Giles Fraser: Capitalism can have a warm heart

21 March 2007

OUR CHURCH CAFÉ has been doing storming business. It’s making proper money, keeping the church open and staffed all day, and offers a point of entry for those wanting to venture into St Mary’s, both those in need of pastoral help and those looking for God.

Now and again I have to burn some incense in the church to drive out the smell of cooked breakfasts, but it’s a pretty inconsequential downside.

I suspect that the key to the café’s success is that it is an unashamedly commercial enterprise. Yes, we have discount cards for the elderly, but basically it’s run as a business. Indeed, I believe that the positive consequences that the café has generated for the church are only to be had by running it this way.

As Adam Smith put it in his 1776 book An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, “By pursuing his own interest [a person] frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good.”

This last sentence is a bit strong. Surely, there has been much public good generated by the whole fairtrade thing, for example. Even so, I believe there is enough truth in Smith’s economic theory for me to want to defend him against the prevailing culture of the Church, which is often insufficiently commercially savvy — and, worse still, proud of it.

For many people in the Church commonly presume that the non-commercial, volunteer-run, good-intention-based approach is the only real Christian way to deliver an open and welcoming church building. That’s rubbish. Indeed, as many churches remain closed and uninviting, it’s places like (shock, horror) McDonald’s that offer the homeless the chance to linger over a coffee for an hour or so, keeping warm.

What I like best about the commercial instinct is that it maintains a clear focus on what it is that people actually want — otherwise, obviously, the business goes bust.

Yes, of course, there are limits. I won’t be dressing up as Elvis to bring in more weddings. None the less, the commercial instinct is a potential ally to the mission-shaped Church, a Church that is looking outward and seeking to attract new people. And the spirit of Adam Smith is particularly effective at dislodging those cliquey church people who run their building as a private members’ club for “people like us”. That’s why I say: Adam Smith for Diocesan Missioner.

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Team Rector of Putney. His most recent book is Christianity with Attitude, (Canterbury Press £9.99 (CT Bookshop £9); 978-1-85311-782-4).

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