“Pray, Pay and Obey” was a pithy aphorism that succinctly captured the Catholic view from the pew in the years leading up to the Second Vatican Council. Since then the invitation to pray has lost out to mammon as Benediction on a Sunday afternoon gave way to visits to the shopping malls once the laws around Sunday shopping were relaxed. Likewise, the publication of Humanae Vitae led many Catholics to challenge the teaching authority of the Church and to go their own way.
‘Paying’, however, has remained something of a constant with the ubiquitous collection plate circulating amongst the congregation in the minutes leading up to the presentation of the gifts prior to the celebration of Liturgy of the Eucharist. This is not to say that there are not local or national variations on this theme. I vividly recall, when living in Kenya, the phenomenon of people placing a coin on the collection plate and then removing change so that their exact contribution could be carefully calibrated. More recently, African Pentecostal churches have embraced social media and left us Catholics standing. Here in London, I can access a Pentecostal service from Nairobi live streamed on a Sunday morning and including, on the bottom left-hand corner of the screen, a red button that allows one to make a financial contribution online. Meanwhile, in my home parish, the slightly dog-eared red collection bag continues to snake its solemn passage through the congregation as it has done over the previous few decades.
But our financial habits have not remained constant and recent newspaper articles inform us that, in 2018, cash payments have been, for the first time, eclipsed by the use of debit and credit cards. Indeed, I can go for days without spending a penny (of the literal, copper variety) using plastic to pay for my bus fare, my cup of coffee, and everything else in between. Paying by debit card ensures that my bank sends me a full breakdown of my outgoings each month and this allows me to keep on top of my expenses.
Church on Sunday bucks the trend with a mixture of payments both “Ancient and Modern”. My parish has recently introduced the opportunity to make monthly payments by direct debit. I embraced this innovation since, as suggested above, I rarely carry much in the way of cash with me and can face a degree of embarrassment on a Sunday morning as moths escaped from my rarely-opened wallet. The parish has also done rather well out of me as I have committed to a monthly bank transfer the sum of which certainly far exceeds any offering that would have been dependent on my rummaging around in my wallet and pockets for loose change each Sunday morning. However, the ancient practice of the circulating collection plate continues and opportunities for unwarranted shame and embarrassment escalate.
Just last Sunday, my family and I were a little late in our arriving at church and consequently had to occupy a bench towards the front of the congregation (we Catholics tend to fill up from the back of the church). At offertory time a dour faced individual appeared at the end of our bench with the ubiquitous collection bag. I handed my daughters a pound coin each for them to deposit in the collection and, after replacing my wallet in my bag, turned to find the collection plate still loitering a short distance from my face with an air of open expectancy. A slight wave of my wrist indicated that nothing more was to be forthcoming and the collector departed with this drama having been played out in full view of the congregation behind us.
However, the coins handed to my daughters were already in excess of what I wished to constitute my monthly contribution to my parish. I had already made my monthly commitment and Gift-Aid repayments had secured a further donation to the parish coffers.
Other Christian churches are already creatively responding in an effort to bring ‘the collection’ into the twenty-first century. The Church of England has, this year, introduced contactless, virtual terminal, and SMS mobile payments as part of its cashless payment options. Passing round a card reader at collection time is to be trailed in the near future. However, most of these options are not widely available at the moment.
As far as us Catholics are concerned, I do think it is time to revisit the collection system which has failed to keep abreast of financial changes and technological innovations. I laud the direct debit/standing order options but a consequence is that I either have to donate more on a Sunday to save face or else I appear to be a Scrooge-like figure who is conspicuous in not appearing to support the parish. Indeed, I would contend that the people being alienated most by this recent development are the very people most committed to the Church and who make regular bank payments in support of their parish community.
One possibility might be the issuing of a “Bank Payment” cards that can be displayed as the plate comes round – indicating that we have opted for a regular bank payment rather than a few coins on the plate each Sunday. Most of us have a plethora of such plastic passes that we use to collect points at the supermarket or permit entry for the family into various events and attractions. They are ubiquitous in our modern society and people are familiar with the messages they offer and the benefits conferred. They are cheap to produce and clearly demonstrate that an alternative way of contributing to the collection has been adopted. Indeed, bank transfers might well increase once the embarrassment associated with appearing to not make a visible contribution to the Sunday collection is removed.
Further, moving to Direct Debit/Standing Order might alert some to the reality that the “Couple of Quid” they have routinely placed on the plate for the last twenty years or so is not necessarily appropriate for the support of a vibrant and missionary parish in this day and age.
However, I am not necessarily advocating the adoption of such a system or arguing that this is the only, or best, option available. What I would like to do is initiate a conversation. The system doesn’t seem to be working as best it could at the moment so where is the room for improvement?