Two Priests Walk Into….

A chain store? A casino?

Two stories in Wednesday’s Washington Post: The first was about Father Tim Jones, an Anglican priest at the parish of St. Lawrence in York, England. From the pulpit last Sunday, Fr. Tim said shoplifting is not a sin, if the act was caused by need instead of greed. He encouraged his parishioners – should they need to shoplift – to do it from big chain stores and not a locally–owned mom-and-pop store and to not take more than they absolutely need to get by.

The sermon generated plenty of attention, much of critical. Archdeacon Richard Seed promptly rejected Fr. Tim’s point of view on the Anglican Church’s website and has called Fr. Tim in on the carpet.

Fr. Tim says the frenzy misses the main point of the sermon. “The point I’m making is that when we shut down every socially acceptable avenue for people in need, then the only avenue left is the socially unacceptable one,” he said

“What I’m against is the way society has become ever more comfortable with the people at the very bottom, and blinded to their needs,” Fr. Tim said. Among the classes of justified shoplifters, he said, are people who are legally entitled to government welfare benefits but have the benefits delayed for bureaucratic reasons.

Twelve years ago, another Anglican priest in the UK, John Papworth, told the BBC that shoplifting from corporations is not immoral, because corporations are not people and therefore cannot be sinned against. Mr. Papworth was expelled from the Church of England for his remarks. We’ll see how Fr. Tim fares.

In the case of each priest, many tongue-tsking critics take pains to note that shoplifting raise prices for all of us, in that corporations pass their losses along to the consumer. As it was 12 years ago, it’s worth noting that corporations pass along the cost of obscene executive salaries and bonuses or the price of corporate misfeasance and malfeasance. We hear more grumbling about these costs today than we did in the go-go 90s, but no change looms on the horizon. The Post also reported Wednesday that employees who promised to give back their bonuses at taxpayer-rescued AIG, in fact did not.

On this side of the pond, a Roman Catholic priest at St. Michael parish in Garden City, South Carolina won $100,000 for his parish building fund in a poker tournament. The priest, Fr. Andrew Trapp, missed the million-dollar first prize in the tournament, but came out ahead for his parish nonetheless. The AP story about Fr. Andrew noted that he also entered the tourney to “strike a public relations blow for priests.”

Fr. Andrew, at 28 the youngest priest in the statewide diocese of Charleston, received permission from both his pastor and his bishop before entering the tournament. He wore his roman collar throughout and was filmed saying mass for the final episode of the televised tournament. Even with Fr. Andrew’s 100 large, the building fund is still $1 million short of it’s $5 million goal.

Fr. Andrew compared the tournament to being on a game show. Instead of answering trivia questions, he played cards. He said his talent for card playing is a gift from God that he uses for good purposes. Fr. Andrew says gambling – in moderation – is not a vice. Apparently, the numbers 100,000 and 1,000,000 fall within Fr. Andrew’s (and his superiors’) definition of moderation.

But it’s Christmas Eve, when we celebrate the birth of a child – in a barn, to an unwed mother. I wonder about that barn. Did Joseph and Mary have permission to be there or were they squatting? The crèches we see this time of year look very staid and pious, but I think the real thing was dirty and drafty and sweaty and bloody. Joseph – according to Hebrew law – should have been nowhere near the place, since Mary, having just given birth, was considered unclean.

Joseph, however, had already stepped outside the law, by refusing to turn his fiancée, pregnant by someone else, over to the authorities for stoning. Within days of the birth, the whole family would be running off to exile in Egypt.

Their child, Jesus, was no great heeder of statutes, unsurprising, given his patrimony. He was called out because his followers were caught working on the Sabbath and he himself got arrested for causing a ruckus in the temple in Jerusalem.

Christmas week and two priests are in the news – one praised for gambling for a new church, one punished for his ah… innovative method for feeding the hungry and clothing the naked.

God bless us, every one.

© Mark Floegel, 2009

P.S. – By the way, Wednesday’s Post also reported that the Vatican’s newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, approves of the Simpsons. And if you’re still in the Hanukkah spirit, there’s now a professional dreidel league.

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