No, this isn’t another forum for the ubiquitous Professor Brian Cox.

Just listening to the news this morning and there is a raft of serious ethical issues treated as ‘items of (practical) interest’, but without any time for proper consideration in the constant stream of mediated ‘news’:

  • Gazza’s alcoholism – and who, if anyone, is responsible for ‘saving’ him from himself;
  • Gay marriage – not only what happens to the institution of marriage (regardless of your stance on gay marriage itself), but also the assumptions behind the ‘equality’ language;
  • Nuclear waste – and how we make decisions about the earth and its resources when the consequences of those decisions will be borne by generations to come;
  • Banking – and whether splitting retail from investment risk covers all the moral bases and addresses the continuing underlying cultural issues;
  • Covert operations – when a society wants to be protected (and is harsh when protection fails), but doesn’t address what might be the limits of covert practice in providing such protection… especially given the reality that people working against states or societies aren’t always very nice and usually don’t play by the usual rules’
  • Industrial complexity – like when meat guaranteed to be halal is discovered to have forbidden pork in it… illustrating not just the complexity of industrialised food production, but also the need to respect religious and other human/societal sensibilities.

And don’t get me on to Manchester City and the money around the Premier League.

I guess most of us just lurch from one pragmatic judgement to the next when presented with complex moral issues at every turn. Life is complicated enough. But, it also suggests that we – as a society – need to create more space to slow down, think, reflect on long-term consequences of instant choices. Or, as I put it yesterday, to ‘think deeply’ about why what matters matters.

Maybe, as we approach Lent, there is wisdom in slowing down. Not busy is one way of starting. I need to pay attention to what it is saying, and I commend it.

Advertisements

It looks like the conversion of St Paul’s wasn’t exactly a Damascus Road experience after all.

The delayed publication of the latest report by the St Paul’s Institute shows that, even if the City was unaware of it and the Occupy protesters ended up on the cathedral steps more by accident than design, the Church was already well underway with serious questioning of the values that drove City culture in the 25 years since Big Bang. The Value and Values report (subtitled Perceptions of Ethics in the City Today) was published yesterday.

Contrary to the press accusation that this report had been ‘suppressed’ for a couple of weeks, it should by now be blindingly obvious what criticism (of naff timing and incoherent process) would have been levelled at the Church if it had gone ahead and published according to the schedule. Given that the report is fronted by both Dean Graeme Knowles and Canon Dr Giles Fraser, it would have been kind of hard to put it out with both of them in the process of resignation.

Of course, that inconvenient truth won’t satisfy those who revel in selective amnesia – the same condition that slates the Archbishop of Canterbury for questioning the values of our dominant economic and political culture, then forgets he had done so when the later story breaks and they can’t get him to feed the hungry media machine with further repetition.

Anyway, the report makes clear that there are some good people in the City – people who are already sensitised to the disconnect between the Square Mile and the real world. Indeed, the report makes clear that many of those who work in the City do understand the reasons behind the rage against perceived injustice. It highlights the way technology has dehumanised financial transactions. It recognises that reward has become divorced from work and that the Big Bang created a failure to drive value with values that assumed a common humanity. Money has become an end instead of a means to a greater end that we choose.

I was once asked to give an after-dinner speech at London’s famous Mansion House to a company of insurers and financiers. These people, among whom there was a plethora of motivations, had raised enormous amounts of money for a range of charitable causes and I wanted to recognise this and thank them for it. But I also wanted to reconnect this generosity with a humane appraisal of the transaction. I think I said something like:

this is not a case of the strong giving to the weak, but of the ‘weak who have’ giving to the ‘weak who have not’.

(I finished by quoting Jesus who said “it is easier to get a needle through your eye than for a rich man to pass a camel”… or something like that, anyway.

The point is that wealth can create a security that hides basic human frailty. We all weep and bleed and feel lonely in the universe on a dark night when our relationships have failed or we find ourselves wondering what it is all about. What unites us is the common humanity that has somehow got lost in the scrap for money.

Perhaps the Church is in a good place to stand between the City and the rest of the world. We ‘do’ people and we ‘get’ the people who live in both worlds. It is our business – confusing and compromising though it sometimes feels – and a church that follows Jesus Christ (who opted into this compromising and material world) can do no other than stand where the fault lines fall and try to hold it all together.

Read the report and the critique that concludes it. This wasn’t a craven cathedral at all – it had opened itself up to judgement. The tragedy is that the protestors didn’t turn up just a few days later, once the report had been published.

I have been wondering (a) if and (b) how to post responses to two matters this week. I sometimes feel that the dominant language of some public issues is one that belongs to a different ’empire’ from the one in which reasonable people should feel at home. I fear this won’t be brief, but it will be too brief to avoid a backlash.

The first matter was the media coverage of Dr Maggie Atkinson‘s questioning of the Jamie Bulger case. Dr Atkinson, Children’s Commissioner for England, questioned whether the murderers of Jamie Bulger should have been tried in an adult court and, therefore, whether some children are too young to be considered in the same way as adult criminals. (Phil Ritchie blogged on this recently – well worth a read.) Jamie Bulger’s mother hit the headlines with her call for Dr Atkinson to either resign or be sacked. Fortunately, Dr Atkinson’s position was defended (rather meekly) by some politicians who recognised that it is precisely her job to ask such questions. 

It is impossible not to have sympathy with Jamie Bulger’s mother for the appalling loss of her son in such grievous circumstances. But that loss does not legitimise anything Denise Fergus says about the subsequent case or issues associated with it. A society cannot make law simply to satisfy those who have been through terrible injustices. Presumably the Foreign Office doesn’t consult Ken Bigley’s or Margaret Hassan’s families when deciding how to counter/handle the Taleban, Al Quaeda or Iraqi insurgents?

So, why is Denise Fergus’s opinion considered important enough to report as a headline item? I guess one response will be that it will get people to read the story. But, her grievance does not make her views about penal policy any more intelligible than those of anyone else – however awful the experiences that led her to them.

I remember voicing a view such as this on another matter and being castigated that I – “as a bishop” – am out of kilter with public opinion. That response was even more worrying. Yesterday I sat in a room in London where Dietrich Bonhoeffer had ‘gone against the grain of public opinion’ both in England and Germany and taken the Christus Kirche into the Confessing Church in Germany. Sometimes it is vital that people resist public opinion: being a majority does not make you right.

The second issue that has bugged me is the campaign by Ekklesia to embarrass the 26 bishops in the House of Lords into backing a 100% elected second chamber. Inundating the said bishops with emails has been proclaimed some sort of victory, but this is bizarre, even for an organisation not known for underselling its self-regarded achievements. For starters, the numbers of people joining in the campaign (purely electronic) is open to a range of interpretations and readings and cannot be seen to exemplify mass conviction about the place of bishops in the second chamber.

Secondly, I for one do not support a 100% elected chamber – and I do not sit in the House of Lords. (For the record, I have neither desire nor expectation to do so.) But, I have operated in a number of countries around the world where different systems of representation are applied. I have not seen one where the election of a second chamber does not lead to the same sort of short-term partisan political game-playing that we see in the House of Commons. One of the recognised glories of the House of Lords is the ability of experienced and learned people – many of whom would never stand for election – to contribute intelligently and fearlessly to important legislative debate. To sacrifice this on the altar of some narrow and naive assumption about what makes a society ‘democratic’ would be absurd – like cutting off your nose to spite your face. It feels a bit like being led by inverse snobbery.

Bishops might either stay or go in the inevitable reforms of the House of Lords. It is also possible that if they stay their numbers will be reduced. I doubt if we will weep either way – we’ll just get on with it like we always do. But I would still argue that bishops of the Church of England are often better informed and better experienced in the realities of all levels of our society than almost any elected politician or unelected Lord. They have representation on the ground in the parishes of the country and know the realities that the clergy and churches live with every day of every week of every year as they serve their local communities. That knowledge – not subject to any electoral advantage – gives a voice in our legislature to all sorts of people who otherwise have no voice. Ekklesia doesn’t like that – doesn’t like bishops and has some weird axe to grind about them.

This isn’t a fundamental reason to retain bishops in a reformed second chamber. But it is worth recognising the potential loss, especially if the rationale for getting rid of them is rooted in some ideological silliness that can only imagine one way of doing things.

Which brings me on to the article advocating a Robin Hood Tax by Rowan Williams and Richard Curtis in today’s Sunday Times. Spotting an opportunity for helping the world’s poorest people and redeeming the bankers at the same time, they conclude with the following:

Are the politicians and financiers ready to commit to reconnecting banking with real life and real need? Are they ready to affirm that we are still, as a society, focused on the development goals spelt out 10 years ago and on eradicating poverty at home? Are they willing to lift their eyes beyond short-term problems and to imagine a world in which those most at risk can be assured of the best resources we can offer them?

The key word in that paragraph is ‘imagine’. I once suggested to a group of City financiers that stochastic modelling is ‘an exercise in imagination’ – positing a range of different scenarios in order to see what emerges from them. The word ‘imagination’ caused some disquiet – I think because it was heard as an ‘exercise in fantasy’. But imagination is not fantasy; rather, it is the ability to conceive of a different way of being and ordering and having the courage to see if we can make it happen. Imagination is a crucial element of the prophet’s psyche, the poet’s vision and the planner’s potential. Lack of imagination condemns us to repeating the same old models of doing things – even if they haven’t always served us as well as we like (romantically) to think in retrospect.

The criminal justice system might need to have the courage to think imaginatively about how to treat children who commit appalling crimes: to refuse to ask the questions for fear of public scolding is to cave in to a very unhealthy sort of power. Campaigners for democratic change might like to think out of their ideological boxes and imagine more than one way of squaring the circles that bother them. Bankers and governments will need courage to think creatively about re-shaping the global financial relationships according to different values.

It might not come as a surprise that Jesus asked for a ‘repentance’ – literally a change of ‘mind’ – from those who might imagine a differently-shaped world. This went down so well that they crucified him. Public opinion might not always ‘get it’, but an imagination such as ‘the Kingdom of God’ seems to have been going for a very long time and certainly longer than the empires that tried to kill it off.

When Abba proclaimed that ‘it’s a rich man’s world’, they were simply repeating what has been complained about for thousands of year. The prophets of the Old Testament had less of a bias to the poor and more of a bias to telling the rich to use their wealth and power for the common good and the protection of the weak. The Psalmists constantly complained about the injustice of a world in which ‘the wicked prosper’ and the ‘godly’ just keep getting a bum deal. So, there’s nothing new in moaning about rich people running the world.

But it seems to me that it isn’t good enough simply to moan about the current recession and the global financial crisis, scapegoating ‘greedy bankers’ – even if they deserve it. It is all too easy to be wise after the event and there are loads of smug people slinging the dirt around at the moment.

Andreas Whittam-Smith brings some wisdom to the situation in today’s Independent (http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/andreas-whittam-smith/andreas-whittam-smith-we-are-angry-so-tell-us-what-went-wrong-at-the-banks-1513373.html). The natural search for revenge (usually dressed up in the language of ‘accountability’) will get us nowhere and will solve nothing. But, as charity trustees in the UK would demand an inquiry into where the system had gone wrong with their charity, so ought the British Government establish an independent inquiry into how the world’s economic and financial systems were able to go so awry.

People like me will be able to offer a limited perspective. I have three adult children and all of them have been through university – indeed, one is still there. They emerged with massive debts and begin their working (and married) life with an assumption that living in debt is the only option – the norm. For those of us who have spent our lives trying to live within our means, this has always looked wrong. It was not rocket science to realise that the endless offers of credit cards, loans and debt-consolidation schemes from banks were unsustainable. Lending money indiscriminately to people without any scrutiny of their future ability to repay – also the problem with sub-prime mortgages – was always bound to end in tears. But, when everything is going well and the general standard of living is high, we all-too-easily assume that the experts must know what they are doing. Now we know they didn’t. Or, if they did, they were criminally selfish.

The point about an inquiry is that it would re-tell the story in the cold light of day and expose where the system and decision-making went wrong. And I suspect it would make the fantasyland activities of the banking sector look embarrassingly stupid. But at least it would help us to learn and learn and learn.

I suspect that we would end up questioning the values that have underpinned the economic and banking system in the past thirty years. I would not be the first to suggest that money doesn’t actually exist – that it merely represents an arbitrary system of relative values that only pertain if everyone agrees to the same assumptions about where ‘value’ lies. That is surely why the system, founded on trust and confidence, collapsed so quickly when trust and confidence evaporated. The uncritical assumption that economic growth is eternally sustainable and can only generate winners now looks like the Emperor’s new clothes.

But this situation now provides us with a unique opportunity not only to try to get the economy going again, but also to re-think the values and assumptions that underlie it. It enables us to ask (without embarrassment) for whom the economy and the banks exist – and whether the system is there to serve the people whose money it uses or if the people are merely there to serve the system and those who run it.

Coincidentally, the Independent today also has an interview with Jerome Kerviel, the French banker who lost Societe Generale in the region of five billion Euros. He describes the unreality of the gambling he was involved in and the lack of scrutiny by his superiors as long as he was making vast profits. His (and their) negligent hubris led to disaster. He describes his joy at making huge profits out of events such as the 7/7 Tube bombings in London and the 9/11 attacks in the USA, exposing the hard fact that some people love crises because they are able to make huge amounts of money from them.

Although I think I understand why Gordon Brown is taking us further into almost inconceivable amounts of deeper debt (to get the credit flow going so that we can gradually resume the lending and borrowing that allows businesses to function as well as grow), I have a possibly simplistic suspicion that it might not be good to sort out a debt problem by going further into debt. We cannot and must not simply try to resume ‘business as usual’, if that means returning to the same old fantasies that have dominated the last couple of decades and not learning that a fundamental review and repositioning of values is essential to the future construction of a fair economy.

Abba’s cynicism will always be there, whatever system is shaped in the future. But whatever happens next, the world cannot re-dress the Emperor in the same old new clothes.