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Monday, October 01, 2018

Orthodoxy - God and Mammon - a Present Crisis

The Orthodox Church has a big problem with money ... and there are few signs that any lessons are being learned, errors corrected and abuses rooted out.

There are the big scandals many of us know about: the OCA from 2005 to 2008,  (https://oca.org/reflections/fr.-steven-kostoff/a-sign-of-ecclesial-maturity)
and the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America in 2017,
 (http://www.pappaspost.com/financial-crisis-grips-greek-orthodox-archdiocese-america-millions-st-nicholas-fund-used-fund-deficits/).

Usually these concern accountability and transparency issues in relation to alleged malpractice by senior church officials, but it would be a grave mistake to think that the problems about money in Orthodoxy are confined to "high places."  The seeds of this corruption, abuse and just plain financial mismanagement are sown in many parishes, day by day, week by week and year by year.  Here is a just a short list of outrageous and unsafe practices that many Orthodox have come to think of as normal.  I will then go on to identify causative factors and necessary solutions.

1)  Paying the clergy for "services rendered." 

Because many clergy (especially outside Orthodox countries) are not paid a living wage, they often have to resort, either to back breaking secular work which leaves them with precious little time for ministry and eventual burn out, or they have to augment meagre incomes with fees or charges (not donations) for "services rendered."  So, in some places (including I am reliably told, in Orthodox countries) a priest will not bless your house, offer memorial prayers at a grave or administer Holy Communion to a sick relative unless you pay them, and sometimes upfront, a fee!

There is a fine line, but an important one, to be drawn here.  If a parishioner donates, even to a priest personally, a sum of money for prayers, services or other such spiritual benefits; that is perfectly acceptable.  What is NOT acceptable, and which comes under the heading of canonically condemned simony, is for the priest to solicit payments or make such payments a condition of, or even an expectation of, delivering such spiritual benefits.  If anyone gives me money, for example, for blessing their house, I always put the donation in the church bank account and tell the donor that this is what I shall be doing.  I am able to do this because the parish pays me a living wage - which is what all clergy and people should be striving to achieve.

2)  Charging for sacraments, especially but not limited to baptism.  

This is the most outrageous example of simony present in the Orthodox Church today.  It is often justified as a reimbursement to the Church for the administration of baptismal rolls or the provision of such things as oil and candles for the service.  Really?!!!  Does it really cost £150 (170 euro, $200), the going rate in one archdiocese in the UK, to send a copy of a baptism certificate to the Metropolis or to top up the olive oil (50 ml at the most) for a baptism?  Pull the other one!  This is just a money-making scam, a betrayal of the gospel and an exploitation of the poor.

3)  Charging for membership of the Church.  

If charging for baptisms wasn't bad enough, to go on and charge for church membership, once baptised, is just as bad, if not worse.  The ONLY criterion for Church membership should be baptism.  Annual subscriptions?  You must be joking; just another money-making scam!  Do not try and justify this either as a means of deterring people who don't come to church from voting at annual meetings.  Such votes can still be "bought" of course by paying the appropriate fee.  This is simply an undermining of the significance of baptism AND an escape from personal financial responsibility for the Church's work.  Because such payments do not arise out of faith and thanksgiving but rather (again) from a consumerist mentality; because such payments do not distinguish between rich and poor; as far as I am concerned, they are anathema!

4) Funding the Church by getting other people to pay for it.  

Now, I recognise that fundraising (which involves soliciting donations from sympathetic but non-members of the Church) is often necessary, especially for expensive capital projects.  However, when a parish derives most of its ORDINARY income from such fundraising; then huge problems arise for the parish.  I know of one Christian community, for example, where 77% of their annual income comes from one annual fundraising event!  Even from a commercial rather than a spiritual point of view this is sheer lunacy.  If that fundraising source dries up, then you have nothing else left to fall back on.  However, while this over-reliance on fundraising does exists, it depresses the willingness of the Church people themselves to give personally from their own income in faith and thanksgiving to God, which is the only secure and future proof means of funding the Church's ministry and mission.  This is often observed to be a problem in wealthier parishes, let the reader understand!

So, if these are some of the more outrageous examples of simony in the Orthodox Church today, can we identify the causative factors and suggest possible solutions?  Yes we can.  The point is though: is anyone willing to do anything about this mess rather than just mouth platitudes?  On that, I am not so sure, but we must hope, work and pray.

The most significant causative factor concerns the secularisation of money in the Church.  

We do well to remember that the Holy Apostle St Paul teaches that it is "the LOVE of money that is the root of all evil" (1 Timothy 6:10), not money itself.  No less than 16 of the 38 parables of Christ are concerned with how to handle money and possessions!  In the Gospels about 1 in 10 verses (288) deal directly with the subject of money; and guess what? - not one verse deals with fundraising!

Bearing this in mind, why do some clergy say, often quite openly: "this is nothing to do with me … that's the people's responsibility."  On the contrary dear Father.  It is your responsibility just as much as it is theirs, but in a different way.  Do not (please!) collude with the secularisation of money and the attendant materialism in our churches!  Money has everything to do with the gospel, and to refuse to teach about it biblically and patristically is a gross dereliction of priestly calling.  Do not use the money grubbing of some priests, and the materialistic concerns of some parishioners, as justifications for walling off the subject of money as somehow "unclean."  By doing this you keep it unclean; you (unintentionally of course) entrench Mammon in the mentality of the Church.

If you want to be bold in your teaching about sexuality, be as equally bold in your teaching about Christian giving and obeying the Lord in all things.  As to God ... "All things come from You and of your own we have given You." (1 Chronicles 29:14).  Yes, you may be scared that you have to confront some quite powerful people in the Church but take courage and apply the Gospel.  It is, after all, for the salvation of their souls!  If they walk out; they walk out ... but you will sleep more soundly and keep your conscience before God.

A close second causative factor is a reluctance to move beyond pious platitudes and generalised aspirations in the teaching about Christian giving.  

A refusal to be intensely practical about implementing spiritual principles will always lead to failure.  Eventually, in varying degrees of despair, preachers will resort to hectoring people about "giving more" and trying to use both guilt and shame as motivators to "dig a little deeper."  Such utterly horrendous tactics harden people's hearts because they sense and know that you are not being honest about what the gospel requires, practically speaking that is.  You, preacher, cannot get them to give more ... ONLY THE HOLY SPIRIT CAN!  BUT, you have to be intensely practical about this also.  Listen to St Paul: "On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up as he may prosper ..."  (1 Corinthians 16:2).  That's being practical!  EVERY week, not now and again when you feel like it.  If you cannot get to church one week, you still put your offering aside.  It is a promise made to God (spiritual) not "helping out St Agatha's" (secular).

Being practical does not stop there if you - as a priest with a responsibility not only for teaching Christian giving but also for setting up community behaviours - are to reinforce and implement that teaching.  So, how are you going to be practical about implementing Christian giving in the whole community of your parish?  Writing noble articles in your parish magazine is not enough.  Preaching about money when it comes up (as so often it does) in the lectionary is not enough.  It's what you will do together in the community that will count.  If you look to the Scriptures (as you must) then it becomes quite clear that covenant renewal is a communal not an individualistic event in Israel (Joshua 24:1-28).  The people gather and reaffirm their faith and commitment to the Lord and His work in thanksgiving for His mighty acts and in obedience to His Word.  Just like fasting, which is a community response, so is giving.  It is not just a question of generous spiritual individuals doing the right thing, (although that it always necessary): it is a behaviour (Christian giving) that the whole community must renew, and at least annually.

Faithful Stewards

So, Christian giving is operating fairly smoothly in the parish with the people "getting it" more and more as the years go by.  Is that it?  Is everything OK now?  No, not quite.  With gifts from God there comes great responsibility.  There is accountability to Him always for what we receive.  The Church leadership (priest and Council) need to respond to needs outside the parish by communicating such needs to the parish and seeing what the consensus is for action.  Church accounts, published in accordance with law, must show with great transparency how money is being spent and to what effect.  The people themselves must play their proper roles in the parish's Christian stewardship outwards to the world in mission.

Practical Challenges

Let us now examine these first steps towards a practical implementation of Christian giving in the parish.

This, O preacher and priest, is what you and responsible spiritual lay leaders must make as practical provision for in your parish ... communal and annual covenanted renewal in relation to personal Christian giving.  There are many schemes around, at once both intensely spiritual and practical, which can help you achieve this if you do not have a head for such things.  That is why we need each other in the Church: to help each other out with matters in which we may not feel so confident.  So, if you need help with personal Christian giving, Christian leaders, ASK FOR IT.  Don't settle for an eventually corrupting fearful mediocrity.  Don't hand Mammon the reigns of your church.  As the Lord declared to the Church in Laodicea:

"I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot. So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth. Because you say -'I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing'- and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked- I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, that you may be rich; and white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see. As many as I love, I rebuke and I chasten.  Therefore, be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me. To him who overcomes I will grant to sit with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne."  (Revelation 3:15-21)

So let us all together and by God's grace deal with this mess that is money in the Orthodox Church today.  Let us liberate with faith and thanksgiving the necessary resources to have quality full time ministries.  Let us open up the floodgates of our generosity in the generosity of God Himself and let us see the Church transformed and more effective for the Gospel in the world!  Simply, let us be obedient to God's call and not "hide our talent."

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