Friday, July 10, 2020

10 July 2020 |!

I’ve been carrying the same £2 coin in my back pocket every day of lockdown. It’s not that I haven’t spent any money. It’s simply that, very unusually, I haven’t spent any cash. Most of my expenditure has been online and I’ve tried to avoid shops as much as I could. Even shops have been preferring, or even insisting on, payment by card. Helpfully, the upper limit for contactless card payments has been raised to £45 during the pandemic. 

© Philip Richter

Maybe this is propelling us, sooner than expected, into a cashless society, in which all payments will be online or by card? Could our coins and banknotes soon become things of the past? It used to be said that only the Queen and very rich people went about without carrying money. But might we all soon be in that situation? It might make us feel more secure, if we had no ‘real money’ to accidentally lose or have stolen. On the other hand, might we begin to lose a sense of the value of money?

Like many of you, I guess, I enjoyed playing shops as a child. There was even a toy cash register, with imitation money, so that pretend customers could pay for their purchases and receive the correct change. I wonder if today’s young children will get a similar glimpse of the value of money as they play together. Will they just imitate their parents and waft their bank card to ‘magically’ make their purchases? To misquote Oscar Wilde, they may not even know ‘the price of everything’, as well as knowing ‘the value of nothing’ (Lady Windermere’s Fan)! In a cashless society, we will need to find new ways of holding on to a sense of the value of money. 

Some people have been spending less during lockdown. Non-essential shops have been shut. If you’ve been working from home or furloughed there has been no expensive daily commute, no take-away coffees, and no lunch to buy. Some people will be having fewer or cheaper holidays and, until recently, there has been nowhere to eat out or visit.

But for others lockdown has been a very precarious time financially. Increased numbers have had to rely on food banks. Certain businesses may not be able to weather the crisis and some individuals are afraid for their job security after furloughing ends. Many charities, including churches, have also seen a significant drop in their income. As a country, we have had to spend massively and greatly increase the national debt in order to save lives and support the economy. It will be some time before we know the full cost of the lockdown and some costs may be hard to pin down – such as erosion of people’s mental wellbeing.

Lockdown has offered the chance to recalibrate our priorities and rediscover – or discover for the very first time – the things that really matter in life. Such things are beyond price, but we are often too busy to notice them until normal life is interrupted in some way. Veteran South African Methodist minister, Peter Storey, an indomitable opponent of apartheid, once suggested in a sermon that: ‘life is like a shop window where somebody has broken in at night and exchanged all the price tags so that the things that are really cheap have been marked most expensive and things that are really valuable are now marked dirt cheap. That’s what life has done... Something has to happen in us to get our values right again’ (With God in the Crucible, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002).

Jesus urged his followers ‘not to store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal… for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also’ (Matthew 6:19-21). In other words, Jesus invites us to rethink what we most value. Is life all about making money and collecting more and more belongings or does the true meaning of life lie elsewhere? How might we share our resources with those most in need? 

Bank of England - current banknotes image library

John Wesley, one of the founders of our Church, encouraged people to ‘gain all you can… save all you can… and give all you can’ (in his sermon on ‘The Use of Money’). He did what he preached. Exactly 300 years ago this year, Wesley began his studies at Oxford University. As a student at Oxford, he lived on £28 per year (about £3,251 in today’s money – according to the National Archives currency converter). When his earnings increased (in one year to the equivalent of £107,465 today) he still continued to live on the same meagre £28. He told people that if at his death he had more than £10 in his possession, they should call him a robber! John Wesley put his money to good use, developing, for instance, a free health clinic, a school, and a lending agency for the poor. His treasure was where his heart was. When he died in 1791, the only money mentioned in his will was a few coins to be found in his pockets and bureau.

Am I imagining things or have our nation’s spending priorities perhaps changed a bit for the better during the pandemic? Will health and social care be better funded going forward? Will the homeless continue to have a roof over their heads? Will we go on making sure that everyone has enough to live on? Only time will tell, but if that’s where your heart is, let’s try to make sure that’s where our treasure is spent, going forward!

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