I knew that European churches were supported with Governmental funds. What I didn’t know until it became personal was that the Bavarian state will asses its residents with a 9% tax on income dedicated to either the Catholics or the Protestant churches (aka Lutheran). The criteria is not based on one’s current affiliation or lack of affiliation but on where one was baptized.
On the one hand, I kind of like the theology of this policy. Baptism is a irrevocable claim that we belong to God. There is nothing we can do or not do to change God’s commitment to us.
On the other hand, this is some real money and the United Methodist English speaking congregation I’ll be attending doesn’t see any of that money. I understand (subject to further clarification) that whatever money we give to Peace Church will be applied against the Church Tax but the details remain a tad murky at the moment.
Beloved’s company, Alliance, is paying Earnst and Young for giving us tax advice which really hasn’t been particularly helpful so far. We got a four year old memo on the subject, advising ex-pats that German tax authorities are looking at where we were baptized in our home country and that they are using the Leuenberg Agreement to determine if a Protestant ex-pat is a member of the larger “Lutheran” (aka “taxable”) religious community or not. What is the Leuenberg Agreement you ask? Welcome to church polity* nerd land.
As you may or may not be aware, the not-Latin Church (aka not-Catholic) Christian community is a large and lively collection of congregations that may or may not be speaking to each other at any point in time. Sometimes they band together for common purposes and sometimes they break up with each other. Allow me to cut and past an illustration from a Baptist Jokes web page:
I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump off. So I ran over and said "Stop! don't do it!" "Why shouldn't I?" he said. I said, "Well, there's so much to live for!" He said, "Like what?" I said, "Well...are you religious or atheist?" He said, "Religious." I said, "Me too! Are you christian or buddhist?" He said,"Christian." I said, "Me too! Are you catholic or protestant?" He said, "Protestant." I said, "Me too! Are you episcopalian or baptist?" He said, "Baptist!" I said,"Wow! Me too! Are you baptist church of god or baptist church of the lord?" He said, "Baptist church of god!" I said, "Me too! Are you original baptist church of god, or are you reformed baptist church of god?" He said,"Reformed Baptist church of god!" I said, "Me too! Are you reformed baptist church of god, reformation of 1879, or reformed baptist church of god, reformation of 1915?" He said, "Reformed baptist church of god, reformation of 1915!" I said, "Die, heretic scum", and pushed him off.
Over the past century there has been a movement to try and bring all the splintered congregations back onto the center of the bridge. Church leaders and scholars from around the world often meet together to negotiate agreements between denominations so that each will recognize the other’s ministry and rites. Baptism is baptism, communion is communion, and our preachers can go preach in your churches because we have much more in common then in difference.
The National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches are where much of this work goes on. Lots of papers are generated in this process. I have friends who attend these meetings and who have helped to negotiate some of these agreements. The Leuenberg Agreement is one of those historic, reuniting documents where Prostitant congregations all over Europe agree to recognize each other’s work, members, polity. Its a lofty agreement dedicated to the Glory of God that transcends human differences.
I don’t think it was intended to figure out who was going to be paying the Kurche Tax in Europe. That’s kind of like using an agreement among four people to use a blue color when decorating an apartment to assess a tax against everyone else who lives in an apartment kind of like the first one in order to buy 100 gallons of blue paint.
I was baptized in a predecessor denomination of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA). This puts me in a very clear pay the protestant church tax position because the ELCA has direct exchange priveledges with the German Lutheran Church. Beloved was baptized in the Reformed Church of America (RCA). Because the RCA has a mutual agreement with the ELCA, the Presbyterian Church (USA), and the United Church of Christ (UCC), he’s probably on the default hook for the church tax as well, although this is less clear.
I moved into the PC(USA) in my early twenties. Beloved found his faith home with the Unitarian Universalists (UUA) which does not keep a list of rules of who might be “in” and who might be “out,” and thus doesn’t get invited to a lot of ecumenical agreements with other denominations. The UUA’s consider everyone else already invited into their denomination, they don’t need to negotiate about these things.
People can get out of the tax by filing a statement with the German court system declaring one’s self to be non-religous. There are consequences: While such a person remains free to attend “prayer services”, he or she can not participate in Baptism, Communion, or Weddings. No pay, no play. Beloved will probably file such a statement but I can’t. Nor do I particularly want to. I don’t know everything that may happen in the next three to five years but I could end up preaching and celebrating communion within a Lutheran context. And, no. I’m not interested in lying about my faith. Its just that if I’m giving money to a church, I’d like for it to go to the church I’m involved with and I’d like to make my own choice about how much I pay. (So, it turns out that I’m an American…)
In history writings, and especially in church history writings, scholars emphasis that the separation of church and state is a recent development. Encountering this tax connects me with what it might have meant to live in conflict with the conflated faith and secular governance.
My American denomination, like several others, is in trouble. Membership, and thus donations, is going down. Churches are closing. I’m not sure how many people understand that Mom’s church may not be there to bury Mom when that time comes. I think that not only are we confused about how local taxes support local programs (mostly) and State and Federal taxes do other things, we’re also confused about how much money different churches raise or can access. The ending of the old ways may be a good thing but the beginning of a new way is not yet clear. We could end up with just a lot of empty buildings trying to be a concert hall.
There is a relatively new Catholic church on the block next to the hotel we stayed at in June. It is a beautiful building with cast woodland animals as doorknobs, and a theologically pure expression of the baptistry. It has a magnificant organ and an intensely sparse interior design. I looked at this building and wondered where the wealth came from to support it. While I never attended a worship service, I didn’t see a lot of people walking to or from worship, even though the bells rang out an invitation. Now I know. A 9% church tax keeps the doors open and the building in good shape for when someone discovers a need to encounter the holy and maybe that’s important enough for the common good to justify a tax.
I don’t know.
I do know this: Baptism is a sacrament. It binds us to God and God doesn’t break promises. No matter what we do or say, or not do or not say; no matter how much we give or are taxed, or not give or avoid taxation, we still belong to God.
*Polity is one of the insider church words. If you run into someone who uses the word “polity” in a sentence, then you know you’re talking to someone who’s a little deep into the politics. Polity is the word to describe how a congregation or a community of congregations govern itself. Polity is the rule book, the constitution, the by-laws, the How-Decisions-Are-Made, who gets ordained and how and when.