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Engaging with business culture

11 October 2013

Sponsoring an award for commerce has proved fruitful, says David Linaker


Winners: Young Entrepreneur of the Year Amy Almond (far right), with the Revd David Linaker and Ms Almond's employer, Denise Coates

Winners: Young Entrepreneur of the Year Amy Almond (far right), with the Revd David Linaker and Ms Almond's employer, Denise Coates

ONE evening in June, I found myself at Salisbury Playhouse in the audience for the South Wiltshire Business of the Year awards. The atmosphere had the joy and energy of an Evangelical revival meeting. As Rector of a central-tradition parish and Rural Dean, I rarely find myself among people who are so energetic, joyful, and positive.

Since its foundation in 1220, St Thomas Becket's has had a strong relationship with the business and civic life of Salisbury. As the church of the Market Square, it was the place of worship for the guilds and trades, and endowed apprenticeships right up to the First World War.

As Rector, I serve not only as Chaplain to, but also a Director on, the board of the Chamber of Commerce. As this position has deepened, I have gently challenged the board on what we understand to be the place of the chaplain; and when this conversation has struggled to find common language, I have offered them opportunities to sack me without any bad feeling. The offers have always been strongly rejected. They want me there as a priest, although they cannot fully articulate why.

Yet I was conscious of the need to bring something relevant to the table. I decided to sponsor an award category that not only revived that centuries-old tradition of supporting young people in their careers, but reflected parish and diocesan aims to put them at the heart of mission.

The category that we devised, "Young Entrepreneur of the Year", sought to reward under-25s who had taken the risk of starting their own business, and were then bringing the experience they had gained to help others.

The cost of sponsorship is commercially sensitive, but it is within the range of our usual tithed giving to charities and partner organisations. It has certainly been worth it, and is proving to be a staggeringly good investment for the credibility of city-centre mission.

THE energy on the evening of the awards was amazing - as was people's reaction to the Church being so prominently present. Again and again, I was pleasantly surprised, as I was sought out by business people, who wanted me to know how much they valued the Church's affirmation.

The Church can be sniffy about the business community. We can struggle, as followers of Christ, who urged us to give all we had to the poor, to affirm business people who are committed to the profit motive. Yet these amazing people celebrate Kingdom values by risking high stakes to build creative and worthwhile businesses, in the teeth of a recession. In business, the Kingdom is present, but its values can struggle to be heard because the controlling narrative at work is dominated more by acquisitiveness than grace.

Yet grace abounds. I am struck by how almost all recipients of an award speak of "luck", of the generosity of others in helping them to succeed, and how they value the people with whom they work, those they employ, and even those with whom they compete. When success is being celebrated, it is never purely about the bottom line.

"ENGAGING with culture" is a church buzzword at present, but real engagement means being prepared to be challenged and changed by culture, which is a product of people made in Christ's image. We should not simply assume that culture is deficient and in need of being "Christianised" by us.

In God's Pattern (SPCK, 2003), David Stancliffe explores the Emmaus road story as a model both of discipleship and mission. He shows how Jesus first draws alongside the two dejected disciples, and invites them to tell their story in their way. Only when he has heard them patiently and respectfully does he offer his own interpretation of the story.

Even then, it has to wait for a moment of epiphany, as Jesus breaks the bread at supper. The moment is fleeting, but the new energy created in the encounter sends the two disciples running back to Jerusalem to spread the good news of resurrection.

More and more, I have come to see my engagement with business as an Emmaus-road experience. I am called to travel patiently with these exciting and passionate people, to learn their language and traditions, join their networks and friendships, and wait for permission to speak.

JESUS is as present at a business-awards ceremony in Salisbury as he was on the road to Emmaus; as when he hung around by a well, waiting to see who turned up; and as when he told stories of businessmen to illustrate the values of his Kingdom.

In shaping the criteria for the award specifically to reward interdependence and co-operation, as well as energy and resilience, we have signalled those qualities as goods to which the Church enthusiastically subscribes.

The presence of a clerical collar challenges assumptions that there are places that the Church does not belong, or has retreated from. When we are patient and respectful, we are wanted. When we speak with humility, love, and integrity, we are listened to.

While it is vital that the Church works at the margins, supporting those most in need of help, it is also vital for us to engage credibly with those who generate the employment and wealth that brings people in from the margins and allows communities to prosper. A well-directed and trusted Christian voice is able to turn pure capital into social capital, as the values of the Kingdom are articulated and embraced.

The Revd David Linaker is Rector of St Thomas Becket's, Salisbury, and Rural Dean of Salisbury.

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