My friend, the composer Michael Linton, shares with me this very sad, and yet completely emblematic, notice on the Sotheby’s website. Evidently the First Congregational Church in Farmington, Connecticut is selling off the church silver, some of which has been in the congregation’s possession since the seventeenth century. Judging from the church’s website, this is being done largely to raise money for a massive facilities expansion. Not knowing any more about the church’s circumstances, it would perhaps be captious to find fault with their act. One could argue that hanging on to the silver would be foolish, even idolatrous, and an act of bad stewardship. All of this may be true. I hold no brief for the idea that hoarding valuables is in itself an act of superior churchmanship. No doubt the current membership will do wonderful things with the cash proceeds.
Yet one does not need to have the heart of Edmund Burke to find the sale of these ancient items at auction a profoundly saddening development. Not only because there is something inescapably crass about it. Also, because it breaks continuity, and breaks faith in a certain sense with the longer history of their own church, and the forebears who made that history. One could just as easily, and with sophisticated theological justification, argue for the sale of a highly valuable church burial ground. Doesn’t the earth belong to the living?
And so the auction is, like it or not, a powerful symbol of liberal mainline churches’ willingness to liquidate every bit of their inherited capital—material, physical, liturgical, and doctrinal—in order to keep themselves going as institutions. As I said, this particular decision may be entirely justifiable. But I would feel better about it if the church didn’t seem to be missing the main thing. It is worth noting that, in the church’s strategic plan, a dismal piece of babble prepared for the church not by deacons, elders, bishops, or even members, but by a professional consulting firm, the word "Jesus" does not appear, not even once. Perhaps that part of the inherited capital has already disappeared.