I make no claim at originality in the title that I have included above as it has been lifted straight from a comment on the Brentwood blog. Behind the witticism there is a serious point being made about the nature of a cultic church. Indeed the question as to whether a minister or pastor is more interested in the financial aspects of his ministry (profit) than in the vocational aspect of his work (prophet) is something that could be asked of a wide range of Church leaders. In my own Anglican tradition there is probably little scope for inflating salaries for the clergy, but over my ministry I have noticed that some clergy were able to negotiate far more generous expenses than others. Financial struggle is, however, the normal lot of most clergy in the mainstream churches. Although the traditional picture of a clergyman in threadbare clothes, which Anthony Trollope described, may not exist anymore, there are some who really find it hard to make ends meet.
We have several times in the course of this blog talked about the ‘Health and Wealth’ teaching which is dominant among quite a number of churches, not least the so-called ‘black’ churches. There the idea of a threadbare minister would be considered, not a sign of humility and self-sacrifice for the work of God, but a sign of failure. The emphasis is on receiving the blessings of God and that includes driving the right kind of car and living with the right standard of living. The teaching that God wants to bless his people by providing all them with adequate wealth for a particular life-style will start with the minister but will spread beyond there to include many in the congregation. If this teaching has gained acceptance among the congregation, it will often have a pernicious effect in the way that the congregation will treat those who cannot aspire to a particular standard of living. Once the idea becomes entrenched that God is ‘blessing’ the wealthy and comfortably off, it is but a small step to despising those who do not have these trappings. Poverty will then become something that is blameworthy. In practice the poor will not hang around in a congregation where they are despised and looked down upon. The rest of the congregation will then settle down to be a group of people who aspire to the same set of values and similar comfortable standards of living. That in fact seems to be the pattern at Trinity Brentwood. The ‘problem’ of accommodating the poor will be one that has somehow vanished of its own accord.
The issue of congregations dealing with wide variations of wealth and class is not just one for so-called ‘Health and Wealth’ congregations. It actually affects many congregations without often being discussed openly. Wealth or the lack of it exists alongside another great taboo within churches which is the issue of class. Many Anglican churches do not have to deal with disparities of wealth or class because in the parish system people are gathered from particular areas which are similar socio-economically. Poor people tend to live in poorer areas while better-off people live in more expensive areas. Many urban parishes are thus socially and financially monochrome. It is only in the rural areas that rich and poor come together for worship, though sometimes one feels the system here works in a somewhat feudal way.
To return to our main theme of pastors and ministers who enrich themselves at the expense of their congregations. This behaviour, as evidenced by the leaders of Holy Trinity, Brentwood, is something that is an obscenity on more than one level. In the first place it is sending out a message that to be poor is somehow to be outside the blessings of God. This is a grotesque teaching which is worse than the idea of our Victorian forebears that poverty was morally blameworthy.
The second aspect of a wealthy leadership in certain churches is that it can create a barrier between the minister and those he serves. The idea of a servant ministry is very hard to sustain if you, the leader, drive a car that is bigger than that of your congregation and sustain a wealthy life-style. In the reports about Trinity, Brentwood, it is stated that the chief pastor has his own private entrance to the church so that he is not ‘contaminated’ from mixing with the ordinary members of the congregation. It is a small step from receiving a huge salary to believing that you are worthy of that salary. If you add to this to some of the teaching from the Health and Wealth gospel, you convince yourself that the money you receive and spend is a sign of God’s favour. The more you amass in the form of wealth, the more you believe that you are specially chosen and blessed by God. This at the very least is a form of fantasy religion.
Thinking of my own experience as an Anglican priest for 40 years, I can see that there was always a problem of having to live in a larger house than the average home in the parish. That is one thing, but any excess of wealth would have compounded the problem of being able to be alongside every parishioner, rich or poor. It would have been both embarrassing and counter-productive ever, in any way, to flaunt wealth or social position. Living in a tied house, even if it was larger than many others, was in many ways an advantage as it fell outside the norms of social climbing that obsess so many in society. Arriving at the age of retirement still solvent and with two children safely married and independent, we are indeed fortunate. The path of ministry has not been for us, nor ever should be, a path to wealth. Any suggestion to the contrary seems to be a kind of blasphemy. God does not, as the Health and Wealth preachers promise, provide riches to those who serve him.