Back in the spring, our select vestries were required to complete a census form from the diocese giving the total numbers of every member of the Church of Ireland who belonged to our parish. The numbers were being sought because the parish assessment is based on our church population, we pay for every person we have on our lists, whether or not they ever attend, whether or not they ever give anything.
Our immediate response is likely to be to say that everyone who does not pay what the diocese calls “sustentation”, a word I had never met until I came here, should be taken off of our lists. But perhaps thinking about “sustentation” is our problem, we should not give in order to pay an assessment, we should give because we believe we are only giving back to God what he has given us.
When we give, we should think about the example of John Wesley, the Methodist leader. In 1731, his income was £30 and his expenses were £28, so he had £2 to give away. In 1732, his income was £60 and his expenses were £28, so he had £32 to give away. In 1733, his income was £90 and his expenses were £28, so he had £62 to give to away. By 1734, his income had risen to £120 and his expenses to £30, leaving him £90 to give away. There was one year when his income was over £1,400, but keeping his expenses at around £30, he was able to give away almost £1,400.
Saint Paul says we should be regular givers and that what we give should reflect what we have. Saint Paul would never have agreed with the notion of “sustentation”, give willingly and generously, he would have said, or don’t give at all. In the First Letter to the Corinthians Chapter 16, Saint Paul writes, “On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with your income”. In the Second Letter to the Corinthians Chapter 9, he offers us guidance about how we should approach church finances, “Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”
The measure of whether our parishes are the sort of churches Saint Paul would recognize, or whether they are more like organizations where people just pay their subscriptions, is how readily and generously we give to God’s work. Saint Paul would say that if we are going to give begrudgingly, then perhaps we shouldn’t give at all. If we recognize what God has done for us in sending his Son, then we will be cheerful givers.