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Charitable Status, Gift Aid and Baptistness

Like lots of people, I Gift Aid my charitable giving - to church, to missionary organizations, to animal charities, to health charities.  It isn't something I've really thought about beyond the fact that if HM Govt are willing to refund taxes for charitable purposes then why miss out?

In the last couple of weeks I've encountered two Baptists in two different contexts questioning this practice for somewhat different reasons, yet in each case concluding that it might be a prophetic act of witness not to take Gift Aid (at which point every church treasurer I know takes a massive intake of breath and fears what I might type next).

In many (most?) countries religious groups (with the exception, where appropriate, of the state church) are not granted charitable status or given tax relief; the UK situation is the exception not the rule.  We do well to remember that rather than thinking it is somehow our 'right.'

Baptists are very quick to assert, often loudly, their (our) views on separation of church and state... yet are happy to take any money the state might offer us (as I type I'm wondering if this extends to grants too?) without seeing any sense of compromise.  Charity registration brings financial benefits but also allows the state certain controls - on how our accounts are presented (at least it does in England, not so sure with Scotland) and how our Charity Trustees are accountable.  This is a mixed blessing.  On the one hand, potentially, the state can tell us how to run our affairs - there are many legal issues that impede churches from doing things they'd like to, such as allowing their retired minister to stay in the manse rent free, or to give away a plot of land to another charity, and so on.  On the other hand, it prevents churches from accumulating huge reserves without a stated purpose: the rainy day fund for the rainy day that never comes, the £250k general reserve (not restricted income or that constrained to be used for capital projects) I heard of one church in the north of England holding with no defined purpose or intent.

Charity Law is basically a 'good thing' that regulates a sector open to abuse and misappropriation (I'm always a bit wary of exercising my right to spend unchallenged the "ministers' slush fund") but it does impact on the freedom of churches (and other charities) to act as they see fit.

Taking Gift Aid is not, so far as I can ascertain, a compulsory element of being a charity, yet most churches will gladly accept several thousand pounds per year back from the government.  In a time when the nation as a whole is short of money, when public service cuts seem inevitable in order to the balance the books, maybe, just maybe, we do well to examine ourselves and contemplate the impact that our gain has on the people who live on our doorsteps.

I'm not saying we shouldn't take Gift Aid.  I'm just saying that maybe it's time I, at least, thought a bit more seriously about it.

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