In the UK, 23 million people work in the private sector. Retail
alone provides 4.8 million jobs. Most of the nation's employees are
engaged in a vast market enterprise, in which people create, make,
and advertise products, buy and sell goods and services, pursue
profits, raise capital, and seek to increase the value of their
For most people, "work" involves a more or less conscious effort
to make money. This is how most people pay their rent and feed
their families. And those whose work is not directly involved in
creating wealth - so-called public servants - are financed
substantially, via taxes, through the wealth created by others.
The Church of England is very much involved with this massive
money-making system. Collection plates are filled from the wealth
created, somewhere along the line, by the church's parishioners.
Cathedrals sell access to their sacred buildings, either directly
or occasionally, and operate shops and restaurants. Churches rent
spaces to user groups. And the Church Commissioners have £3.5
billion invested in securities.
But, for all this, the Church instinctively regards money-making
as sinful - at best, as a necessary evil. Financial gain is, in the
phrase from Tyndale's New Testament, "filthy lucre". Love of money
is an act of idolatry that threatens the worship of the true God,
and is a constant threat. This idolatry had its most shameful
episode when Judas sold Jesus out for 30 pieces of silver.
In visions of the heavenly Kingdom, as in Eden before the Fall,
there will be a gift economy, in which there is no need of money.
Everyone will be provided for through a fair sharing of God's
abundance. As with final-stage Communism, we will contribute
according to our abilities and receive according to our needs. The
profit motive will be redundant: the pure love of God and of our
neighbours will be all the motivation we require.
These deep-seated attitudes make it very difficult for the
Church to give any theological or moral value to making money. It
is willing, even bold, in suggesting ways in which our wealth
should be distributed and spent. But it is noticeably silent on the
question how wealth should be created, and has a patronising
attitude towards those who create wealth. Business and trade are
seen as sub-ethical activities when set against the "moral"
professions such as teaching, or medicine, or church ministry.
Similarly, the Church is supportive of government-funded
employees, because they are public servants working for the common
good. But it is less clear about how to validate the activity of
the regiments of private-sector employees who also provide vital
services, such as producing and selling food and clothing. We
easily praise the work of a nurse, but struggle for words with
which to bless the supermarket manager. Our ingrained belief is
that public services are wholesome, whereas traded services are
contaminated by the profit motive.
This muddled thinking arises because the trade of private goods
and services is visible and immediate: we are customers who make a
commercial transaction. But public services, such as schools, feel
like a gift, because we do not have to make direct payment for
them. In fact, public services are also effectively purchased by us
from the Government, although the transaction is less
There is something quite ignorant about the Church's attitude to
trade and business. People who build successful businesses are
using their God-given skills to public benefit. Such businesses
give people employment, personal meaning, and economic
They prevent poverty, enrich lives, and strengthen communities.
The business world, as much as any other, is one in which divine
creativity can flourish; a successful retail business will not
succeed if it is driven simply by avarice. Only those retailers who
are truly committed to customer service will flourish.
Of course, the critique of greed, exploitation, and materialism
is very necessary; and attacking these things comes easily to
church leaders. The more demanding task, too often avoided, is to
provide a theology of human flourishing which includes an account
of the moral legitimacy of commercial activity.
The New Testament provides plenty of resources for such a
theology. The parable of the talents actively encourages us to make
a profit from our endeavours. In several parables, God is likened
to a successful businessman in his dealings with his workers.
Jesus, we must suppose, spent some of his adult life selling his
services as a carpenter. The hymn speaks of Jesus's strong hands
"skilled at the plane and the lathe", but does not mention the
tariff of charges for his services.
There are also theological resources within church traditions -
for example, Roman Catholic social teaching, and the theology of
William Temple. And within our traditions there are some
instructive examples of Christian business practice. Utopian
Christian communities, for example, have frequently developed
powerful business ethics (admittedly often mixed up with some less
Nineteenth-century Quaker entrepreneurs such as the Cadbury
family combined piety with great commercial success. The Shaker
commun-ities in the United States developed a distinctive
commercial ethic of putting "your hands to work and your hearts to
God", running highly profitable agricultural seed businesses, and
In both these cases, it was their religious principles that
provided a competitive advantage. The Cadburys' reputation for fair
pricing, honesty, and reliability made their business more
profitable. The Shakers insisted on the highest possible standard
of quality, making products "fit for heaven".
More than ever, now that the moral basis of the markets is in
question, the Church must shrug off its unexamined prejudice
against money-making, and present people with a positive vision of
what it means to create wealth for the common good.
The Revd Dr Hugh Rayment-Pickard is author of 50 Key
Concepts in Theology (DLT).