The Main Thing, Really

Reference: James 2:1-18

Money and Church are like a couple in a very long and very bad marriage. Their toxic relationship just keeps poisoning the atmosphere of what should be the good news and joy of the community gathered around the Gospel. It goes all the way back to Ananias and Sapphira, who could not bear to share their profits, and held back money from the community shortly after the Church was founded on Pentecost. A few years later, James, leader of the Church in Jerusalem and brother of the Lord, had to admonish people to treat poor and rich newcomers equally and not to fawn over the rich in hopes of sizable contributions (see James 2:1-7). In the Middle Ages, the precipitating cause of the Reformation was the sale of indulgences, used as a fund-raiser by promising people they could buy their way out of Purgatory by giving money to build Vatican real estate. In colonial America, affluent people could buy desirable pews while the poor were disregarded. In recent times, the Prosperity Gospel movement has assured the rich that God favors them. And the Episcopal Church has spent many millions on legal costs to ensure that its valuable real estate remains owned even as its faithful have left to seek the Gospel elsewhere.

The Anglican Church in North America emerged in 2009 to tell a different story, to remain true to the God who gave us life through the Cross and Resurrection, freely, “you who have no money, come buy and eat” (Is. 55:1), as a gift of love. The following is a tale of how sometimes the toxic concepts of a bad relationship can nevertheless survive the best efforts at reformation.

Recently, Bishop Jack Iker announced his impending retirement from the Diocese of Ft. Worth, which he has ably guided through many years. In the current structure of the ACNA, the retirement of a diocesan bishop triggers a study by the Church executive of the “financial viability” of the diocese, to see if the diocese is suitably affluent to meet ACNA fiscal standards. The Diocese of Ft. Worth meets those standards and is in no danger of being denied a continuing existence. But the process raises some interesting and ironic questions.

The first irony is found in what “financial viability” means, and is best illustrated by another diocese, the Diocese of the West, founded in 1990 and also ably guided by its bishop, Richard Boyce, eventually becoming a founding partner in ACNA in 2009. Although its annual budget never exceeded $35,000, it was financially viable, that is, it never spent more than it received and always had a healthy bank balance as a cushion. Upon my retirement as the second bishop of the Diocese in 2016, it was decided that this little diocese was not worthy of continuance because it did not meet the “financial viability” standards, which envision a diocese more like those of the Episcopal Church, with a full salary for the bishop and staff and various programs funded. The Diocese of the West did not fit that model, although it ended with money in the bank and 26 unbroken years of balanced budgets.

The Holy Spirit did not arrive on Pentecost with a funding scheme to pay for the operations of an institution. When the Church has flourished, it has usually done so, not by institutional programs, but rather through a vibrant, joyful and mostly volunteer community of believers. A good example might be the Diocese of Ephesus at the end of the first century, led by the Evangelist John, author of the Book of Revelation. In his letters to each of the parishes, he nowhere mentions a need to raise the diocesan budget. He and most bishops of the first few centuries would have been amazed that the main criterion for a diocese was its financial success.

Because the second irony is that only financial viability is weighed by ACNA. If you must do an analysis, would not the foremost review be one of spiritual, not financial, viability? A look at a diocese’s record in doing mission might be well worthy of consideration as well. If you want to be faithful to Biblical standards, you might even want to consider how a diocese treats the poor within it and within the community around it, since not only James but many other Biblical statements see Christian doctrine describing the God who “has lifted up the humble; he has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty” (as Mary the Theotokos noted in Luke 1:52-53).

Most of us are much more captive to the past patterns in our lives than we care to admit. We vow to never raise our children as our parents raised us, but then often repeat their mistakes anyway, because it is what we know. Abused children so often become abusive adults, persecuted nations become persecuting nations when they have the chance, reformed churches soon fall back into needing reformation once again.

The only antidote to dysfunction, sin, and toxic baggage is the ever renewing fresh truth of the Gospel. Like antiseptic on a raw wound, its application can be stinging and painful. The Lord continues, in his love, to apply healing Gospel grace to the wounded Body, the Church, the communion of saints. In this time of unfulfilled spiritual hunger among the populace, we ought to endure the sting and receive the balm, so that our spiritual viability can indeed transform North America.

“No one can serve two masters,” said Jesus. “Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money” (Matthew 6:24).