Missing out on the stamp of approval

Stamps are big business. Stamp use may have passed its heyday, but some 60 million people are avid collectors around the world. And even if you haven’t sent a letter in a while, you will no doubt have a few favourite commemorative stamps lying around; perhaps a special set to celebrate a sporting victory, Australia’s magnificent flora and fauna, or a particular anniversary.

So it may surprise you to discover it is not permissible in Australia to depict a religious organisation on a stamp. I have to confess I was stunned and baffled when I read the Stamps Policy from Australia Post and
also had it confirmed in writing from management.

Please don’t misinterpret me: this is not an outcry about religious persecution

As Bible Society turns 200 in Australia, we have looked at various ways to celebrate and mark the occasion so that all Australians might witness and celebrate an organisation that has been around as long as anyone else, and to which every tenth person I meet seems to have some connection.

When Bible Society turned 150, a series of stamps and envelopes was issued. In 1967, they were four cents each! It seemed a natural thing to do. But 50 years later, it would contravene policy to celebrate our bicentenary in philatelic form.

Please don’t misinterpret me: this is not an outcry about religious persecution. Other groups such as political parties or businesses also cannot be depicted on Australia Post’s stamps, nor can “any subject likely to cause public divisiveness”.

And there’s the problem. By this “don’t rock the boat” principle, Australians miss out on the breadth and character of our history and culture, at least when it comes to stamps.

Why are we so timid in this area, when so many aspects of our society thrive on celebrating difference and making a loud noise about diversity?

Jumping to the “no religion on view” approach seems entirely unjustified

I find it stranger still when I look around the world. In 2013, when the Bible Society in Pakistan turned 150, a national stamp was issued with text about “providing the word of God.” Newspapers there heralded the occasion. And that was in Pakistan, where Christians make up a mere 1.6 per cent of the population!

The Bible Society in Poland, too, turned 200 last year and a lovely stamp was produced. In Germany this year, a stamp featuring Martin Luther’s handwritten Bible translation into the native language was not only produced but paid for by the German Finance Ministry. It’s a matter of national pride.

We might concede that in pluralistic Australia, where Section 116 of the Constitution ensures that government cannot legislate any religious privilege to one religion over another, this makes some sense. But jumping to the “no religion on view” approach seems entirely unjustified and, in fact, bad for the nation’s health.

From the position of birthday revellers, we at Bible Society don’t really mind. Culture changes, and ours is now a very diverse one. And you could still get Christmas stamps last year with delightful and biblical imagery from the nativity stories. There’s no need to rise up in vehement protest.

I’m hoping 2017 will see a new level of openness in Australia

But there’s a reason stamp collecting is popular: stamps represent the culture of the times. They “date” and identify us, visualising our priorities and loves, and disseminating them around the nation for months and years to come, telling us who we are. To ignore the role of religious organisations in our colourful and changing society today skews reality and makes people unnecessarily fearful of issues where we hold differing views.

But that’s nuts. Better to have it all out in the open, on our envelopes and anywhere else we do our communicating. Religion, along with politics and business, too, are all part of who we are as a nation (a stamp to celebrate Westpac’s 200th, perhaps? Or more aptly, a coin).

I’m hoping 2017 will see a new level of openness in Australia to consider the truth, beauty and goodness that we believe Christianity can provide. The more visible we can make the Good Book, the better.

Please help us to stamp the place for good. Thank you to everyone who is supporting Bible Society in our bicentennial year. It’s our privilege to be part of Australia’s history and future!

Greg Clarke is CEO of Bible Society Australia.

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