Giles Fraser: California: where the giving is cheerful

14 November 2007

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.

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Team Rector of Putney.

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