Thursday, March 10, 2005

The Preacher’s Corner
By Rev. Dr. Milton Winter

“Passing the hat” — a fine, glossy beaver

One matter at my church that I have never looked into and do not ever intend to look into is the method by which the persons who receive the offering each Sunday are chosen. All I know is that when I say, “Let us now present the offerings of our life and labor unto the Lord,” two men (or occasionally a lady) will arise and pass among the worshipers with quiet dispatch, gathering the “alms and oblations” of the faithful into the church’s offering plates.

Custom in our tradition says that the deacons are to wait upon the congregation for the offering, and I notice that these are usually (but not always) the persons who fulfill the responsibility.

Many will be interested to learn that receiving weekly offerings in church to support the minister and general church program was a time-saving device that was adopted in many places in the late 19th century. The weekly gathering of collections began to be made in the churches, instead of (as was often the case) going from house to house to gather the people’s offerings. In those bygone days, deacons complained mightily at having to go around collecting the Lord’s bills — claiming that the duty “made them feel like sheriffs.”

In an earlier time than this, not only did the deacons have to go around to the homes of members, but often when they did receive an offering, the money had to be examined. In Great Britain as here, church members often made their contributions in bad coin or in worthless bills — indeed, during the latter months of the Civil War, white Episcopal church wardens in the South complained that their congregations had become too patriotic — giving their worthless Confederate money to the Lord, while retaining greenbacks (U. S. currency) and gold for their own use.

Many of Scotland’s old communion vessels were made from bad coin that would be collected over the years and saved. This metal would be taken down to Edinburgh when the minister went as a commissioner to the kirk’s General Assembly. The bad coins would be melted and shaped into something useful — a picture of the church’s transforming work!

Many church members thought it unseemly to bring “Caesar’s coins” into God’s house, so that well into the 1890s, Holly Springs Presbyterians rented their pews at an annual meeting in the offices of a church member on the square. (The pew rents paid the minister’s salary and provided for all the regular operating expenses of the congregation.) Collections, when taken in worship, were for the relief of the poor, missionary work or some other outside cause.

The institution of a weekly offering in church for all expenses must have seemed a great step forward. When contributed in the privacy of envelopes printed by the denominational publishing house, the offering was a great convenience for the church’s deacons, eliminating the need to go around and collect pew rents.

The proper title of this act of worship has been a matter of dispute — I recall how a rather prissy colleague in Chicago once rebuked one of our student ministers for announcing the offering as “the collection.” Of course, St. Paul used exactly that word to describe the money he raised for the poor of Jerusalem, and which he took to them in the holy city — an action which resulted in his arrest and transfer to Rome, whence we believe he met his fate at the executioner’s block.

Then there are “alms and oblations” — biblical terms, both, and sanctified by their long use in the English Prayer Book — the word alms being specifically associated with voluntary contributions toward the uplifting of the poor. And, of course, one could speak of “tithes,” and thankfully there are some who still take this aspect of Biblical teaching seriously.

Well, all this aside, I heard recently of a synagogue in Florida that simply takes the annual budget and divides it by the number of adherents, and then sends each member a bill, and there are no seats for you at the high holy days unless you have paid your share! I suppose that this system is about as no-nonsense as you can get, and I know also that there are churches where you can now bill your gifts to your credit card!

In the meantime, I smile about the debate Southern Presbyterians had in 1868 over whether to approve the use of collection bags, carved wooden or shiny brass collection plates, as some of the fancy city congregations had begun to do, or whether to continue “passing the hat” as had been done on the frontier since time immemorial. One minister, holding up a fine glossy beaver, argued that “the people are accustomed to the use of the hat.” As it happened, Dr. John N. Waddel, chancellor of the University of Mississippi and minister of the Oxford church, “conservative by age, wisdom and experience,” was called on to break the tie. He cast his vote, and the hat continued to be passed among us for at least a decade more.

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