On Selling our Inheritance

Last June, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, the organizing body of the esteemed institution that I serve, decided to sell its property on Second Avenue in NYC.  It’s where our Presiding Bishop resides and the central office is located.

Certainly there are some good reasons.  After all, our church is declining and we have little money.  And what do they do there in NY, anyway?  NYC is such an elitist, expensive place, with their snobbish restaurants, cultural activities with foreign artists, and expensive hotels.   They have theater.  An entire theater district.   And we’ve got enough of that, thank you very much.

Couldn’t we sell the building and give all the money to the poor?  To the Sudan.  Just wire transfer it there.  If not the Sudan, then Mali or Honduras.   Just give it away.

I appreciate the sentiment.  It won’t create the changes we seek.

Well meaning people suffer from a few common errors.  The first is from the belief that if we sell our wealth and give it away, we will be doing some good to ourselves and to others.  Perhaps we think that with a little money, the poor would suddenly become the middle class with jobs and houses – in control of their lives.  More likely, we’d merely lose our inheritance, the hard work of our previous generations, and still have lots of poor people.  In addition, we’d also have lost an effective staging area, the organization that can help us transform the relationship of donor to client; giver to receiver.   It takes long term work.  It takes training, advocacy and time.  It means building up relationships and institutions.  Certainly we should reinvent our own organization; but selling our property may only diminish our strength rather than invite us to a shared struggle.

The second is a corollary:  a suspicion of any sort of extravagance.  I respect this – while people are skiing in Vail, others are dying in Syria.  How can anyone have a good time?  Yet, the poor woman generously pours out abundance over Jesus; and then the apostles complain, that money could have been given away.  How can we celebrate the resurrection when there are so many people who are dying needlessly?   We just feted our bishop in NY, and I could hear the occasional people complain about the cost.   We couldn’t even appreciate the party that he was throwing for us.  He’d already become a target.

We are eager to sacrifice, but especially when it’s with money we don’t earn ourselves.  We give the money away, cheaply.   For we aren’t actually making the sacrifices that will ensure our institutions can do effective work; we sell for a song the contributions that previous generations made.  We feel righteous for giving our wealth away; when we are meant to be stewards of wealth we inherited.  Our first step should be to give more; not to buy into financial austerity.

What’s disturbing is the number of many Episcopalians who are also instinctively anti-institutional.  I think this reflects our cultural antagonism toward “institutional” religion.  But this is misplaced:  strong institutions create sustained change.  They represent groups of people of a common mind.    We may identify changes in our culture with individuals or movements; but we forget that there were always organizations that made such work possible.    As our market system becomes more sophisticated, the institutions that make that work possible become invisible.  But they are there.  Social media may make us think  individuals are more effective, but Google, Facebook and Twitter are institutions, not merely platforms.  We are ill served when we forget that.

Certainly the institution of the central office should be held accountable; its administration should be staffed with people who are competent and energetic, who understand that good business practices and institutional power are not, in themselves, bad.  They probably should not be priests, aside from those individuals who must perform the church’s role in public.  But such leadership concerns are altogether of a different sort than the magic we expect from releasing the investments we make.

Our institution does need intentional disorganization and thoughtful reorganization.  But while we are certainly eager to do the former, we have little idea how to do the latter.  And selling prime real estate does not give me confidence in our ability to do so.  To some, the selling signifies prophetic action and deliverance.  But it also reflects our miserliness and desperation.