by Miriam English
Note: The next several chapters occur roughly simultaneously. - Miriam
Harry parked his car at the side of the narrow access road, got out, tucked his umbrella under his arm, straightened his suit, and walked the short distance to the entrance of the botanic gardens. It always felt fresh and alive here, but that was enhanced further today by the dampness still in the air. It had rained lightly less than an hour ago and everything was wet. It made the air so sweet.
The gardens stretched away beyond the large, sandstone gateposts and the open wrought-iron gates. It was an oasis in the middle of the city. Harry used to walk often here, but hadn't visited in far too long. He was very glad that they'd agreed on this venue.
He walked at a gentle pace. He wasn't young anymore, even though he always made an effort to stay trim and fit. He looked young for seventy six, but he was starting to feel his age lately. It wasn't far to the meeting spot so he stepped off the pavement to walk on the wet lawn. Walking on short, soft, springy grass took a little more effort, but was so much more pleasant. He looked around, drinking in the scenery, then drew a deep breath, savoring the scents and resolved to visit the gardens more often. They gave him such peace and comfort.
Rounding some shrubs he could see her sitting on a bench beside the lake watching the ducks. As he approached she must have caught a glimpse of him from the corner of her eye because she turned and stood. When he was close enough she held out her hand and smiled. "Father Harold, you are looking well." She was stocky, though not fat, with shortish gray hair, piercing gray eyes, rosy cheeks and no makeup or jewellry. She wore plain gray pants, white blouse, and wide, flat, sensible shoes.
He shook her hand and returned the smile. "Thank you. Please Sister, it has been many years since I was in the pulpit. You must call me Harry."
She nodded, "Very well. And you should call me Isabel." She sat again, gesturing to the surroundings, "A beautiful place for a meeting. What is it you wanted to talk with me about, Harry?"
He sat too, propping his umbrella against the seat between them. "I have been an admirer of your work for a very long time. Your words reach a very wide audience, crossing all boundaries of religion, gender, ethnicity, and class. Your integrity and the way you stand up for what is right, regardless of church doctrine is something that resonates strongly with people from all walks of life."
She looked at him doubtfully, "Do I sense a 'but' coming?"
He laughed. "No, not at all. It is exactly these qualities that are required and why I need to speak with you."
"There are many good people in the church and outside it. I don't think I'm particularly deserving of your nice words, but please... what's on your mind Harry?"
He nodded. "Yes. To the point. There are moves afoot to end the tax-free status of the church." He licked his lips, looking a little nervous. "May I ask what is your opinion of this?"
Isabel glanced at him then stood. She put her hands behind her back and walked the few steps to the lake edge. She stood there for a few seconds before turning back to Harry. "I have to say I haven't really given it a lot of thought. It doesn't really strike me as terribly important."
"May I try to convince you that it is indeed extremely important?"
She raised her eyebrows and waited.
"The church is not well, people are leaving. They don't attend services anymore, and atheism is on the rise. We need to help the church. Many people, including some of today's popular atheists, like Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and others, have been working hard to convince many people that the church should be taxed." He paused and looked at her. "I agree with them."
Isabel grinned. "Well, well. This is interesting. Please tell me how the famous Father Harold Bjell comes to agree with the likes of Christopher Hitchens."
He smiled a little embarrassed and waved the comment away. "I had a bit of a profile once, but certainly not fame." He stood too, holding his umbrella like a walking stick. "Shall we walk while I explain my reasoning?"
"That would be nice."
After several steps, he began, "As I say, people are leaving the church at an accelerating rate. We are seen by some as corrupt and by many as out of step with the times. They are right. The church doesn't serve God anymore. It has become idolatrous, blinded by rigid structure and outdated rules. It worships itself and a book -- a special book, but nevertheless, just a book. It should instead be celebrating God. Naturally people are losing faith in it -- they should. The church has become one of the wealthiest organisations on Earth, yet what use does God have for money? Some small amount is given to the poor, but most stays locked up within the church's coffers. Even those funds that are directed toward the poor are wasted mostly on the church bureaucracy. Secular aid organisations like Oxfam are far more effective at helping people. The scandals regarding pedophilia and the scurrilous attempts to ferret the offenders away to inflict them on other, unsuspecting communities show deep moral erosion. The sexist agenda of the church, its discrimination against gay people, and its lack of concern for women's control over their own bodies -- these things are also glaringly wrong. Information coming to light of the Christian church being involved in atrocities in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and the Sudan chill me and others to the bone, bringing back memories of the church's enthusiastic support of the Nazis' murderous campaigns. Late-night television displays numerous con-artists fleecing viewers with pseudo-religious platitudes. And don't get me started on the way many churches have come to fester with bigotry, feeding people's racism and all manner of small-minded hates -- promoting the murder of people at abortion clinics, the killing and bashing of gays, and racial and religious intolerance." He stopped, drawing a deep breath, realising Isabel was looking at him with a certain intensity and a little smile tugging at her mouth.
"My... you seemed to need to get that out," she said. "I can see how you achieved so much back when you used to preach. I regret never having seen you."
He smiled, a little embarrassed again. "It's been... ummm... on my mind."
"So," she said, "how does taxing the church help with these things? Though I have a feeling I can already see the direction of your thinking."
Harry looked up at the uniformly gray, overcast sky. "Divesting the church of some of its wealth, as taxes, will greatly help society. People are stuggling in today's economy. Helping to lessen the load on them is one of the things the church should be doing. There is no virtuous case for the church not contributing taxes. Also, the tax-exempt status has notoriously attracted all manner of charlatans, crooks, and flim-flam men into peddling religion. Tax would do a lot to clean our house and put it in order."
Isabel cautioned, "Paying taxes might also give some corrupt churches an added opportunity to pressure politicians."
"Yes, I've worried about that too, and try as I might, I can come up with no solution to it. However, at worst, those churches already do that, so it would probably change those practices little. At best the pressure on funds and the need to keep proper account of money might put some of the more repellent churches out of business, and pull some others into line."
Isabel said, "I've often argued for openness in the church. Society has been opening up many things to critical scrutiny in recent years, and benefitting greatly from it. An open church could shine a healing light on some of its more dirty sores. It seems to me that opening the books to tax would go a long way to help with that."
Harry nodded, "Checks and balances."
They walked on the lawn in silence for a minute or two. Some bird was calling on the other side of the lake and some unseen children were gleefully playing nearby. A teenage couple were reading books lying on a blanket spread on the damp grass.
Harry said, "Isabel, have you heard of the work of Gregory S. Paul?"
"No, I don't think so."
"In 2005 the Journal of Religion and Society published the results of his study comparing many of society's ills with degree of religious belief. Isabel, it turns out that there is a direct relationship between religiosity and such social ills as murder, infant mortality, sexually transmitted disease, abortions, and all manner of things -- exactly the things religion is supposed to help prevent... but actually worsens." Harry stopped walking and drew a deep, shaky breath. This clearly affected him deeply. "The church today is very ill. It has lost its way. It far too often causes conflict and division in society instead of repairing it. I can't tell you how much this worries me. I've devoted my life to the church, and it gives me great pain to see it becoming the very antithesis of all I hold dear. I know there are still a great many good people in the church -- you are one such -- so I'm forced to ask why it is all going so very wrong. And more importantly, what we can do to fix things."
Isabel thought for a while. "It distresses me too. Religion is too important to let bigots and extremists destroy it."
"Yes," Harry said. "It has often seemed to me that the atheists are our greatest allies. They perform a great service for us in making us honestly examine our beliefs. They prevent us being duped by superstition. Biologists, in explaining evolution, clarify the beauty and wonder of God in the world around us. And these new AIs that have been spreading through the world's computers -- they force us to consider other species as having those qualities we like to think of as a soul."
She turned to him. "Have you spoken with one of them, Harry?"
"I have. It's one of the reasons I'm here today." He began to speak, but stopped and thought again. "When I came to understand how utterly good the AI was, I began to realise just how far the church had gone astray."
"I've had the good fortune of chatting with one too," she said. "I've often worried that we humans don't have the wisdom to survive our pettiness when it's armed with some of the fearsome weapons science and technology provide. However the AI gave me hope. With their help I think we will pull through."
Harry looked at the beautiful gardens around them. "I certainly hope so. People can do such marvellous things when we really try."
"And yes, Harry. I'll add my voice to those calling for taxing the church. Thank you so much for explaining your thoughts to me."