Yesterday I read a story on the BBC that blew my mind. Apparently, the Catholic Church in Germany has decided to make people pay for their sacraments. To understand how this works you need to know some background details. Since the 19th century, when the State took away much of the Catholic Church’s property, the state has been collecting a so-called church tax in compensation. That means, when you register with the government (which you have to do whenever you move), you also register your religious affiliation and whether you register as Protestant, Catholic or Jewish, you will be required to pay a tax. This tax isn’t a lot; 8% of your income tax. That means, if you earn 100 000€ a year and you pay 10000 in income taxes (I simplified the math here), you will need to pay an additional 800€ in church tax. In the last few years (or decades), more and more people have de-registered their religious affiliation and it has long been in contention whether that means that they are also leaving their Religion. I think we can all agree, that this is not necessarily the same (and personally I think it is not the same at all). Well, now the German Catholic Bishop’s Conference has decided to make it so officially. That means that if you de-register with the State, you also automatically leave the Catholic Church and the consequence of that is that you will be denied all sacraments, except for the last rites. Even a church funeral might be denied you if the deceased was not registered.
I am outraged. I have joined the CoE a while ago but if I had not this would have the last nail in the coffin to make me automatically leave the Catholic Church of Germany. How dare they connect the giving of the sacraments with paying a tax? How dare they make people pay for spiritual anything! It is properly unbelievable.And why would the Bishops think that this would mean less people leaving the church? I think this is going to make more people de-register; out of anger. I would. I am so agnry at them, I could scream. This is not what being a church is about, it it is not about giving people a space and support to encounter God and Jesus and explore their faith. This is pure power play. If you don’t pay taxes, we won’t let you go to communion. If you don’t pay taxes, we won’t let you be a godmother. If you don’t pay taxes, we won’t give you a funeral. It’s blackmail.
Group portrait of children at their First Communion, Holyrood School, Swindon, 1949 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Next Sunday my parish will have a discussion after the morning service on whether we should introduce a First Communion for younger children so they may participate in the Eucharist before having been confirmed. Apparently this discussion has been going on for quite a while, and everyone is hoping that staging a public discussion with a guest speaker will get things going. I will be there and discuss with everyone. This is something that is quite close to my heart, since I, as a Catholic, of course celebrated my First Communion when I was 9 and then my Confirmation at 16. Why is it so important to me? Looking back, I think, it is partly the fact that, as soon as I was allowed to participate in the Eucharist, I felt like a full member of the congregation. During the preparation I had learned a lot about what the Eucharist meant, how a mass was celebrated, and why in this order, and what everything we did meant, and I, as a 9 year old girl, felt very adult and privileged to become a part of the adult world. At the same time it was a great spiritual experience for me. Generally, the First Communion is a big deal for Catholic children and their parents, almost a mini-wedding, and some people really go overboard with the dresses and presents. In my village you get presents from almost everyone who knows you or your parents (for example I got a holy water basin from the church choir because my mother was a member, but also presents and money from the individual members). My village parish had just decided that things had gotten too far the year I had my First Communion, and that, for many children, the purpose of it all had taken a far second place behind the material side of it. So we had, what was called a silent First Communion, on Maundy Thursday, just over a week before the public ceremony. For me, that was exactly right; the idea that here I was taking Jesus’ body and blood for the first time was unimaginably precious. But what decides my opinion today is, that having a First Communion and being welcomed into full public membership early on, made my decision to be confirmed when I was 16 (everyone being confirmed was my age) a matter of my personal relationship with God rather than a requirement needed for me to feel like a full member of the parish community. Also, because all of us were older, we had the chance to discuss a lot of topics in more detail than if we had been younger, and some topics that we would not have been able to discuss at all; including sexuality. Having had that chance made my faith stronger, I believe, and having made the decision to be confirmed as a young adult also made it feel more of a commitment to God that I had personally chosen. All of this helped me to find my way back to Jesus and prayer after I had strayed a little while at university. It was definitely the right way for me and as much as I like and am committed to the Church of England, I will always look back with pride and gratefulness to my Catholic upbringing.
I think for a lot of people, certainly for me, going to church means being a member of the church community and therefore a member of something bigger than all of us. I was reminded of that today, when I returned to my parish’s Wednesday evening service (you are getting this post a little later I think) after a longish time of absence and I was greeted with great joy and enthusiasm. It was so much more appreciated because I did not expect it. When the vicar asked “Is this who I think it is?” and was so obviously glad to see me, I was so surprised and happy to have been missed. I was even hugged (English people don’t hug each other all that much; in Germany this would have meant a lot less) and welcomed warmly by everyone. It was lovely. It reminded me of the Church of Christ being a place for us where we feel at home, safe, and loved. I am lucky because I have found a parish where I do feel all of these things but there are probably quite a few people out there who are Christians but haven’t found a way into a church yet, maybe because they had a few bad experiences or maybe because they never dared. I was one of them until just about a year ago. I was lucky because I had a friend who introduced me to the possibility of Anglicanism and helped me find out which church was right for me. When I arrived at my parish I was welcomed with open arms. It has been easy to become one of the group. How many people must be out there who didn’t get that chance, though? Not only is it so much easier to live your faith and worship when you are with others who feel the same, it also helps you feel a part of something bigger, something amazing, something that is more than the sum of its parts. Coming back to Christ’s Church was one the best decisions in my life but it was not an easy one. (I talk more about that here). But I had help and encouragement and had a background in the faith. Today I am glad to have been reminded of my luck and God’s grace in letting me be a part of this great community. Together, we can accomplish almost anything.
When I decided to join the Church of England and, by default, leave the Catholic Church, people asked me why I bothered. After all, I could have been happily Catholic while being a member of my CoE parish. I didn’t agree. It was not an easy decision, in fact it took me around a year to make it. To start with, I felt (and still do) a strong bond to my home parish in Germany, where I still go to church when I am visiting my family. This parish helped me grow up in faith and community, they where my anchor during some very difficult times and I will never forget that. But I had also grown up with the understanding that the Catholic Church did not represent my views in a lot of areas and in fact opposed them in quite a few (I’ll probably be talking more about that in the future). In my parish and my family it was always understood that what the bishops and the pope were doing had very little to do with our faith. When I had lived for quite a while in England and had experienced the very conservative forms of Catholicism here, had been disappointed a few times when trying to join local Catholic parishes because they were not very welcoming, I decided to branch out and the CoE seemed the obvious choice. I found the parish I am a member of now quite quickly and they were just perfect for me. Eventually, when the Catholic Church was more and more removed from who I feel I am and where I am in my faith, I decided that I wanted to be a full member of my parish, because for me it does make a difference. And really, the Catholic Church hadn’t really done much to make me be proud to be Catholic. I still felt like I was giving up a huge part of me and it took long conversations with friends and family members as well as my Catholic minister from home who had seen me grow up for me to feel comfortable with the decision. From a structural point of view I love the democratic elements in the CoE and the worth they put on the laity. I have found a place where I feel comfortable to make spiritual connections and worship as part of the community.