Monday, November 23, 2009

Generosity and a contracting Church

A number of things have happened in the past few weeks that have caused, and are causing, me to think about Church and what it means to be The Church in these villages, and indeed what it means to be The Church. We had, a couple of weeks ago, a thought provoking and successful Mission Community Away Day which contained a Bible Study on Ephesians 4 and some discussions of the marks of a healthy Church (the Natural Church Development (NCD) version rather than the somewhat narrow and negative Reformed Church version, but that's a discussion for another time and one I really can't be bothered with as I disagree so very much with the nine point plan put forward by some more conservative commentators).

It came out on that day, and has come out in meetings since, that we are called to be a generous Church, not a penny pinching, number crunching, self referential body obsessed with attendance and whether or not we want to pay for the ministry we receive.

The reason for saying that is because after this positive, warm, uplifting day I went to another meeting, this time of Deanery Synod which left a very sad and indeed disturbing impression upon me. We had an exceptional and encouraging presentation from our regional Bible Society representative which gave a very positive report of the work of simply spreading the Bible and allowing people to make their own minds up in the face of Scripture. I am a great believer in Biblical interpretation and theology, but the act of giving people Bibles and allowing God to speak to them through the words therein and the working of the Holy Spirit is an incredibly powerful way of sharing the life of faith, and this work is paying off in the work of the Bible Society throughout the world.

After this inspiring and encouraging talk we soon hit what felt like a spiritual brick wall. The Synod (and for those who are unfamiliar with the governance of the Church of England, a Synod is a collection of representatives that make decisions for an area within the Church and a Deanery is a collection of Churches within a particular geographical area, usually about thirty or so Churches) discussed the bane of every church member's life, money. It was like all the energy had been sucked out of the room in an instant. People became cagey, unwilling to approve budgets, and expressing all their difficulties in raising the finance to keep their churches going. There was criticism of our (incredibly hard working) Rural Dean (a Rural or Area Dean is a member of Clergy elected by other clergy to serve the area of the Deanery and who takes a position on the Bishop's consultative council and responsibility for the ministry within a particular area) and the expenses she claims. This made me all the more frustrated because those expenses are costs incurred in fulfilling her duty of serving the people who were complaining about the cost!!!!

As I watched I could see the room turning inward on itself, not physically but emotionally and, indeed, spiritually. The concern was with the institution of Church not with the Mission of God as shared by God's people, who are The Church. The feelings that came out were to do with 'our Vicar/minister', and 'our money' and 'our building' rather than a love of the communities we are privileged to serve, or a generosity towards those beyond our walls, indeed there was a lack of generosity even to those within the organisation!

Further to this, this evening as we discussed some of the work in our local Church there was a question raised as to whether we should charge for an event we put on rather than offering it free and leaving a basket for donations. I understand entirely the concern that this endeavour needs to be funded and supported but I was worried that a concern only regarding funding seemed to miss the point of sharing generously with non churchgoers the idea of being a loving community, a welcoming community, a generous community. I understood all the more because when this started I was the one who said that we should charge for this event, it came with a meal which had to be paid for by someone and at the time I worried that the cost would be prohibitive. The argument that people value what they have to pay for also came up, and I do understand that too, as it was something I said when it started.

But in a world which does attach monetary value to just about everything, in a world where 'you get what you pay for' seems to be the norm, isn't there a place for giving freely? In fact I would argue that at heart The Church should be renowned for its generosity and for welcome and love freely and wastefully given.

I am reminded of a very good talk I heard by Wesley Carr, then Dean of Westminster Abbey. He talked of the wastefulness of God, the unwarranted and undeserved grace that is at the root of Christian faith. Surely The Church, the body of Christ, should model such generosity in all that we do. I don't mean that we should be stupid, or that we shouldn't be wise stewards of what we have, but that we should have a grounding in grace, it should ooze out of the pores of the people of God. We have been given so much, we should give freely.

I have seen in my years in ministry too many parishes strangled by their own obsession with money and the buildings they have. They contract, they turn inward, they concern themselves with what goes on Sunday by Sunday in their four walls, rather than with a world beyond those walls which is crying out for love and meaning and acceptance and grace. In a small, and perhaps pathetic, way I believe my involvement in the pub at Yarcombe, along with efforts to be a part of local communities is my own miniscule attempt at being the Church beyond the walls of Churches, of just 'getting on with it' and seeking to build community and show the love of Christ, with no strings attached - just as the love of Christ was shared with me many years ago with no strings attached, but with love and faithfulness.

When we obsess about ourselves, the Church contracts. Loving, looking outwards, sharing, faithfulness takes us beyond ourselves and we grow in faith, hope and love and then we truly proclaim the values of God's kingdom, God's life,

This wasn't meant to end up sermon, or a rant (but is probably a fair amount of both). I am passionately committed to The Church, not necessarily to 'Church' which is our often imperfect expression of 'The Church', but I am deeply saddened when I see and experience attitudes which draw us further and further away from the generosity of a God who loves and gives without limit and without any merit in our part. I hope we can discover and share some of what that means in our lives together as the people of God and as followers of Christ.


quilly said...

I am in the process of reading a book that hits on many of your points -- and the book is a comedy, or at least it reads as one until you start grasping the underlying truths. If Heaven were run like church committees, we would all be in serious trouble.

Check out Mercury Falls, by Rob Kroese. (copy & Google, I am not good at leaving links). There's a link to the book in my microfiction post today, too:

Rob is a dedicated believer and has worked as finance chair in his local church for sometime. His experiences lead him to pen, Mercury Falls. I think you can relate to the reverent irreverence of this story.

And as a more personal response, I grew up in the church and expect such reactions (that doesn't mean I condone them). Amoeba did not grow up in the church and when things disintegrate to squabbles over money or power, he is seriously disillusioned and hurt. Such things seriously damage his fragile faith. (Scientist, can't prove it ...)

Melli said...

Vicar - I am a firm believer that "outreach" should never COST those you are reaching out to. But sOMeone does have to finance the things that go on in a church. I don't think it would be UNreasonable to ask the congregation to PAY for the event - in order to support it - but to offer it freely to "other members of the community". In this way, the project is funded (you charge the members a bit more than it should cost - and they cover the cost of the non-members.) Of course, that doesn't stop the squabbling over the financial issues... those are always going to be around I think. But we (as THE CHURCH) do have to take on the financial responsibility of outreach!

Money is always an issue - at work, at home, at church... it's so sad.

Nick said...

I can't stop thinking of Malachi 3. That's the one where God tells his people that by holding back on their obligations to him and hoarding their tithes... it had a knock on effect in the blessing he pours out.

Jesus reinforced the message himself when speaking of God and Mammon... a lesson that Ananias and Sapphira learned at great personal cost, just a few years down the line (obviously that wasn't about not giving up all their cash... but pretending they were giving more than they were, to give the impression they were... whilst still living it up).

And then there's the flip side.

I remember many years ago (shortly after the 90's recession), seeing a video about a Church of England parish in Scotland... that when the towns local economy collapsed (it was a fishing village and there was no money to send out the boats), the Church out of it's own resources employed the townsfolk to do odd jobs around the parish (mending fences and general handyman work). It put bread on the table for many families and eventually... people began to come back to the church (where numbers had previously dwindled).

I also know that there are Christian businesses in the world that struggle because some churches look for Christian discounts (I touched on this a couple of years ago).

You're right... and the more the Church focusses on money (be it institutionally at the top... or at grass roots), the more trouble will lie ahead.

Kathryn said...

Great & timely post, Al...And in my communities at least the problem arises from fear...that there won't be enough for "us" if we give generously. It makes me so so sad that these lovely people haven't yet really grasped the limitless generosity of daren't risk generosity themselves.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Thanks for a very interesting post that hits the nail on the head by centring on our attitude to money, not the amount of the stuff we think we've got. As long as this is controlled by fear and the assumption that money is stuff, not energy, we are missing out on a fairly significant part of the sermon on the mount... Once people get it, progress can be made!

AMGallegos said...

>>"They contract, they turn inward, they concern themselves with what goes on Sunday by Sunday in their four walls, rather than with a world beyond those walls which is crying out for love and meaning and acceptance and grace."

I feel exactly the same way. This attitude is too widespread in our churches these days!