Thursday, January 31, 2008
The Preacher’s Corner
It was a large check! From Alfred E. Newman
Two weeks ago our treasurer informed me that he had found a plumber’s washer in the collection plate! Someone either intended it depositing the quarter-sized round object as a joke, or carelessly thought it was a coin. It reminded me of what used to happen in Scotland after the Act of Union in 1707 when that nation joined England and Wales under the name of the United Kingdom of Great Britain.
All the Scots’ coinage was replaced with new money, and the old money was rendered worthless unless exchanged for the new. For several generations thereafter, people were prone to find an old coin, and the opportunity for exchange having passed, would slip it into the collection plates at church, where etiquette demanded that something be given each time a worshiper appeared for divine service.
So much bad coin was deposited in this way that the elders would save it up and when enough was gathered, they would send it with the minister when he went up to Edinburgh for the General Assembly, where he would have it melted down and made into communion silver. Many of the historic communion vessels you see in Scottish churches to this day were obtained by this means!
In most churches, receiving the offering is an important, practical, if not spiritually-significant, part of the service. Ask a small child to name the most interesting parts of the worship hour, and they are sure to mention the collection.
One minister’s son of my acquaintance was looking forward to growing up so he could be like his dad: “Men take up money from everybody who comes to church and then they bring it to the front and give it to my daddy!”
Handling money in church is relatively new, at least in this country. In the Kirk of Holly Springs, the current expenses of the congregation, including the minister’s salary, were met through rental of the pews. Offerings, when received, were devoted to benevolent causes. Even then, keeping in mind our Lord’s declaration that “you cannot serve God and mammon,” it was likely that the money was gathered by the church officers at some hour other than that devoted to divine worship.
In old Scotland a church officer would stand outside by the church gate with the offering plate. Some persons, not wishing to put anything in the plate, were known to climb over the stone wall and enter the church by the back door, so as not to face the church officer at the principal gate.
In the last century — especially after tax support for churches was ended in the separation of church and state that was instituted in the newly formed United States of America — ministers began to stress the spiritual aspects of giving. Bringing money to God was dignified by the presentation of gifts as part of the service of worship, and the offering plates were often placed on the altar where the body and blood of Christ were set forth in memory of His death and passion.
It became customary to sing the Doxology (“Praise God from whom all blessings flow”) at this moment in the service, rather than at the beginning or the end, as had formerly been done. Churches with pipe organs usually reserved their most dramatic flourishes for this moment.
It is not without reason that liturgical scholars are now downplaying the offering, substituting the pageantry and celebrative music that accompany the procession of the offering plates to the altar to the ceremony for the reading of Christ’s words from the gospel.
I rather like the directness of the Hebrew temple in Miami that simply assesses each member the fair share value of their membership in the synagogue. It is a set fee, and people either pay or not — but if not, there are no seats reserved for them on the high, holy days.
Most of our Holly Springs members make their offerings by check. Actual cash, except for occasional dollar bills (placed because old Southern etiquette decreed that one should not allow an offering plate to pass without at least a token contribution), is quite rare in churches these days. (Church burglars please take note!) I did have a Sunday school teacher in my youth who went through our little class’s collection for rare coins. There is a story told here of an elderly member in the long ago who would unctuously deposit in the offering plate a single penny.
Now, any coins in the collection are likely to come from the children. I do recall that the Presbyterian in Oxford once received a check in the amount of $10,000 — an amazingly large gift then or now. It was signed by one Alfred E. Newman. The deacons rushed to tell the pastor, the Rev. Murphey C. Wilds of the stupendous contribution. Unfortunately, Dr. Wilds recognized the “visitor” as the irreverent character made popular in “Mad Magazine,” and further recognized the forged signature as belonging to one of his mischievous teen-aged sons!
Now there are, I understand, congregations that have installed ATM machines in the vestibule — so that harried worshipers can obtain the needed amount of “folding money” when the collection is received in the service that day.
My guess is that it will not be long until electronic equipment is installed so that at the proper moment everybody can simply swipe their credit card at the same moment right there in the pews, and that seconds later the amount of the collection will be totaled and flashed on the projection screens that are quickly taking the place of the cross or stained glass window in the front of our churches. The effectiveness of the morning sermon can thus be immediately ascertained.
Once or twice I have passed over the offering in our service simply by mistake. Our treasurer is quite amused by my carelessness. I feel sorry for ministers in those “mega-churches” where they have to be anxiously aware of how much money is in the collection week by week. That kind of real estate is very expensive. I am glad that our old churches here were paid for long ago.
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