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An offer you can’t refuse? You can

by
16 April 2021

Moral judgements must be allowed to override financial ones, argues Martin Warner

Alamy

The House of Fraser store in Chichester in 2018, before it closed

The House of Fraser store in Chichester in 2018, before it closed

“PLACED once more in paradise” is one of the great statements in the Easter liturgy. It adjusts our perspective on earthly worship, reminding us that, in the eucharist, we participate in a mystery and a gift: the foretaste of heaven.

This sacred mystery also presents the individual Christian, and the whole Church, with a moral challenge. How should worship inform the way in which we live with the hope of being placed in paradise?

We seem to be reticent about giving an account of the life of heaven, in contrast with the late Middle Ages, when Dante Alighieri, who died 700 years ago this year, wrote The Divine Comedy.

Dante asserts that time and eternity are intimately connected. He leaves us in no doubt that our judgements in this mortal life will be laid bare by the eternal light of truth in our life beyond the grave.

The psychology of the epic journey through Dante’s Inferno turns on the use of free will: having exactly what we want, but always only that. In the Inferno, the prodigal and avaricious who have hoarded and wasted wealth get what they have always wanted: great weights of money. But their torment is having to carry it everywhere they go.

 

WE HAVE to guard against virtue-signalling when we talk about money, since the snare of hypocrisy is easily detected in any individual or institution, including the Church. But unless, as Christians, we speak wisely, honestly, and fearlessly about how our faith determines what we think and do about money, money will get the better of us.

I have a particular concern with our attitude to money as charity trustees, which many clergy and laity are, in their parishes and dioceses. The levels of regulation in charity administration are now very demanding — and rightly so, to honour the purposes for which money was given and to eliminate greed and self-interest, in so far as that is ever possible.

But something more than regulation is also needed. It is the voice of protest which challenges the assumption that money is the only thing that makes life better. Charities need commitment to the exercise of virtues such as truth, compassion, temperance, and justice. They need prophets: that is how so many of them were started.

In a complex trusteeship that is more than 1000 years old, the Church of England has unparalleled responsibility for land, buildings, and artefacts. In our cathedrals, churches, churchyards, memorials, libraries, textiles, and church plate, we hold the history of this land.

It was Judas the traitor who first suggested that, for the sake of the poor, valuable assets should be flogged off and their market value realised. The point that Jesus made in response was not that the poor didn’t matter: it was that they mattered as much as the motivation and the purpose for which gifts were given. The costly and delicate love-gifts to God demand that, by loving God, we also learn how to love our neighbour and ourselves with equal dignity.

 

HERE is the challenge that confronts us today. As charity trustees, we could be offered eye-watering sums of money in return for inherited assets. Or it might simply be a donation. We might believe that it was our duty to accept an offer that “you cannot refuse”. But at what cost?

We have recently been confronted by protest and outrage about the financial benefits derived from slavery which have sustained many worthy institutions. As we face a global shift in financial power, should we not also be asking about the moral probity of those who own — or who seek to invest in the purchase of — the land, buildings, and institutions in the UK?

In the struggle to fund universities, arts foundations, sports facilities, and the built environment of our towns and cities, I would argue that there a point at which we should say: “This money is not good. The cost of accepting it is too great.”

 

THE prevalence of abuses of human dignity and wilful damage to the environment should prompt responsible-minded trustees to undertake a detailed scrutiny of the benefits gained and damage caused by any potential donor or purchaser of property or business. Questionable examples would include a partnership with the Establishment in Saudi Arabia, or with a nation committed to deforestation in order to profit from demand for coffee and chocolate.

The financial power of China is another obvious and complex example. Both the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary acknowledge that we walk a tightrope, needing Chinese investment while deploring the violations of the freedom and dignity that most regard as essential to human rights.

In spite of persistent international concern about a potential genocide of the Uighurs, however, it seems that when the Chinese make a financial offer, no one will refuse it on moral grounds — because no one can refuse the trade and the sum that is being offered.

Earlier this year, the Daily Mail reported on Chinese interest in buying up independent schools in Britain. The piece raised concerns about how the new ownership would relate to a school’s commitment to moral virtue.

The specific nationality of the external investor is not the point of concern here. Our moral courage should enable us to withstand a cash offer from any investor who is recognised as the perpetrator of persistent abuses of human rights, or an economy that causes environmental damage on a global scale, or benefits an elite while committing the masses to poverty.

Equally, due diligence by charity trustees should call into question an association with a wholly UK-owned company that derives significant financial income from a morally unacceptable trade, such as exploitative gambling.

 

AND what might investors in a school be wanting to buy? Is it the opportunity to widen the benefit of independent education into disadvantaged local communities; to fund more bursaries and scholarships (I speak as a scholarship beneficiary); or to sustain and promote the faith that might have inspired the school’s foundation? Would we be wrong to suspect that investors might be attracted by the uniquely English brand of public-school exclusivity and excellence for those who can pay the fees?

Many fee-paying schools have been struggling financially post-Covid, and some face the threat of closure. We could legitimately expect the trustees of these schools to ask whether closure is the worst possible outcome, painful though that might be.

Many religious communities, such as the Community of St John the Baptist, founded in Clewer in 1852, have faced a similar challenge and been brave in repurposing buildings and resources as a legitimate development of their original apostolic work — see the Clewer Initiative (News, 20 October 2017), e.g. “Mobilising the Church to help end modern slavery”.

There is evidence that the closure of a school can similarly release assets that distribute educational benefits in different and more creative ways. This demands a courageous assessment of how to secure terms that can meet trustee obligations and use money wisely.

The challenge to achieve this stands out boldly from a line of shabby, empty buildings opposite Chichester Cathedral. People presently remember them as the House of Fraser store, which closed in January 2019. Complex financial interests mean that the buildings languish beyond the reach of imaginative redevelopment.

Three words, “Vis et sapientia”, are engraved as a motto above an ornamental doorway in those buildings. Meaning “power and wisdom”, they challenge the inability to control the power of money.

The buildings were not designed for fashion retail. They were built by a charity for educating the children of Chichester. The funding for that work passed long ago to a larger educational institution that does heroic work, though I suspect that the Chichester connection has slipped a bit.

 

THE motto challenges us nationally as much as it does locally. How we can be so lacking in wisdom and so collectively powerless as to let buildings stand empty when the homeless sleep outside them on the street, when accommodation for key workers, young entrepreneurs, and fledgling families is unaffordable in many towns and cities, and when, in an environmental crisis, lights are allowed to burn all night in an empty building?

The celebration of the Easter liturgy should inspire a response to this challenge as we prepare for our destiny: to be placed once more in paradise. The fortitude, wisdom, and faith that are nurtured by worship should inform the judgements that we make as trustees, prophets, and stewards of creation. And they should inform how, on the day of God’s merciful judgement, we account for what we did.


Dr Martin Warner is the Bishop of Chichester.

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