The Ven. Dr. Michael Thompson, General Secretary of the Anglican Church of Canada

Of money and re-membering

The Ven. Dr. Michael Thompson, General Secretary of the Anglican Church of Canada, shared a comprehensive vision of stewardship within the context of the Baptismal Covenant at a recent synod of the Diocese of British Columbia. The text of his address follows.

The Ven. Dr. Michael Thompson, General Secretary of the Anglican Church of Canada
The Ven. Dr. Michael Thompson, General Secretary of the Anglican Church of Canada

Friends, fellow-members by baptism of the living, working Body of Christ and partners in God’s transforming mission,

It is a pleasure to be here. Thank you, Bishop, for your invitation and hospitality.

Some of you will be aware that I regard the Baptismal Covenant as a foundational element in our common life. Its five promises…

…to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers

…to persevere in resisting evil, and whenever we fall into sin, to repent and return to the Lord

…to proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ.

…to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbour as ourselves, and

…to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being,

Its five promises are at the heart of Christian discipleship, of our following Jesus as servants in God’s mission. They are remarkably similar to the “Rule of Life” in the Prayer Book Catechism. There are listed the duties of “every Christian man or woman” :

  • Regularity of attendance at public worship
  • Private prayer, Bible-reading, and self-discipline
  • Bringing the teaching and example of Christ into everyday life
  • Boldness of spoken witness to one’s faith in Christ
  • Personal service to Church and community

There is certainly a family resemblance, and there are significant differences. The Baptismal Covenant raises the bar on personal service , calling us through and beyond service “to strive for peace and justice,” and “the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of the bread, and the prayers” seems to cover two of the responsibilities outlined in the “Rule of Life.”

But missing completely from the Baptismal Covenant is the specific mention of money. The Rule of Life in the Book of Common Prayer makes explicit an additional shared responsibility,

  • “the offering of money according to our means for the support of the work of the church.”

I love the direct clarity of this sixth “mark of baptismal ministry.” And I invite you to pay attention to the words. They matter, both for what they say and for what they don’t say. They don’t say, “the giving of money for the support of the Church.” Instead, they say, “for the support of the work of the Church.” There is a big difference between one and the other. And we might want to sharpen that distinction even farther, to say “to support the work of God through the ministry of God’s church.”

Over the past several years, this Diocese has done substantial and sometimes painful work in focusing on that distinction in discerning an appropriate use of resources. You have asked the question, “What is the work of God?” And you have, at no small cost, asked the next question, “How can we be the best stewards of the resources entrusted to our care to further that work?”

That is the money question, for the church and for its baptized members. Now let me pry that word “member” open just for a moment. In the culture around us, a “member” is someone who has attained a position within a group that entitles that person to certain privileges. They have paid their dues, either literally or figuratively, and “membership has its privileges.” But there is an older and, for a group that understands itself as “a body,” more vital meaning to the word. A “member” is an attached, living and purposeful part of the body. And the body is itself purposeful. The body has work to do. So when we talk, in the church of membership, we aren’t talking about privileges and entitlements, but of capacity, purpose, and work.

As a member of the body of Christ, what constitutes my capacity or yours? What purpose do we serve, and what work do we undertake? And as the Body of Christ, gathered in a local community, what purpose do we serve, and what work is entrusted to our care?

I had the opportunity to read the last year’s issues of your Diocesan Post as I was preparing to come here. And I read them through the lens of the Marks of Mission of the Anglican Communion. Here’s what I found. In the Diocesan Post from one year ago, January 2011, you could read about the following:

  • A Truth and Reconciliation Conference at the University of Victoria’s “First Peoples’ House,” described by some participants as “the first time that church people had set aside the time to hear of the impact of these [Residential] schools upon those who attended. (Transform unjust structures of society)
  • An upcoming event, “Common Ground,” described as “a five-day gathering for learning, growth and networking for people with a passion for mentoring youth and the journey of faith.” (Teach, baptize and nurture new believers)
  • A description of the ministry of “Victoria Hospice” and a plea for financial support in the face of money challenges. (Respond to human need by loving service).
  • A meeting of folks from the Province of BC and Yukon to promote “a visible community presence” through community ministries (Proclaim the good news of the Kingdom)

In the February edition, an notice of “Hearing each other; healing the earth,” a quiet day at St. John’s House. (Safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth).

Here are some others:

  • Front page, December, The Red Ribbon Campaign for World AIDS Day (Respond to human need by loving service).
  • April (Easter edition) Front page, “Helping the Hungry in Victoria” (Respond to human need by loving service)
  • May 2011 Front Page: “Messy Church is here!” (teach, baptize and nurture new believers)
  • Front page, June, “New Citizen of the Year”—Harold Munn is honoured for his advocacy for the homeless. (Transform unjust structures of society)
  • September, page 9, “Cowichan region churches hold Foot-washing Clinic) in Warmland House shelter. (Human need, loving service)
  • In the same issue, page 11, a “Chocolate Lily Festival” at St Peter’s Quamichan, in whose churchyard 50 of these now-rare plants flourish. (Safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth)”

This diocese develops and celebrates ministries that respond to and serve God’s mission in the world, and in seeing those ministries as the essential focus for the use of resources. The choice for God’s mission is obvious in the pages of your Diocesan Post.

And that choice makes it possible to talk in positive, faithful, and honest terms about the place and use of money in the lives of the baptized members of the living, working and purposeful Body of Christ here in the Diocese of British Columbia.

I wonder if you would take a moment now to reflect on two things. On one hand, can you identify a very positive experience you have had in relationship to money? And on the other, can you remember a very negative experience?

I wonder if I’m right that the positive experiences have to do with things like:

  • Confidence or affirmation that you made a good decision about using money
  • The unexpected, undeserved, and timely appearance of money in your life
  • A story of generosity—yours or someone else’s—that made a difference in the world
  • Purpose, real connection with others, patient, deliberate choices
  • Wondering if there would be enough, and there was

And I wonder if some of the negative experiences had these characteristics:

  • Less about free and thoughtful choosing, more about being compelled
  • Disappointment with a decision that wasn’t followed by the expected satisfaction
  • Feeling “taken” by someone making a less than honest pitch for a product, service or human need
  • The wasteful or indulgent use of money
  • Or, as a friend once described, just “too much month at the end of the money.”

The reality is that most of us are “in” our money somewhere. It represents our gifts and our work, the grace we have received and the effort we have added to the grace. Money is a storage device for grace, time, and energy. Money is personal. It goes into the world as an expression somehow of who we are. It discloses what we believe about ourselves. That’s why choices and purpose and freedom and giving and relationships characterize our positive experiences of money. When we are using money together in the spirit of these things, we are sending into the world an expression of good and healthy life within our own souls and in community.

How is it, then, that we spend so much of our lives in a quite different and much less satisfying relationship with money? Why is so much of our money life fraught with distrust, dissatisfaction, and disconnection, with compulsion and scarcity and worry?

In some cases, there is real poverty—circumstances, generated by a host of factors, most of them beyond personal control, can plunge a person or a household into poverty. There are many, many people in the human household who just plain don’t have enough. That may be true for some people here today, but I am pretty sure it’s not the case for most of us. And the reality of a world so deeply veined with such gross inequality is testimony to that fact that something is deeply wrong in our understanding and use of money.

That something, is, I think, a forgetfulness both natural and cultivated. Natural in that there is among us and within us a temptation to see the world in selfish terms. The number of young people drawn to the libertarian ideology of, for example, Ron Paul, with its absolute refusal to acknowledge the necessity of a common commitment to the common good, should give us pause and profound concern. Ayn Rand wrote to the shadow side of our relationship with money, to our selfish selves who willingly forget our truer and more generous origins in God’ image and likeness.

And our natural forgetfulness—our innate fear and selfishness—is cultivated and compounded by a barrage of consumerism, by an economy that simply will fail to function (so we are told and so we believe) if we don’t consume stuff, and consume it at an increasing rate. As citizens, we had perhaps some sense of responsibility for the common good, but as consumers and taxpayers, bring on the stuff, and bring down the taxes.

I owe to Archbishop John Privett the image of this forgetfulness as a kind of “dis-membering,” imposing the recent heresy of individualism on the body so that its members no longer believe that we have a body, that together we are a body, and that each member serves the body’s purpose by adopting it as one’s own. We choose to separate ourselves from the body, we arms and legs and ears and whatnots, because we have allowed ourselves to be seduced by the vision of our own autonomy, to believe that isolated arms and legs and ears and whatnots can achieve a fuller humanity in competition with one another than in serving together a common purpose.

It’s not, I think, that this actually works for very many people. Instead, it seems that many of us simply accept that it is so, that it cannot be otherwise. In response to this sense of fatalism or inevitability, our ancestors offer us the Christian virtue of hope. Hope calls us, sometimes against the grain of much evidence, “children of God” and “followers of Jesus.” And we take up that hope when we allow ourselves not only to believe it, but to enact it. To believe and enact the truth about us and about the world, that God is at work for the transformation of the world, and that through our transformation at the hand of God, we can participate in what God is doing in the world. William Cavanagh defines imagination as “the drama in which bodies are invested.” Far from wishful thinking, hope and imagination invite an investment on our part. In fact, without such an investment on our part, hope is reduced to wishful thinking and imagination to fantasy.

Here’s a story that might give that some grounding. I wrote about it just over a year ago in the Anglican Journal. It is the story of a man and a woman. The woman is Griselda Delgado, the first woman diocesan bishop in Latin America, who was installed in December 2010 as Bishop of Cuba. But it doesn’t start as the story of a bishop. Before that it’s the story of a priest, appointed by her bishop to two churches in central western Cuba—one in the village of Itabo, the other in Coliseo. When Griselda arrived, both churches were in profound disrepair, close to falling in on themselves. Their had not been priestly ministry there for many years, and indeed it would take many years for her to gain trust and esteem in the communities, and to lead the renewal of those churches as companions in the divine mission. When Griselda arrived in Itabo, she found a gardener, who had for many years tended a small side flower garden beside the church. He believed so deeply that the mass would one day be celebrated again in la Iglesia de Santa Maria Virgen that he made sure that, when it happened, he would be able to decorate the altar with fresh flowers from that garden. That’s hope.

To hope for, to imagine, a world of relationship, freedom, and purpose, a world in which generous actions ensure that there is enough, is to act according to our hope, to invest our bodies in the future we imagine. I believe that a key to our taking up that hope and investing in that imagined future is in unlocking the positive capacity of our money to change both us and the world. I think Jesus thought so, too, since after the Kingdom of God, more of his recorded conversation is about money than about anything else.

It seems to me that if there is a discipline in our lives about money, it’s less likely to be about using it than about hanging on to it. But Jesus’ discourse wasn’t about hanging on to money. Evidently he realized that those committed to that practice were pretty good at it and didn’t need a lot of encouragement. Instead, he talked about using it, setting it to some purpose, investing it. The man who builds a bigger barn to hold his harvest doesn’t receive Jesus’ commendation. Food is for a purpose. Food is for hungry people, not for hoarding. The slave who buries his master’s gold doesn’t receive Jesus’ commendation. Money is stored grace, time, and energy, and it needs good work to do. Jesus does commend the Samaritan who spends his own money to care for a foreigner who probably despises him, and the woman who uses her valuable oil to anoint him for his death. The unnamed Samaritan and the unnamed woman read the purpose of their wealth in the cry of the world—a beaten man, and a man moving courageously and inexorably towards a painful death.

Somehow, around Jesus, there gathered a community of re-membering. (I love the Greek word for what we do at the heart of our eucharist—-anamnesis. It means remembering, but literally it is an-amnesis, “unforgetting.”)

The decision to pool a significant proportion of the money entrusted to our care (not, that is to say, our money, but the money for whose use we are responsible) and to apply that pool of money to shared participation in the mission, the work of God is an act of unforgetting, and of freedom. It says that we are able to step back from the unreflective strewing of money according to the manufactured desire of consumerism, from the unreflective accumulation of money, and make decisions that deliberately and gladly invest whatever tithe we adopt in God’s mission in the world.

The tithe we adopt is part of a more reflective and disciplined use of money. It is often the case that those who make glad and generous decisions to support the ministry of their church in service of God’s mission tend to have a happier relationship with money overall. I remember when my wife Deborah left her job to pursue further formal education. Hers was by far the higher income. We had a Toronto mortgage, three children—child care, recreation, and all that—and now one income. I went to Business Depot and bought a ledger book to record everything we spent money on. Suddenly and dramatically our spending decreased. We hadn’t thought of ourselves as careless, wasteful, or extravagant, but the introduction of a single discipline—recording our use of money—changed our lives. We lived with an income decrease of something like 35%. And I began to realize how much what seemed like the relatively paltry income of a parish priest could accomplish. Once we make it our practice to we get the hang of using a proportion of our money with care and purpose, we begin to see our other financial choices in that light.

Last winter, I traveled to Cuba, and had a conversation with Bishop Griselda about the parish in Itabo. During her more than twenty years as the pastor there, she had led the parish in the development of a sustainable agriculture project, because there was a bit of land around the church. Tomatoes and bananas, legumes and fruit trees. The parish I served in Oakville got involved in the expansion of the project into small animals—rabbits and chickens. Under the newly liberalized land-ownership laws of Cuba, land could be held and transferred privately, and the parish had received the gift of a small parcel of land a few years earlier. Now they had the opportunity to purchase four adjoining hectares, but time was short. I approached a generous disciple who I knew would embrace the opportunity to invest in God’s mission in this way, and she gave the money for the parish to purchase the land. Last November, it was planted in beans. That’s hope, too.

I wonder if you could dream with me of a future in which the hope of those who have been graced with wealth, people like you and me, could make common cause with the hope of those who sustain modest gardens along the sides of churches. I more than wonder that. I long for it, and for the transformation it could bring to all of us as we renew our investment in what God is doing in and for the world.

I believe we can be practitioners of that hope in your decisions about how to use money, and agents of that hope inviting others into that discipline. St. Francis of Assisi is reported to have said, “When we approach Paradise, our arms are laden, not with what we have accumulated, but with what we have given away. As we enter those gates, may we be bearing the weight (it’s a word that also means “glory”) of generous lives.

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