Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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Sermons from the margins

Luke 12.33:
  Sell your possessions and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old, with a treasure in heaven that does not fail.

The nature and extent of the charitable giving properly required of a Christian is a complex question. Go-for-broke texts like that just quoted above are great for lifting the vision and inspiring heroism, but they are not much help when balancing the legitimate demands upon our income of family, tradesmen, and good causes, to say nothing of the taxman.

The issue has become more personal and poignant with the recent increase in the number of actual beggars in the streets of towns and cities, but it is raised more frequently by the huge number of organizations begging on behalf of other people - flag days, street collections, coffee mornings, unsolicited mail - the list is endless. And that is without adding the calls for sacrificial giving to the Church itself through stewardship, gift aid, standing orders, and all the rest.

Over the centuries moral theologians have developed a number of bible-based principles, which have been applied in varying ways to the circumstances of different Christians, but this was before the days of income tax, social security, and occupational pension schemes. 

The task for us is to judge how they apply in today�s social and financial climate. To help with this, I will summarize them under four headings.

1. Christians have a general obligation to help others, but this does not mean any particular cause has a claim on us. The first part of this rule encourages us both to budget a certain amount of our income to be given away, and also to be open to spontaneous acts of generosity when confronted by an unforeseen need. 

The second part assures us that it is perfectly proper - within an overall commitment to giving - to respond to a particular flag day or appeal, "This is not a priority for me; my resources are limited; there are other charities I would rather support; so I shall not contribute on this occasion."

This last point is important. In practice, it is often easier to make a small token contribution than to risk being thought mean or uncaring. But my own view, in theory at least, is that we should be strong enough openly to ignore certain requests. No individual charity has the right to make us feel guilty because we choose to support some other cause.

2. Charity transcends justice, but pre-supposes it. This principle is much simpler than it sounds. Justice refers here to money that we give someone in return for something they have given us in the way of goods or services. Charity refers to money we give simply out of love or compassion or concern for another�s well-being. 

So charity transcends justice, because it is more praiseworthy to give without receiving anything in return than to pay for services rendered. But charity presupposes justice, because we all have an obligation to pay our bills before we start giving money away to good causes. 

There is nothing Christian about telling the milkman, "I can�t pay you this month because I gave my last twenty pounds to the Sudan appeal."

3. Acts of charity should take account of the circumstances of the recipient. This rule applies most obviously in the case of individual recipients. You don�t give five pounds to a tramp reeking of drink, but you might buy him a meal or a bus ticket.

However, I think it may also be extended to the judgments we make about corporate charities. "The circumstances of the recipient" can surely include such things as the percentage of the money they receive that finds its way to the good cause. Other things being equal, an organization that takes half its income for administration is less worthy of support than one that manages on twenty per cent.

4.  Acts of charity should be done without thought of reward. This principle is usually associated with the business of confidentiality. The familiar injunction "not to let the right hand know what the left hand is doing" was originally applied by Jesus to almsgiving, when he castigated those who make a great show of their generosity in order "to win praise from men". 

But the concept of reward needs to be interpreted much more widely than that. Just because something is counted as charitable for tax purposes, it is not necessarily charitable in the Christian sense. If I take out a subscription to the National Trust (a charity that maintains historic buildings for the public to visit) in order to get something from it as often as I like without further payment, that is not charity - it is a cheap entrance fee. And if I contribute to cancer research because I am scared of getting the disease and want a cure to be found, that is not charity - it is insurance. 

I do not say these payments are bad uses of money. It's just that they are not almsgiving in any recognizable Christian sense.

Finally, a word about how this relates to our giving to the Church. We tend to think of money put in the plate or transferred to the congregation by a bank order as charitable giving, as money given to God. 

But we need to remember that being in this congregation constitutes membership of a society that incurs expenses, and the bulk of its income goes on paying for goods and services - lighting, heating, clergy salaries and expenses, and so forth. Only when all this is covered, and the Church turns to outward giving, do our own contributions count as almsgiving.

The Bible makes a distinction between a tithe, which is a compulsory contribution within a particular religious community, and a freewill offering, which as its name suggests is a freely chosen optional extra. I think we need to accept that most of our Church giving falls into the former category. That is, it is part of the necessary cost of the religious organization. 

Our true almsgiving - our freewill offering - takes place for the most part elsewhere, outside the Church.

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