by Stephen Wigley.
The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book for this year is unusual for 2 reasons. The first is that it’s written by the Archbishop himself; the second is that it’s about money.
Justin Welby’s little book ‘Dethroning Mammon; making money serve grace’ (Bloomsbury, 2016) is a timely reminder of the importance which Jesus attaches to the use of money, especially in his parables of the kingdom. It’s also a reflection of the Archbishop’s own previous experience of working in the city before offering for ordination and, arising from that, his analysis of what can and has gone wrong in the operation of financial markets in our current economic system.
In one sense, we hardly need reminding of the role which finance plays in our public life. Several years into a squeeze on public spending, after a bruising budget process, and with the Government preparing to trigger article 50 and so begin the formal negotiations about the deal for Britain’s leaving the European Union, we’re all too aware of the importance attached to the public finances.
But such things are not just matters for the public and political arena; they’re also the stuff of church and charity life. I think of the various educational and charitable institutions on which I serve and how much time, especially in the spring, that we spend looking at accounts, budgets and forecasts.
Archbishop Justin’s book reminds us that these matters are just as much to do with faith and seeking God’s kingdom as any of those other things, such as prayer and spirituality, on which we usually focus in Lent. In a series of chapters, each of which provides a theme for the Sunday Worship services broadcast on Radio 4, he challenges us as to how those same financial disciplines which are so much a part of our public life can be put to use in the service of the kingdom.
As it happens, I shall be leading one of those services from Neath Methodist Church in South Wales next Sunday, on the theme of ‘we gain what we give’. Now is not the time for a sneak preview of that broadcast service; but I do want to share just one reflection which arises from his book.
For in it, the Archbishop reflects on the role of budgets and forecasts. He doesn’t dismiss the use of numbers, though he is well aware of the danger of thinking that the only things that matter are the things which we can count. But the process of deciding about priorities and the resources needed to sustain them, he suggests, is crucial to the life of the kingdom. ‘The way the Church sets budgets is as important as the way it writes its theology, as a budget is applied theology expressed in numbers.’ (p.126)
The idea of a budget being an exercise in applied theology using numbers is quite a challenging one. It means that our decisions about spending matter, because in them we reveal our understanding of the priorities of God’s kingdom and our willingness to engage with them. It means that our decisions about investment matter too, for where our treasure, there will our hearts be also. It means that we can’t simply leave the decisions to the financial ‘experts’, for if this is the arena in which decisions are made, it is where we are all called to exercise responsible discipleship as followers of Jesus.
It brings us back to where the Archbishop begins his book, with a reflection on Jesus’ parable of ‘the pearl of great price’ in Matthew 13. This is a story which runs counter to normal business practice. It’s not about getting a bargain or diversifying your assets. It’s about recognising what really matters and being willing to pay the price to acquire or achieve it. And it’s where we see the values of the kingdom overcome the claims of Mammon.