An Advent call to act on the debate about money

by
23 November 2011

The seasonal liturgies suggest ways of joining wider communities to reflect on the financial crisis, says Angus Ritchie

The liturgies in St Paul’s Cathedral have some striking echoes in the tents outside. In the messages pinned to their fabric and in their sheer impermanence, the tents speak of a people on the move. The readings, prayers, and feasts we have been celebrating throughout November remind us that Christians are also a pilgrim people — citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem. They also make clear that this has implications for the use of wealth and power on earth:

For you are the hope of the nations,
the builder of the city that is to come.
Your love made visible in Jesus Christ
brings home the lost, restores the sinner
and gives dignity to the despised.

Eucharistic preface from All Saints’ Day to the eve of Advent Sunday

For you are the hope of the nations,
the builder of the city that is to come.
Your love made visible in Jesus Christ
brings home the lost, restores the sinner
and gives dignity to the despised.

These themes of eternal hope and earthly transformation grow in intensity as we enter Advent. The daily eucharistic readings speak of a profound change in the way wealth is treated and distributed (Isaiah 26.1-6 and 29.17-24, set for next Thursday and Friday).

Later in Advent, we will hear the words of St John the Baptist and the Blessed Virgin Mary, calling us to personal and corporate repentance, and speaking of a radical reordering of our hier­archies of wealth and power (Mark 1.1-8, set for the Second Sunday of Advent, and Luke 1.46-54, for 22 December).

This is challenging material. It is challenging to each worshipper, and to a narrative that we have heard often in the responses to the protests — one that wants to divide the Church into “orthodox” (conserva­tive on issues of gender and sexual­ity, steering clear of politics and eco­nomics), and “liberal” (playing fast and loose with scripture, in favour of using the pulpit as a plat­form for the preacher’s poli­tical opinions).

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Liturgy and scripture show this to be a false dichotomy, re­minding us that a truly ortho­dox Church will have at least as much to say about finance as about sex.

As Professor John Milbank ob­served back in 2009, our obsession with sex has allowed a national “apost­asy” on money to go largely unchallenged. Instead of wrestling with biblical texts on usury, asking how they might apply in a different culture and context, we have focused huge amounts of energy on the tiny number of biblical texts on homo­sexuality.

Far from challenging the spirit of the age, we have been captured by it. What could be more “of the age” than endless chatter about sex, com­bined with a mute acceptance that our financial systems are too com­plex and powerful to be held to any kind of ethical account?

There is, in fact, a deep con­nection between biblical teaching on money and on sex. In both spheres, it reminds us that the good things of creation are not ends in themselves. They are given to draw us into deeper communion with God and neighbour. The material world is sacramental. Whether in the bed­room or the boardroom, the pursuit of pleasure and profit without regard for neighbour is idolatry.

The tented protesters, although largely unfamiliar with our worship, are forcing us to hear our liturgies afresh. This is often the way. En­gagement with those outside the Church need not lead on to a watering down of the Christian message. Such encounters can force us to attend to biblical texts that we have ignored or neutered.

This has certainly been the ex­peri­ence of Christians involved in Citizens UK and similar groups. This alliance brings churches together with mosques, synagogues, schools, and tenants’ associations, and others to act on issues of common concern. It is best known for its Living Wage Campaign and the ending of the detention of children in the asylum process.

Since 2009, it has been developing a grass-roots response to the financial crisis. It has been salutary to work on this with Muslims and Jews, people of faith for whom scriptural admon­itions against usury have very practical implications.

Far from diluting our faithfulness to Christian orthodoxy, this engage­ment with other faiths has forced us to ask how to be faithful to the Bible today. It has highlighted the disparity between the attention we pay to biblical texts on sex and the larger number on money and possessions.

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Some of us are asking what “usury” might mean in our own day. When is lending a matter of exploitation and extortion rather than a mutually beneficial sharing of resources? A combination of testimony from those trapped in debt and theo­logical reflection has led to the “Nehemiah 5 Challenge” — a call for a ceiling to be set to interest rates, as a modern-day application of biblical principles.

This is just one of the ways in which Christians might respond to the financial crisis, and the concerns of Occupy LSX. Other possible ways forward include the Robin Hood tax (advocated by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace), and Occupy’s own proposals for greater transparency in the governance of the Corporation of London.

There is much to discuss and reflect on. It presents a unique op­por­tunity for churches to engage their wider parishes in discussion. But there is also an urgent need to move from thought to action. Only thus can we sing with integrity that ancient Advent prayer:

Drop down, ye heavens from above
and let the skies pour down righteousness.

Drop down, ye heavens from above
and let the skies pour down righteousness.

The Revd Dr Angus Ritchie is the director of the Contextual Theology Centre in east London. With support from St Paul’s Cathedral Chapter and Occupy LSX, it has just launched a resource pack to enable churches to hold com­munity con­versations on faith and finance; this can be downloaded free of charge at www.theology-centre.org

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