Forms Have Their Consequences

I begin this Episcopal reflection with a quote from Martin Luther (although I am unable to substantiate this quote. I heard it long ago in class.) Luther was undoubtedly criticizing the organizational structure of the Roman Catholic church in which he was a priest.  It is a good thing to consider not only how any group is organized to make decisions, but how they share their money (or not), and what money-sharing has to say about power, relative importance and group values.

Consider this scripture from the book of Acts. It describes how the very early church was organized. (Acts 2:44-46)  “44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts.”

How would we describe a collection of different Episcopal churches in a geographic region today? “All who believed in that great city attended different local assemblies called “parish” and “mission” congregations. As there were enormous disparities in wealth between rich and poor in different neighborhoods in that city, so was the difference in wealth between the local parish and mission congregations. When difficult economic times struck, many of the poorer congregations were forced to close. The bishop told the faithful members of missions forced to close that they could just attend one of the wealthier congregations miles away; although there was no public transportation available.”

Sounds grim doesn’t it? There is absolutely nothing biblical about the way in which the Episcopal Church (or most denominational churches) handle their money. The model is more based upon American mythology about the power of the individual, ideas of ownership, dangerous ideas about who deserves disproportionate wealth, and ideas about political control. Since the model for non-sharing of money in the church sits in absolute harmony with what we see in society at large, few people question the model, its wisdom or its consequences.

What if we eliminated the technical distinctions between parish and mission? What if we got rid of the idea of “my money” when it comes to stewardship, giving and the management of congregations in a region? What if we tried to implement a more biblical model, based as much as possible, on the Book of Acts?

Perhaps the congregations in poorer neighborhoods could be invited to join the wealthier congregations for various festivals. Perhaps the city-wide or regional collection of congregations could afford small vans and drivers. Perhaps the diversity of incomes, races and lifestyles could be visible on Sunday mornings instead of (as Martin Luther King, Jr. observed, “Sunday morning is the most segregated time in America.”) Perhaps a sharing arrangement based upon respect and mutuality would result in more people developing “glad and generous hearts.” That might be a good thing.

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