Now the Church of England was largely established, and for many centuries run, on the benefactor model. Some decades ago the sums ceased to add up – not because of a decline in congregation size, but because of sociological changes like what constitutes reasonable provision for people in their retirement, how long retired clergy live, whether the noblesse feel as obliged as they used to, and the shift of the majority of the population to cities, where relationships of unspoken obligation are different from the abiding practice of the country. And so in the last two or three generations a church that depended on squirearchy has morphed into a church that rests on congregationalism. By congregationalism I mean the assumption that the basic unit of Christianity is the local church, that each local church should seek to be self-sufficient as regards the provision of its stipendiary ministry, building upkeep and administrative costs and liturgical requirements, and that such expenditure should be met almost entirely through the voluntary stewardship of members of its congregation. Congregationalism can be inspiring with the sense of a team achieving great things together, but it has two drawbacks: it shrinks the understanding of church to simply the regular attendees; and it tends to obscure the vision of mission almost altogether.
And so to chapter five, in which this all comes home to roost. At St Martin-in-the-Fields we worked on the benefactor model longer than most urban churches. In the 1980s we awakened to the fact that the sums didn’t add up. The costs of the building and the extensive outreach ministry far exceeded the potential of congregational stewardship. The answer was to create a commercial enterprise. Over the last 31 years we’ve steered a course between two poles. The first pole is to try to make the commercial enterprise the complete embodiment of all our aspirations for what it means to be a world-facing church. That sounds like a great idea, but it largely removes the profit that pays our bills, and leaves us back with external benefaction and congregational stewardship together facing an unassailable annual target. The alternative pole is to try to ensure the commercial enterprise makes so much profit that congregational stewardship becomes unnecessary. That sounds attractive, but it’s not the answer: if we succeeded it would end up so professionalising our life that it would eradicate the central role that voluntary discipleship plays in what it means for us to be a church.
The answer is to combine the four activities that make up our life. First, we strive to be a real church, where people find and grow in faith, care and receive care, participate in and lead worship, meet Christ in the stranger and the disadvantaged, seek to proclaim and advance God’s kingdom, and become one body. That’s what our congregational giving pays for. Second, we seek to be a place where we offer food, music, event spaces and commodities that people come here to find and are glad to pay for. That’s what our commercial business does, and in addition it offers good employment and pays for day-to-day maintenance costs. Third, we ask strangers to join with our longstanding mission to homeless people in London and around the UK. That’s what the Charity and the Connection do. Fourth, we invite wealthier people and foundations to invest in us as an institution and look to the long-term well-being of our fabric because they believe in where we’re going. That’s what the Trust does. Take stewardship away and we stop being a church, take business away and we lose our building, take homeless work away and we’ve lost our mission, take the Trust away and we’ve got no future. All four are vital, indispensable, and wonderful.
St Martin-in-the-Fields is a delicate balance between many things that occasionally seem very different and on the odd day can feel in tension. But most of the time it’s a miracle of divine initiative and human response, ordinary effort and sublime gifts, simple goodness and astonishing grace, and we all feel privileged to be a part of it. As a congregation we know it’s not all about us: we humbly recognise that lots of good things happen here, which we enjoy, participate in, and encourage; at the same time it’s not all down to us: we gratefully welcome others whose work, custom and kindness pay the majority of the bills. But if the careful ecology of St Martin’s is to continue to flourish, we as a congregation need to play our part, with our time and energy, absolutely; but also, crucially, with our money.