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Be radical about money

28 June 2013

Churches need to provide a much more thorough critique of the current financial system, argues Peter Selby

What was the Archbishop of Canterbury doing on the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards? This is not a rhetorical question. Like most people, I was glad that he could give time to such a massively important matter, and that he was recognised as having made a vital contribution (News, 21 June). But it is worth asking: if, like most people, you were glad that he was there, why were you glad? What was the contribution we expected him to make?

Perhaps part of the reason why his presence was appreciated was because, in a society with declining church attendance and less of a place left for religion, an invitation to the Archbishop suggests that at least somebody is interested in a Christian voice in public affairs.

But we must go on to ask whether that desire to hear a Christian voice is an unambiguously good thing. It could, after all, be no more than a wish to have some religious decoration on what is the fundamentally secular task of working out how to recreate a credible banking system, after the collapse of trust that there has been since 2008.

Or it could be that the desire for a Christian voice is because it is thought that it will give some authoritative weight to a set of recommendations put together on essentially political and economic grounds, although without any expectation that such a voice will have a significant effect on those recommendations.

When Archbishop Welby addressed a full St Paul's Cathedral at a debate on banking organised by the St Paul's Institute on 12 June, the timing meant that he could not refer to any of the areas that fell directly within the Commission's remit, as its report had not yet been published.

But, for that very reason, he was able to speak about the "big picture", and to give some substance to his concern that there should be "good banks", banks orientated towards the common good at part of a "good city", serving the needs of the whole country.

In the context of that event, he was able to relate this concern to some theological themes - for example, in his exposition of the parable of the Good Samaritan, and by quoting the evocative comment of St Basil the Great about how wealth can irrigate the life of the whole society.

It is not likely that he was able to do this directly during the work of the Commission. To watch the video clips of the Commission at work was to see the Archbishop asking searching questions, like other Commission members - questions asked, in his case, with his commercial experience behind him. But, like most Christians in a place of work, we may suspect that Christian themes, while they will have been motivating the Archbishop, will seldom, if ever, have surfaced directly.

There are, of course, some general Christian convictions that Christians share with others: a concern for probity, for moderation in the pursuit of gain, for our economic system to be fair, and to have a dimension of compassion towards the poorest and most vulnerable in our society and in the international human community generally.

These convictions Christians share with many other people of good will, and can be argued for on the basis of reasons that are not distinctively Christian. And now that the Commission has published its report, we can see that its proposals emerge out of this kind of broad philosophical and economic consensus.

There is, of course, the question whether what happened in 2008 - and the continuing disruption to global economic life that we, and especially the world's poorest, are suffering - is going to be remedied adequately out of that broad philo-sophical and economic consensus. More demanding still is the question whether it is safe to assume that that broad consensus and the Christian faith are more or less the same thing.

Here lies the trap for established religion. Even this consensus allows for the fact that religion may have specific points of disagreement with the consensus - generally in the spheres of religious practice and individual conduct, which are our limited space for protest. But, when it comes to the determinative boundaries of thought about the organisation of society, religion is silenced with a warm invitation to join in.

And there is no more determinative boundary than the power of money and the way our finances are organised. So we allow banks to be the primary creators - not just the guardians - of money, and to make profits directly from manipulating the medium of exchange which most people need for the necessities of life.

This is what really lay behind the events of 2008: not capitalism as such, but what capitalism becomes when money is its principal governing reality, and the amassing of money becomes the place where we locate our hopes. We have trusted the banking system with far too much of our well-being, and placed our hopes on money that the system generates for its own profit. The result has been gambling and usury rather than a just and sustainable future.

There have, of course, been Christian voices raised in a different direction: the Christian Council for Monetary Justice, for example, among others, is recorded as having supplied evidence to the Commission, but there is no evidence that its Christian voice was allowed to disturb the consensus.

Until, however, the body of Christian opinion protests that justice and sustainability require reconstruction of the way money is created - so that it is created for people, and not for profit - we shall continue to be ruled by a consensus that may mitigate some of the worst excesses, but will continue to accept the money-dominance that was at the root of the 2008 crisis.

Gladness that the Archbishop was able to contribute to the work of this important Commission needs to go along with a resolve that the Churches work at a much more vigorous critique of our financial system with which to back him. This cannot wait until the next Commission, or the disaster that makes it necessary.

Dr Peter Selby is a former Bishop of Worcester.

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