Monday, 21 May 2012

Why do we need church buildings?

The church campaign about VAT on listed buildings, which was opposed by a strong campaign, made me wonder about the church's relationship buildings.

In fact, the two major campaigns from the church of late have been to endorse "traditional" marriage, and to oppose paying VAT on building alterations. I think that probably explains why I no longer feel that I can be a part of a church.

There seems to be a few reasons why church groups want a building - I may have missed a few, but I hope I have the majority of them.

1. It is cheaper in the long run than renting somewhere. Yes it is. But then there is a significant cost to running and maintaining a building. In the early years, the cost of running it is less, but there are also long-term costs involved in having a building. There is a real danger that the church group buys a building when it is growing and expanding, and then the group start to focus on the building - how to use it, what to do with it, things that need doing and how it could be improved.

 As the group focuses more on the building, within years or generations or however long, the focus on the building so often takes over. If numbers dwindle, as they often do with time, the burden of the building becomes even more significant, and the death spiral starts.

I don't remember Jesus telling people to buy buildings. I don't remember Jesus telling people to settle down and spend money on buildings. In fact, he said something about tearing a building down..... Yes it may seem to be cheaper to have your own building, but is that what Jesus' people should be doing? Rent somewhere, because a) it means you are not focusing one other people and b) it means that you meet somewhere that is public, somewhere that people are used to meeting. Meeting in the public places is surely what the early church did, and what Jesus did too.

2. It is easier to organise all sorts of activities when you have a building as a centre to do things from. Yes it is, if what you want to do is set up another organisation running their own activities. But why would you want to do that? Surely the best thing is to run events and meetings and whatever you want to do in the places that people meet anyway. Why not organise your young peoples events in the schools? Or your business meetings in the pub? Why do you actually have to have your own building to work from?

3. It represents a place of spiritual importance. This might be somewhere that people have worshiped for centuries, or a place with a particular spiritual significance. I think places are very important, having a interest in Celtic spirituality, but that doesn't mean that we should build churches on them, or revere them for ever. The proper Celtic understanding of places is about finding a thin place wherever you are, and remembering it, but not setting it in stone.

Jesus found places that were important, mainly because they were quiet, away from the crowds, but he didn't revere them. The places Jesus died and were buried were not revered for a long time, which is why there are so many different possibilities. Jesus didn't come to tell us to set up shrines to places of spiritual history - he told us to make disciples, to make the faith a modern, living faith. Places are important, but they are important NOW, not as historical monuments. When we have buildings marking places of spiritual importance, we are in danger of missing the spiritual places - the thin places - all around us now.

4. It is a place that inspires worship, and we can keep it as such a place. In some cases this is true. Having said that, there are some churches that do not inspire worship at all. I am not suggesting that places that inspire worship should be torn down, just that it is too easy to need somewhere like that to worship, and miss the reality that we should be able to meet with God anywhere. Yes it is good to meet with God in places that are inspirational, but we can forget how to meet with God in all sorts of other situations.

Don't get me wrong, I do appreciate that buildings can be useful or helpful, but the real question is whether the ownership and maintenance of buildings - something which occupies a lot of time, money and energy for congregations - is important as part of the mission that Jesus sent us on. Is spending time and energy on trying to get tax breaks for supporting buildings? Is that the most important challenge the church needs to make to the current governments policies? Really?

Friday, 4 May 2012

"From each according to his ability, to each according to his need"

The title is a simple expression of Marxist ideology - not all of it by a very long way. It is also a concept challenged in Ayn Rands "Atlas Shrugged", which I have just finished reading, and which provides some interesting challenges. It is worth a read, if you are interested, but at 1200 pages long, this blog post may be all you need.

Rands approach is "objectivism", which, in the terms of economics, is "from each as he will give, to each as he earns" - that if you invent stuff, or create stuff, you deserve to make lots of money from it. She is also very opposed to regulation and restriction of practice, on the grounds that a free and fair competition gives the best opportunity for creative and imaginative minds to make a difference, and make something of themselves.

Before you think that these are trivial pieces of economic theory, the Marxist approach has been tried and failed in communist states - most especially China. And Rands approach is an important underpinning of Western capitalism, especially American. And that is in the process of failing as well.

The problem, I think, is that both of these approaches are flawed. I would like to explore why.

"From each according to his ability" - actually, properly understood, this is a very good principle. Each person should be enabled to perform to his - or her - ability. But this does not mean, as Rand suggests, that the most able just have to work harder. It does mean that those with greater ability should work in more challenging environments, because they will flourish there. It is about fitting people into the right places.

Rand is correct that, if you just make more able people work harder, then you are punishing ability. That is not what this should mean. Ability should not be punished, but rewarded. That is the key. And - to an extent - that reward needs to be financial.

"To each according to their need" - this is also a good principle, sort of. I would alter this, that to each is partly according to what they give, to their ability, to what they are able to achieve. This means that people should receive according to what they contribute, as a starting point, meaning that nurses and teachers would be paid reasonably, but people who simply juggle money would be paid less. And I would probably be paid less than I am, which is life.

But additionally, people should be able to have their basic needs met, which is what this is really about. It is not, as Rand suggested, about providing for peoples wants, or for what they can argue that they "need". It is about providing some basic needs - somewhere to live, something to eat and drink. We would probably include health care too. The important thing is that this is NEEDS, not WANTS. So much of our system is about providing something more than basic needs, which is not a bad thing in itself, but that is something over and above basic requirements.

This basic should be somewhere to live, not necessarily in the places they want or as large as they may desire, enough food for their family to live on properly, and a little spare money. And, of course, it must be worth while to get a job, and work needs to be taken into account. We far too often confuse needs and wants - it is not unreasonable to provide for peoples wants too, but we shouldn't confuse needs and wants.

The principle "from each ... to each ..." is actually not a bad one, as long as it is properly understood. The danger of Rands approach is that it fails to do what it claims, because people are not altruistic by their nature, and it depends on them being so. If they are not, but are greedy, then it will fail. As we are seeing.

If you don't believe that it fails, then watch the Leverson enquiry. That should convince you if nothing else does.