Over the summer holidays I read a history of the SAS. We are familiar with their heroic exploits over the decades and proud that their base is here in Hereford. I’m looking forward to visiting them when COVID allows. What struck me about the history was the huge infrastructure needed to support front line military action. Its not just about the brave soldiers putting themselves in harm’s way, but the various support units who are vital to the success of any operation.
On the whole, being a vicar is not as dangerous as being in the SAS. However, there are parallels. Just as front-line troops require support so our clergy can only do what they do because of a variety of support activities and structures. Our clergy will have been selected and trained. They need housing, which needs to be managed and maintained; they rightly expect continual professional development and training, and when they retire a pension that allows them to live without anxiety. A lot of those costs also apply to self-supporting ministers and Readers. All of these things require an infrastructure, both local and national, which requires people and costs money. I realise that these support costs (which proportionately are rather lower than those for the SAS) are often hard for people to understand. Without them, not only would our supply of clergy dry up, but those who serve us would quickly look for alternative employment.
In the current crisis we have cut our central support structures to the bone, because we think that front line ministry is the last thing you want to cut. Its our clergy and lay leaders who lead the church and mobilise mission and ministry. We know how much people appreciate their local leaders. In the last few months they have shown extraordinary energy and adaptability to ensure worship continued, people were cared for and the community was served.
When parishes give parish share it is largely to fund the ministry that they receive in the form of clergy and Readers. The infrastructure is a small but vital proportion of the costs. Parish share doesn’t go to prop up an inflated ecclesiastical bureaucracy, it simply supports that which is necessary to ensure ministry flourishes locally.
In my video last week, I told you some stories from my own experience of God’s generosity that I know a number found inspiring and encouraging. I do want us to re-spiritualise the giving conversation. We need to see our giving much more as an outworking of our discipleship than perhaps we have hitherto. We need to think about our attitude to our giving before we go into too much detail about amount. Paul when writing to the Corinthian Church in 1 Cor. 16:2 said, “On the first day of every week, each one should set aside a sum of money in keeping with your income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections need to be made.”
There are some challenging principles there about our giving. Its to be the first call on our money, not a proportion of what’s left over after we’ve spent everything else. Paul was trying to re-distribute funds around the early churches of the Mediterranean, so he encouraged them to ring fence their giving so he could collect it when he visited and then take it on. He was talking about the sort of mutuality that underlies the principle of parish share. What we give isn’t purely about what it pays for in our church but goes into a common fund so areas of our diocese can have ministry they couldn’t possibly fund themselves. Sadly, most benefices actually give less in their share than ministry costs, so the gap currently has to be made up by us drawing down our historic reserves. Paul says its to be proportionate to our income. That develops the 10% principle that our Jewish forebears took from the Old Testament. John Wesley lived out that principle by giving away everything surplus to what he needed to live on. At the beginning of his ministry that wasn’t very much, but towards the end, when his hymn royalty cheques were rolling in, it was hundreds of pounds – no small amount in the 18th century.
The beauty of this is it invites all of us to have a prayerful conversation with God about what we give and to examine the attitude of our hearts to money: how much we give; how much we keep and our attitude to our brothers and sisters. As Paul said elsewhere, “each one of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” Our conversations about giving over these videos leading up to our gift day are not about emotional blackmail, but they are a call to all of us (myself included) to search our hearts that the Lord will provide for us the resources we need to sustain the ministry and mission of the diocese.
Have a good week, and do check out the diocesan website for the times of my prayer pilgrimage over the next couple of Saturdays. It would be lovely if you could join me either in person or at home to pray for the life and renewal of our church.