged in her own spiritual pursuits. Jade follows a Tantric Yogic tradition. “Our main aim is to transcend the self and know the true self as one with all things. It involves a physical (yoga) practice, it involves a strong devotional practice. My main spiritual practice is devotion, and a life of service.” They seem like goals not far from those of Christianity although they are enunciated in very different language.
Margaret and Ian Crooks seek spiritual sustenance in their solitary environment in a way that both accepts and rejects the greater mainstream organised Christian church. Their way of life presents a counterpoint to the majority of Christians for whom social interaction seems to play a large part of their involvement in organised religion.
“We pray for the world, for those who can’t pray for themselves and for those who don’t even know they need praying for,” Margaret says. “It’s like standing at the intersection of the world and its needs, and bringing those needs to God.”