I am so excited to be spending an hour with the ‘Diocesan Stewardship Advisers of the Northern Province of the Church of England’ tomorrow I thought I’d blog about what I was going to say. Tomorrow I will blog about how it went.
This is the context. A couple of years ago the diocese (of Durham) decided to locate the new stewardship adviser in the team which I lead. This was a new departure and it means that suddenly ‘stewardship’ was rubbing shoulders not with accountants and finance officers but with pastoral care, youth work, local church growth, ecumenism and continuing ministerial development.
With a new colleague on the team we started to talk about how things all fitted together. Very quickly we found that talking about ‘stewardship’ was more than a bit arid. So we started talking about ‘giving’. And (who would have thought it?) the conversation went on and on and got (excuse the pun) richer and richer.
There is both a positive and negative side to this. On the positive side I have come to the conclusion that we need, as far as possible, and as often as possible, to use the language of giving and to think of the possibility of giving. I mean that. As often as we can we should think, ’how can I be a giver in this situation?’ And, ‘how can I allow others to give in this situation?’
Giving is fundamental to discipleship. That means that all must be givers. And if all are givers then all have to be receivers. It is this mutual and common obligation lies behind the most important idea that has emerged from our conversations – the idea of the flow of giving.
The Flow of Giving
The power of the idea of the flow of giving is immense. It might be infinite. This is no accident.
To talk of giving is to engage in theology. One of the most profound things we believe about God is that God is ultimately and supremely giving. You can dress it up and call it grace or graciousness – but God’s giving needs neither party frock nor sanctuary slippers. Giving is what God does. The genius of the idea of Trinity is that God’s life is precisely characterised by a flow of giving. Or to put it better, the over-flow of giving.
But there is also a negative side. It is this. Much Christian teaching about giving today goes along these lines: God has been supremely generous to us – so we should, in our own small way, be generous back to God. We should give to God. And the form which that giving should take is a planned and proportional financial donation to the local church. This is what I want to question with the ‘Diocesan Stewardship Advisers of the Northern Province of the Church of England’.
I accept that God is essentially, eternally and supremely giving. I have said that. But I do not accept that is giving is the kind that requires of us a grateful response of giving back. Indeed I think that the idea of giving back is a precisely non-theological form of giving. It is the kind of giving of which anthropologists speak. It is not giving so much as reciprocation. But we can’t reciprocate God’s love with a financial contribution – however generous, planned or sacrificial.
The kind of giving which God does, is giving which is intended not to be returned but accepted, delighted in, enjoyed and passed on. The flow is everything. But the belief that God gives us everything does not mean that we should give, say, 5% or 10% of our after pay income to our local church as a kind of return.
But We Must Give
Let me emphasise that I think we should, as a matter of practice, fellowship and discipleship give 5 or 10% of our income to our local church. And our clergy should preach and teach and love us into doing so: but not on the basis that this is some kind of payback.
The reason we should give to the church in planned and proportional way is in order to strengthen our discipleship and spirituality with practical seriousness. It is also an expression of commitment to the life of the church; its ministry in the service of God’s mission.
Giving is a spiritual matter. It is about participating in the very best activity there is – and in the only activity which is God’s.
My point is this: God is an overflowing flow of giving. We are products of that overflow and come into our own as disciples and flourishing human beings when the flow is through us. This is the proper theological basis of all giving. Actual practical pragmatic giving to the local church should come out of this flow but it cannot sensibly be described as giving back. There is no ‘back’ in the flow of giving, the flow of grace. There is only forward. And that forward is the mission of God. To give from our hearts and from our wallets is to share in that mission.
I wonder how the ‘Diocesan Stewardship Advisers of the Northern Province of the Church of England’ will respond to that. And I wonder how you respond, too.