The decision by Lotterywest to reject a grant application to assist the community outreach food program at tennis legend Margaret Court’s church on the basis of its public stance on same sex marriage, is not really all that surprising. Although Court herself is disappointed.
Why is it not surprising? Because it’s a sign of the times. Increasingly – and soon exclusively – any church applications for public coffers grant money will be be tied to a raft of social sign-offs that orthodox Christians will not sign off on, or will do so for the sake of a bowl of red stew.
Lotterywest not only turned down the application but made it clear that the rejection was not on the basis of merit or need, but solely on the basis of the well known pastor’s equally well-known views on same sex marriage.
Lotterywest asks this question of itself on its website:
Well we know what it doesn’t support.
As reported in The West Australian newspaper, Lotterywest, which makes its money primarily through Lotto payments, stated that it would not assist with any outreach programs that the church runs for this same reason.
Margaret Court returned the kicker serve with this statement: “We help and support people of all faiths, all races, all beliefs and all sexual orientations … we are very shocked at the position they’ve taken, and shocked they are prepared to disadvantage Perth’s needy over differing political views.”
This raises a number of interesting and complex matters.
1. Sex is society’s shibboleth
When it comes to the public square or public funds we are increasingly in or out, permitted or cancelled, promoted or sidelined, funded or defunded, on the basis of our understandings and convictions around sex. This much is clear. Sex is society’s shibboleth. We get cut down, or are given a pass, depending on what we admit to on this matter.
And it won’t simply be public figures who make big public statements that groups such as Lotterywest will withhold funding goodwill from. That’s the start. Court is an easy target because she has made herself so.
This will soon no longer be newsworthy as it will become the norm when applying for such grants. You will be asked your views on a whole range of social matters. Grants, placements, promotions; these will increasingly be predicated on your stance on such matters. Keeping your head down won’t be an option. Everyone will want to see the fine print.
Now I hold to the same understanding of marriage as Margaret Court. Any formation of a covenant of marriage not between a man and a woman is, as the Bible makes clear, not marriage. Having said that, Court is a polarising figure, and that she goes hard on this issue publicly in such a way that she leaves her opponents no wiggle room. It should come as no surprise to her.
And it would also be easy to say that the broad evangelical/pentecostal movement has not so much pitched a positive vision of what marriage is, as a negative vision of what it is not. But let’s not just blame Margaret Court, the “No” campaign pitch was pretty poor.
This is not about politics, it is about religion.
But what she does not get right, is her claim as to why the application was rejected. It is not over “differing political views”, as she says.
This is not about politics, it is about religion. Or more to the point, a clash between two gospels – two versions of good news for humanity. Lotterywest rejected the application not because they think Court’s and Victory Life Church’s views are wrong, but because Lotterywest thinks those views are bad.
Lotterywest thinks those views are the opposite of the image it is attempting to pitch of itself – that of a good news organisation that helps humanity flourish. Court’s views are a threat to that vision.
The vision of human flourishing that the biblical framework of marriage pitches, and its telos, is in direct competition with the Sexular Age. And government institutions have signed up to this new competitor with relish.
The only shock to me is that Margaret Court and Victory Life are shocked about it. The conversation has clearly been going in this direction for some time. They – and we – need to learn from this and see the direction this is headed. Perhaps Margaret believed she was too important to reject. The rest of we small-fry are not so confident in ourselves.
As Mark Sayers observes in Disappearing Church, we can be as involved in as many social justice campaigns and community endeavours as we like, our position on sexual ethics or the exclusive claims of Jesus increasingly render us beyond the pale. We will no longer be able to make up for our refusal to sign off on the sexual shibboleth by being better at giving out free food.
None of this is a lament, or a gnashing of teeth, just a statement about how we will need to navigate the public square, and the expectations we should have of our acceptance, or otherwise, within it. No amount of good deeds will overcome the stench of biblical ethics in the nostrils of our public institutions, as Margaret Court is finding out.
2. Gambling money used to be problematic!
It’s a short observation, but gambling used to be a no-no for Christians, and certainly addictive gambling. The fact that churches and other faith groups are going cap in hand to an organisation that makes its money from gambling, is something of a curiosity to me.
Lotterywest’s advertising is squeaky clean, and full of compassion and lightheartedness. Lotterywest is here to help you. Lotterywest is your friend. The community’s friend. All of its advertising pitches itself as shiny and happy, with lots of smiling faces and grateful grant recipients in clubs and organisations.
Except the only reason Lotterywest can help such groups is that thousands of people – millions – give up money every week that they could otherwise spend on a more sure return (food, petrol, being generous, etc). They do so in the hope they will win enough money to free them up from their worries, their debts, their lack of wish-fulfilment. Lotterywest is being generous with other people’s money.
Too harsh? Perhaps. But oh the irony of having to feed a family devastated by the gambling addiction of the chief bread winner with goods purchased by Lotterywest grant money. If anything screams out “circular economy” to me it’s a Lotterywest grant.
I am not sure how a church can effectively distance itself from the ramifications of asking Lotterywest for money. It feels a bit icky to me. Taking money from a bad source.
Which is exactly how Lotterywest feels about giving money to Margaret Court’s church – it’s a bad source! It doesn’t want to be involved in pumping money into Victory Life in one area of its ministry, if that frees the church up to put its money into other areas of its ministry, such as the preaching and teaching ministry that affirms a biblical ethic of sex.
3. Weaning the church from the teat of the state
I think this rejection by Lotterywest should be a lesson for the church to start weaning itself from the state’s teat. I’ve written previously about how we ought to be preparing as churches for a more hostile lockdown – or lock out – and this signals that those days are coming.
And this has a negative and positive side to it.
First the negative. What is at this moment a reactive hostile stance by a government institution is the harbinger of a more proactive hostile stance in the future. You want to use that public school for your church plant? Let’s see your statement of faith first. We don’t want to be hosting bigots. And can we have a listen to some of your online sermons?
I am looking forward to reading Rod Dreher’s new book Live Not By Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents, in which he argues that soft totalitarian power will change the nature of the relationship between state and church.
Expect increasing interference in all but the most privatised of religious practices. Expect to be rejected from public employment roles, government monies, and funding.
Just expect it. It’s already happening. Just not to you. Yet. To think it won’t happen, will leave you ill-prepared to be a dissident.
To think it won’t, will leave you dumbfounded and discombobulated when it does. Like those liberal professors in the Humanities departments of universities who thought their progressive ideas would protect them from being cancelled or being forced to resign.
The best line from The West Wing is a joke: “What’s the definition of a conservative? A mugged liberal.”
The pages of many a conservative journal are filled with the anguished “It happened to me too!” articles from former academic critics of those very same journals.
Expect professional peak bodies to reject your application to join in order to receive the accreditation you need to practice. You will need to put a pinch of incense on the altar and mutter “Caesar is Lord”. You will be required to sign off on the sexual shibboleths within the documentation. This requirement will have a flow on effect for schools, places of higher learning, etc.
It already is. Just look at how Trinity Western University eventually ran out of appeal options in when the legal profession in Canada refused to recognise its students legal qualifications, on the basis of the university’s statement of faith and practice.
It’s time to get our houses in order. We can’t say we haven’t seen the signs.
But there’s a positive side too. Have a read of David Brooks’ stunning but frightening long form essay in the latest online version of The Atlantic. Although focussed on the USA, his diagnosis of the fracturing and dismantling of communal trust, the collapse of ideas around the common good or commonweal is applicable across the West. He calls this the age of disappointment in one place, and the (capital letters) Age of Precarity elsewhere. Everything is teetering.
Brooks observes: “In the age of disappointment, people are less likely to be surrounded by faithful networks of people they can trust.”
He unpacks how the lack of trust in our culture is tearing societal fabric apart. And he can see no earthly solution.
He makes this lament: “Renewal is hard to imagine. Destruction is everywhere, and construction difficult to see. The problem goes beyond Donald Trump. The stench of national decline is in the air. A political, social, and moral order is dissolving. America will only remain whole if we can build a new order in its place.”
Sounds like Rome in Benedict’s day.
So it sounds like a chance for the church to recover a gospel vision of generosity and open-handedness even as those around it fall apart. Lotterywest garners more millions from even more desperate people in the vain search for even more security in a less secure world. But it can’t stop the rot. No amount of shiny advertising can.
Churches – including Victory Life Church – can demonstrate collectively that our hopes are not in this age, nor are they in Caesar’s coin. Our hopes are for renewal within the church that will bleed out into the culture in small, seemingly imperceptible ways. Something about yeast in dough, or mustard seeds in gardens.
Perhaps Victory Life can start that process by digging deep in church on Sunday and coming up with the money itself the new refrigerated van it requires for its burgeoning meals program. Gospel money, not gambling money, will make that van run sweet.
This is not to say that church community is not generous, it clearly is. But as Paul – in 2 Corinthians 8 – reminds us, often the best generosity comes out of ones own deep need, and in light of the same gospel whose ethic teaches that marriage is between a man and a woman.
All churches and faith based organisations need to steel themselves for the days ahead, especially the financial days ahead in this precarious age. If our own personal comfort is our primary goal as God’s people then we will not last long. We will reduce God to the level of a cosmic Lotto ball draw, hoping against hope we picked the winning numbers to get us the good stuff from on high.
Lotterywest boasts that it gives millions to community organisations. But here’s what it cannot do in these increasingly fractured times: create community.
Across the West community organisations are being shredded by the same lack of trust that Brooks speaks of. Clubs and associations are dying.
People are not only “bowling alone”, as Robert Putnam’s famous book put it, they are, increasingly, living alone, having sex alone, eating alone and dying alone.
The culture is gambling on that changing some time soon. I’m with David Brooks, I don’t see it changing for the better any time soon.
But I do see the church of Jesus Christ as a beacon of light – self-sustaining financially, but only because it is sustained spiritually by his power in the midst of a spiritual wasteland.
And it’s a spiritual wasteland in which, as Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf puts it, “our satisfied self is our best hope”. A spiritual wasteland in which Saturday night Lotto around the bouncing ping pong balls, rather than Sunday morning gathering around Jesus and his people, is the hope of a vast swathe of a luckless community.
First published at stephenmcalpine.com. Republished with permission.