I’ve just finished reading the book In Tasmania by Nicholas Shakespeare winner of the 2007 Tasmanian Book Prize. Hailed by some as a “brilliant account of 200 years of Tasmanian history” and others as “a limp, reticent tour guide,” Shakespeare’s rambling portrait spans the transformation of Van Diemen’s Land, the epitome of hell on earth at the time, to Tasmania, the second Garden of Eden.
Though recently migrated from England, Shakespeare’s book traces his links with Tasmania through distant relatives. Through a series of short and non-chronological narratives he weaves together a personal journey exploring his forebears and Tasmanian history. Telling the story of a distant relative, Anthony Fenn Kemp, of Kempton fame, (1773 –1868), who is sometimes called the ‘father of Tasmania’ Shakespeare explains of the plight of indigenous Tasmanians along with the Tasmanian tiger and the Tasmanian devil, and describes famous Tasmanians such as Errol Flynn, Merle Oberon, and the ‘keg on legs’ David Boon.
As I read the book I was struck by how little the church or Christianity feature in Shakespeare’s story. A quick look at the index shows no entry for ‘church’, Anglican, Methodist, Baptist or any other denomination. Religion does not rate a mention although Christianity has one reference of no more than a page, which is about the same size as the Miss Tasmania Quest and New Town Road. A quick read shows his page on Christianity is no more than a hackneyed caricature of Christians as wowsers.
Benjamin, the last Tasmanian tiger, fares much better with six mentions and over 10 pages of narrative. In contrast to the Church, Freemasonry and Temperance Societies score well. A couple of individual churches get a mentioned but only in passing because of the events that took place there. Church ministers are sparingly mentioned except for Rev Robert Knopwood who receives a good deal of attention perhaps only because of his character. Shakespeare describes him as a “zealous flogger, a man fond of drink and swearing who had squandered his £90,000 inheritance at the gambling table.”
Shakespeare is far more concerned with the effect of the ozone layer on Tasmania than the effect of the church. But I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, his silence on Church and Christianity just reflects current community attitudes. Where once the church was at the centre of the community’s life, it is now relegated to the edges. Australians have switch off the church and it doesn’t figure in their thinking. Current publicity of sexual abuse in the church has only served to deepened community suspicion. Despite the fact that throughout the past 200 years in Tasmanian the church has had significance influence, it is almost invisible to most in our community. If it is noticed it is with negative connotations.
The past 30-50 years has witness a significant cultural paradigm shift across the Western world that has changed the way people think about and approach life. For the majority of Australians today the church is a relic of the past ‘slipping off the landscape’ of their consciousness. They no longer see any use for the church in their lives. The church is not surprisingly losing numbers, influence and presence.
Initially, the societal changes caught the church unaware and we failed to grasp the implications of its effect on our witness. We went backwards, not only numerically but influentially. The loss is not all our fault, it was external to us, but it has shocked us. More recently, in the light of growing media scrutiny and hostility and in the face of shrinking church membership and attendance, we are increasingly aware that ‘business as usual’ is not going to restore us to where they were and we need to adapt to the new situation.
Although people need Jesus as much as they ever have and our call to witness for Jesus has not changed the seismic shift in our culture implores us to be witnesses in new and relevant ways. Despite what we may feel, our biggest challenge is not our losses, but representing God at the place of people’s needs and making God’s message relevant to them.
This is no easy task. Called to witness in a community that has turned off and no longer wants to listen has its challenges. Yet it is not so different from what Christians have faced since the early church. In fact, Baptists in Tasmania in the past have faced similar challenges.
Statistics show that in the early 1870s 0.9% of Tasmanians called themselves Baptists. Today the percentage is 1.7%. That difference, although not significantly different is enough to suggested that witnessing to Jesus in the 1870s was just as difficult, if not more so, than it is today. In fact Baptists in Hobart barely existed 1870s and the work was virtually non-existent.
An enormous change took place, however, with the arrival of the Rev. Robert McCullough in 1883 from Spurgeon’s College, England. That small group of Baptists faced considerable hurdles given they were almost starting afresh. After being locked out of the Exhibition building, Robert McCullough’s Baptists bought land which today we know as Hobart Baptist Church. The first building was a bush chapel made of sawdust floors, rough timber walls and ragged tarpaulins. It was nicknamed the ‘shedifice.’
Robert McCullough, along with his fellow Spurgeon College graduates, provided a much needed boost to Baptist witness across Tasmania. Within a decade of their arrival in the 1870s and 1880s, the number of Baptists in Tasmania had risen from below 1% to over 2% in 1890, rising to 2.5% in 1901. Despite their small number and trying circumstances the church grew.
There is much in their example that we can draw inspiration from. Although our hurdles are different and maybe just as formidable, their vision, courage and perseverance are a cause for encouragement. Although times have changed, God hasn’t. The Holy Spirit is still at work and Jesus is still building his church.
As I came to the end of Shakespeare’s “In Tasmania” I reflected on how we are all ‘in’ Tasmania. God is not a God of chance and the challenges facing the Church do not take God by surprise. Although it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking the hurdles are too high with too many forces working against us, God is not discouraged. Although it is easy to fall prey to believing I haven’t anything to contribute, God has called us for a purpose. What is more, we have the example of those who have gone before us to spur us on. With them we are those who follow the God of the resurrection, of bring life out of death, of bringing hope out of despair.
I’m thankful for the courage, foresight and perseverance of those of past generations. May we be of the same character and prayerfulness as we endeavour in making God known, felt and heard in our families, schools and community in our day. God has not finished with his church, nor has he finished with Tasmania, nor has he finished with me.
Stephen L Baxter