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Hallo again to all.

Our masthead has for many years said 'The online centre of the Anglican / Episcopal world'. We say this because more people from all over the world turn first to Anglicans Online for information than to any other source. That statement is rooted in the implicit understanding that being at the centre of something is good, and implies that being somewhere besides the centre is less good.

The debate surrounding the proposed Anglican Covenant has made many people stop to think about whether it is good even to have a centre. For if you have a centre, somebody there is likely to want to take charge, and thus starts a long slow drift towards central control.

At the centre?God, of course, is really at the centre of every Christian church, even those Anglican churches that can't stop fighting about sex. And God doesn't have or need an online presence. God is not on Facebook. Although thousands of columnists and bloggers and church leaders and politicians tell us that they are doing God's work, or acting in the name of God, we remain sceptical that God needs specific henchmen to accomplish anything.*

We've come to believe that creeping centralization is one of the plagues of older larger churches. A church has more 'street credibility' if it has more members. It can get more members by geographic expansion. That produces a diffuse organisation that needs structure. Organizational structure almost always involves centralization or central control. So we're right back to having a centre.

If an organisation is large enough and centralized enough to have full-time church people, they can make the church their life. A person at the centre of a large organisation can wear a starched purple shirt and embroidered robes and a fancy hat and carry a bejewelled stick and be driven around in a bulletproof limousine. King Louis XIV of France supposedly said and believed 'l'├ętat, c'est moi' (I am the state). It has been common throughout history for people at the centre of a church organisation to believe that they are the church. L'├ęglise, c'est moi.

If we believe that excessive centralization of the church is a bad idea, what can we do about it? Almost by definition, one person cannot take action to decentralize something. The individual members of the organisation must do that themselves. But how?

Most Anglicans (other than church employees and clergy) that we know live a sort of dual existence. On Sunday and on special holidays they focus on their faith. They attend church, sing hymns, pray, meditate, confess, worship, receive the Eucharist. Then the next day they return to their secular lives and secular jobs because it's the only way that they have of putting food on the table. Some careful people remember daily prayers. Most large church organizations publish and distribute daily readings and daily meditations, but we're not convinced that their use is very widespread.

UTO Blue BoxIn the US Episcopal Church (and nowhere else, so far as we know) there is a phenomenon known as the United Thank Offering, or UTO. It was started a century ago as something for women to do, but has become universal. Being part of it is very simple. Anyone who wants to participate gets a little blue cardboard box, and puts that box in a prominent location in their home or workplace. At least once a day, participants offer direct thanks to God, and drop a small coin into the box. Once or twice a year a participating parish will have an 'ingathering', at which the boxes are collected and new empty boxes distributed.

The UTO box is a simple folding paperboard box. It's not made out of exotic hardwoods, it's not embroidered, it hasn't the finery of a bishop's robe. It's made from the same sort of paperboard that is used to package breakfast cereal. Its power does not come from what it is, but from how it's used. When you stand near your UTO box and give thanks to God and drop a coin into the slot, the participatory act of touching the coin and touching the box puts you, for just a moment, at the very centre of the church. You have stopped what you were doing and stopped whatever else you were thinking, if just for a moment, and given thanks to God. A second or two later, some other person in some other place will put their coin into their box, and offer their thanks to God, at which point that other person becomes, for just a moment, the centre of the church. This is decentralization at its finest.

The United Thank Offering is sufficiently decentralized that there's no obvious time to write about it. Different dioceses schedule their ingathering Sundays at different times. We know of one American diocese that will do its ingathering next Sunday; we know another that did its ingathering at the end of September.

Participation in the United Thank Offering is not universal, and not commanded in any diocese as far as we know. If your parish or diocese doesn't participate in UTO, it should. But don't let that stop you. You can do this without the official blue box. You can find an empty tea box or an empty jam jar or find a child's coin bank, and punctuate your daily thanks by dropping a coin into it. The only thing that really seems to matter is that it be covered, so that when you've put a coin into it, it feels as though the coin is gone from you to somewhere else.

When your box or jar or bowl gets full, you can put it in your parish's collection plate, you can send it to UTO headquarters (presumably stopping first at the bank to exchange the coins for paper currency). You could even deposit it into your bank account and then add that amount to the next donation that you make to your parish. Yes, the money matters, and the UTO people put it to very good use. But to us, it matters more that this little box that accumulates coins is a means to remind you that everyone can be the centre of the church for a moment. And you won't have to pay the dreadfully expensive cleaning fees for a mitre.

Do be careful, though. if you're cutting a hole in the lid of an empty jam jar; it's easy to cut yourself.

See you next week.

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Last updated: 8 November 2009

*We note that we managed to write that sentence without using gender-specific references to God such as 'his' or 'hers' or 'him'. It certainly makes for clumsy prose, doesn't it?

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