Faith and Reason: How to cash in on a sense of value: In the sixth article in our series on what it would mean to try to be a just rich man in the modern world, Andrew Brown looks at how churches raise and spend their money.
Saturday 18 July 1992
The Church of England is very rich in terms of assets, but has not enough income for its commitments. Most dioceses of the Catholic Church in this country are in the red, according to a recent survey. The Methodists seriously considered abandoning their Central Hall in London some years ago because they could not afford the running costs.
Yet if you walk into any of the successful evangelical or house churches, the first thing you notice is how much money they have. Their offices can look like advertising agencies more than churches. To some extent this is because they have infinitely fewer commitments than the established churches. A house church with one school or rehabilitation centre attached feels it has accomplished great things; the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Westminster alone has 80,000 pupils in schools to look after. That does not feel like an achievement to be celebrated, but an obligation to be borne. A related point is connected with the ways in which people join churches: those which demand tremendous commitment, and pitch at adults, will naturally seem more important in the lives of their members than those into which you are simply born, or grow up. This is not a reflection of the depth of faith involved, merely on the degree to which it is conscious.
But with all those allowances made, it is still remarkable that some churches can successfully tithe their members, levy money from them, while the First Church Estates Commissioner, Sir Douglas Lovelock, must hold out the begging bowl to Synod, urging members of the Church of England to give an extra 30p a week. For no one seems to expect them to do so. It may be more likely that the Roman Catholic Bishop of Leeds, the Right Rev David Konstant, will get the extra pounds 2m he needs this year. But, if he does, it is unlikely to be because his flock is richer, or even more philanthropically disposed, than that of his Anglican opposite number.
The explanation for his relative success may be more mundane, and of wider application. What he managed to do was to make his appeal dramatic, perhaps even exciting. The real difference between successful and unsuccessful fund-raisers seems to be, as the Archbishop of Canterbury said last week, that the successful ones urge people to buy into a dream. Of course Evangelicals don't have dreams - they have 'visions for' - but with allowances made for jargon, they are selling just as surely as the advertising agencies whose offices theirs resemble.
This is not meant to be snide. Probably the most widely quoted sentence of any clergyman this century is 'I have a dream'. You cannot rely on voluntary effort without enthusing people, and convincing them that they are part of some larger communal whole.
It is all very well to tell the congregation that they are part of the pilgrim people of God, but they must have a sense of where the destination is to be. Nothing, as we know, could be less glamorous or exciting or enthusing than a vicarage, or a vestry, or any of the other appurtenances of a well-endowed church. People will not give generously to support an institution to which they simply belong.
And when they do give to maintain an institution, or to repair the fabric of a church, they prefer to do so in interesting or amusing ways, no matter how little these may be tax-efficient. The Church of England raises nearly as much from jumble sales as from covenanted giving; and obviously would prefer to raise far more from the anonymous brown envelopes to the parish treasurer, with all their neatness and tax advantages.
Yet parishioners stubbornly prefer to organise sales and raffles and silly events, not merely, I suspect, because they are more attractive to outsiders, and to those who take part, but because they are more trouble to organise. Take the trouble, and you feel you have accomplished something worthwhile. It is an unusual mind that can feel a sense of accomplishment on signing a standing order.
At a time when ever more strained activities are invented solely as photo-opportunities - I await without interest a press release announcing that someone will be windsurfing backwards to Barcelona, dressed in a Mickey Mouse suit, to raise money for some charity - we too easily forget how much fun stunts are for the participants. Take the most respectable, stockbrokerly church you like and announce from the pulpit that you will be having a sponsored pillow-fight on a greased telephone pole, all entrants to be wearing stockbroking suits, and you will probably get a much better response than if you merely ask the congregation to increase their giving to some pathetic sum equivalent to the amount they spend on lifestyle magazines.
From this it follows that the drama and inconvenience of tithing is part of its appeal. Of course, the specifics of tithing are tied up with a whole group of ideas inaccessible to those outside a particular evangelical culture. Few Christians find tempting a policy of recreating, so far as possible, biblical society. Few really live their lives as if the world were only a shadow-play, illuminated by the flames of hell, or the hope of glory. Yet many would happily give more than they do if they felt it brought the Kingdom closer to them. It is just that an appeal to rescue the Church Commissioners from the consequence of a revaluation of their property holdings during a recession exacerbated by the Bundesbank's monetary policy doesn't seem to have a great deal to do with the Kingdom of God.
But given a goal of startling disutility, like rescuing the spire on an ancient cathedral, people will give generously. To do this requires that money be celebrated rather than required as a regrettable necessity: when Ely Cathedral introduced glass-sided collection boxes, to replace the traditional opaque ones, the amount deposited rose five-fold.
But this can be very difficult for an established church to do. A far greater obstacle to solvency than the church's supposed contempt for money-making is its profoundly ingrained belief that the world owes it a living.
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