“What would Jesus do?”. This question, put on one of the banners of the ‘Occupy’ protesters outside London’s St Paul’s Cathedral, is one that the Church of England has been struggling to answer in reaction to the public anger about the flaws in our economic system. What can the Church say and do about the operations of Mammon?
One response has been for church leaders to fall in behind the Robin Hood Tax, as Rowan Williams, the head of the Church of England did last week, following in the steps of the Roman Catholic Church. We have a lot of reservations about this idea. Indeed, Michael debated the merits of the tax at St Paul’s earlier this year. Even leaving aside the merits (or not) of this tax, does the Church have anything more to offer to the debate other than recommendations on tax policy, and (reluctantly) some ground for the protestors to camp out on?
The number two in the Anglican Church, the media savvy Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, choose to take the populist line, blaming greedy bankers. He urged a different kind of state intervention – getting the Queen to withhold honours from avaricious City types. That will have them quaking in their vaults.
In a new contribution to the debate, the St Paul’s Institute (a thinktank associated with the cathedral) today published a survey of ethical attitudes in the City (which was commissioned before the protests put their institution at the centre of the debate). One interesting finding is that City ladies and gents really are more godless than the population as a whole – 38% of those surveyed had no belief in God, compared to 23% for the population as a whole. The report, probably rightly, does not infer much from that statistic, pointing instead to the fact that only 14% knew that the London Stock Exchange’s motto is ‘My word is my bond’ to suggest (rather feebly) that moral standards have declined due to deregulation.
What is most interesting about this survey is that it shows the sense of unease within the City itself about how the financial sector operates, as well as strong support for different ways of working. Two thirds of respondents think bond traders are over-paid and half think the same of bankers. Banker bashers will be surprised to see that there was considerable agreement that the financial sector should be investing more in deprived communities and that bonuses need to reflect long term success, not short term-profit making.
For us, this poll shows the inadequacy of trying to portray what is wrong with the financial sector as a simple morality tale of greedy bankers gone mad. It is also a warning to the Church that merely banging on about ethics may not make much of a difference – respondents rejected the idea that they need to listen to the Church more.
We would not presume to second guess the Church on what Jesus would do. What we do know is that the Church of England alongside other Christian denominations and other faiths represents a large and active constituency that has often been at the forefront of campaigns for global justice. “There is a strong sense that faith groups are particularly effective in mobilising action, and by engaging them, a campaign can reach out to a more mainstream – less traditionally left of centre – public.” This is one of the findings of a fascinating report ‘Campaigning for International Justice’, written by Brendan Cox, a former aide to Gordon Brown (don’t hold that against him) and now a senior figure at Save the Children. There is an opportunity here for the Church to take the passion of the Occupy movement and build it into a broader coalition for change, if only it can get its message right. But, again, what should that message be?
One of the ironies of the mess that we are in at the moment is that the banks can argue that they were “just obeying orders”. The short-termism that the St Paul’s survey shows is an acknowledged problem that is hard-wired into the City by the demands from the banks’ own shareholders for ever-increasing quarterly profits, irrespective of the long term consequences. Institutional investors, such as pension funds, are increasingly short-term in their investment strategies, preferring to keep swapping their shareholdings to ‘track’ the market rather than thinking about long term success. And those blinkered investors are acting in our name, since it is our savings and pension investments that they are using.
As we argue in our latest book, ‘The Road from Ruin’, transforming this investment culture needs not just regulatory change but active ‘citizen capitalists’ who are willing to ask tough questions about how their money is being used. And citizens can have an impact. The ethical consumer movement, of which faith groups were a key part from the start, is now having a real influence on the way businesses behave environmentally and socially. The ethical investment movement is stunted by comparison. Faith based organisations, many of which are substantial investors in their own right (the Church of England has made some progress in this area), could lead the way in engaging their member to be better stewards of their capital.
Ideas of stewardship and personal responsibility do not just apply to bankers, they apply to all of us. If we want a better capitalism that serves people and planet, we have to be willing to ask for it. This seems a more appropriate message for the Church than looking for a fiscal quick fix or casting the first stone at the sinners of the City.