Investing in the Kingdom
A sermon by Revd Dr Sam Wells.
Readings for this service: Job 42: 12-17; Acts 2:42-47; Mark 10: 17-22
I want to tell a story about money and church. It’s a story that I believe makes sense of what it means for a church like St Martin’s to ask the members of its congregation to reflect on whether they might be able to consider giving a little more of their own money to enriching the quality and breadth of our common life. It’s a story that comes in five chapters.
Chapter one begins in the thirteenth century. St Francis of Assisi read the words of Jesus we’ve just read, ‘Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ Francis was drawn to a Jesus whose call to leave material security behind is uncompromising and persistent. Jesus has no time for a person who wants first to bury his father, or who wants to keep his talent safely buried in the ground, or who has just bought a piece of land, and must go out and see it, or who has bought five yoke of oxen, and is going to try them out, or who has just got married, and is preoccupied. Francis responded to this uncompromising call by making himself socially vulnerable and divesting himself of political and military power. What Francis was doing was taking Jesus’ radical summons and turning it into a social vision that at the same time renewed the church. Francis’ begging was about developing a form of social holiness based not on exchange and competition, but on voluntary sacrifice and charity. His renunciation of property meant he could never be drawn into the most common form of social conflict: one that arises when one person defends their property rights against another’s. His poverty has been called ‘a form of economic unilateral disarmament.’
St Francis goes, sells, gives to the poor, and then comes and follows Jesus. Simple as that. And within the conscience of many of us here today, I would guess, is a nagging suspicion that perhaps we should be doing the same – for this is what the true imitation of Christ looks like. But it turned out not to be so simple for the Franciscans. Francis’ model was poisoned by its own popularity. If godly poverty was the highest status, all worldly (and especially churchly) hierarchies were under threat; if the world was awash with voluntary beggars, not only were economic beggars displaced, but begging became a new marketplace of rhetoric and deceit. This was a realm not of God but of anarchy and scandal. The church’s gifts had become a racket.
And so to chapter two. The medieval Benedictine monks read the words of Acts chapter 2: ‘All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.’ The Benedictines did a good job at it. If chapter one is the model of an ideal disciple, chapter 2 is the model of an ideal church. This Acts 2 image has a powerful hold on the imagination of many Christians. There’s a perpetual sense that, if we were doing it properly, this is what it would be like. But it’s important to note that this is a different picture from Jesus’ words to the rich young man. The rich young man model is about living vulnerably before God and simply following Jesus. The Acts 2 model is about making a collective commitment and finding the activity of the Holy Spirit in the worship and practices of a community. Both models are compelling, but they’re not the same. The Franciscans and the Benedictines represented these two poles of engaging with the ideal of somehow getting money right. But both models turned out to be flawed when translated to the vision for a whole society. The friars evoked anarchy while the monasteries created corruption, wealth, and hypocrisy.
So the gospel calls us to wholehearted commitment, in a way that transcends conventional notions of family and ignores preoccupations about making a living. It offers two compelling models, itinerant mendicancy and intense community, that are not wholly compatible but were in different ways lived out in the middle ages and still have a hold on the church’s imagination about money today. But for the most part the church has found these two models too challenging to be implemented and too disruptive to be sustainable.
And so to chapter three. The Reformation was a rebellion by the laity against their exclusion from a true understanding of discipleship. What emerged were two new understandings of money. The logic of the benefactor model goes like this. I am not willing or able to make the kind of commitment of the monk or the mendicant. But I want the church to flourish, I want to be close to God, and I want myself and my loved ones to go to heaven. So I will subcontract the achievement of these goals to those who have made such all-encompassing commitments, and I will finance their flourishing. The epitome of the benefactor model is the medieval practice of saying masses for the dead. Churches and especially monasteries grew, flourished, and came to rely on income from precisely this source. But there are problems with the benefactor model. Historically it’s tied to a class structure of squirearchy, and an ethos of noblesse oblige, and a dualist material-spiritual divide where the church exists in large part to cleanse the earthy, fleshly world of its more unrefined qualities and make it fit to stand before God.
Which brings us to chapter four, the stewardship model. You can’t understand the stewardship model unless you grasp the degree to which the Reformation laicised the church. Prior to the Reformation the normative ethical agent was a monk or a priest. After the Reformation the normative ethical agent became a layperson who owned disposable wealth and most likely was engaged in profitable business. Christianity was democratised. Jesus’ words to the rich young man fell out of the picture and the parable of the talents took their place. Poverty, voluntary or communal, was ruled out: renunciation was scorned as a refusal to take up one’s God-given responsibility of self-preservation. The key advocate of stewardship was John Wesley, with his slogan ‘Gain all you can; save all you can; give all you can.’ Wesley would say, ‘Consider yourself the first among the poor you are called to serve.’ In other words, once you’ve seen to your own necessities, the rest is to serve God’s church and kingdom.
Now the Church of England was largely established, and for many centuries run, on the benefactor model. Some decades ago the sums ceased to add up – not because of a decline in congregation size, but because of sociological changes like what constitutes reasonable provision for people in their retirement, how long retired clergy live, whether the noblesse feel as obliged as they used to, and the shift of the majority of the population to cities, where relationships of unspoken obligation are different from the abiding practice of the country. And so in the last two or three generations a church that depended on squirearchy has morphed into a church that rests on congregationalism. By congregationalism I mean the assumption that the basic unit of Christianity is the local church, that each local church should seek to be self-sufficient as regards the provision of its stipendiary ministry, building upkeep and administrative costs and liturgical requirements, and that such expenditure should be met almost entirely through the voluntary stewardship of members of its congregation. Congregationalism can be inspiring with the sense of a team achieving great things together, but it has two drawbacks: it shrinks the understanding of church to simply the regular attendees; and it tends to obscure the vision of mission almost altogether.
And so to chapter five, in which this all comes home to roost. At St Martin-in-the-Fields we worked on the benefactor model longer than most urban churches. In the 1980s we awakened to the fact that the sums didn’t add up. The costs of the building and the extensive outreach ministry far exceeded the potential of congregational stewardship. The answer was to create a commercial enterprise. Over the last 31 years we’ve steered a course between two poles. The first pole is to try to make the commercial enterprise the complete embodiment of all our aspirations for what it means to be a world-facing church. That sounds like a great idea, but it largely removes the profit that pays our bills, and leaves us back with external benefaction and congregational stewardship together facing an unassailable annual target. The alternative pole is to try to ensure the commercial enterprise makes so much profit that congregational stewardship becomes unnecessary. That sounds attractive, but it’s not the answer: if we succeeded it would end up so professionalising our life that it would eradicate the central role that voluntary discipleship plays in what it means for us to be a church.
The answer is to combine the four activities that make up our life. First, we strive to be a real church, where people find and grow in faith, care and receive care, participate in and lead worship, meet Christ in the stranger and the disadvantaged, seek to proclaim and advance God’s kingdom, and become one body. That’s what our congregational giving pays for. Second, we seek to be a place where we offer food, music, event spaces and commodities that people come here to find and are glad to pay for. That’s what our commercial business does, and in addition it offers good employment and pays for day-to-day maintenance costs. Third, we ask strangers to join with our longstanding mission to homeless people in London and around the UK. That’s what the Charity and the Connection do. Fourth, we invite wealthier people and foundations to invest in us as an institution and look to the long-term well-being of our fabric because they believe in where we’re going. That’s what the Trust does. Take stewardship away and we stop being a church, take business away and we lose our building, take homeless work away and we’ve lost our mission, take the Trust away and we’ve got no future. All four are vital, indispensable, and wonderful.
St Martin-in-the-Fields is a delicate balance between many things that occasionally seem very different and on the odd day can feel in tension. But most of the time it’s a miracle of divine initiative and human response, ordinary effort and sublime gifts, simple goodness and astonishing grace, and we all feel privileged to be a part of it. As a congregation we know it’s not all about us: we humbly recognise that lots of good things happen here, which we enjoy, participate in, and encourage; at the same time it’s not all down to us: we gratefully welcome others whose work, custom and kindness pay the majority of the bills. But if the careful ecology of St Martin’s is to continue to flourish, we as a congregation need to play our part, with our time and energy, absolutely; but also, crucially, with our money.
If you don’t give because no one’s ever asked you, I’m asking you now. If you don’t give regularly because you’ve never got round to it, I’m saying today’s the day. If you don’t give much because you think St Martin’s doesn’t need it, I’m telling you that it does. If you don’t give a lot because you don’t have a lot, I’m saying your giving something is an example to everyone else. If you don’t give more because no one’s ever said thank you, I’m thanking you right now. If you already give until the pips squeak, I’m saying that’s wonderful, and nudge the person next to you to do the same.
In the end we give because God in Christ gave up everything and came and followed us. We give because God the Holy Trinity is the community of love that we’ve been invited to enter where no one will be in need and we will all hold all things in common forever. We give because God the benefactor gave us life and breath and forgiveness and new life forever. We give because God the steward made us to be people who simply become happier the more we give.
We are the body of Christ. In the one Spirit we were all baptised into one body. Let us then pursue all that makes for peace and builds up our common life.