By Dr James Eglinton, Meldrum Lecturer in Reformed Theology at the University of Edinburgh

THE normal cast of things passed around the congregation during Scottish church services – communion cups, loaves of bread, and pre-sermon peppermints – might soon be joined by a new addition: the contactless card payment device. Following an earlier pilot of the same in the Church of England, the Church of Scotland has announced its intention to replace collection plates with contactless card readers, with the Catholic Church in Scotland also signalling its openness to the practice.

Initially at least, such a move seems sensible: ours is an increasingly cash-free culture where only a small amount of the money we possess is ever experienced tangibly as physical notes and coins. For the most part, we spend via small plastic cards – themselves worthless – and relate to our money in an abstract, distant manner. Forecasts suggest that by 2025, only one-quarter of our spending will involve physical cash. Facing such a future, is it inevitable that wooden collection plates and velvet offering bags be replaced in a culture where most other things – from bus fares to mortgage payments – are paid for electronically?

Contactless card payments appeal by giving small-scale transfers the appearance of speed and convenience. However, they alter the experience of payment significantly – to a degree that churches should not ignore – and in turn make it harder for us to know the value of money. Card-based financial transactions are socially sterile exchanges. Think, for example, of the different rituals involved in paying by cheque: deliberately writing out the recipient’s name, and the sum involved in words and numerals, and your own signature. Similarly, the act of giving physical, rather than virtual, money to another human is a less casual, more concrete experience. Pay your monthly rent in cash, rather than by bank transfer, and your perception of the monies involved will probably change.

Perhaps the most important difference in this shift is the way a contactless payment – consisting of a brief card swipe, an identical ritual regardless of the sum involved – minimises your awareness of the money in question, leaving you to focus primarily on yourself as the consumer, and the thing you have bought. In comparison, the card swipe is fairly incidental. Pay by cheque, fill out a direct debit form, or count the change in your hand, and your gaze will fall – for a significant moment – on the value of that money in relation both to your own work, and to the act of spending it. Those links are harder to see (and experience) when paying by card, which in turn makes it more difficult for a cash-free generation to learn the value of money.

It is important for our society to guard contexts where spending is socially meaningful, rather than sterile. In that regard, a social institution like the church plays a significant role in the financial wellbeing of society: in a cash-free culture, church services provide a rare opportunity to consider your money, and the act of parting with it, in a visible, tangible way. Bearing in mind the church’s distinctive calling in relation to the value of money – that of reminding the faithful that the fruit of our labour is valuable, but God is more valuable still, from which comes the call to give prodigally – the move to adopt means of giving that casualise our relationship with money is puzzling. If anything, society needs more institutions that challenge people to experience their money – widow’s mite and fortune alike – in meaningful ways. For all its velveteen kitsch, the church collection bag has a social power that the contactless card reader will always struggle to match.