The currency of trust, the currency of faith

The Daily Episcopalian will be the Somewhat-Less-Frequent Episcopalian during the Christmas holidays.

By Adrian Worsfold

There is a closer relationship between the worlds of finance and religion than we might imagine.

My ten pound sterling note says: I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of Ten Pounds. This once meant gold; what’s more important, and what actually functions, is the promise. Money is trust and relationship, and when it breaks down so does the economy.

Life is full of encounters, and the economic encounter is the one where we pay money hoping to receive goods or services we think are of greater or equal value as the money we hand over. Profit or surplus is the name of the game at every transaction. So it is with work: is my work worth more than the wage? Plus, money allows us to defer products and services: to save, invest and consume with a greater surplus because it is functional at times different from the restrictions imposed by barter.

However, something else happens at exchanges: we develop relationships of mutual dependency. This happens in small towns between customers and traders, but it also happens multinationally. The theory of the European Union is that if every economy is tied in together and we have common identities through economic activity, then no country in the EU would ever fight another country in the EU. It pushes old tribal boundaries outwards through exchange.

This binding effect is an extra product of our economic activity: and binding is religious.

When we go to a group meeting we do exchanges of interest. I used to be a member of a camera club and also a painting group. The camera club was contemporary-technological, individualist, competitive and male; the painting club was old-technology, collective, supportative and largely female. Each of these had a different binding effect, of different qualities, but both arguably instrumental and specific. We give materially to such groups and receive a benefit, and associate with the like minded.

Now religion should be an overview, and not specific. It involves material giving, but should involve too a hoped for gift. Of course much religion is specialist, dogmatic, narrow and focused on its gathered number, not unlike the camera club or painting society. I would argue that this reduces the sense of overview, and that something much more communal should be aimed for.

There is another parallel too. Like the ten pounds is a promise, the material itself being worthless, also the handshake of the Peace, and the tokens of the Eucharist, are pretty worthless actions or tokens in themselves. The discs are nutritionally nil, and the wine is not the sort you’d have at parties. But there is an intention and promise attached, and the simple gesture and worthless tokens bind one another together, and give the impetus to go out and serve the community.

There is a further parallel of our time, too. Too much money, and you get (simply) inflation; clip the coinage, and you get a lack of trust. I’d suggest that too many gift-exchange rituals reduces their impact, and that rushing them and lack of reverence does too. Also, if we continue to express beliefs that actually contradict what people actually believe in day to day living, then that reduces the trust in the product too. We should be careful that we don’t have the religious equivalent of the lack of trust as in Lehman Brothers.

Our religious meeting houses are quite precious places, because of what they represent. They are like assets, and real assets that are involved when we carry out ritual gift-exchanges. If these assets are debased, by undermining what is precious, either through church politics emphasising internal superiority and, again, excessive claims to truth, then that false expansion of claims and self-importance will be exposed. It is very dangerous to trade on purity over pollution (moral superiority), because when the scandals come (as they do) the bubble bursts and the mess is everywhere. It takes a long time to clean up.

One of these phenomena is evidenced in the UK in the rise of importance of the church car park, if there is one. Ideally, the church is in a parish and there is a reasonable walking distance. Some drive, of course. However, in some places we see the development of, in particular, evangelical and charismatic churches where cars park after considerable journeys across cities and over country. Such churches advertise their numbers as evidence of success. Yet, where these expansions happen, we see a churn effect on similar churches in the area, where they too seem to be ‘doing the right thing’ but struggle as groups of religious drivers change their destination car park. The expectation of growth and more growth, often centred around these expanding places, simply does not equate with the overall figures of attendance in society. Bubbles of expectation will burst.

Such churches often complain that they gather the money and send it to the diocese, and other churches of different theologies spend it. It is by no means as simple as this, but the issue is whether such surplus churches want to see a broader coverage, or keep surpluses to themselves. There may be strings attached, say of dogma and belief, but such holding back debases the connection between communities and churches, a relating to people as they are rather than to a specific kind of gathered faithful.

There is a common theme here, that runs between the operation of exchange and the realisation of gift-exchange, and it is that of trust. When trust is sufficiently weakened, the system collapses.

There is always mistrust in the system; there are crooked and distorted parts of the economy and in the world of churches and religion. Nevertheless, there is that moment, the undetectable moment, when the marginal event takes place, where a system comes crashing down. What was once inflated then has to deflate before matters can begin again, with a new equilibrium to be found at a lower level than before.

Some people have tried to bring down The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada by persistent campaigning and misrepresentation. Now that there has been a separation, the currency of TEC and ACC can be re-established. We will see just how relevant and continuous the separators will be. They will continue, even when separated, to attack the former home (as a means to recruit), but this is likely to be their own obsessive debasement, and they will be seen more widely to be a peculiar sect that cannot let go. The bigger body continues, and tries to engage with broader currents in society and build up trust with that society. It is what all Churches have to do – connect – and do it without inflation of whatever kind as they carry out their gift-exchange activity.

Adrian Worsfold (Pluralist), has a doctorate in sociology and a masters degree in contemporary theology. He lives near Hull, in northeast England and keeps the blog Pluralist Speaks where he explored this issue in greater detail.

Past Posts