Saturday, 1 January 2011

The Poverty of Riches ...

"While he was born in poverty and obscurity, far from the centres of earthly power, he was none other than the Son of God. Out of love for us he took upon himself our human condition, our fragility, our vulnerability..."
These are some words from the Pope's 'Thought for the day' message on Christmas Eve - the first such broadcast by the Pope on the BBC.
The 'thought' was gentle, warm and encouraging.  It pointed us to the Christ who came into our world to bring us liberation from death and  fullness of life.  It also reminded us that this liberation was not achieved by the politics of power or military force, but through sharing our fragility and vulnerability, and in the end by making the ultimate sacrifice in a shameful death on the cross.
It was all very inspirational - but there was one thing which made me uncomfortable as he spoke.
It was the thought of the Pope speaking of a Christ 'born in poverty and obscurity' in the midst of the opulence of the Vatican.  In my mental picture, there he was,  surrounded by priceless art and artefacts, supported by a huge financial machine, speaking of the poverty of Christ's birth - and that picture laid bare a worrying discontinuity in the message which can so easily undermine our proclamation of Jesus Christ.
This discontinuity is high-lighted by one anonymous observer who posted a comment on the Vatican Information Service website earlier this year.  As it emerged that the Holy See had made a £7m loss, partly due to "the considerable economic and financial burden of protecting, evaluating and restoring the artistic heritage of the Holy See", the observer wrote,
"Thank God no shortfalls were caused by charitable works among the poor, oppressed or persecuted. Layers of paper pushers and facilities beautification are far more worthy of capital expenditures."
Whilst there is probably an injustice in this comment, when other charitable works of the Roman Catholic Church are taken into account, the point is well made - how can we preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who was born and lived a life of poverty and vulnerability, culminating in the cross, when the church surrounds itself with the trappings of riches and security?
Nor is this just a Roman Catholic problem.  Evangelical and Pentecostal mega-churches in the USA build huge buildings to accommodate their growing congregations.  They set up Satellite TV Stations to preach the Gospel, and then they use them to appeal for money to keep the whole thing going!
Nor are we immune from the issue in the Church of England.  Although many parishes struggle to pay their way, pleading for ever increasing donations from their congregations, the Church Commissioners are charged with investing their portfolio of £4.8 billion to provide financial security for the Church in funding Bishops, Cathedrals, ministry and past pensions.
Included among its commitments are historic Bishop's palaces which are a world away from the stable in Bethlehem where our Lord and Saviour was born 'in poverty and obscurity'.
There are also major works of art like the Zurburan paintings at Bishop Auckland which the Commissioners are proposing to sell, not just because of their potential £15m price tag, but also because of the £60K each year which it costs to insure them.  This cost however, is dwarfed by the cost of maintaining Auckland Castle, the Bishop's Palace, with its state rooms and 800 acres of parkland. 
Arguments rage from time to time about whether this is a good use of the Church Commissioners money (and my own belief is that they should be sold) but even then, the money raised will go to give the church financial security, not to meet the needs of the poor or disadvantaged.
The Church Commissioners' task is to make as much money as possible without being so unethical that it becomes an embarrassment for the church.  The primacy of this requirement has been demonstrated in the last 10 years, as the Commissioners have disposed of the social housing legacy entrusted to them by Octavia Hill, that great Victorian housing reformer.  The affordable housing estates which the Commissioners owned in London were sold off, not because they didn't make money, but because they didn't make enough money.   The need to maximise financial returns for the Church did not allow for any deviation which would accept lower profits while providing low cost housing for the less well off.
So we too are mired in the same discontinuity that the Pope's thought uncovered.
Nor are the issues of historic treasures limited to the Church Commissioners.  Many churches up and down the UK are custodians of ancient art, silver or gold which cannot be sold, even to support ministry.  I was at a UPA church in South East London some years ago when they wanted to sell some historic silver to pay for a community project.  The silver was so valuable that the insurers insisted it be kept in a bank vault down the road.  It was never seen by the congregation or used in church, but like so many others, the application to auction it was refused by the Diocese.
We preach the Good News of Christ, the servant King, dependant on God and on others, living amongst the poor and the outcast.  People continue to be inspired and challenged by this Christ - the Christ who puts the needs of others first.  The Christ who told the story about the Rich Man and Lazarus.  The Christ who told the rich young ruler to sell everything and give to the poor before coming and following him.  The Christ whose only possessions at the cross were the clothes he stood up in.  The Christ who said "Do not worry about what you will eat, drink, or wear - seek first the Kingdom of God".
Yet we do this surrounded by the historic wealth of an established church and by valuable art and artefacts, (which drain our resources as we take on the role of custodian).  In worship, our Bishops are presented to the world resplendent in fine robes of state wearing lofty mitres as symbols of authority.  And in finance, we seek the same security as any other worldly institution.
This image does not inspire or challenge.  In fact it stretches the authenticity of the Christian Gospel to breaking point, and causes many to dismiss the Church, even if they are attracted to Christ.
If we are to be a more Christ-like church, perhaps we need to be more centred on giving then receiving - in providing security and stability for others rather than for ourselves.  Perhaps we need to let go of the riches of the past - perhaps we need to stop being custodians of art and history - and focus on the needs of the living.
To quote some of the less comfortable words of Christ, "Let the dead bury the dead - you come and follow me!"
(For a lighter look at Church Commissioners Housing Policy and the Zurburan paintings see  The Satirical Christian)

1 comment: