Ian Henschke’s article, “Why we need to tax the costly joke of religion” in the in SA Weekend November 24-25 set off a range of print and talk-back radio responses. I was prompted to ask if this media discourse was designed to stimulate debate, increase paper sales or appeal to those who generalise about “religion” assuming that Australia’s many expressions of faith are guilty of tax evasion!
Comments from talk-back listeners indicated lack of firsthand experience and understanding about the commitment churches bring to local communities and society at large. Maybe memory loss is another explanation for the misunderstandings this debate has brought to light.
Christian churches and their service agencies are tax exempt (council rates included) as they are not-for-profit organisations, not a money making business meeting the expectation of shareholders. They serve by maintaining a wide range of non-government services, including aged care, unemployment support, emergency relief and health-related programmes.
Almost any week ABC TV’s mental health documentaries and reports conclude with a reference to Lifeline services. This Australia-wide 24-hour crisis support line was founded in 1963 by the late Rev. Dr Alan Walker, superintendent of the Wesley Methodist Mission in Sydney, and involved many church members as phone counsellors. “This service (13 11 14) now answers around 1,800 calls each day, with around 50 calls from people at high risk of suicide.” Lifeline’s services are now made possible through the efforts of around 1,000 staff and 11,000 volunteers, operating from over 60 locations nationwide.” https://www.lifeline.org.au/about-lifeline/lifeline-information/lifelines-living-history
Do many Australians know that the respected outback Royal Flying Doctor Service is celebrating 90 years? This service was founded by Rev. John Flynn of the Australian Inland Mission in response to work accidents and those living in remote and isolated rural communities. The story of this venture, “a mantle of safety”, is recorded on their web site. https://www.flyingdoctor.org.au/about-the-rfds/history/
Many South Australians experience the care and hospitality of a wide range of not-for-profit aged care homes and services. For more than 40 years the Uniting Church has developed and built on the ministry of its previous denominations. Resthaven, for example, is one of many aged care services providing accommodation and home support for an ageing population. Founded by the Methodist church in 1932, the church “embarked on a vision to alleviate the suffering of the many elderly people who….had no home or family to care for them as they became frail and aged.” https://www.resthaven.asn.au/about-us/history/
In addition to these national and state-wide institutions we cannot underestimate or ignore the many local congregations who provide affordable spaces for neighbourhood groups to meet and support those who are socially isolated and without nearby family members. UCA and other neighbourhood churches of all denominations do not meet only on a Sunday. Many are adventurous, innovative and generous in and through their weekday programmes in hosting and initiating programmes for neighbours to discover a sense of place and experience belonging. Most are not private clubs based on selective membership, but are public churches open to those who walk in off the street and who are looking for others to work with in building a better world. The list of groups and self-help services is endless as volunteers partner with neighbours in providing places to meet and groups that greet!
The prayerful words of Michael Leunig are a helpful way to describe the gifts shared and given in helping our neighbourhoods become great friendly places to live and work.
Fill this place… that it may be a sanctuary, a wayside place for all people. A shelter, a place of refuge to bind up the broken-hearted, a place of welcome and hospitality.
Here we meet to give thanks, to enter into binding relationships with one another, to rally for a cause, to confront injustice, to wait upon the Spirit.
Here we are encouraged to seek a purpose, to be challenged and invited to discern new directions and priorities for our life.
Rev. Dr Dean Eland