Special privileges for churches in Australia?


The Busselton-Dunsborough Times has published my letter in response to my neighbour John Moor’s letter last Friday (which I have attached below).

Here is my letter as published:

John Moor (Letters June 10) laments the fact that churches are exempt from some rates and taxes. These exemptions date from a time when the churches provided many services to the community that governments could not. The question to ask is whether the community is still getting good value from the churches.

In Busselton, as elsewhere, the churches use their buildings to give services unavailable elsewhere. Cliff’s Kitchen, for example, at St Mary’s Church feeds several dozen needy people each week and provides friendship and support for those doing it tough. Parenting and life-skill courses are offered at many churches. The churches make meeting rooms available to self-help groups, sometimes at no charge, sometimes for a small donation.

Read the “What’s On in the Community” column in this newspaper and ask who is paying for the services offered at our churches – it will almost always be that church.

Governments acknowledge that the churches provide many helping agencies at a cost well below that which they could manage, and actively look for more ways to out-source those services.

Many Christians would also argue that just by being there churches provide spiritual solace and challenge to the community widely beyond their memberships.

By all means, demand that your politicians withdraw the churches’ exemptions, and then be prepared for the rate rises and the tax hikes as shire and governments pick up the important services churches now offer the community.

(The Rev’d) Ted Witham

Losing Our Religion?


Losing My Religion

Tom Frame, Losing My Religion: Unbelief in Australia. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2009

337 pages, paperback.
RRP $34.95

Tom Frame is not afraid that Australia will “lose its religion”. Not really. But he is concerned that Australian Christians will pay a high price if they do not engage in a vital conversation about belief and unbelief.

Losing my Religion has won the 2010 Christian Book of the Year prize – and deservedly so. It is not only a heartfelt plea to Christians to put energy into thinking about faith and its place in a pluralist society, but it is also a comprehensive history of the interactions between religion and the Australian community.

Dr Frame is balanced in his description of the tensions surrounding religion in the convict days on the east coast and in the lead up to the framing of the Commonwealth constitution. But where the book shines, in my opinion, is when Tom Frame teases out the contemporary scene. He takes issue with anti-theists like Richard Dawkins for their lack of respect for their opponents, but he engages with the Australian unbelievers like Philip Adams. He demonstrates respect for their view but has no fear in putting forth his own.

Dr Frame is well qualified to explore belief and unbelief. As a former bishop to the Australian forces, he has ministered at an important interface between public life and the Church. Now Director of the St Mark’s National Theological Centre in Canberra, he writes lucidly on these complex issues. He draws on some of the same materials that he used in Evolution in the Antipodes (2009), but here with different intent.

Frame teases out the thread in atheism that claims it is not a belief and therefore a guarantor of reasoned tolerance. He shows this as specious reasoning both because atheism is a belief borne out of theism and also because atheism has no monopoly on reason. The presence of religious people in secular society is therefore more likely to bring tolerance and harmony than their absence, because they can take the beliefs of others into account.

Losing My Religion will make you agree and it will make you disagree. Frame knows that keeping your religion involves being confronted by a Christ who asserts his divinity; and for all of us, believers and non-believers, when we think seriously about it, that is controversial.

Flap over Prime Minister’s ‘atheism’


A local author protested in last week’s Busselton Dunsborough Times: an atheist Prime Minister in a Christian country, he complained. My letter was one of several published this week which disagreed with that sentiment.

The original letter follows:

This was my reply