Occupy LSX and the Church: Why the danger isn’t over

By Jonathan Bartley
November 2, 2011

When the difficulties between St Paul's and the Occupy London camp were at their height we pointed out that the Church of England has a habit of smothering radicalism with a great big hug. (Credit where it’s due - this is my colleague Simon Barrow’s expression. "Suffocated by a warm pastoral embrace" was how he first put it).

We welcomed the announcement yesterday not just that St Paul’s would put its legal action on hold, but of a “new initiative” around finance to address some of the concerns being raised by the Occupy movement.

The exact shape of the 'new initiative' is not yet clear. But we should be cautious. There is cause for concern, and not just in the context of St Paul's close links with the City.

The figure chosen to 'spearhead' the initiative is Ken Costa, an Evangelical Christian behind the Alpha Course and an investment banker. He gave a speech at Mansion House just a few days ago setting out his own perspective on these issues. You can read it in full here. Here are some of the things he says:

  • “I certainly don’t believe the economic system we have is broken, let alone irredeemably broken.”

    “Anyone familiar with banking and finance will know that it is completely impossible to legislate out bad practice."

    "The temptation is to legislate and, when that proves insufficient, to legislate a bit more, and then a bit more. The goal is ever elusive and the market becomes so distorted and burdened with legislation that it can no longer function with anything approaching efficiency.”

    “Diversity makes it difficult to respond to them (the protestors) and we may well choose to ignore this particular protest. But… astute business people always need to be ahead of the curve, and this is no exception. Challenging as it may be to us, we need to listen, think and then head off the arguments before they get wider traction.”

It is difficult to get an entirely accurate perspective from one speech. But his general gist is “markets have drifted too far from their ethical moorings”. He does not seem to see a need for fundamental reform (or even different regulation) of capitalism. He is urging a ‘restoration’ of values to the existing system, or as he puts it: “For markets to work, and in particular for free markets to remain free, they need to be nurtured and sustained by morality.”

He seems to be articulating similar sentiments to writers like Michael Novak and Lord Griffiths (former No. 10 policy unit under Thatcher), and what organisations like the Institute for Economic Affairs have been saying since the late 1980s and early 1990s.

If this is the route the initiative heads down, then expect an outcome similar to the churches “prosperity with a purpose” report of a few years ago, which effectively suggests we need free-market capitalism, but just a nicer version where everyone is more decent, wealth is redistributed a little more, and we take a bit more care of the poorest and most vulnerable. Expect too, widespread disillusionment.

It could be little more than a repackaged version of the existing political consensus. Costa even quotes David Cameron’s speech to the World Economic Forum where he says that “it is time to place the market within a moral framework.” He might as well have quoted Ed Miliband's speech to his Party conference too about “good” and “bad” business.

This is reinforced by the way that the initial St Paul’s statement was phrased yesterday. Ken Costa has been asked to “spearhead an initiative reconnecting the financial and the ethical". A specific course seems to have been set.

It will be at the very least quite hard to make links to such things as democratic reform and sustainability. There is little prospect of proposals for long-overdue reform, let alone abolition of the City of London itself. Nor can hopes rest on former Canon of St Paul’s Giles Fraser – also mentioned in the St Paul’s statement as having a role to play in the initiative. He is a great man, but also has made no secret of the fact that he is also a (reluctant) fan of capitalism.

There are some hopeful signs however. The Archbishop of Canterbury has joined in with some sound proposals in the Financial Times: A Robin Hood Tax, separation of casino and retail functions of banks, and more obligations on banks following capitalisation. As he says, these would be a good first step.

But these are things already on the political agenda. What is needed is some fresh thinking and imagination. Who else needs to be involved? The Church of course feels that it must be the church for all people. Often this has been code for “we have to include the City”. Important voices who perhaps aren’t the “usual suspects” often also get left out.

The new initiative must not be dominated by City, Church and big political figures. Nor must it be dominated by those from the old Left who see the state as the solution to everything. Crucially it must involve those involved in the Occupy movement (which the Church appears to have promised which is good). But it must also include as many fresh and creative voices as possible like The New Economics Foundation, the Green Party, and even the Transition Town Movement, who continue to put forward fresh, well thought out and credible ideas which breakout of the existing political consensus, and old, tired rhetoric about re-moralising markets.

But there may well be resistance. The Church itself has entrenched attitudes and perspectives. Its own strategy with regard to its £5.7 billion investments is to hold shares in oil and mining companies and banks. It has sold off its social housing and bought out of town shopping centres over the last 20 years. It has engaged in currency hedging. Its perspective has not been to see its money as part of its mission – but rather that its money should be used to maximise profit (within an “ethical” framework) in order to fund its mission.

For this 'new initiative' to be transformative, it will need a willingness to change itself, or be changed. And that, for the Church of England, is possibly the biggest obstacle.

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