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After Christianity, what is Australia's civil religion?

  • 19 January 2024
In an age of declining adherence to the Christian faith, has Australia found a new civil religion? And will it serve us well? As an Anglican minister and theologian, it seems to me that this question about what you might call the ‘soul’ of Australia hasn’t been far from the surface in recent debates — especially following the Queen’s death in 2022 and during the fractious Voice Referendum. But because in contrast to the US, we in Australia ‘don’t do God’, we rarely acknowledge the religious dimension of our national identity.    God Save the King?

Queen Elizabeth II’s long reign spanned an era of dramatic social change. It was a long time between coronations — so long that we’d largely forgotten, if we ever realised, what crowning a monarch entails. The coronation is an avowedly Christian ceremony — God gets mentioned a lot. The King was crowned in a Christian church by an Archbishop and swore to uphold the ‘Protestant Reformed Religion’ in his realm. He is designated the ‘Supreme Governor’ of the Church of England, whose bishops still sit in the House of Lords. 

The UK is constitutionally a Christian nation. Even so, there were some critics of the religiosity of the coronation. Was it fit for a modern nation which, whatever its formal religious identity, is increasingly irreligious?

In Australia, which since Federation in 1901 has never had a formal affiliation to a particular Christian denomination, we felt the disparity more acutely. The proclamation of the new King’s accession to the throne in Canberra was a moment that called for ceremony and acts of devotion — of ‘civil religion’, one might call them. It needed symbolic gestures and words pointing to how we understand ourselves as a nation.

But what should these be? For seventy years we had no need to mark such an occasion. What now are the symbolic acts that establish the common identity of the Australian nation? In other words: what is our civil religion?

At Parliament House, Governor General David Hurley read a proclamation that linked Charles’ accession to the will of God:

We therefore, General the Honour able David John Hurley AC DSC retired, Governor General of the Commonwealth of Australia and members of the Federal Executive Council do now proclaim Prince Charles Philip Arthur George to be King Charles III by Grace of God, King of Australia and his Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth.

The Royal