Sunday, November 18, 2007

Giles Fraser: California: where the giving is cheerful

"For Christians, stinginess is not understandable prudence taken a little too far. It is a lack of faith."

MOST DAYS, the Revd J. Edwin Bacon Jr rises at 4 a.m. for his prayers. He is in the gym at 5 a.m. Church meetings begin at 7 a.m. All Saints’, Pasadena, is Anglicanism on steroids: more than 2000 people in church on Sundays, an impressive and committed staff team of dozens, and an annual budget of several million dollars. They praise the Lord, feed the poor, include everyone, and speak the truth to power. This is what confident, progressive Anglicanism looks like, California-style.

The first day I arrived here, a film crew was on All Saints’ Campus — yes, campus — making the latest Hollywood blockbuster. (As it happens, the church has its own film crew to capture Sunday worship for those who cannot make it.) Clint Eastwood’s trailer was parked behind Mr Bacon’s office. And was that Angelina Jolie who just walked past me in church? Of course, it was.

I tried hard to look nonchalant and unimpressed. But there is a huge amount to be impressed about around here. It is not just the super-size-me facilities. People take their faith very seriously in these parts. It makes a difference to their lives. Not least, it makes a difference to what they do with their money.
We Brits are often terribly stingy — at least, the richer among us commonly are. Though there are many people who practise sacrificial giving — and most of those are probably from the Evangelical tradition — many more of us make do with offering back to God the money that has fallen down behind the sofa. We don’t even like discussing money. '

In the United States, generosity is preached about, expected, and received. Parishioners are challenged to tithe. I was slack-jawed as Mr Bacon came back from lunch after what he described as a “$15-million ask”.

It is not the number of zeros on the end of the cheque that impresses me, it is the confidence of the whole thing: the confidence of asking for it, and the confidence of giving it. I now see that, for Christians, stinginess is not understandable prudence taken a little too far. It is a lack of faith.

We tell ourselves self-justifying stories about the greed of US tele-evangelists or the administration costs of charities. It helps us keep our wealth to ourselves and within our families. What sort of way is that to respond to the love of God that freely overflows into creation for the benefit of all?

Our mistake might be to speak too much of “sacrificial giving”. That makes it sound like something one would rather not do. In contrast, the people here think of giving as a joy.


From the 16 November CHURCH TIMES
The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Team Rector of Putney.
Photo credit: Anthony Parker


MadPriest said...

One thing that must be added to the equation is the English socialist inheritance. We pay far more in direct and indirect taxation towards the common welfare fund, that is centrally administered than our American counterparts. Our government also pays out more in foreign aid than most countries (which, again, we pay for through taxation).

In many ways this is a good thing. It emphasises that "charity"is a communal business not just an individual concern, and, in theory, forces the selfish rich to contribute whilst demanding less from the poor who can't afford it.

However, it has its drawbacks. When so much charity is sorted out for you by government you can become lazy about your personal responsibilities. When so much is deducted from your earnings in taxation you can easily take the attitude of "what's left is mine."

Another problem is that Margaret Thatcher reduced communal giving when she reduced taxation. She wanted us to adopt the American system of personal responsibility for charity. Unfortunately, the rich took the tax breaks (the poor were hardly effected) and said thank you, but they did not become American overnight in respect of their giving.

Also, tax allowances are different in our two countries. The American system makes corporate and individual giving a more attractive proposition.

Anonymous said...

Dear Rev. Russell:

About 1996 my wife and I took on the challenge of real tithing.
A priest's sermon challenged us to "test" God on his promise of putting forth the first 10 percent of all we made.
When I sheepishly asked him after the sermon if we were called to tithe on the net or the gross income he asked me a question.
"Do you want to be blessed on the net or the gross?" Point taken.
What we thought was going to leave us short and struggling truly turned into a blessing and our cup has run over.
We now give well more than 10 percent and find a way to support a number of charities and good works around the worlk in addition to the full 10 percent (and frequently more) we give to our church.
I say this not to boast or brag, but to pass on to others the challenge of that priest. "Test" God and you will find that he will not leave you short, to the contrary he will overfill your cup.

A sinner saved by God's Grace

Jim of Michigan

Anonymous said...

I'm reminded of my brother who converted to an Evangelical church that preached tithing, in the 1980's. They promised that you'd literally get back 3 times what you gave. My brother was an ex-Navy sailor who repaired computers and set up networks for a living. He and his wife were avid thithers.

His stay-at-home wife and 4 children went without shoes during the summer and bought all their clothing at garage sales to achieve it. Their diet consisted mostly of pasta. His salary was only $20,000 per year. After taxes he says it was around $17,000. Remove just his $535/mo. rent and his (gross, of course) tithe and a family of 6 was living on $631 per month. That's well below the poverty line.

Their church preached against the evils of "secular humanism", (doing the right thing but not attributing it to Christ) and insisted that they send their children to the church's parochial school or homeschool at an exorbonant expense. Although a public education was free they were pressured into home schooling and began selling vaccuum cleaners (church sponsored) to raise the money for the curriculum.

This family was actually putting themselves in harms way such that they often received "alms for the poor" from mainline churches, and secular food cupboards. Their church built a huge new building that looked like a barn to house the 1,200 worshiping sheep. Their "minister" lived in a wealthy suburb.

I didn't know them well then. Being gay I was totally rejected. They particularly objected to my being partnered to an organist, and being a church musician in mainline churches myself. Mainline churches are an ethema because they are not "Bible Believing". Bibliolotry is a requirement for Christian legitimacey to Christian fundamentalists, the affects are felt even in the Episcopal Church, least of all places. They didn't want their children to get the "wrong" idea by being exposed to such heresy. My Mother was not allowed near her grandchildren because she was a Unitarian, a particularly evil thing because they welcome wiccans into their midst - witches. Her grandchildren grew up afraid of their demon worshiping grandmother.

While their children were teens the marriage collapsed. The two oldest were pregnant before they were 17. The next oldest had a mental breakdown with hospitalization, never finished high school and ended up nearly beaten to death by a "fiancee". The youngest - a boy is now in high school but 3 years behind.

The denomination? Not something rare or extreme or cultish. The Assemblies of God, only one step away from the Southern Baptist Convention. The state of their faith today? Only the girl nearly beaten to death attends church with my partner and I. She finally feels at home in an Episcopal church. She is hoping to finally be Baptized, something denied to her because she did a little sexual experimenting with another girl when she was 8 years old. Her mother, father, sisters and brother have none at this point in their lives.

Thithing, like anything else can be good or evil. Jesus made and explained the distinction inspiring his followers to give generously and joyfully but then moderated it when he stated, "the poor will be with you always." and that Mary M. hadn't squanderd money on ointment for his feet.

When we forget moderation we can easily fall into the hands of exploiters. Making yourself and those who depend on you victims for the sake of tithing is vanity, idolotry, and tempting God. We get fooled into sinning when it was our intention to do good. St. Paul sympathized with that and had a lot to say about it.

Balance and perspective are important for everything. There are wolves out there, reading to ravage the flock.

Jim Costich