Churches refuse to give up on flocks
Alex Easton firstname.lastname@example.org NORTHERN Rivers residents are turning away from religion in droves, new Census figures reveal. But religion is fighting back, with the traditionally conservative Catholic Church adopting techniques once reserved for small evangelical churches. New Census figures released this week show the only religious grouping to grow on the Northern Rivers since 2001 was the 'no religion' category, while the mainstream Catholic, Anglican, Uniting and Presbyterian churches all lost followers. By virtue of having suffered the smallest loss in followers (0.3 per cent), the Catholic Church can now claim to be the biggest religious denomination on the Northern Rivers, with 24.1 per cent of residents under its wing. By comparison, the number of people claiming to be of no religion jumped 4 per cent to 19.1 per cent, making it the region's third-largest religious grouping. In Byron Bay, that grouping is now the dominant category, accounting for 30 per cent of the town's residents. However, assistant to Catholic Cardinal George Pell, Bishop Julian Porteous, in Lismore for the 100th anniversary of St Carthage's Cathedral, said that shouldn't be mistaken for an absence of spirituality. "In this area, there's a great deal of interest in matters spiritual," he said. "That's all the more reason for us to get out there and talk about what the Catholic Church has to offer." Lismore Catholic Bishop Geoffrey Jarrett said Catholicism remained strong across the world, but Australia was 'one of the most aggressively secularised and materialistic cultures in the Western world'. That meant religious membership was likely to continue its slide through a few more Census years yet. Lismore Uniting Church Associate Pastor Garry Dronfield agreed attendances had fallen over the years, but on the Northern Rivers 'religion is in all shapes and forms'. President of the multi-faith Lismore Ministers Fellowship, Jim Gallagher, said the growth in 'no religion' could also hide a flaw in Census categories. Mr Gallagher said Pentecostal churches were known to be growing strongly, but the individual churches were small and wouldn't show up as a Census category, forcing their followers into the 'no religion' category. Bishop Jarrett also pointed to the Pentecostal churches, saying the Catholic Church could learn from them. Those lessons are showing strongly this week with the church running its own cafe in Magellan Street, holding talks in pubs and, tonight, running what Bishop Porteous described as a 'Night of Mercy' at St Carthage's. That event, which starts at 7.30pm, offers a free-for-all of forgiveness and reflection that, when held previously, was so successful enraptured followers had to be ushered out the door at the end of the night. Bishop Porteous said events such as the cafe and the Night of Mercy answered a challenge from the late Pope John Paul II to find new ways to engage people with the Church. Religion had waned several times over the centuries, but rebounded each time because it answered life's biggest question: Why are we here? That question, and the answer, meant the Church would rise again, he said.