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Blessed are the wealth-makers

20 July 2012

. . . for they shall shore up society. Hugh Rayment-Pickard wonders why church thinking is so muddled about commerce

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 businesses.

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 transparent.

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 security.

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 attractive views).

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 furniture factories.

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).

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