Thought for the Week – The Language of Money

This week Lucy asks that if money is a language, then what do you want to say with whatever money that you have?

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Lucy Winkett

It’s a little known fact that Jesus told many more stories, and left much more teaching about money than sex.  This Biblical emphasis is not fully reflected in church life, especially national church life, where the divisions over sexuality and what that means, seem to dominate too often, not least this week’s Lambeth conference. But that’s a whole other blog….

The brilliant chaplain at the London School of Economics James Walters has written about money from a Christian theological perspective in a way that I’ve personally found really helpful over the years, and so in this Thought for the Week, bearing in mind that we at St James’s are, amongst other things, raising funds for our project at the moment, I thought perhaps I’d write  a little about the whole topic of money itself in relation to our fund raising and development work.

Francis of Assisi, for instance likened it to excrement.  This could be called seeing money as a ‘pollutant’. Francis’s father was a banker at a time when banking and trade was expanding in Europe (1181-1226). The exchange of currency was becoming more plentiful and visible in human affairs.  Maybe Francis saw more clearly than most the destructive effects money could have on society as some people prospered and others clearly didn’t.  For Francis, money polluted everything and he taught and lived what became known as a mendicant lifestyle. Trying to live in community away from society to some extent, with as little to do with money as possible.

There is another strand of Christian teaching that sees money as a neutral tool: a kind of instrumental way of looking at it. It goes like this – in some ways, we wish we didn’t have to deal with it but we recognise we can use it to the good.   In any case, it makes conversations in church about money a bit tense; a bit “do we have to?” “I don’t really want to think about it” as, metaphorically,  the post from the bank remains unopened.

James Walters has suggested that perhaps we can think of money not as a pollutant or just a tool, but a language.

If money is a language, then that asks us the question –What do you want to say with whatever money that you have?   Like with my words, I have the potential to bring joy and meaning with it. Even with a very little of it, I have the opportunity to enhance life, to bring assurance, hope, and delight. Of course I can also make people feel ashamed or belittled – just as I can with my words. I can cut people down with a snide remark I later regret – just as much as I can make people feel small by the way I use, spend or don’t spend my money.   Money, like words, in angry hands, can become a weapon.

But although money is a ubiquitous presence in our lives, it’s mostly people who have some, who sometimes feel that we shouldn’t think about it too much.  People who do not have money, people whose every day life is focussed on finding enough money to live certainly do think we should talk about it. Perhaps like you, I’ve had periods of my life when money has been very tight – and when that’s the case, you’ll know that it becomes a bit of an obsession; it’s hard to think of anything else.

The reality is that money is as ubiquitous in our lives as language. Money shapes our every day, can dominate the way we think about our lives, other people.   It is close to the language of value. What we value has a powerful influence on how we allocate our resources not only of money, but of time, of energy, even of our love.

For Christians, theologically, can we redeem money as we try to redeem our language and practice?

Post Covid, the use of cash has been less prominent, but if I think about St James’s Church during the week, I could imagine the journey that a £10 note might take.   I might find that I handed it over to a street food trader in the courtyard that gave me the amazing taste of Ethiopian curry. The market trader I gave it to put it in her wallet and paid for a magazine in the newsagent across the road. The newsagent banked it and it was later given out to a woman drawing out cash to pay her cleaner. Her cleaner took it to the pub and bought a pint of beer where it was put into the till, and given out as change to a businesswoman buying a round after work. She doesn’t use cash much – so it stayed there until on another night out she needed a cab home. The cab driver gave it as a tip to the guy who delivered his new washing machine who used it to bet on Tottenham winning the League. He’s still waiting…..

The bookmaker gave it to her daughter who spent it on coffee at the hospital where she worked where it was given out in change to an older patient who spent it on getting her hair done on the ward to make herself feel better. She really did.  She really, really did.  What the hairdresser did with it I’m not sure…………

In imagining the journey of this £10 note, I’ve deliberately not chosen to imagine things like dealing drugs or paying to have someone hurt or buying a gun. Those things might seem more obvious.  But this £10 note presents every single person with a set of decisions. Our money or lack of it,  presents us with decisions to make every day.

If money is a language, then actually I’d rather think of this £10 note not so much as a limited amount with a concrete ceiling on what it’s worth – not a symbol of scarcity in other words, but as a token of potential. A token of, to use Sam Wells’s concept,  temporarily suppressed abundance.

It is our job to help unlock that potential, send it out into the world to help transform it for the good.  I want to go so far as the American theologian William Stringfellow who argued that money can be nothing less than sacramental in the world; that is, that it can have a transformative effect – it can bring life.

In raising funds for the Wren Project, and this will be a lot of money in the end, close to £20 million, we simply can’t do this ourselves. We have a small Development team, and our Director of Development, Brian Willetts writes blogs and comes along on Sundays to keep us all connected with what he is doing to raise these funds.

At the beginning, the PCC discussed some of the ethical parameters of this work, and referred for guidance to the Church of England investment policies in the first instance.  In this case, the parameters were set where you might expect, avoiding raising funds from entities benefitting from fossil fuels for example, or armaments or tobacco.  But all advice in the area of development and fund raising is to say that for significant funds, it’s important to address these issues on a case by case basis. There are two extremes often quoted here that both come from the Christian tradition.

The founder of the Salvation Army, William Booth, said that he didn’t judge where any of the funds he received came from, because it would be ‘washed clean with the tears of the poor.’  The Victorian language will make us squirm, but the sentiment is an interesting one spiritually, perhaps along the lines of William Stringfellow; that money can have a sacramental presence in the world, with the capacity to transform, even save.  On this basis, it wouldn’t matter at all from where St James’s received any funds but it would matter very much how it was spent by us.

The other extreme is the 20th century founder of the Catholic Worker Dorothy Day, who would return cheques to the bank amounting to the interest her organisation received, because she was determined not to receive any funds that had been the benefit of usury.

In practice, most Christians make their way through this complex area falling somewhere between these two extremes.

For St James’s, the guidance of the Church of England, the scrutiny of the fundraising regulator, and the reporting in of the Development team to the PCC through the Rector, are the chief ways that a view is taken about funds.

A team from the PCC, congregation and staff are going to New York in the United States for 6 days in September. This is primarily to attend events to help launch the American Friends of St James’s Piccadilly held by our neighbours here in the parish, Christie’s auction house, and also a reception held by the UK Ambassador to the USA in Washington.  As part of our environmental commitment, we are, with the help of our Eco Church team, making a calculation regarding flights, accommodation, other travel and so on and raising the considerable extra funds to offset all our activity there. This is the very least that we can do to address in part the cost of the trip environmentally, but because this will be a financial calculation, it will require a greater effort to raise the funds to do this. There will be more in this area, but this is a start.

A Christian theology of money will always want to talk about its power to transform, to enliven, to bring life. But it will not ignore its toxic, unfairness either.  Jesus often used the emotive language of slavery in talking about what pursing money does to us; the pursuit of money is very often linked to our need for security – and worry about money imprisons us, keeps us awake at night, sends us off in the opposite direction to where we are led by the Spirit. You cannot serve two masters he said. Choose Life.

One small way we try to signal money being a language used for good is the books of the gospels we leave in the church every day. We don’ put a sticker in them that says St James’s Church please do not remove. We say – this is our Scripture – it’s both amazing and challenging – please take it as a gift. We will buy more.

If money is a language then it doesn’t have to be said merely to explain or define things; it can sing its way into the world, buying candles that when they’re lit turn into a prayer, tuning the piano that plays Mozart that makes people cry, giving warm socks to a guy whose feet are almost rotten with cold, keeping the Caravan counselling project open for a life changing conversation.  And doing all the less visible things like making the building safe, warm, open, and communicating well and creatively online.

We want to make our money sing into the world a song of beauty and justice. Of course we are complicit as individuals and as an organisation, with financial mechanisms that are much less than fair or just. But we also want to be part of generating what we hope is a beacon of hope in the world: and in all the economic activity of the church, helping literally thousands of people who encounter the church pay their rent and have a life in this vibrant but unequal city.

And the Wren project, with its emphasis on social enterprise business, the generation of inclusive and provocative events, art, music and debate, its transformation of the way people move around the site, including anyone who uses a wheelchair: all of this raising of funds is to help this site sing of God’s vibrant life, just future, irresistible presence in the world we live in. Conversations about money are ongoing, always lively and can be transformative. Let’s keep talking as we try to raise the funds for this vision – and importantly, keep finding ways to sing too.