Several times in this space, words point to the corporate nature of the Christian church, especially in the United States, and to a lesser extent in Canada. Diocesan visions and charges that urge an increase in numbers by 10% and in dollar revenue by 15% were called “General Motors religion,” in the firm conviction that a similar statement could and would be made to the troops by whomever happened to be the CEO of that corporation at an annual shareholders’ and upper level executives’ meeting. From my youth, I recall with disdain the words of a young evangelist from Ireland, subtly announcing an open-air Sunday evening service on the town dock, ‘to grow the business’ of the church. I actually thought then and firmly believed that business for profit was something to be kept separate from whatever was the purpose and meaning of the church, as it was not based on either profit or numbers. How naive! And then there was the considerable celebration when one of the most wealthy businessmen in the town donated a new carillon chime to the church to be broadcasting tunes of hymns every day at 5:00 p.m. as another aspect of the growing business. Money in the service of religious marketing seemed somewhat unseemly, but who was I as a teenager to protest the decisions of the adult leaders? And of course, pews filled with bottoms were another obvious sign that God was doing God’s work in that church, padding the resume of the evangelist, and transforming his career into one of the travelling preachers attempting to fill other churches with the power of his charisma and accompanying rhetoric. The fine print of his bigotry, Roman Catholic contempt and hatred, along with his addiction to perfection in forbidding his spouse from even preparing meals on Sunday were ignored in his press releases.
Later, I found myself training in churches whose trust account boasted, in one case half a million dollars, and in another one million dollars, while immediately adjacent to these sanctuaries, people were literally starving, homeless and destitute. I did not hear a single word from either of two seminaries in the business of training clergy about what I considered the hypocrisy of those trust accounts. Could not a portion of those reserves have been spent relieving the pain of those in dire need right in front of the eyes of the people in the pews? Instead, much time inside the parish was dedicated to discussions about the place of the gays and lesbians and transgenders in the church. Were they welcome as parishioners? Were they elegible to serve as clergy? How arcane and antiseptic those discussions now seem, especially in light of the ice-age movement of the church in the direction of inclusion.
Clearly, reaching out to the dispossessed was not nearly as important as maintaining those trust accounts.
Having wondered if the “corporate” church was a recent or historic feature of the north American religious tradition, I was startled to read a headline and a report on an essay on how the corporate church emerged following the Great Depression in a recent edition of Salon. Here is an excerpt from that piece:
Politics and religion have always made uneasy bedfellows, but there was a definitive shift in America’s political and religious culture in the 1940s that set Christianity on its current course. As historian Kevin Kruse notes in a recent essay, it was during this period that Christian America was co-opted by corporate America. Following the Great Depression, Big Business had something of an image problem, and needed rebranding. Also problematic was FDR’s New Deal, which was indispensable to the middle class but anathema to corporate interests.
Industrialists realized, Kruse writes, that, “As men of God, ministers could voice the same conservative complaints as business leaders, but without any suspicion that they were motivated by self-interest.” Kruse goes on to explain how religious authorities were recruited by business leaders: “It was a watershed moment – the beginning of a movement that would advance over the 1940s and early 1950s a new blend of conservative religion, economics, and politics that one observer aptly anointed Christian libertarianism.” Under the guise of this ideology, American clergy began to demonize the state: individualism was exalted; secularism was synonymous with socialism; and collectivism became the preferred boogeyman of businessmen and Christians. In short, capitalists purchased the pulpits of preachers, who equated economic freedom with spiritual salvation, God with limited government.
This alliance paved the way for the prosperity gospel, a preposterous doctrine according to which godliness and wealth are one and the same. Although the prosperity gospel emerged in the late 1940s as an independent Pentecostal movement, it aligned perfectly with the free market theology of Christian libertarianism. (Jesus is a political prisoner: An American history of Christianity’s corruption by Sean Illing, Salon, May 24, 2015)
Of course, it takes money to pay the heating and building maintenance bills, not to mention pay the salary of the clergy, organist and custodians. Or course, without people in the pews, writing cheques or dropping cash into envelopes, there is no church. And of course, the model of decision-making that attaches to the corporate/political world would also be adopted by the people who “lead” the church, including even in some cases, the supreme power and leadership of a single individual, as exemplified by the Vatican. Historically, we know that there was a time when ordinary people did not read, and theologians were charged with interpreting scripture for them. As reading became accessible to all, that “power” and “authority” dissipated in favour of multiple interpretations, the reformation and the many religious conflicts that ensued.
The real corruption of the church by the corporate model includes:
· political imprisonment of Jesus to the money-bags of the church,
· the preoccupation with making money, and the marketing tricks that attend to that goal,
· ignoring the spiritual growth of the people in the pews and in the pulpit.
· Appearances trump deeper and often darker realities, in the lives of both the institution and the individuals who gather both among leadership and laity.
· Extrinsics trump intrinsics and the political trumps the spiritual.
· authority and power and a top-down military structure and method of dealing with crises based on the corporate model of reducing costs and eliminating public embarrassment of the institution, not one of constructive reconciliation, has supplanted the real mission and purpose of the Christian church and faith.
Business can and does ‘get away’ with attending to the extrinsic matters of organizations: sales, production costs, marketing, investment accounts, corporate culture, relations to government and other corporate entities. Churches, on the other hand, (it says here) have a much more important responsibility, the spiritual lives of those who select them, and the healing of both the community’s fractures and wounds, and the spiritual pain of their parishioners. Also, when investments trump real active ministry, that is the kind of ministry that does not merely seek converts in some magical, once-in-a-lifetime rebirth, but rather welcomes the least likely to be welcomed, the least able to write cheques, the least able to serve as a social magnet to attract others “well-to-do” to the pews, then we all know, including the bishops, and the archbishops, the canons and the archdeacons that churches risk compromising the essence of their faith in the pursuit of what they consider normal, the corporate model of organization.
As told and re-told in both gospels and throughout history, Jesus overturned the tables of the money-changers in angry disgust.
· Who and where are the church leaders with the faith and the courage mounted on that faith willing to challenge the corporate model of the church?
· Who are those willing to suffer the consequences of rebelling against the corporate model of “growth” in numbers of dollars and bums in pews?
· Where are the rebels whose vision of a faith community is much more complex that rituals over an altar, rituals at a baptismal font, rituals over coffins and weddings, and the occasional pot-luck meal?
It is not only the Irish Archbishop who needs to be calling this weekend’s 62% vote in favour of mixed marriage, a call requiring a reality check. And the swamping of the church with money and the pursuit of money is not the only table that needs overturning. The seminaries and faculties of theology need to shift much of their emphasis from liturgy to conflict resolution, to reconciliation, to mediation and to collaborative decision making, no longer relying on the democratic model of decision making. It is not that long ago that those preparing for priesthood, at least in the Anglican church, spent up to twenty hours learning what the students sarcastically dubbed “holy hand-waving” and literally not a single minute of class or after class time learning the details and intricacies of conflict resolution even though all the curriculum designers in those faculties knew that parishes are rife with conflict, and have few if any resources to heal the hurts and mend the wounds.
There has been considerable valuable work done in hospitals and religious departments in the field of pastoral education, helping mature adults to thaw their frozen hearts, minds and habits from the fossils that may have served them on their way to career/corporate/wealth success. Clergy fortunate enough to have taken the opportunities for these learnings, if freed from the strict requirements of their chosen denomination, could and would provide a very different model of experiencing a faith community, that would open hearts, minds, and especially spirits to the wonder of creation, including their own beings, as children of God.
How the linen is folded by the altar guild would no longer be a matter of social acceptance or contempt, as it has been for decades, if not centuries. Whether one prayer book is used in a service or another would never be permitted to serve to divide a faith community. Whether gays and lesbians and transgenders are permitted both to celebrate and to worship would no longer be a matter of more division, nor would a woman’s right to choose.
The words of scripture, also, cannot and must not be used as self-righteous bullets of scorn and contempt by those literalists in seminaries and also in parishes, to condemn those who hold a more liberal view, and those who are uncertain of the absolute meaning of contentious verses.
Every organization has what have become known as gatekeepers, those people who consider it their right and duty to keep those “undesirables” out of the literal or metaphoric sanctuary of the organization. Corporations impose strict screening on their executives. Churches also mimmick this perfectionism, in a highly unsuccessful manner if so no other reason that perfectionism itself is not sustainable. And to attempt to achieve it, or to pretend to achieve some kind of moral purity is nothing less than deception and denial: the former to the wider public and the latter to the inner leadership. Purity of dogma, blessed by the presence of only those who either blindly concur or who are unwilling to question, is a short and guaranteed route to both infantilism and intellectual rigidity even morbidity. And that is a path that no faith promising life and life “more abundant” can either tolerate or foster.
Just as government, if it seeks to offer protection and security and support to its people cannot be modelled on the corporate for-profit business model, nor can universities, hospitals, libraries and churches. And those who succumb to the conventional ‘wisdom’ that they can and must, are living in a state of denial, failing in their legitimate responsibilities and also perpetuating a colossal lie.
We thank Sean Illing for his historic research, and posit that much more scholarship can and will be extended to provoke a real transformation away from the pursuit and collection of money as the prime purpose of the Christian church.