Continuing the series of articles discovering what “Marks of a Generous Church” might be, I’m interviewing people called Mark about generosity and church.
A simple concept really.
My second Mark is 46 years old, has two teenage children and a lovely wife called Lindsay. Often mistaken for another 46 year old, the slightly more famous but equally charming singer, radio presenter, and TV presenter Aled Jones, Bishop Mark Tanner invites me into his new pad to talk generosity.
It’s a Friday evening and Mark looks exhausted. I’m not sure if it’s from dodging paparazzi (presumably something he’s done all his life. Incidentally, have you ever noticed that they’ve never actually been seen together in the same room?), or from his new and demanding role as the Bishop of Berwick.
After a brief catch up- I’ve known Mark for a couple of years, as I was at Cranmer hall when he was Warden- the interview begins.
And I have to say Mark Tanner is a lovely man. He has a calming presence, he’s gentle and witty and is desperately passionate about Jesus. I can’t imagine anyone having a bad word to say about him. Except this: the speed at which he speaks when he’s excited about something, which is a lot of the time. Mark Tanner can talk for England.
So writing up an interview that took only 53 earth minutes to record has been very testing. He said so much, and it was so jam-packed with insights and sense and vision, that I’ve had to split his answers into “Generosity Wisdom” and “Generic Wisdom”. The latter can be found here, in a separate blog I’ve compiled, which begins with how Mark ended up in ministry.
Bishop Mark, (he immediately asks me to drop the bishop)… Mark, when you were growing up what was your family’s approach to charitable giving? We didn’t talk about money much at all. But we were taught to give 10% of our pocket money to church, so I remember I started off getting 10p a week and I’d save a penny and give it to church. And I’m really grateful for that early habit.
As a parent, how have you approached it? We’ve been more explicit and intentional, I think. Our own personal discipline is to set aside 10% of our money, and give 5% of that straight to the church and 5% we give away creatively to charity. It’s part of our family life, a conversation we have with the children about giving away that 5%. That’s part of the reason we don’t just give 10% to the church. It’s important we all think about how we’re giving.
So why give 10%? Is that a Biblical thing? Or a benchmark? For me, it’s based on the Bible but not in the sense of “You’re sinning if you don’t give away 10%.” Because we live under Grace, not under law. But I find it a really helpful guideline. This discipline I learned as a child is something I just got used to. Even when I had very little, like when I was a youth worker, I still did it. I was paid next to nothing and it’s very easy for people to say “How can you give it away?” But the truth is, once you get used to it, you find you receive infinitely more back than you give.
My own theological understanding of tithing is still underdeveloped, so it’s something I’m exploring, but in my job I’ve found that “tithing” is quite an emotive topic. Often if I mention that word, people seem very sensitive about it, and quite negative. What’s going on there? I don’t talk about tithing, really. If I was preaching I’d talk about generosity being the key. But it’s immensely helpful to have a pattern by which you give. I think there are guidelines in scripture that are a helpful way of thinking, but I don’t think that’s there’s a command in the scriptures that says you MUST do it. I want to encourage people to ask themselves, “How do I do this?” And to give generously.
Here’s an example: John Wesley worked out how much he needed to live on, and he gave away the rest. And he started off not really giving away very much, but by the end of his life he had money coming in from absolutely everywhere, and he still lived on the amount of money he needed. So, say in modern money he needed £20k to live on. Whether he was earning £21k or £250k he still kept just £20k for himself, and give the surplus away.
That sounds far more challenging than tithing! Because when people have a lot of money, if they give away 10%, they still actually have a huge amount left. That’s absolutely right. I remember a friend telling me about a person who was earning hundreds of thousands of pounds. Apparently he asked, “So how much money should I give to God?”
And the response was, “Well there aren’t rules. Quite a lot of people think in terms of giving 10% of what you have away.”
He said, “I can’t do that! That would be giving away £30,000 a year!”
So his friend said, “Well how about we pray to God to reduce that amount of money.”
And the man said that would be great.
So the friend said, “Well how much do you want to give away?”
He said, “Well what about giving away £1,000?”
He said, “Well that’s fine, I’ll pray that you’re just earning £10,000 a year then!”
I love that story because he’s asking “Do you want to keep £9000 or do you want to keep £270,000? It’s all relative.”
Is teaching about generosity important to begin at a young age in the church? I think it’s vital we bring up our children engaging with the whole life of faith.
We live in a world that says “Money is everything so I’m going to earn as much as I can and keep it to myself.” But, actually, we live with a God who says “I’m giving you everything.”
So for me, I’m not saying give away your money because the church wants it. I’m saying you have a God who says to you the more you give away the more I’ll give you. It’s actually about living in the freedom of that generosity. Like the rest of following Christ, it’s quite challenging. So I think it’s key to start early.
Does generosity make you happy? Yes, sometimes. Not always. Sometimes it’s hard. And let’s face it there are times when it’s really tough to know how to be generous.
I was in London the other day and I was running late, so I bought myself some chips to eat on the way. And this gentlemen, you could smell the beer on his breath, said, “Can you give me a fiver so I can have some tea like you’re having?”
It broke my heart. Because I wanted to say “Of course.” The bag of chips was almost empty otherwise I’d have said “Just take the chips!” And I thought, if I give you a fiver you’re not going to spend it on food you’re going to spend it on alcohol, and I don’t know quite how to respond there.
Generosity can be quite complicated then? Yes. Honestly I don’t know what the generous response is in that situation. So like a coward I say “I’m really sorry,” I lower my head and I carry on walking, and feeling terribly guilty about it.
Generosity is hard even when you want to be generous. It’s why I think it’s so important to practice being generous when there are straightforward ways of doing so.
Generosity goes beyond money doesn’t it? So are there other ways we can be generous in difficult situations like that? Absolutely. When I was a Youth Worker in Coventry city centre, there was one bloke who’d sit and play the guitar. He used to ask me for money every time I went past, and I was paid next to nothing so I genuinely didn’t have money to give him.
But one day his guitar was dreadfully out of tune so I said, “I can’t give you money but I’ll tune your guitar if you want me to.” And then I was worried he’d think I was being rude! But he said, “Great mate!” So I sat next to I’m and tuned it and gave it back, but then I stayed, and then we had half an hour sitting on the street just playing. That was really great. We exchanged names and he’d say, “Hi Mark” when I walked by and I’d say “Hi Geoff”.
I remember 2 or 3 times I bought some chips for me and for him, so I could be a bit generous that way, but it started off by being generous by thinking: I’m not ashamed to be sitting with you in the street, tuning your guitar for you. Strangely giving money can be anti-generous because you can fob someone off with it.
Do you think we value money, time and skills equally in church? It’s absolutely vital that we do.
But in my darkest times of ministry I’ve felt massively taken for granted. You do something when you’re tired and you feel no one notices. It’s so easy to feel you’re not appreciated. Of course we need to be better, as a church, at appreciating and noticing and valuing. But I think there’s a challenge for me in that I take pleasure in being generous because I’m able to be generous.
Taking pleasure in giving? So is generosity more of a state of mind? I think it is. I remember once the youth group had been sticking chewing gum down the urinals in the gent’s, so they’d flood every time. It was a Monday morning and we had no money for a plumber so I went and got a new u-bend, and set to and changed it. Nobody knew I’d done that. It was a fairly unpleasant stinky job to do but I remember every time I’d nip in and use it or see someone coming out of there I got this sense of “actually I made that possible and that’s really good”.
And I mention it not because I’m proud of the fact I did it, but because whilst I was doing it I was thinking how am I going to look at this?
Am I going to think, “Blooming heck I’m the vicar here and I have to change urine soaked pipes”? Or am I going to think, “What a privilege to be able to give the church the continued use of this urinal”?
I remember I decided as I was kneeling on the floor, I’m going to think of this as a privilege and not as a chore. It was a real challenge.
I think we need to learn to take a wry sense of pleasure in the fact we’re able to serve.
Where do you see generosity in churches? In the time people take to care for their buildings, to open up, lay things out, cake baking, grass mowing, the welcome, the smiles, the handshakes, the helping people in distress, the support and care people show. The generosity in imagination. Then there’s the financial side of course. There’s generosity in so many ways. Generosity is everywhere in our churches. The Church of England couldn’t survive without it.
Have you ever been surprised by generosity? When I was a youth worker I was literally on the bread line, and the car I had to run failed its MOT, and it needed about £400 of work. That was over 10% of my salary. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t have £4 never mind £400! And an hour later an envelope came through the door with exactly the right amount of money. It just said “For the youth worker’s car”. God provided. Whoever was behind that generosity…well it was overwhelming. I have a suspicion about who it was. This person was very generous.
Was it important for them not to sign the note? Well Jesus said “Don’t let your left hand see what your right hand is giving”. But For me that’s not about anonymity. It’s about genuinely practising generosity. If I took you out and bought you a meal, and was looking for gratitude from you, or I was trying to buy your time, that’s actually a purchase. I’ve bought something I want. Whereas generosity is about saying, “This is in my custody and I’m giving it to you. I’m letting go of it.” So often the things we think are generosity aren’t generosity.
What’s easiest to generously give, time, talents or money? I think that’s different for all of us and at different time of our lives. We all need to allow ourselves to be challenged in the areas we find difficult. So for some, writing a cheque is nothing, but they absolutely wouldn’t want to give up a couple of hours on a Saturday morning. I think we all have the challenge to interrogate ourselves and say “Am I practising generosity across the board?”
What would you do if you won the lottery? Mark gets very animated at this point. Ah now I’ve thought about this a lot! In Doncaster I was part of a social club and they’d ask me this every week. I didn’t play the lottery but they always asked, so I thought it through.
I’d set up a trust and I’d have 2 or 3 trustees with me and we’d keep the capital and give away the interest. The rule would be that nobody could apply for this gift. And, they’d have to give away 10% of what we gave them. So imagine you’re a charity. I’d send you a cheque for £10,000 because I thought what you were doing was good, and you’d have to give £1,000 of that away. And you’d have to write to me and tell me who you’d given it to, so we could then consider them next time we were giving money away.
It would teach you it was a gift that came out of the blue, and you didn’t ask for it, and, you had to apply generosity yourself. We’d build up this database of who we’d give to. I think it would be such fun. All sorts of people and organisations would just get money out of the blue, and they’d be giving money away.
And the capital? I hope it would continue to earn interest.
No holiday? Ah that’s interesting. I confess I’d struggle not to buy myself a new motorbike and an E-type Jag but you can’t have a bishop driving around in an E-type jag can you!?
Finally, do you have a favourite Bible passage on generosity? 2 Cor 12:9 “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” That sense of Paul being right up against it and God just saying “Look in me you’ve got everything. My grace is utterly sufficient.” I come back to that time and time again. God’s generosity. It has to be the start and end for me.
The interview with the Bishop of Berwick, draws to a close and we hug and say our goodbyes. I leave feeling I’ve captured only a fraction of what this man has to offer us about faith and how to live like Jesus, but what I have captured is a start.
Generosity is complex, and challenging. Sometimes we don’t even know how to be generous in certain situations, which is why it’s important to practise generosity regularly in the obvious situations. Mark says this begins when we’re young, and highlights the importance of teaching generosity to our children. We’ve got to get into the practice of it.
Generosity isn’t necessarily about giving a specific amount or percentage away, but rather about being disciplined and thoughtful in a way that is right for each of us.
Generosity is a state of mind and sometimes the challenge is in not seeking gratitude or affirmation, but in taking pleasure in giving anonymously, quietly and out of service to others and to God (even if it means having to kneel on a toilet floor!).
And God. Mark says God gives us everything, and it’s sufficient, so generosity has to start and end with God. Amen.