We have a treasure in an earthen vessel. The value of the treasure does not change, just because it is held by a bunch of ‘cracked-pots!’
At the Archdeaconry conference, from which I’ve just returned, we had a talk on ‘Stewardship’. It was very interesting, given that we have just had our Stewardship Sunday. The main point of discussion from the point of view of the Old Catholics, with whom we shared the conference, was the Church Tax. They were saying that the existence of the Church tax funds a lot of very efficient social service by the church, but also gives the clergy a certain amount of independence from the free-will giving of the people. On the other hand, in this context, the Anglicans were talking about the fact that sometimes people try to put the clergy over a barrel by threatening to depart with their money. Some congregations, which are dependant on two or three large givers, are frightened to do anything that they might disagree with, for fear that the giving will be affected.
Then we got to talking about some of the realities of giving when it is a free will gift.
One of the issues that was touched on has come up here too. People were talking about all the other demands on their giving: Aid Organisations, Medical Charities, Aid for Christians in Eastern Europe etc. Peter Potter, who gave the initial talk said that the Church of England had looked at this issue and made some recommendations. They are that people should give 10% of their gross income as a first priority, and that it should be divided between Church and other giving 5% and 5%.
So for those people who feel torn between giving to the Church as such, and giving to other organisations, there is a guideline.
But there is other logic at work, which is not very theological logic. One of the dynamics has to do with the person of the priest. People will say ‘I’ll give to you Father because I like you, but I won’t give to him because I do not like him.
Another dynamic which is very powerful is this. People say ‘I do not like this congregation. I do not like the way they treat people, I do not like the way that they have treated X, or Y, so I am not giving money. Here the connection is made between the worthiness of the congregation as demonstrated by its behaviour and the willingness of people to give.
I think that this argument has some weight. A congregation that is genuinely loving and genuinely tries to act in a Christian fashion to one another has to spread this feeling about so that it is contagious. The reputation of such a congregation will spread. A congregation which has a culture of complaint and meanness will also spread this feeling to others. This feeling is one that tends to close people down, rather than open them up.
This was true of the early Church, where the critics of the Church, who thought we were ‘atheists’ for not worshipping the Roman gods at least said ‘But look how these atheists care for one another!’. And in the 1662 Eucharist the prayer of consecration is preceded by words like ‘Let you light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father, who is in heaven.’
This logic goes the other way too. People say ‘I do not agree with the direction that this congregation is taking, so I am withholding my money.’ This way of thinking attends not so much to the inner culture of the congregation, as to the ways that people use to influence the direction of the congregation.
So I do think that if we are not a genuinely loving group, or ass it is sometimes said ‘a slice of redeemed humanity’ we ought to suffer financially, because that is one way of making us responsible for our actions.
But the hard question then is ‘How do we address the issue’?’ How do we say ‘If we want people to give of their time and talents, we need to address how we are with one another?’ This can be done in preaching, and in the principles of operation that are put in place at a structural level. Some Churches I know, for example, make new members sign a covenant that commits them to doing a course in Christianity, and in which they promise not to criticise the leadership with others apart from the legislated forms of exercising influence that the congregation has. Recently, when there were some nasty e.mails circulated, many people responded saying ‘This kind of speech is not what we want here.’ That is an informal way of helping to engender a Christian sensibility within a congregation.
But I am still left with the question ‘Why should I give, even if the Church is in my opinion not worth it?’ In St. Augustine’s time,. There were priests who had given up copies of the scriptures to be burned. In the same congregation there were people who had survived the persecution, but who had relatives and friends who were made martyrs. They said ‘We are not receiving communion from you! You only survived by denying the Lord. Our friends did not. We want a pure priest to give us communion!’
The Church made a very bold decision at that time. It said ‘The validity of a sacrament (the presence of God, available to you!) is not a function of the holiness of the minister, but of the promise of God. If you receive Christ with faith in the sacrament, even though the priest is unworthy, God’s promise to be there, for you, is secure.
Another way of putting this is to use St. Paul’s phrase of our having a treasure in an earthen vessel. The value of the treasure does not change, just because it is held by a bunchof ‘cracked-pots!’
The Church is the only place where the Gospel is proclaimed in word and deed for its own sake. No matter how bad the preaching or how bad the priest, the rest of the words and actions bear God to us because of God’s promise. Every other place has to put the ‘showing forth of Christ’s death until he comes ‘ as a secondary thing. The Church is the only place where this message and presence is available for its own sake, and as a description of and experience of the reality of Christ.
Of course we should try our best to make our inner beings congruent with our outer actions so that the vessels are worthy to carry the treasure. But in the long run I give not because of how the congregation is to me, but because of how God is to me. Giving is in the first instance a response to God.