Sunday, August 04, 2013

The Choice of the Episcopal Church: Prosperity, or the Poor?

According to the Revised Common Lectionary, the Gospel appointed for today is Luke 12:13-21, which reads:
Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me." But he said to him, "Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?" And he said to them, "Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions." Then he told them a parable: "The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, `What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?' Then he said, `I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, `Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.' But God said to him, `You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?' So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God."
Knowing that, it was particularly disturbing to read in today’s New York Post that Trinity Wall Street’s rector, The Rev. James Cooper, and the parish vestry are moving forward with plans to construct 296,000 square feet of new church offices, meeting rooms, and residential space just behind the main sanctuary (presumably at the corner of Rector and Trinity Place, if my memory of that part of lower Manhattan is correct). Even more disconcerting was when I read that Rev. Cooper forced out members of the vestry opposed to his plan and replaced them with allies who are working with him to see the project through.
While musing about this, a friend pointed out an earlier article from the April 24, 2013 edition of the New York Times that covered the revelation that, after years of hiding certain financial data from the public, Trinity was forced - as a result of lawsuit filed against it by a parishioner - to reveal that they are sitting on assets totaling more than $2 billion. To put that in perspective, the value of their assets is somewhat on par with the 2013 state budgets of Wyoming ($3.4 billion) and Delaware ($3.7 billion).
Now of course I recognize the fact that assets are not the same as cash-on-hand, and it also doesn't take into account any liabilities. But out of curiosity, what is the church doing with the revenue generated by their assets? According to the Times,
It reported $158 million in real estate revenue for 2011, the majority of which went toward maintaining and supporting its real estate operations, the financial statement indicates. Of the $38 million left for the church’s operating budget, some $4 million was spent on communications, $3 million on philanthropic grant spending and $2.5 million on the church’s music program, church officials said. Nearly $6 million went to maintain Trinity’s historic properties, including the main church building, which was built in 1846; St. Paul’s Chapel; and several cemeteries, where luminaries including Alexander Hamilton and Edward I. Koch are buried. The remainder went into the church’s equity investment portfolio.
The statement also apparently shows that the rector makes a salary of $1.3 million.
Nowhere in the article do we read how much the congregation contributes in terms of tithes, so I can only base my comments on what is presented here. Regardless, I question: where is the spending for those in need? Where is the money to house the homeless? Funds for feeding the hungry? Support for employment programs?
Are these programs included in the "philanthropic grant spending"? If that's the case, why is spending on that $1 million less than what is spent on communications? And does an individual parish need to spend $4 million on communications - which seems particularly ludicrous in light of the fact that the total expenditure on communications in the FY 2013-5 budget of the entire national Episcopal Church is just under $9.1 million.
In a letter to the members of Congress from the Episcopal Church in 2011, regarding proposed cuts in the FY 2012 budget, the Church wrote, "The Episcopal Church urges you to find budget solutions that do not further burden poor and vulnerable populations in the United States, refugees and displaced populations, or impoverished communities around the world. Funding for programs that serve the poor and vulnerable sustains and saves millions of lives at home and around the world and, particularly in times of economic struggle, it must not be cut."
At the 2012 General Convention, a resolution was passed in the House of Deputies directing the sale of the Episcopal Church's headquarters in New York as a cost-saving measure; it was voted down in the House of Bishops. At the time, Los Angeles Bishop Suffragan Diane Jardine Bruce said, "It is fiscally irresponsible to demand immediate sell ofa building without knowing where you're going, knowing if the economic climate is right. (The Rev. Dan Webster posted a good rebuttal to this general sentiment at Episcopal Cafe.)
Should Trinity Church - or the national church, for that matter - take to heart the words in today's Gospel, or is the Gospel being forgotten in some quarters? Are we about the Gospel message - feeding, clothing, and sheltering the poor, eliminating the margins for the marginalized, and sharing the Good News of Christ - or are we about property, buildings, money, and assets?
Where are our priorities?

After mulling all of this over, I planned on posting right away - but thought better of it and sent it to a friend to read through for her thoughts.  The articles and my thoughts raised some other points in her mind, and (with her indulgence) I'll include them here as they merit strong discussion.  I certainly don't have the answers - but I wonder if many focused on property and investment growth would in the church would have these answers:

1) Trinity's position has the potential to allow them to do much good in the world - but also to corrupt the view of what is adequate and necessary.  Right now, based on these articles and their own comments, they seem lost in the "worldly muck" of budgets, balance sheets, and investment portfolios.

2) The reference to "philanthropic grant spending" shows the church has lost sight of the meaning, beauty, and reward of Christian language and replaced it with Wall Street-speak.

3) One of the parishioners has referred to the new construction as symbolically wrong.  Here, I'll directly quote my friend: "What does this say in action about our church?  And also, very importantly, what does it symbolize?  How do we teach the world through our actions that we are a church of a beautiful liturgy and gorgeous church buildings but that our life is not centered upon things but upon loving the poor, the outcast, and the downtrodden?"  (Emphasis is my own.)

4) Again quoting, "How do we prioritize lifting up others? How do we DO it?  How do we SHOW it to others?"

In my reaction to all of this, one area in which I failed was prayer - prayer for the rector and vestry that they will recognize the perception of what they have chosen to do. Prayer for those who were removed from the vestry, or chose to leave, rather than face this future that has been set for Trinity. Prayer for the congregation which, as I know from my own experience, can be torn apart by decisions such as these.  But most importantly, prayer for those in the community - those whom the church may be supporting already, and those who may not receive support because of other financial obligations.

Yes, prayer for all of these - and prayer for discernment: discernment of who we are as a church right now; discernment of who we are as God's chosen; and discernment of how we put worldly considerations aside and choose God and what God would have us do.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Musings on Gifts and Grace

Today's adult forum at church provided an opportunity for us to delve into the subject of grace and the receiving of gifts - how would one respond when given a gift?

Response number one: "Thank you."

Response number two:  Take the gift and pay it forward, "re-gifting" it to someone else.

The question that I didn't ask was to bring up a third option, from the perspective of a person who doesn't recognize that grace is given freely by God - "What did I do to deserve this?"

And there's the subject of the old saying, "There but for the grace of God go I."  Our rector said the simpler, more accurate thing to say is, "There go I."  In the first, there is a thread of judgmentalism - if I didn't have God's grace, look at the mistakes I'd be making, like that guy over there.  In the second, there is the recognition that we do make mistakes, just like that guy over there.

But isn't there a third way to look at this?  By changing two words, couldn't we completely change the direction of the comment?  "There, BECAUSE OF the grace of God, go I."  This would be an acknowledgment of the gift we've been given, and a sign to us that this grace is leading us in a new direction - giving us a new hope, a new purpose, a new sense of the immensity of God's gift to us and perhaps even the recognition that, instead of recognizing the grace we've been given and saying "I'm glad I'm not him," we take that grace and give it as a gift to someone else.

Someone who will say, "Thank you."

Someone who will take that gift and pass it along to someone else.

And yes, even someone who might even question, "What did I do to deserve this?"