Tag Archives: church

Christmas isn’t about giving

From the line “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift” we get two disturbing directives: that because God gave us his Son at Christmas, we must give to each other, and to charity.  And we must give generously.

Why? Because retail needs you; the majority of its annual taking is acquired around Christmas. Your city, nay country’s economy depends on your buying into the consumerism that Christmas has become an excuse, if not a byword for. It’s celebrating capitalism – both the dream of fluffy families, and of love being shown by gifts, sometimes which are unsuitable, and which creates debts and fear to fulfil. The debt industry also does well out of Christmas, using social expectation to goad us into showing affection and thus our worth by what we have purchased or provided. (I note that many old ‘debts’ are revived at Christmas – collections agencies are active at this time of year and I find that especially reprehensible). Love is shown through stuff, say these prophets of Mamon, and status is shown through stuff. As kids and teens we asked each other, “what did you get?” As older people, it may become “who are you with?” or “what will you give?” All these questions are about acquisitions.

In my family, we give the presents of our presence with one another.

As for the other giving – to charity – the logic there also mystifies me. Charity of course can include church funds as well as special appeals.

There is a practical predicament – that if we are doing 1) above, we are more limited in 2). Those of us not receiving Christmas bonuses from work, or involved in retail or entertainment, will be stretched to pay for Christmas gifts, food, travel, work outings and parties. And on top of this – winter bills. So why do charities feel that this is a time for them to benefit out of already scooped out resources?

It’s actually supply and demand, and a captive market: capitalise on the full pews at Christmas services, and that non-attenders will attend at this time of year. Give them a bit of hearty cheer, bit of entertainment, some traditional refreshments, and they’ll fill the offering bowls. As cute kids pick noses in quilted quasi middle eastern costumes, or surly shepherds bark out local lines, as we sing cultural favourites, with or without personal meaning for us, there’s a trade off: we’ve provided your traditional seasonal needs – now stuff those little envelopes.

Charity is rather a nebulous term, for it refers to a legal set up of an entity, not necessarily good work. Are all charities automatically ‘worthy causes’? Are their causes fought for in a worthy way? Many of us are concerned that what we give isn’t going to help the cause that we’re touched by, or that the charity’s means of doing so is dubious. My experience of Oxfam revealed it to be a hardheaded disorganised business with charitable status that makes its logline ‘make poverty history’ ironic in the way it remunerates its staff – or doesn’t. A popular Christmas charitable cause, the Salvation Army support and administer workfare, which is a form of modern slavery. Do other charities involve enforced medication or proselytisation or animal cruelty in the name of care?

It’s worth asking for more information than is on those begging leaflets.

I’ve also seen a church run an alternative service which was all about the assumption that none of us could relate to the themed suffering connected to the nativity story. Not that the leaders got to know us well enough to know what we were going through. But we were expected to channel our pity into one bucket, going to Christian Aid, as a sleight of hand from solidarity to financial support.

Perhaps one could argue that this drive to donate is a natural extension of pass it on, pay it forward – we’ve got a gift, so gift to someone else. Don’t only give to those you know or who will give back. Yes, there’s a Bible verse to support that.

But if we need to seek a biblical mandate for our actions and beliefs – and I don’t think we do – then be aware that this giving at Christmas, or because of Christmas, isn’t in scripture.

Checking a concordance reveals that Biblical mentions of gifts or giving are about

1 – thanks and praise to the Lord

2 – sacrificial offerings in the Old Testament

3 – spiritual gifts in the New

and the nearest we get about the gift of Jesus is of God’s grace. Even the 2 Cor 9:15 passage I started with isn’t directly about Jesus’ entry into the world.

I’ve known the offertory hymn be “Give Thanks” – for God has given Christ his Son, but the verse and idea that chorus is based on is under point 3 – gratitude; and the upshot is the poor feeling rich – not so that they do a widow at the temple and pour their meagre funds into their place of worship.

The consequence of John 3:16 – the most famous verse about God’s giving his Son – is that there’s no condemnation for believers, but instead eternal life. It’s a verse I now find less palatable, for it pairs gifts with threats. Perhaps exhortations to give also have a dark side.

And many theologians would argue that the real gift of Jesus wasn’t so much his being born – that is necessary for the rest – or even, just his ministry, although his teachings impress and inspire even nonchristians. No, Jesus’ ultimate mission was his death and resurrection. Hence the real showing of God’s grace, the ultimate gift of Jesus’ earthly life, is in the cross and tomb. Yet Easter giving is much less than at Christmas– eggs abound, but not parties, presents, donations or consumerism.

So Christmas giving is not a scriptural mandate. In John 10, Jesus gave ‘a new commandment to love one another as I have loved you. By this will all know that you are my disciples….’

Love does not have to include gift aid envelopes and big cheques, queues in department stores, debts and guilt. Jesus’ real gift dealt with guilt and shows us that God’s love subverts earthly ethos.

If you want to use Christmas as a time to give, then do, but I encourage thinking carefully about the charity you support. If you want to buy presents, I’m not exhorting you to stop. But I am exhorting: stop manipulating us, advertisers, and stop twisting Christmas into a major revenue collection time under the guise of seasonal spirit, or worse, Christian duty.

Stop using peer pressure of offering buckets and sad eyes of supposed recipients.

I like that it’s the birth, rather than the death, which we celebrate as a gift, making the whole of Jesus’ life matter, and not fixating on his cruel end. The fuss about Christmas stems from mainstream attempts to gazump the major Pagan festival of Solstice and Yuletide, although we’ve made Christmas pagan with a small p: it’s usurped by secular Western culture; actual Pagans are very spiritual people and this season is very meaningful to them and considered a High Holy Day. Here, Christians are doing as the pagans with small p do.

Christmas is not a time of giving, by any theological or scriptural or even logical discourse. Christmas is a time to celebrate a particular gift which – and not store vouchers – is truly the gift that keeps on giving. Or rather – a once for all gift that produces grace ad infinitum, all year round.

Leave a comment

Filed under society, spirituality

What I think of Christians at Pride

There was quite a noisy group at my recent most local LGBT etc Pride, who now have a prominent stall. They have their own uniforms – a T-shirt with a slogan which matches their banner; and then a self styled one of rainbow dog collars… for these are Christians, and several are clergy.

On one hand, it’s to be applauded that this group is there and is trying to be visible, despite the fact that some other Christians criticise them. I also overheard a flag clad woman holding the hand of another comment: I hate it when the Church tries to join in with our day.

And I – a woman on the outer edges of both worlds – understood that.

The Christians in the parade want to say: we accept you, LGBT+ people. (Often they mean just gay… I’m not sure churches have got their heads round all the letters yet.) They acknowledge that Christianity and other faiths have hitherto persecuted their gay siblings – and some still do.

I’d like to point out that the notion that same sex love as being something to decry and exclude over has come from faith groups.

Many of those who still judge homosexuals are those with a conservative faith.

So one could say that the need for Pride came out of religious prohibition, which influenced laws and morals and medicine, so that what denounces LGBT people can be traced to faith roots.

Hence, it’s brave but ironic that there is a Christian presence at Pride.

Sadly like many, I have experienced struggle in coming to terms with not being heterosexual, especially as a woman of faith. I’ve written and published a novel about it, which is available to buy from many online sources, called Parallel Spirals. There will be a sequel.

I happen to know that many of the people on the Christian stall and march are not LGBT. They’re allies, but they have not experienced the challenges of the realisation that you are other, and that otherness may not be welcome. They have not sat in a pew (or sofa with a smoothie, if you’re that kind of church) wondering if the message of God’s love and theirs will still apply if this church really knew them and who they loved. Would they still get a hug (or even a handshake) in the peace; would they still get an invite to homegroups or youth or elder groups or those endless barbecues or garden parties if the truth about them was known? Would they still be allowed their positions of leadership if it was known what they were really like? Do these church people know what it’s like to earnestly search scripture to see if they really are condemned? NO YOU AREN’T, by the way!! Do they have to hear exhortions about the sanctity of marriage between a man and woman and the inevitable family you’re supposed to have, and feel nervous and excluded? Have they had to put up with people who have – almost for granted – what you don’t, and tell you that you can’t have it – namely marriage and family?

Of course, nongay people in church have other kinds of suffering and misfitting, and it might allow them to have great empathy and solidarity with the people that Pink Pride is about. I’ve heard people speak of other kinds of otherness… it’s not only LGBT people who feel a sense of not fitting, if not exclusion, in their faith communities.

But some seem to be presumptious and patronising. Is it fair to say it’s like white people in a Black celebration saying “We weren’t slaves ourselves, but we do know how you feel”? Of course it’s their way of saying – you never should have been, and we stand with you to show we’re not part of that. We see the well-meaning as much as we might cringe at the execution.

It’s also easy for the oppressed to allow no outsiders to sympathise. Am I angry at men against  violence against women in White Ribbon? Have I not applauded those who stand with something they’re not? Would I not march in solidarity with something  I care about, and be put off if I was told that I had no right to, as I’m outside the oppressed group?

I observed this tribe within a tribe with bemusement, oblivious to how their rainbow stickers and collars seemed amongst the outre costumes, squirting their God’s love like bubbles to passers by with the proffering of a gay positive sticker and a few words…but these little interactions felt like that delicate transient rainbow film.

Or actually, was that bubble the start of a new idea, a new relationship?

So am I saying that Christians shouldn’t have a stall at Pride? Am I saying that their well intentioned solidarity is wrong? No…but am am saying: your message has to be relevant and congruent and consistent, and be aware of how it looks from the other side. Don’t pretend you easily understand when you don’t… But actually, you might. And yes, I do think my novel can help with that. Listen to LGBT people and hear their stories. It will mean really chatting – often in a way that you can’t at fast moving, raucous Prides – and really sitting with them, being prepared to follow up, and to hear how LGBT+ people feel about faith and church and what it’s done to them. And to put it right and show a better way. As I know you can.

And actually, I’m quite touched that a group gives up its day to show that solidarity for something they aren’t, risking censure from both sides, and to transform the view and relationship from judgement and exclusion into love and welcome.

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under society, spirituality

Why I Hate Mother’s Day

I hate today, especially that churches make this commercial circus worse. I know lots of Christians who don’t go to church and who generally avoid places with large points of sale – from shops to cinemas – inviting you to spend more under the guise of being a faithful child.

What churches do worse is that they have now realised that parents’ days are hard for lots of different kinds of people – unlike commerce. So the godshops publicly list all the reasons why anyone might be suffering, making pews uncomfortable places, even for those who are happy with their offspring situation.

I don’t want to repeat that list here and hurt anyone who has already struggled through today. But I want to remark that there’s a wide range of reasons why Mother’s day is difficult, and not all of these are understood.

The worst that a church can do is expect a public display of affection from children to mothers; and then  – for the childless among them – to get a kid skipping up to often someone they don’t know with a flower they’ve no use for. No, it’s not inclusive, it’s patronising and thoughtless. It says to the recipient, you want to be part of this money and baby making carnival and you’re not but we’ll make it right for you by going through the charade. We’ll be your surrogate child. Aah.

It feels like a fertility rite, boiling one’s use down to whether one has sprogged.

I think many feel: if they don’t have children present, they don’t want someone’s else’s pretending. Perhaps to some people, it feels hard to be reminded of their childlessness, whether they be a young person who hasn’t thought about children yet, or a mature person reflecting that (especially for women) their childbearing days are over, or running out. Perhaps that approach of middle age is attached to other thoughts about singleness and physicality, life achievements etc and that well intended posy can bring on a whole load of issues. Perhaps even to one well known by their congregation, there may be situations (including absent children) and private hurts that are being contained – until the flower pots come out.

If we wanted our issues all brought up, we’d be with a counsellor, not in church.

Many of us feel we’d like to make a fuss of our parents on their birthdays, which is a day special to them, not to jostle with everyone else with overpriced set menus and specially (often ill) chosen films. Something for retailers to consider.

I’d also encourage people to be thoughtful about asking what one is doing on a parents’ day, or getting (especially in a chiding/expectant way) and for those leading church services to think that sermons on the women who nearly didn’t get fruit of their loins – at every service – along with long prayers ‘on this mother’s day’ constantly repeated and then family issues being listed – might be just what some worshippers do not need to hear.

Leave a comment

Filed under society

Keep Cathedrals Free

I’m writing a travel book on my cathedral experiences and have just submitted a poem on them, so they are in my mind this week. This caused me to research entry prices which has led to a gripe I’d like to share.

I realise they are expensive to run, but worship and houses of God should be free.

No, cathedrals are not the same as castles and stately homes, though some who visit them may see them in the same ilk. Whatever your faith, it is a sacred space, even if you just like the quiet and are uplifted by the music and architecture – which no castle is or does.

Thirteen British cathedrals and abbeys have a compulsory admission charge, starting from £6. The only parish churches that I’ve found who charge are St Bartholomew and Temple, both in the City of London, both £4. None of these who charge are Catholic or parish church cathedrals, and none are in Scotland or Wales.

I only know of one non Christian place of worship which charges – that’s also in London, the Bevis Marks Synagogue, and despite some of the huge and lavish buildings, such as Leicester’s Mandir, also not publically funded.

The admission fees are too high and so they put many people off – even people who love cathedrals as much as I do. The cathedral administrators don’t seem to have worked out that they lose out on income that way. If I’ve paid £6-16 to get in, I’m unlikely to buy anything at the shop or cafe, let alone donate more. And I’m quite possibly going to not bother going in. When faced with a choice of two nearby equidistant cathedrals for a day out, I’m inclined to pick the one without an enforced charge.

Ely says that before it made people pay to come in, the average donation was 34p per person. I quibble that. I note they’ve had a fee since at least 1998, when 34p was worth more. And how did they work out the number of visitors? If it’s by a foot counter by the door, these can be misleading as these often get set off more than once by the same person. Perhaps too some of those visitors were fairly regular who didn’t qualify for a free pass – ie those who didn’t live, work or worship in the right place, but who nevertheless felt the cathedral as a spiritual home. I’ve fallen into that category in several cities and resent the notion of paying to enter what I see as both my heritage and mother church by right.

However, I might drop in some money and choose to support them by buying things from their shop that I could get elsewhere – that guidebook that’s all round the city, a greetings card of gift; or by having lunch in their refectory.

Westminster Abbey claimed that it too had a tiny donation per visitor. But it gets about 3 million of these a year and currently charges £16 to enter – more than any other British great church, the same price as a major stately home with multiacre grounds. Even with group visitor rates bringing the head price down to £13, one can quickly see that they gain about £50 million a year from visitors, which is huge. Why do they need so much to run? The church is shorter than Ely, who asks for £8 (but with a tower tour and entry to the stained glass museum, it’s the same amount as Westminster). Lincoln’s about the same size, and their current price is around £6. What does Westminster require that these other cathedrals don’t? And why does the even bigger St Albans not ask for a fee, who gets less visitors?

And why does modern lump Coventry ask for £8?! They’re hardly in the same need of conservation!

Especially as the experience inside Westminster Abbey is not a pleasant one. I’ve only paid to go in once, when I queued for longer than it look to go round. You’re limited with how long you can tarry. You’re herded about and everything’s roped off. I have twice been to a service, not something I wish to repeat. I often find High church services cold and dull, but this is worse than anything else I’ve experienced. After again queuing for an hour on a Sunday morning, an American verger barked at the would be worshippers to get in line and not take photos. Not once did we get a welcome. When I tried to leave through the wrong door, I was barked at again. I felt the service was at us not for us,  I did not feel part of the service which just felt like going through motions rather than anything about feeling a divine presence or an act of worship – would that be for the choir and ministers, or to God?!

Paris’ Notre Dame did not charge when I visited, and managed its large amount of visitors better than London’s national church.

One does wonder what these fees are going on. No website breaks that down. Some make the vague suggestion that it’s on salaries. I wonder if the staff and stone masons are being paid too much? And yet they rely heavily on volunteers and I’ve seen cathedral job adverts – not everyone is well paid. A 1994 book on Canterbury Cathedral says that 549 staff are in its employ, including 30 Holy dusters!, and 250 guides, assistants and chaplains (aren’t many of those volunteers?) So we are paying for staff, not even just the building, and some visitors may not endorse the cathedrals’ beliefs and policies.

Many churches quote a four figure sum for their daily running costs, but I know something of how the C of E works, and it has much red tape and wastes on procedure. I know that a simple change in a modern building was made 3x the amount by C of E dictates, which meant that it was no longer affordable.

I’ll be posting more on this later, but utilities and professional services are over charged, and perhaps churches are victims of this.

The Church is still a large landowner and landlord.

Another points against these fees is that they preclude 10 minute pop in visitors.

Cathedrals offer a free tour; but perhaps we don’t want one and would be happy to pay just for that if we did, rather than paying to enter the building – though some of these are now a staggering £9 for just an hour. And so cathedrals miss out on donations of the poppers-in. Why not ask for £2-3 entry which we’d all pay, rather than so much, and perhaps we’d add a little more?

Some cathedrals say it’s free to pray – but how do you know who’s doing that? I once went in on the free pray plea – I sat with my eyes squished shut, and peeked and then moved to another quiet corner. Well, it was my birthday after all! And not paying to get in meant I had a bag laden from the gift shop, which makes quite a profit – guide books sell at 70-80% more than cost.

Happily, the majority of great churches are officially free, though some are pretty heavy about making you pass a desk and expecting a donation – which angers me as it shouldn’t be that a voluntary donation is coerced or assumed – it should be freely given. There’s about 16 other cathedrals and abbeys who do not force a charge – and hurrah for Chichester who says in big letters on the home page of their website that they are committed to keeping entry free. And so am I.

You might also like my thoughts on Canterbury here:

2 Comments

Filed under heritage, society, spirituality