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Giles Fraser: Ground the debate in worship

15 September 2010

PART of my job is to engage the financial side of the City in moral debate. To this end, we put on lectures in the Cathedral and have set up a website to concentrate on the issues between Christian ethics and finance.

Some initiatives are more success­ful than others — not least because, for the most part, the City is extremely wary of moral debate. What upside is there for bankers to think publicly about the big moral issues of the day, and then find what they have said replayed in the news­papers, spun with the most unflat­ter­ing possible interpretation? No wonder many banks have directives to their staff not to engage with the media.

But if this side of things is tricky, what many City people respond to amazingly well is worship. At the start of this week, I took the choristers of the cathedral to the trading floor of BGC Partners, on the 18th floor of a vast tower block in Canary Warf. BGC is an inter-dealer brokerage firm that grew out of Cantor Fitzgerald, a company that lost 658 of its staff in the World Trade Center attacks of 9/11. The first plane hit at 8.46 a.m., just below the five floors of offices occupied by Cantor Fitzgerald. No one from the company came out alive.

In light of all the attention to the possible building of an Islamic centre near Ground Zero (News, 20 August), and to the Islamophobia among some New Yorkers, it is worth noting other responses to 9/11. Every year, BGC stages a day to raise money for a range of charities. Hard-nosed traders and company direc­tors give up their day’s salary, and are joined by celebrities who take calls and make trades, all the profits of which go to good causes.

This year, I started the trading day with prayer, and then the chor­isters sang Mendelssohn’s “Lift up Thine eyes”. The phones kept on ringing. The intercom from Hong Kong kept blurting out messages. But hundreds of traders stood at their desks with their heads bowed. It was the most extraordinary sight.

This is the heart of what we have to offer as a Church. Moral engage­ment with casino capitalism is vital, and we must never give up trying to have the debate at every level. But moral debate per se changes few hearts. Worship and prayer, on the other hand, get under the skin in a way that debate never can.

This is not pious guff. A City trading-floor is one of the least pious places on the planet. First and foremost, the Church is about God’s worship. Our moral vision properly grows out of this. Get the worship right, and the other stuff follows.

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral and Director of the St Paul’s Institute (www.stpaulsinstitute.org.uk).

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