Taxing the church


I grow tired of the Atheist Foundation and others whingeing that the churches don’t pay tax. Their claim is false.For me it’s personal.

I received a salary from the church for 30 years. This salary was the major portion of parishioners’ donations to the church. I was very happy to pay tax out of this salary. At a quick calculation, I contributed between $150,000 and $200,000 to the nation’s tax revenue over those 30 years. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (God bless them) put the number of ministers of religion in Australia in 2001 as just over 12,000. If we count these as 6,000 full-time equivalent employees, then their contribution to Australia’s tax revenue over 30 years is between 9 and 12 billion dollars.

The churches do pay tax.

The Anglican Church, as a responsible employer, put aside part of my salary into superannuation. Our super fund started before the Super Guarantee, and enabled me later in my career to put additional savings into the fund. This means now in retirement I live partly off my super. Without super, I would be receiving a bigger pension. My super fund makes a contribution by saving the expenditure of tax.

The parishes where I worked have parish centres with rooms that community groups use, either for free or at much less than the commercial rate. While it is true that the parishes were partially exempt from rates, they made a contribution to the community through the sharing of their facilities – again saving the expenditure of rates and taxes. Many self-help groups, political clubs and community organisations could not meet if it were not for the churches.

The churches do save tax.

It’s true that the tax situation of the churches is complex; there may be some unfair exemptions for the churches; there are churches that rort the system. If our community were designing this from scratch they would almost certainly do it differently. But we can only live with our history.

From 1788 Australia has had a ‘love-hate’ relationship with religion. Many convicts and early settlers had good reason to dislike the church. On the other hand, most Australians in the 19th and 20th Century considered themselves believers. Australian Governments look to the churches to provide services that the churches can offer more cheaply and hopefully with more compassion than Government bureaucracy.

Section 116 in our Constitution does not declare Australia to be a secular nation. Rather it acknowledges the existence of both church and state and proclaims that they are to be kept distinct, but not necessarily for the church to be kept out of public life. The church’s contribution to our public life is different from the state’s.

And in the meantime, we can get our facts straight. The churches do pay tax, and they do save taxes.

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A Distinctive Australian Spirituality?


art-9781922235763-cover-printWayne Hudson, Australian Religious Thought,
Clayton, VIC: Monash University Publishing, 2015
ISBN (pb): 978-1-922235-76-3
ISBN (e-book): 978-1-922235-77-0

From $AU32 online,
$32 e-book (limited free access online at nla.gov.au)

In Western Australian and Australian public library systems.

 

Reviewed by Ted Witham

 

Richard Dawkins once dismissed Genesis 22 as ‘an infamous tale’; he thought that Abraham’s actions as at the least, were ‘child abuse, ‘and if he had actually carried through his plan to sacrifice Isaac, we would have convicted him of first degree murder.’ [1]

I thought it a great pity that Professor Dawkins, who writes so eloquently on biology, missed the fact of 3,000 years of complex thought and interpretation of the Binding of Isaac that rabbis and Christian scholars have recorded. Any good scientist would not regard his experiment as the truth without taking into account the work of scientists before him. Einstein built on Newton. He certainly didn’t ignore him!

In fact, Dawkins’ hero, Charles Darwin waited 15 years before publishing On the Origin of Species. It wasn’t that Darwin doubted his findings: on the contrary, Darwin respected the fact that others had given serious thought to these topics, churchmen and enlightenment figures alike, and had come to different conclusions. Added to that the concern that Darwin had about publishing theories that would appear to deny the evangelical Christianity of his wife Emma, and Darwin’s very different attitude to Dawkins’ is revealed.

Wayne Hudson’s wide-ranging survey of Australian religious thought from 1788 until today shows that we are like Richard Dawkins in our inability to see the richness of religious writings in our country.

According to the publisher’s blurb Australian Religious Thought is ‘the first major survey of this field.’ Wayne Hudson is a Professor in the Centre for the History of European Discourses at the University of Queensland. He is widely read in history, theology, philosophy and literature from 18th Century Europe and on through Australian European settlement. From this store of intellectual life, he shows the surprising amount of religious writings that have been produced in Australia. He is generous about the quality of distinctive Australian theology, but demonstrates that religious thought is much wider than Christian theology.

Dr Hudson explores six themes in writings about the sacred: Shapes of Disbelief, Sacral Secularity, Religious Liberalism, Religious Thought and Philosophy, Theology in Development, and Postsecular Consciousness. His book aims at the general reader, and most readers will applaud the extraordinary range of references. There may have been a cost factor in the decision not to include a formal bibliography which would have added another third to the size of the volume!

I particularly appreciated the ways in which Australian writers have stretched the concept of God. I recently reviewed Lorraine Parkinson’s new book, Made on Earth,  which argues that the divinity of Jesus was not intended by the Gospel writers and so we can discount the doctrine of the Trinity.  The joy of Australian Religious Thought is to discover that this is not a new heresy in 2016. Hudson quotes Charles Strong founder of the Australian Church who was a proponent of this view from early in the 20th Century. In addition, he traces the proposition back to German historian Adolph von Harnack and celebrity missionary Albert Schweitzer.

Hudson laments the lack of sources showing the impact Aboriginal spiritualities have had on the wider culture, but explores sufficient writers to prime my curiosity.

He suggests that, far from simple secularity, Australians are developing a distinctive religious sensibility. Its nature is partly encompassed in the phrase ‘sacral secularity’. For me, as a Christian reader, this book was like being in a closed room and suddenly having the doors thrown open to disclose a far bigger house. It is good to have more light stream in even as I continue to regard my room as my home.

The book will appeal to all Australians seriously interested in the development of distinctive Australian culture.

—–o0o——

[1] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, London: Random House, 2006, 265

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Helpful Whiff of Heresy


5111brslwkl-_sx142_sy224_sclzzzzzzz_Lorraine Parkinson,
Made on Earth: how the gospel writers created the Christ, Richmond, VIC: Spectrum Publications, 2016.
ISBN 9780867862546
Online: Paperback $49, Kindle $11.99

Reviewed by Ted Witham

For some years, I’ve held lightly to the doctrine that Jesus Christ was fully human and fully divine. It’s not that I wish to demote the importance of Jesus, which was the purpose of the original dogma. It’s more that a pre-modern conception of divinity does not do justice to the ways in which Jesus of Nazareth actually  connects me with the sacred world.
Lorraine Parkinson’s new book Made on Earth helps me on my journey of belief by adding to the ways in which I can articulate my unease about Christology. She systematically works through the gospels in the order of their writing – Mark, Matthew, Luke and John – to show how the message of Jesus about the kingdom was deliberately transformed into a message about the identity of Jesus as the expected Messiah.
Lorraine Parkinson is a retired ordained minister in the Uniting Church based in Victoria, and is in demand as a speaker for meetings of progressive Christians around Australia.
She tells the story crisply of how the infancy narratives appear to have been added to Matthew and Luke inventing the idea of Jesus being conceived by the Holy Spirit, and thereby being God’s Son. She reveals how the life of Jesus was fitted into the typology of Moses or Elijah to further the argument for Jesus’ more than human status. The gospels

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incomprehensible?

were a sermon to persuade readers that Jesus had transcended Judaism and that his followers needed to distinguish themselves from the Jews.

 
She makes a plea for ‘progressive Christians’ to turn back to the original teachings of Jesus. The gospel of Jesus as the one Messiah  has led to a church that

  1. relies on fear (making sure you are right with God so you can enter the afterlife),
  2. that promotes anti-Semitism (the Jews are depicted as Christ-killers), and
  3. that ends up as Christendom (the Church as a new Roman Empire focused on power).

Returning to a simple reliance on the Sermon on the Mount and the parables of Jesus will invigorate individual followers of the Way of Jesus and remove the weight of having doctrinal commitments to a divine Christ.
She asks us to remember that the Gospel writers were ordinary human beings who believed they were inspired by the Holy Spirit. Her arguments here appear to be based on common sense alone and I would have liked her to wrestle with the theology of inspiration a little more deeply. As followers of Jesus, understanding God’s truth and how we know it is an important issue.

 
This book is dangerous. It emits a whiff of heresy. I admire Lorraine Parkinson’s honest courage in questioning the 3rd and 4th Century interpretations of the meaning of the Gospel. We need prophets to show the way forward for followers of Jesus of Nazareth, and Made on Earth is an important step on that path.

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Sant’Apollinare, Ravenna – mosaic

R.I.P. Colin Holden


Saddened today to hear of the death of old friend Colin Holden. I was at theological college at Trinity College in Melbourne with Colin, and then his colleague as a priest in Western Australia. I met him several times after he returned to Melbourne.

Colin was enormously talented as a linguist, historian and writer. He was a generous but fragile friend. One of the remembrances I still have from Colin is this hymn which he translated as a gift for me in 1974. Reading it again, I am impressed by his skill with metre and assonance, reminding me that he was a musician as well as all the other talents. 

May he rest in peace and rise in glory!

A votive offering for Easter for Ted

Dawn fires the east with glowing rays
The heavens rejoice in hymns of praise;
While earth exults, Hell’s furious roar
Proclaims his lord can rule no more,

For Jesus, clad in triumph, leads
The Patriarchs, ransomed from the dead;
Hell’s prey, once chained in bonds of night
Christ frees to rise in life & light.

A stone & seal secured the tomb;
For Christ’s new life it forms a womb;
First-fruits of all that sleep in earth,
He bursts the gates, to vanquish death.

Now mourning’s bitterness shall cease;
Christ’s rising tolls the death of grief;
His angels joyously proclaim
“Death’s end has come; new life now reigns.”

From sin’s dark death, O Jesu, free
Them that again are born of Thee;
Be Thou alone out Spirit’s guest
At this time of our Paschal Feast.

We praise the Father, who is one
With Jesus Christ, His only Son,
And laud as is forever meet,
The Holy Ghost & Paraclete.

(Aurora Caelum purpurat, Office hymn at Lauds from Low Sunday till Ascension – translated by Colin Holden, Easter 1974)

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Sermon: Ask, search, knock


Luke 11:9-10

I wrote this poem a few years ago, reflecting on Jesus’ teaching that our desire to love, when taken far enough, eventually leads us to see the world in ‘I-thou’ terms. 

– Ted Witham

I asked for a Mercedes, coupé 220, of course.
Received a mirror, 360, signed, with love, Yours.
Reflected… the shiny image that was my deep desire;
to climb up the world’s path, a higher flyer.

I searched for love in writing reviews,
Expecting my readers to walk in my shoes;
I searched for love, making Church work my life,
but found love closer in children and wife.

I knocked on the door of God, Father, King,
Insight opened: metaphor turns God to ‘thing’;
I opening saw God as all my ‘Thou’,
me to be present in the Eternal Now.

Asking, searching, knocking, all stones stepped
to draw near to the One so wind-swept,
Spirit-blown, tempest-tendered,
The ‘Thou’ who all my love has ended.

 

Sit back and receive from God


And we think we are being called to greater efforts in hospitality, but we are not listening to Luke, we are not listening to Jesus in the gospel sections. Jesus is calling us to the opposite.

Hospitality was one of the key virtues in Jesus’ society. I would like to think it is one of the key virtues in ours. Last week the gospel began with an example of a Samaritan village refusing to give hospitality to the disciples en route to Jerusalem. Then Jesus tells the Scripture scholar the story of a Samaritan who did treat his neighbour with hospitality. Or at least that’s how the story is usually interpreted. ‘Go and do thou likewise.’

But as so often with Jesus, there’s a twist. The neighbour has become not the one receiving hospitality, but the one giving hospitality. How are we to treat our neighbour? Our neighbour in this case is the Samaritan, the stranger giving us hospitality. How do we receive the gift of kindness from strangers? Especially strangers who we are pre-programmed to distrust, even hate?

In the story, we are called primarily not to be good Samaritans, as worthy as that vocation is, but to  learn to be recipients.

Luke provides a similar twist in today’s gospel concerning Mary and Martha. All the usual interpretations about our hospitality to Jesus – are the tea and scones perfectly cooked and well-supplied? Are we ready to focus on spiritual teaching? Are women important in the church? are secondary issues. The primary issue, it seems to me, is how are we to receive the hospitality of Jesus to us?

In a sense, Mary in the story gives the clue. She is prepared to be a guest in her own home. She is prepared to allow Jesus to host her in Mary and Martha’s family home.

We are always too anxious, like Martha, to get things right. But these two stories are saying that God already has got things right. He is inviting us into the heart of his universe. He is the host. He is the one offering hospitality. And it is not always easy to receive, but what gifts are ours if we are open to God’s hospitality to us. What healing at the roadside; what feeding, what divine spiritual teaching, all are ours. The first action is to let God be God, let God be host, and to prepare to be not in control, not in charge, but to allow God to lead and provide.

 

[Luke 10:38-42 and Luke 10:25-37]

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Image courtesy: https://thevirtualabbey.wordpress.com/category/ora-et-labora/

For Freedom Christ Has Set Us Free


The hymn I wrote last year was sung at the Eucharist marking the 40th celebration of my ordination and that of Chris Albany and Len Firth. Len preached on Galatians 5, which comes around again in today’s lectionary.

For freedom Christ has set us free,
love’s energy to celebrate;
For freedom Christ has set us free,
love’s energy to demonstrate.

We thank you, Lord, for your good grace,
for people loved, for teachers taught;
for insights into who you are;
for all our growth in heart and thought.

We walk in step with you, good Lord,
your Spirit shows us how to live.
You grace our lives with love and joy,
and give us courage all to give.

We go in faith to live for you,
to spread your love, to preach your grace.
Take our hands and guide our feet,
and lead us till we see you face.

For freedom Christ has set us free,
love’s energy to celebrate;
For freedom Christ has set us free,
love’s energy to elevate.

 

  • Ted Witham TSSF 2015

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