Ethics and the Market Place – Rt. Rev'd Christopher Hill

I gather that your rota-ed preacher of two Sundays ago, Canon Mark Oakley of St Paul’s Cathedral, had to cancel his preachment – no great surprise with the way in which events at St Paul’s Cathedral have dominated the headlines in the last two weeks.

I was going to preach on the Wisdom literature of the Bible – a sample of which gave us our first reading tonight. The Bible – especially the Old Testament is frequently thought of as exclusive rather than inclusive and sometimes even apparently sanctifying ethnic cleansing and genocide: the Books of Joshua and Judges for example. But the Wisdom books are the opposite: they are inclusive and universalist: and are as much a part of the Canon of Scripture as any other. Well that’s the summary of the sermon I am not preaching tonight because the St Paul’s Churchyard occupation deserves some serious Christian reflection, reflection I hope you will engage with and continue, whether you agree with my ‘slant’ or otherwise. I was a Canon of St Paul’s as Precentor from 1989 – 1996 where I first met Jonathan your Chaplain as a Vicar Choral. I have been biting my tongue up until now as it is a good rule to refrain from commenting about your previous posts when you have moved on – though I note bishops have not always abided by this wise rule.

I asked for the ‘render unto Caesar’ passage not because it gives us answers to questions Jesus was not asking, but because it does indicate that Jesus took the economic systems of the day seriously:
Bring me a denarius and let me see it.
And there it was, with Caesar’s head.

A very Orthodox Jew would have considered himself defiled by using a Gentile coin. That’s why the Temple had money-changers, so the Temple tax could be paid in ‘pure’ coinage. Jesus doesn’t seem to be worried about such defilement but draws a lesson even out of the secular economic systems of the day.

I am always suspicious of the argument ‘what would Jesus have done?’ The only answer is that he would have surprised everybody. So blanket condemnation of ‘capitalism’ and ‘banking’ is not a serious lesson to draw from what has happened. But – neither is a sort of docetic Christianity which thinks that no worldly, economic, real life, income, welfare state questions are of concern to God or the pious – who is only interested in things ‘spiritual’. A docetic Christianity, in which incarnation was taught to be spiritual rather than ‘in the flesh’ (so not in fact a real incarnation) was condemned centuries ago by the Church. Some interpretations of Jesus’ answer in today’s story have however been pushed this way – as also St Paul’s. The result was, for example, a German Church in the early 20th century which did not have the theological resources to challenge the rising pagan ideology of the Nazi State. Caesar was left to Caesar – not surprisingly Heil Hitler was the result. Returning to economics, there is an integrity to financial systems but the Market Place must never be idolised. It must always be open to public, economic, philosophical, political and theological criticism.

There are plenty of clues as to what a theological critique of economic systems would look like from a Judeo-Christian – and Islamic – perspective.

The Old Testament encourages lending – though not at interest. John Calvin’s Geneva carefully argued – as the Swiss would – that reasonable interest rates could be justified by the Church. Of course there is always debate about what is ‘reasonable’. But not too much disagreement when we see ‘loan shark’ companies raking in a huge percentage. And what about credit card debt? Banks still encouraging personal loans clients have no realistic hope of repaying and then 20% and more interest in some cases. That is not the spirit of the Bible, which stresses the duty to lend to the poor, our neighbour, for the common good.

One supplemental set of Commandments in Exodus says this:
If you lend money . . . to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor. If you take your neighbour’s cloak in pawn, you shall return it before the sun goes down, for it may be your neighbour’s only clothing. (22:25)

St Luke’s Gospel actively encourages the Christian to lend to a neighbour (6:35) but not to extort. The so-called early ‘communism’ of the Acts of the Apostles is more like a Common Welfare Fund than a political system or class ideology

And profits? Are they gods without regulation or control? Some years ago at the Bank of England’s Tercentenary celebrations there was a concert at the Barbican. The Chief Cashier – who originally used to personally sign the earliest banknotes – the Chief Cashier of England of the day was both a practising Christian and a lover of music. He arranged for the concert to include William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast. An irony there – which he was well aware of – as the King of Babylon toasted in the stolen vessels of the Jerusalem Temple to ‘the gods of silver and the gods of gold’ – and then ‘the writing on the wall’.

In that much maligned book Leviticus what does it say about harvesting and total profit?
When you reap the harvest of your land you shall not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes . . . you shall leave them for the poor and the alien. I am the Lord your God. (Lev. 19:9)

The regulation that modern banking ethically requires will be very different to the ethical regulation of lending and agricultural profits in the Old Testament – of course. But there are some principles: principles relating to neighbour, about the poor and about the common good.

A tale of two banks. Some years ago, you may remember the collapse of Barings international bank in London. Behind the collapse lay the unregulated activity of just one trader – Nick Leeson. He had borrowed and invested with the expectation of a rise in the Tokyo market. It did not happen. Undaunted, he did what he had done before: he singlehandedly raised the Japanese Stock Exchange. The only thing that went wrong was – an earthquake. Theoretically, that kind of entrepreneurship cannot now happen but is the spirit of Nick Leeson dead? (see Grace and Mortgage, Peter Selby, DLT, 1997).

The reasons for the iconic collapse of Lehman Brothers are complex and to some extent still disputed: but the story suggest that that casino spirit was not dead in New York or elsewhere in 2007-8. The Sub-prime mortgage crisis was at least in part caused by the bank believing it could and should make bigger and better profits ad infinitum. Then Lehman’s – according to the court examiner in 2010 – used cosmetic accounting to cover up its financial weakness. Just before the collapse, management rejected a proposal for its executives not to receive multi-million dollar bonuses. The proposal was intended to send a constructive message to employees and investors that the Bank was not shirking accountability for its disastrous performance. From Lehman’s failure followed the global recession and collapse in financial confidence we are far from through yet.

In the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Financial Times article last week Rowan Williams encourages a debate on a ‘Tobin’ tax on speculative financial transactions. This would no doubt be dismissed as Marxist by the Daily Mail, were it not for support from very successful capitalists such as Bill Gates. Mr Cameron has given a cautious welcome to the exploration of the idea – more supported in the rest of Europe than in the City of London. This would create reserve capital as a buffer against a financial crash. The Vickers Report also has firm recommendations about the separation of savings from casino-style speculation: Investment banking to be separated from High Street banking. Both these devices would have their pros and cons, but discussion of them both is surely in line with theological and biblical principles relating to the ‘common good’.

Questions about investment regulation, and radically asymmetrical incomes which are surely divisive of the ‘Big Society’ (and I must include footballers as well as investment bankers here) have suddenly arisen in a ‘forum’ outside and now, by invitation to a debate by the Bishop of London, inside St Paul’s Cathedral. What began disaster for St Paul’s – claiming the ministry of two good clergy – has now become a marker that the Church can be a forum (a forum amongst others, including Parliament) for an overdue national discussion about the ethics of the market-place.

The sociologist Dr. Grace Davie said some time ago that the churches had become places where the nation expected a ‘vicarious’ Christianity to be practiced on its behalf: ‘I don’t go to Church but some people ought to’. Has St Paul’s Churchyard – not a stranger in history to great debates of the times due to outdoor sermons at St Paul’s Cross, some of which fed the Reformation and others inspired significant philanthropy and education of the poor – has St Paul’s Churchyard become a place for a ‘vicarious’ debate about ethics and the market place? Can the Church of England in service of the ‘common good’ of the national community be a sacred and safe space for such a wider debate? Why not?

Rt. Rev’d Christopher Hill, Bishop of Guildford.
6th November 2011

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