2009/09/02

A Little Parable About Getting Along

The Episcopal church asks each diocese to contribute 21% of its income to the budget of General Convention. That money goes for a wide variety of things, including GC itself. There's the Church Center and its staff, committee meetings, and many, many, mission initiatives -- foreign and domestic -- which are funded through this budget. It's really a thing of beauty, the budget of General Convention.

So, anyway, most of the diocese give about that amount. Newark gives 25%, I think. Some give less. It seems like pretty much a voluntary thing. And nobody wants to see harsh enforcement. TEC is more of a communal enterprise. When one can't pay as much, the others take up the slack. No big deal.

There are, however, some who abuse this system. Texas, one of the richest diocese around, like top one or two in income, usually pledges about 8 or 9%. Really paltry. It's miserly of them because if they changed their priorities from fancy diocesan conference centers to being part of the Christian family they could easily give 21%. I mean, Newark could probably have a nice new diocesan conference center if it only gave 8%. Lots of dioceses, dioceses which give sacrificially, could have better wages, nicer facilities, and big fancy miters for their bishops. But, they have different priorities. Their value is on belonging, contributing, being a part of something bigger.

I think this is really tacky of Texas. Besides that, I think it's spiritually dicey. And I am totally serious about that. But it's been going on for a long time and I don't give it much thought. But, I'll tell you something, I was caught up short when I read this in the diocesan newspaper:


Assessment payments have been the subject of a good deal of discussion at recent Executive Board meetings. In an effort to clarify their position and better understand the situation, the Executive Board has asked that those congregations who are more than 120 days in arrears with their assessment payments as of August 31, 2009, send their Head of Congregation and Wardens to attend the Executive Board's meeting on September 15 at Camp Allen. The leadership will be asked to explain the financial and stewardship issues that the congregation is facing.
Now, it sounds like they are going to have some kind of a "Listening Process" regarding the payments which are in arrears. But, don't bet on it. If history holds, there'll be strong-arming and humiliation. I would like to think that maybe I am wrong on that but, you know, history...

So, the richest and stingiest diocese is now putting the heat on those from whom they wish to collect. Makes you go humm, doesn't it?

There's a story recorded in the Bible which you may remember. It's about a king, a high level bureaucrat, and one of the bureaucrat's peers. Let's call them The King, Lord Lucky, and Screwed Guy.

Lord Lucky was high up in the scheme of things, responsible for all that money and everything. (You can sometimes guess at the status of people in parables by the amount of money connected with them.) But, being powerful and everything wasn't enough for our man. Lord Lucky had aspirations to the throne and he made a bid to overthrow the king by refusing to pay up on his share of the takings. The king threatened to sell Lord Lucky and his family into the worst kind of slavery, which is what kings sometimes did when they took a mind to. But, Lord Lucky showed the proper remorse and pledged to pay up, proving that he did in fact have the money all along. It was an admission of fraud and a plea for mercy. Wisely, the king not only forgives the power play but the debt as well. He has bought increased loyalty from a well-placed retainer who now owes him his life.

But, that's not the end of the story. News travels fast in court, don't you know. Lord Lucky, having been chastened and having escaped within an inch of his life is also humiliated. He must reassert himself. So he immediately pounces on one of his peers, another retainer, probably not as highly placed. His name was Screwed Guy. So, anyway, he pounces on this poor guy for, I don't know, like 100 denari. And Screwed Guy can't pay. He's screwed.

Now, at this point you might think that Lord Lucky would have mercy on his peer, a guy who might even have been his friend. I mean, I would think that. But, I know the story. It continues on like this: Lord Lucky was enraged because, you see, he was unable to reassert his preeminence among his peers, it was sort of emasculating for him, another humiliation. So he threw his fellow bureaucrat in jail until he could pay the debt. Of course, he couldn't earn money while he was in jail so it became a way to extort money from the poor guy's family. Very nasty business, I tell you. Oh, and there was torture too.

And, I'll tell you what else happened. The other retainers, Lord Lucky's peers, turned on him. After all, they reasoned, if Lord Lucky could do this to Screwed Guy, he might do it to them too. The bureaucrats let slip to the king what had happened.

The king might have turned a blind eye. After all, it was Lord Lucky's job to help keep the coffers full and Lord Lucky did have a track record of success. That's why he had the big-time job to start with. The king might even have been amused since a little bickering among the literrati distracted them from their hobby of open graft. But, surprisingly the king was mad about it.

The thing is, it was never about the money. It was never even about loyalty. It was about the community, the kingdom.

Lots of kings in those days suffered from a little messianic ideation. There was a collective myth that the king was a good and humble man raised to the heights of power by acclamation of the common folk. Totally not true, of course. But, people liked believing this sort of thing. I think it made them feel that they had something to say about who ruled over them with an iron fist. It wasn't much. But, it was more than reality afforded. So, to perpetuate this kind of thinking, real kings sometimes forgave huge debts which benefited the whole community. These were true messianic acts, and the amount, hugely enormous, could only be forgiven by a true savior. That is, a truly benevolent king.

But, Lord Lucky didn't understand that.

See, there's no such thing as a personal relationship with the king. The king's only relationship is to the kingdom. So, by assuming that he'd been granted a personal beneficence, that there were no ramifications for the rest of the community, Lord Lucky missed the point entirely. And, of course, Lord Lucky is the one who winds up in a prison of his own making. And he will stay there forever too because the amount of his debt, unlike Screwed Guy's, is unpayable.

So, I tell you all this mainly because I enjoy telling a good story. But, also because there is a way of thinking that assumes that we are not all connected, it presumes the asking of General Convention to be somehow different from the asking a diocese makes to its parishes.
I am telling you that THE King, who has forgiven all, really does intend for that to trickle down to the whole kingdom.
As we deduced from the Matthean parable, it's not about the money. It's not even about loyalty and belonging. What it's about is the kingdom, the community. And if TEC has overlooked Texas' arrogance and stinginess, then Texas should overlook it in it's parishes.

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Those of you who are regular readers of this blog know that it is not a very well researched enterprise. Generally, I just sit down and start typing. If you want real news there are sites for that. Other sites. But, I do try to get it right for you. So, if I have presented as fact anything that is not true I would welcome your correction. And that goes for anything, anywhere, not just this piece. I am writing only from memory, I am only offering my opinions. You'll see that I often use words like "about," and "I think." That's because I think I am right but realize that my information may be dated. Or, possibly I am just wrong. If you think I need to amend anything, please let me know. Thanks.

4 comments:

Ann said...

So tacky.

Ann said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Aghaveagh said...

Lindy,

For years the diocese of San Joaquin sent nothing, zip, nada, nichevo, to the National Church, but shut down at least two churches for being behind in their assessments. After turning to the Southern Cone they sent their strongman to one congregation who was conflicted over whether to pay the utilities bill or the assessment, just to "encourage" them to cough up.

Harumph.

BW, don't you mean "paltry" rather than psaltery?

lindy said...

Thanks Aghaveagh. I never would have caught that. I am not sure I even knew that.... You're the best.