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Angela Tilby: Parish giving is not a tax that is owed

26 May 2023

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THE Sunday to avoid was the Sunday when the incumbent, or treasurer, or stewardship adviser rolled up with a mounted pie-chart, and, instead of hearing a sermon, the congregation was talked solemnly through the parish’s income and expenditure. This would end with an exhortation to “sacrificial” giving (“If it doesn’t hurt, it isn’t enough”), citing the duty of Christians to tithe five to ten per cent for the Church, and other giving after that.

The speaker would give the impression that giving was a kind of tax owed by all churchgoers, to be spent on the day-to-day needs of the parish, with parish share as the tax going direct to the diocese. I am not sure how successful it was as a strategy. Taxes, after all, are compulsory; but taxes are not giving.

For years, I have been pondering the question raised by the theologian John Milbank in his essay, “Can a Gift be Given?”, published in the journal Modern Theology in January 1995. He argues that a gift is always a bid for relationship; it comes with the hope, at least, of reciprocity, and that this is true of the grace of God as well as of all human giving. God’s grace is free, but this does not mean that it is without cost or without hope of return. God wants us to receive his grace and to be “full of grace”. Graceful, grateful, and, therefore, fruitful.

All this makes me think of more mundane giving, of parish share and stewardship campaigns. In my experience, people in the pews give generously when they can see their giving as a bid for something that they value. It might be the building, or the choir, or the costs of a parish room. It might be for helping the wider community, for the homeless, for refugees.

What they are less motivated by is making up for past financial mismanagement, or simply paying into “the diocese”, as in parish share. It is not always obvious that their payments go towards what they most value — especially when, in spite of paying their share, they are told that they still will not have a priest and that their only future lies in being merged with other parishes.

Shrewd clergy know that money follows vision. Clergy owe it to their congregations to evolve a vision of what each parish community could be. Parishes have no business falling in meekly with diocesan plans. Instead, dioceses need to learn to respond to what grows up from the roots.

This is what has been forgotten in the drastic diocesan plans for mass mergers. It has been forgotten that people in the pews do not particularly love their dioceses. They love their churches, and many will give and serve in all kinds of imaginative ways, if the vision is generated. Giving is a bid for relationship.

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