The Law Courts on the Strand, in London, are George Edmund Street’s Gothic masterpiece. Such was their nearness to architectural perfection that their famous architect, like the medieval masons of old, left a small corner of the building deliberately unfinished. Perfection is to be ascribed to the works of the great designer alone.
In contrast, the Thomas More building from the 1990s, though an extension to the Law Courts, does little to threaten the creator’s monopoly on perfection. In the small rooms of this dreary side annexe, a place that feels more like a run-down Job Centre, countless little dramas and stories of human misery get played out every day. This is the home of the Bankruptcy Court.
Members of the public are welcome to watch. But few could find their way, and no great interest draws them. A postman has run up more than £100,000 of debt on his credit cards. A small-town solicitor owes the Government years of back tax. An Asian businessman pleads his case against his many creditors, struggling desperately to keep his manufacturing firm alive.
These stories draw no crowds or journalists. But, to people involved, this is where their world is decided. And the credit crunch means that numbers are up. In the first quarter of this year, company insolvencies rose by 56 per cent on the same period last year. Personal insolvencies are up 19 per cent.
The deal of bankruptcy is remarkably simple: the state agrees to free the bankrupt from overwhelming debts, in return for the bankrupt’s honest co-operation in sharing his or her assets among the creditors. For a year, there will be restrictions on the sort of financial activity the bankrupt can engage in. After this, he or she is usually free to make a fresh start.
This arrangement has more than a little of the biblical notion of Jubilee about it, and is an important reminder that redemption is originally a financial concept.
In the Lord's Prayer, that bit about "forgive us our sins" is equally well translated, "forgive us our debts, as we forgive the debts of others".
Indeed, sitting in that little court for a day, witnessing a succession of sad stories and faces lined by financial worry gave me a vivid impression of salvation as a form of bankruptcy. The basic logic is the same: I own up, and I am forgiven.
Inevitably, I suppose, some people will abuse the system. You can go out and binge on credit cards, in the knowledge that the state will forgive you your sins. But this is not what I saw in the Bankruptcy Court. Here you can find the human scale of the current financial crisis.
It is not about bankers and bonuses. It is a succession of mini-tragedies and broken dreams — ordinary people drowning in an ocean of debt. For these, justice is guided by mercy. Thanks be to God.
(c) Giles Fraser will be Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral and Director of the St Paul’s Institute from mid-September 2009. This article is adapted with acknowledgments from his regular Church Times column.