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Should churches pay tax?

If we’re shaming corporations into paying more tax, should our churches pay some too?

I indulged in some light shaming last week. Not of anyone I knew. Just the head of a giant corporation who earns a lot and whose company makes billions but avoids paying much tax in this country, where it makes its profits in reality. Standard lefty stuff, like telling your Starbucks barista that your name is UK Taxpayer and making them shout it out when your order is ready. It’s making more of a point than a difference.

A friend commented that I was wrong to do so because the Exec in question was merely doing what is legal and responsible for people in his position to do: to reduce costs for the corporation, and ultimately the shareholders, without breaking the law. 

My friend is smart and wise and talking tosh.

Adultery is legal, but I’m assuming he and those who think there is nothing wrong with legal tax avoidance would see at least some moral problems with cheating on your spouse? Equally, I suspect that defenders of corporate rights on that basis within our churches would be slower to commend thrifty pornographers in this country or those helping prostitutes do more and better business in locations where that is legal.

The question is whether it is moral. Once we’ve had that argument, then we can campaign for the law to change. Paying tax is the right thing to do. It funds our health service, our policing, military and fire services. It pays for infrastructure like roads and electricity and precious wifi and it funds a legal system that, along with all the rest of those good things, prevents Oxford (or Nottingham, or London or Glasgow) from becoming Mogadishu. Paying tax is the way citizens in a democracy make sure that the people Jesus called ‘the least of these’ are taken care of, and it’s how we can go about day to day not worried that losing our jobs might result in dying of flu or starvation.

So, if it’s so good, why don’t churches pay it?

Pope Francis said last week that churches that are not serving the poor should indeed pay taxes. The Pope’s nuanced meaning was, as ever, lost by the media (he was mostly talking about churches and monasteries that were actually running as for-profit businesses), but the general sentiment has been expressed by countless secularists in harsher form. 'Why should your little business employing a few people and doing a decent turnover not pay taxes like mine?' some ask.

The reason is simply that churches are not businesses. They are charities. (I know the law is more complicated than that, but I did tell you that we’re talking morality here, not law.)

Charities, like (in theory) government, exist as a balance to corporations, businesses and the world that operates to make a private profit – a profit that belongs to just a handful of people and that, generally, only money gives you access to. The not-for-profit sector exists to make the world better. We don’t tax it, because we want to encourage that sort of thing, because it is smaller than the for-profit sector and because we hope it will bless our world. It’s the same reason we don’t charge our children rent and sometimes let them win at Monopoly.

'Woah, whoah, WOAH,' I hear the secularist cry. 'How is your little club that believes in an invisible tooth-fairy creator spreading its ridiculous beliefs making the world a better place? How does that count as charity?'

Easy there, Dawkins. You don’t get to decide what counts as charity based on whether you like what it does any more than you get to decide whether or not to pay taxes based on whether you approve of where they are spent.

Churches do, generally speaking and at their best, a ridiculous amount of good, in the sense that charities do, in making the world better. Food banks, mother and toddler groups, addiction counselling, debt advice, care, social mobilisation for the suffering and the needy. And if they don’t, that is also none of your business.

If my charity/church believes that putting people in touch with their creator is making the world a better place, it really isn’t up to you to point out that since there is no Heaven or God it’s all pointless and charitable status should be revoked. I personally don’t give a hoot about Barn Owls (you’re welcome). That doesn’t mean that the Barn Owl Charitable Trust (or whatever) is not a charity any more than the taxes I pay that fund drone operators aren’t real taxes so I don’t need to pay them. When we organise as groups, we lose a little personal control, but the benefits are wonderful. That, along with the distinction between those making profits for private individuals or groups and those who are trying to do good without profit, is the point.

Churches and real charities are not the reason why public services are being starved of funding. Inadequate laws governing taxing corporations (and the breaks successive governments have given them to make money for their shareholders, often at our expense), as well as corporate law that forces executives to choose profits over the common good are.

But we in the Church would be very foolish indeed to ignore the fact that society’s attitude to our charitable status is going to change one day. When that day comes, we’d do well to be able to demonstrate that we were doing more than just make converts, but were helping people practically as well. If not for that charitable status safety net, then maybe because it’s clearly the right thing to do.

And it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to have a discussion about whether we should contribute more by choice to the government coffers that keep us all safe. 

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