The curse of money.
An interesting story has come out of Rome this week. A group of 61 priest delegates of a now severely discredited group called the Legionaries of Christ have gathered in Rome for a general chapter. For those who are not familiar with this group, it was founded by one Father Marcial Maciel. Three years ago this founder was formally acknowledged by the Vatican to have been guilty of many crimes, including the sexual abuse of hundreds of seminarians, fathering many children and the abuse of drugs. In addition to this Fr Maciel controlled the organisation through a personality cult which bound the followers to him in a corrupt and harmful way. I would imagine that amid his other crimes there are likely to have been financial improprieties. For many years this order was protected by Pope John Paul II and it is only after the death of Fr Maciel in 2002 that the crimes were acknowledged.
Why do I bring up this story? It is because we need to understand why this order has not been abolished when the toxic dynamic of the organisation had been revealed. The reason why it has not been abolished is simply because the Order, through its wealth, has been able to buy support from people high up in the Vatican. The wealth of the organisation has been able to exercise influence so that the normal course of justice is not followed and the process of healing past evils is not undertaken.
In the not too distant past the Church of England operated all its activities with the endowments of the past paying for salaries and other expenses. Any collections taken during services were dedicated for charitable purposes such as the relief of poverty. The Book of Common Prayer refers to these collections as ‘alms’. Until the mid-60s most clergy were paid entirely from these endowments. It was only when inflation destroyed the value of the endowments that other forms of payment had to be found. First the Church Commissioners picked up the cost of paying the clergy. Later the entire cost fell on to the laity who now have to pay considerable sums in ‘quota’. Today it costs nearly £60k to pay for one full time clergyperson, of which less than half is what they receive in pay. The rest goes on housing, pension contributions and the diocesan staff who support the clergy. The fact that almost all this money has to come from local sources means that money is a significant factor in church life. If a church were to decide not to pay the parish quota then the overall budget for the diocese suffers. Sometimes a church fails to pay for financial reasons but on other occasions it fails to pay for political reasons. It may happen that a church council does not agree with the way the bishop has voted in a recent Synod. In this way, particularly since the period that could rely on past endowment to pay the clergy, the lay people, the effective paymasters, have acquired more power over the church hierarchies. It is hard for bishops to exercise authority when their power can so easily undermined by the threat of a withholding of finance. In the non-Anglican churches where the lay people have always had to pay for their clergy, the provision and withholding of money has long been used as a weapon in political disputes.
The power of money in the churches that have it is not inconsiderable and will often prove decisive in disputes of power. Sometimes the power struggles will be internal between leader and laity, on other occasions the dispute will be between the congregation and overseeing authority, such as a bishop. It is often to be noted that the ‘winner’ in such disputes will often be the side that has access to the largest purse. The churches that this blog is concerned for, are often extremely wealthy and thus able to exercise power in a variety of ways. One particular notoriously abusive church in the London area uses its considerable resources to ‘buy in’ visiting preachers and bribe other local churches to approve of its activities by sharing their plant. The ‘bought-in’ preachers are presented with ‘love-gifts’ worth thousands of pounds to paint a good image but in reality these gifts are bribes to help cover up decades of financial, sexual and power abuse which no one wants to face up to. Money here has the effect of putting off the day of reckoning for that particular church.
Why are many abusive churches so wealthy? The answer to this question lies in their ability to persuade their congregation to give one tenth of their income. In a London context it only takes 100 adult members providing a ten per cent gift of income before tax to produce an income of half a million pounds. I am providing in a future blog some discussion on the issue of tithing. My opinion is that while there is a case for Christian people giving generously to the church, there are very few churches who should be the recipient of an individual’s entire charitable outlay.
This blog post is claiming that excessive income and wealth accruing to particular churches and organisations is seldom good news. Money in the hands of corrupt people is able to corrupt both individuals and institutions, particularly when the money is used to gain or protect power. The church I mentioned above has spent hundreds of thousands of pounds in fighting court cases against former members whose lives have been ruined by the church. The church only possesses this money because it has been hoarded from the tithes given over the years. As I shall explore in the future blog post, the money was given, not out of a generous heart, but through fear. In short tithing, attendance at church and total obedience to the Pastor are all part of the package that an individual buys into as a member of many churches. Giving money, in many cases more than can be afforded, is part of the way that Churches bind people and subdue them. The giving of money and the disbursing of it is enmeshed with the power games that take place within the churches that abuse and harm their people.