The loss of faith has a downside

Stephen Baxter, MC


The Tasmanian Parliamentary Prayer Breakfast is an annual event where leaders from across Tasmania gather to pray for our State and listen to a guest speaker. Each year I have the opportunity to provide a short introduction. The following is what I said in 2017 titled, “The loss of faith has a downside.”

Tasmanian Parliamentary Prayer Breakfast | August 16, 2017

As we begin this morning, it is important we take a few moments to reflect on why we gather.

Over the past 12 years the breakfast has carved out a unique niche on the civic landscape of our state. It is a place where leaders from government, business, not-for-profits, community groups and the church gather on neutral ground to honour each other, hear a Christian talk about their life, work and trust in Jesus, and pray for our state, our leaders, our institutions and our people.

It is a unique niche, away from our churches and denominations, away from our politics and lobbying, away from the issues of the day that weigh on our minds – it is a place where we venture to respect one another and treat each other as equals before God, no matter our traditions, political persuasion or beliefs. We work to make it a safe space.

The context of this year’s breakfast is, if nothing, interesting. We are to have a postal plebiscite to determine whether the historical definition of marriage will be changed, with the potential implications for freedom of religion, and we have received results from the 2016 Census revealing Tasmanians are the least religious people in the country – 53% claim religious affiliation and 49.7% associate themselves with Christianity.

For many, including myself, the figures were not a shock but a relief. Finally, the Census is beginning to clearly reflect the decades long, broad trend away from nominalism, family tradition and ‘cultural’ Christianity.

In the middle of last century almost every Australian connected to the church in one way or another. Around 45% attended regularly, so it was common to know someone who went to church. Today, just 15% attend regularly leaving many Australians with little or no firsthand experience of the church.

Over the years, these changes have left some Christians dislocated, lost and struggling to come to grips with life in secular, pluralist Australia. Some are still learning they can’t pretend Australia is a “Christian country” or the clock can be turned back, or that Christian values should be the preferred option of all Australians.

We struggle when our beliefs and values are caricatured and mocked; we are dismayed when they are overlooked in public policy discussions, and we are confused when we are branded bigots for just trying to explain our faith. We feel it when journalists and progressive activists portray us as “the new barbarians and enemies of progress.”

Nevertheless, we don’t stop praying for our State and its flourishing. While we acknowledge others have fundamentally different visions of what flourishing means, our prayers are nevertheless filled with concern – not for what WE have lost, but for what our community is losing.

Many make this point and Paul Kelly, in the Weekend Australian of July 8-9, described it this way. “The reality is staring us in the face. Yet it cannot be spoken, cannot be entertained, cannot be discussed because there is no greater heresy and no more offensive ­notion than that the loss of Christian faith might have a downside.”

While some are pleased believing society has ‘grown up’ and we are finally free of the shackles of religion, others are not so convinced, particularly in the light of many atheistic tyrannies of the 20th century.

The foundations of Western society are built on the teachings of Jesus. They are clear and easy to understand espousing life, joy, forgiveness, freedom, tolerance and justice. These are good for all and we are a poorer society when we reject their source.

This alone is a compelling reason for us to pray. Not to force a Christian way of life upon our community, but to ask for wisdom for our leaders… that they consider well this “downside”, that they don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater and that they seriously consider what their decisions will mean for our children and our grandchildren. We pray our leaders may be granted wisdom, patience, empathy and grace.

And I pray for the church. We have not always been faithful to the teachings of Jesus. Too often, those who profess to follow him have lived quite contrary to his teaching. Many have failed him, just like his first disciples, and still others who confess him have betrayed him. Sometimes our churches have not been safe places

But that doesn’t stop us from praying. For if nothing, at the heart of the teaching of Jesus is the need to receive and give forgiveness, to love each other as we love ourselves, and to do unto others as we would have them do to us. We would be better leaders, a better church and a better community if we could all do that.

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