While these questions might at first seem academic, at the Rev. Jeffrey Metcalfe’s workshop on the theology of money at the annual Resources for Mission (RfM) stewardship gathering September 8, they galvanized a wide-ranging and passionate discussion.
The comparison raised a fundamental, and often unasked, question about the relationship between participating in the church and supporting it financially: when a parishioner puts money in the plate, are they offering a gift or paying for a service?
Of the roughly 30 people who attended the workshop, many resisted the notion that financially supporting a church is a transactional experience akin to purchasing a latte. But others said that is exactly how some Anglicans think about it.
The Rev. Carl Fraser, of the diocese of Nova Scotia, said that in one parish where he served, parishioners would not attend a Eucharist if they didn’t have something to put in the offering plate.
Fraser noted that this how they were raised to think about the church, and lamented the fact that for many, the logical conclusion is the church is a product like any other.
“The church has bought into, in many places, a transactional kind of theology where people say, ‘Well, I didn’t get what I was looking for, so I’m going to take my money somewhere else, so I can get what I’m looking for,’ ” he explained.
The Rev. Terry Caines, of the diocese of Central Newfoundland, said this was a mentality he struggled with among his parishioners as well.
“We have people [in Newfoundland] who ‘pay’ the church. The language is different: if I pay, I’m entitled,” he said. “Whether I go to church [or not]…if I die, you’re going to bury me, because I paid you.”
Some in the workshop suggested this way of thinking about giving to the church has deep historical roots, with tithing having been obligatory at times in Christian history.
Others noted that, although the question of paying versus giving might not be stated as explicitly in some parts of the Canadian church, the notion of the parishioner-as-customer is not uncommon.
Dean Christian Schreiner, of the diocese of Quebec, said that the church has not done a good job of separating the tithe from the Eucharist that comes right after it.
“[The Eucharist] looks kind of transactional: there is a transaction of money, you pay, and then your sins are forgiven, whatever that means-you buy some sort of happiness,” he said. “However…Jesus says, you have to give up, completely, the idea that your life is for you. The whole purpose of your life is not you…it is the other.”
The workshop was inspired by the work of the task force on the theology of money, which will release a report later this year.
The task force was set up by the national church’s faith, worship and ministry committee to comprehensively explore how the church should think about money when it talks about fundraising, investing and doing ministry and mission. Metcalfe, who facilitated the workshop, served as the task force chair.