The power and the glory, the manse and the car

Every couple of kilometres or so there stands a huge edifice proclaiming the community's commitment to their god.

Next door to these enormous churches is a modern house with a late-model car in its car port.

As we were driven around the two main islands of Samoa it almost became one of those car games to keep the children amused - "spot the next church". One didn't have to wait long. Frequently the other houses surrounding these proclamations "to the glory of their god" were pretty basic. Many were not much more than a fale - a sort of platform covered with a palm roof. On this simple construction the family and their dogs lie in the sun. The difference between the congregation's accommodation and that of the pastor is stark.

Umberto Eco wrote one of his complicated books, The Rose and the Crown, around the debate as to whether Jesus Christ should have owned the clothes he stood up in. It was inconclusive but I can tell you from what I observed in Samoa the clerics didn't want a bar of such self-imposed poverty.

Their congregations were tithed to produce the cash for the smart manses and modern cars. It all seemed such a ripoff and one can only assume that the payback was a promise of a wonderful life after death. It had the whiff of the medieval practices of selling indulgences to the congregation, thus reducing the time they would spend in purgatory, at the same time swelling the church's coffers. I'm thinking bring back Martin Luther.

We dined with some Samoan friends who agreed with and understood our outward concern that the poor of the villages around the coastline seemed to be providing their priests, pastors or vicars with a pretty good lifestyle. And it sure didn't look as if the parishioners could afford it.

One of our dinner party guests, a man of some legal standing not only in his own country but also with various United Nations committees, told us that the 184,000 Samoans, each weekend, committed $1.3 million (just over $7 per man woman and child) to their Mormon Church, Assembly of God, Catholic and Baptist churches. Some gave up to 30 per cent of their meagre income to, among other things, enable their pastor to live in the style to which he had obviously become accustomed.

The payment of tithes process is very public, so that the neighbour and the guy wearing the robes can keep a track of what is put into the plate. Then, if people can't come up with the cash themselves, they go begging to their relatives living in New Zealand. By latest count up to 115,000 Samoans are living in our homeland, mainly in Auckland. Interestingly enough, there are more than 160 Samoan churches in the City of Sails, presumably practising the same overbearing fundraising methods.

Tithing goes back a long way and was initially a sort of communal funding process through the church, a bit like our modern taxing system. When the fund built up it was used by the parish to assist their poor in times of need.

Those giving could expect some "payback" and assistance if things got rocky; a sort of insurance. It has changed and the fund is now used basically to maintain the enormous twin-towered churches and the pastors' daily needs, their smart-looking houses and those modern cars. These churches were so close together that I did wonder what driving would be needed. Surely a pastor could walk among his generous parishioners, giving them the odd hurry-up if last week's payment fell a bit short.

A recent report titled The State of Church Giving released by an organisation called Friday by Empty Tomb Inc found that the proportion of church funding, used for giving outside the church, has hit new lows; the largest part of funding stayed within the churches, satisfying their own needs.

While I have used the Samoan experience to highlight the inequities of some tithing practices, I've come across the same tithing in Waikato.

One of the questions I ask people who have requested my assistance with their personal budgeting problems is: "What do you give by way of koha or church donations?" Not infrequently their answer gives me room for concern, especially when they and their families are really struggling to put food on the table.

Bishop Tamaki, you and your ilk have some hard questions to answer.

I suggest that people talk to their spiritual leader to see if he can give them relief from their heavy and unreasonable weekly commitment to their church.

To date, I've had more success getting these basically honest people to give up their $70-a-week smoking habit.