By Rev. Canon Christopher B. J. Pratt
During the month of July, a significant number of church buildings across Canada were either vandalized, severely damaged, or burned to the ground.
For some, willful acts of damage and destruction of church property took the place of angry rhetoric or protest. At the same, time another conversation found its own place in the public forum.
The picture of children’s empty shoes placed reverently on the front steps of St Jude’s Anglican Cathedral in Iqaluit covered a quarter of the editorial page in a national newspaper. The bolded headline was written in extra large print. The writer’s opinion was declared without any hesitancy:
“Churches should not be tax - exempt. Period“ (National Post - July 7, 2021 - A8)
There were several elements in the article which caught my attention. The concerns of the writer were summarized rather succinctly in his conclusion:
“…if the claim is that churches cannot survive without state subsidies then, frankly, like a company that cannot, they have no business surviving. If parishioners won’t tithe, or show up at all, we have a major whited sepulchre issue. For my part, I would render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s. Which for those who still dimly remember their Bible, or someone else’s, was expressly about whether it was lawful for a Christian to pay taxes. Answer: Yes.
(John Robson - National Post - July 7, 2021, page A8)
I have every confidence that there will be those who will be quick to jump on some of the elements of Mr. Robson’s perspective. The simple fact of the matter is that he is not unique in his point of view. Recent articles written regarding this matter have often been written as a response and reaction to the tragic news of unmarked graves of children being found on the grounds of residential schools. The Mayor of Iqaluit raised the option of revoking the municipal property tax-free status for places of worship in that community. The conversation is ongoing.
How do we engage in a conversation around this particular issue of tax exemption from municipal property taxes? What gives the church a special status in society?
There are those church properties with limited space which have been used solely as a space for worship. Larger properties have been given over to cemeteries or green spaces surrounding a church. Other church properties have enough space to offer ample parking for those attending worship. The list of options regarding the use of church property varies and often reflect the history and the setting of the life of the congregation.
In recent days, a number of congregations have reflected on how best to use the property resources which are theirs. Community Gardens have been developed. Projects like capturing rain from expansive church roofs and pollinator gardens, serve as examples of congregational responses not only to our country’s governmentally identified environmental priorities, but also to our own Baptismal Covenant. Plans to develop church property as space for new housing are being explored.
When I made the transition from the Diocese of Fredericton to the Diocese of Huron in 1988, I was fortunate to arrive, with my young family, into the parish community of St John’s (Sandwich) in the City of Windsor. My predecessor was Terry Dance. With his support, the parish family had identified a new purpose for some of the church’s property. I had the honour and joy of helping to turn that parish vision into bricks and mortar reality. Affordable housing in the form of a sixty - two-unit senior citizens building called The Westgate, which was attached to a new parish hall became a key element in the vision of renewal for the historic community which surrounds the church building and cemetery.
With all the best intentions in the world, that project would not have become a reality without an infusion of provincial government housing dollars.
As a cleric who is retired from front line, “active” parish ministry, I am removed from being engaged in having to deal with minutiae of day-to-day congregational life. I do, however, have an awareness that governmental funding was an essential element in enabling many congregations in our diocese to weather the economic impact of the Covid pandemic storm which shuttered the doors of our churches for so long. It is my understanding that in some congregational circumstances, this infusion of governmental financial support enabled them to continue to carry out their ministry throughout very difficult and trying times.
The church’s relationship with government at the municipal, provincial or national level is complicated. There are those who would suggest that those engaged in the realm of political leadership and the policies of government as a whole may be identified as the image of Caesar in our own day and age. They would suggest that we would be well served to steer clear and avoid any connection with the institution. It is easy to identify where our association with governmental policy went wrong in the past. The church’s connection with the residential school system generated a dark stain on our historical record.
There are a number of congregations across our diocese and across the country who have boldly stepped into the church’s time-honoured role of catching those who fall through the systemic governmental gaps which too often fail to meet the needs of our fellow citizens. The countless volunteer hours offered by so many individuals connected through parish social ministry projects have a monetary value which is difficult to calculate. The positive difference they make in the lives of those in need is beyond price.
Where does all of this leave us as we seek to engage in conversation with the wider community? We are fortunate that our identity and purpose does not depend on our tax status. Knowing our story of faith, sharing our story of faith and expressing our love for Jesus in the service of others, remains the unchanging ministry of faithful discipleship to which we respond as we seek to be faithful witnesses to our Lord in our lives.
As for tax status…the conversation continues...
Rev. Canon Christopher B. J. Pratt has retired from full time parish ministry, but continues to offer priestly ministry in the Diocese.
(Photo: The tribute penny - Denarius of the Emperor Tiberius, AD 14-37)