Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Is it time to sell the church?

Texts: James 5.1–6 and Mark 9.41end

I caught sight of a sobering internet meme this week.  It said something along these lines… Imagine that it is the year 2124 – one hundred years from now.  You, regretfully, are dead.  No living person has any memory of you. To your great, great, great grandchildren, you are just a name on a family tree. Someone else will be living in your house – and they will have ripped out all the refurbishments you spent a fortune on, and replaced them with their own.  Someone else will be caring for your garden, and they will have replaced all your expensive shrubs with the ones they like.  Everything you owned in 2024 is now either in a rubbish dump, or it belongs to someone else.

It’s a sobering thought, isn’t it?  And it is deeply reminiscent of the parable of the man who built many barns in which to store his wealth.  “You fool” says God to him.  What is the point of gathering all this stuff?  You really can’t take it with you.  This theme is taken up and expanded by the letter of James (who may, or may not have been the brother of Jesus).  He also recognises that wealth is often acquired on the backs of poorer people – of the labourers in the fields (and perhaps in our case, the sweaty factories of Asia).  To the rich, James writes, “The wages of the labourers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.”!

This isn’t always true, however.  It is perfectly possible to make money without exploiting the masses.  I was interested to read this week that Sir Paul McCartney is one of the first musical billionaires, along with a young woman called Taylor Swift, who I think I’ve heard of!  Sir Paul’s wealth comes thanks to sales of re-released Beatles albums, and a new Beatles song.  Good for him – I say.  He is a man of amazing talent, who has simply persuaded others to buy his records.  His session-musicians and publishers have been paid.  No-one was exploited. 

But Sir Paul – and Taylor Swift - faces the same dilemma as all wealthy people.  The same dilemma that we face: “how much of the wealth I have accumulated should I keep to guard against the trials and indignities of my old age, and to pass on to my descendents?  And how much should I release into the world, to carry out my Christian, religious or moral duty to care for others?”  

The church also has the same dilemma.  In Mark’s gospel, we read that Jesus warned us against putting a stumbling block in the way of anyone’s faith.  One of the more persistent rants that I get on the internet comes from those who wonder why the church is constantly asking for money when it has so much wealth, already stored up. It’s a real stumbling block for many.

People say to us “why should I contribute to your appeal for a disabled toilet, or to help the homeless, when you have a safe full of silver chalices, and land all over the parish which you could sell?”.  It’s a perfectly reasonable question, to ask. 

The standard answer to such questions is that the church is the custodian of such wealth.  By various canon laws, and deeds of trust from previous generations, cashing in our wealth for money to pay for mission is remarkably difficult, even impossible.  We hold this wealth, in our massive barns called churches, to pass on to our descendants.  But, ironically, they won’t be able to use it either – for exactly the same legal reasons!

I remember a story told to me by the Acting Archdeacon of Portsdown, Canon Bob White, a few years ago.  He was meeting the pastor of an independent church, who held their services in a rented school hall.  The pastor looked jealously at Fr Bob’s enormous barn of a church, with its remarkable organ, stained glass windows, and glorious ceiling.  The pastor said, “I wish we had such a building as this!  What a great mission tool it would be”.  Fr Bob immediately got his church keys out of his pocket, and offered them to the pastor.  “Here,”  said Fr Bob. “Take it!  You’d be welcome to it!”.  Of course that was a joke.  And legally impossible.  But Bob’s point was that if he could spend even a fraction of the time in mission that he currently spends caring for his enormous barn, the kingdom might be far more advanced in his parish.

It’s a great balancing act, in which we are engaged.  On the one hand, our building is a repository of the life and memories of this community.  It’s a sign and a signal to the world that there is a different Kingdom, a different economic and political system, on offer.  It’s a place soaked in the prayers of this community, for nearly a thousand years (that we know about).  It’s a place which lifts our eyes, our minds and spirits beyond the humdrum round of daily life, and helps us to fix out eyes on the promise of heaven. But on the other hand it’s a vacuum cleaner for the cash that we pour into keeping it standing, and for the time we spend administering it.  It is both a glorious gift, and time-sucking, money pit around our necks.

There are no easy answers to these dilemmas – neither to the question of our personal wealth, nor to the question of the inherited wealth of the church.  But it’s important that we – both personally and corporately – keep on asking these questions, and praying for wisdom from the Spirit of God.  Amen.

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