Christianity, depression and prayer

‘How are you,’  Or even worse, ‘how are you doing’ are questions that can set the mind of those of us who suffer, or have historically suffered, from depression (and / or anxiety) running.

If we are not feeling relatively stable the mind starts ruminating and, one of the depressive’s  most dangerous characteristics kicks in. Rather than simply answering the question we are prone to ask questions like:

Have they guessed that I am feeling depressed, down, anxious or whatever?

Do I look out of sorts?

Why can’t they just leave me alone? 

And, worst of all: ‘should I be feeling down?’ 

You see ‘we’ can talk our way, through rumination, into the depths of despair and, anxiety. Sometimes, even if we are feeling generally okay, we find it difficult to understand that what is being offered is a genuine question, a social nicety.

For Christians depression can be especially difficult to deal with: it can give rise, even for those who at theological level of analysis, would want to reject some form of prosperity, ‘and they all lived happily ever after’ gospel message, to feelings of ‘I shouldn’t feel like this.’

After all as Christians we are all aware of the comfortable ‘come unto me’ words and, the promise that all who believe will be given the fullness of life. We have also read the wonderful accounts of Jesus’ many healing miracles. So, there is a tendency to start thinking ‘why not me, why can’t I be healed’ which can, of course give rise to doubting the veracity of our own faith.

I told you we are really very good at ruminating!

The Psalmist, with his description of being rescued from the ‘pit,’ ( Pslam 40 2 for example) provides an interesting and alternative way of looking at things. The Psalms are, of course, part of Scripture’s ‘wisdom literature.’

Depression (and anxiety) of course are not just one thing. There is a spectrum of diss ease, which may range from the suicidal to the melancholy. I have suffered, at different times, with symptoms across the spectrum. I frequently feel down and in the past have laid on my bed each night asking God to either let me die or take away the pain of living, and not really cared one way or the other. I have shed enough tears of anguish to fill an indecently large baptistery. And so have many other Christians.

The problem is that when you feel at your wits end, you think you are the only one who feels that way. The temptation is to think that not only are you a freak, but that you are a weak-freak, someone whose faith is simply not strong or robust enough.

When we ruminate we start listening to and believing the inner lies; and they are lies. And, so one of the skills those who suffer from depression can learn is a new approach to prayer.

I don’t want to suggest that I have found a miraculous and generally applicable answer. And, I absolutely don’t want present prayer as an alternative to therapeutic and psychological interventions, both of which I have benefited from.

All, I can do is point out something that has worked for me and, something that draws on the tradition (I can’t be creative or ex-temporary when I am feeling depressed.)  I start by acknowledging how I feel, whilst at the same time insisting to myself that I continue to hope. I use a very simple prayer:

‘I will trust in you in trials and praise you in deliverance.’ 

And, I repeat it slowly over and over again: I positively ruminate on it.

I also pray the night collects (whenever I need to – night is a wonderful metaphor):

‘Lighten my darkness I beseech you O Lord, and in your great mercy defend me from all perils and dangers of this night for the love of your only Son, our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.’

Again this prayer seems to me to express the reality of the situation: I am in peril or danger, but I can pray with some form of hope; even if I feel hopeless!

I would stress that I am not praying for a spontaneous miracle, but for the process of healing, for the easing or lightening of my burdens. And, sometimes, mostly, it works. It works because I can stop, even if only for a short time, focusing on the negative and destructive questions and, instead turn towards Jesus. Prayer has the therapeutic effect of drawing me out of myself, of allowing me to ‘come unto Him.’

So, without trivializing depression (how can I)  I have come to the conclusion that prayer can be an effective antidote to rumination and, negative internal questioning.

As a Christian, I believe passionately in the power of prayer and, the Church as place and people of healing. I take huge comfort from the early stage scientific evidence that meditative prayer does alter the chemical balance of the brain. I am pleased that neurotheology is an emerging field and discipline. Is it too much to suggest that modern science is giving new insights into St. Paul’s cherished concept of ‘renewal of the mind?’

I also think that the Church (in general) needs to think about its healing ministry, especially in relation to mental health, which is the disease, of our times. It is something I am currently grappling with and would welcome any thoughts or insights.

‘Fear not’ for the C of E.

Let’s be honest, it is all a bit of a mess; the Anglican Communion, I mean. Mind you the C of E is also a bit messy at present.

But, here’s some good news, or at least, a point of reference that may give some hope:

The Church, in all its dysfunctionality, is not too different from families up and down the land, for, as all involved in funeral ministry know, the notion of the perfectly functional family, where every member relates to the other in perfect harmony, is a romantic myth. Even, whisper it beneath your breath, in ‘nice families.’

Every minister will be aware that when planning funerals  family members may have significantly different interpretations of the reality of family life and, the character of the deceased. Often, sadly, the dominant interpretation will depend on the power dynamics in the family. Power, does not of course, necessarily equate to truth.

The various ‘power groups’ in the Anglican Communion seem to be interpreting the ACC meeting’s response to the Primates Communique differently. Who knows what the ‘truth’ of the matter is?

In fact the disagreement is not limited simply to interpretation of the communique. No, in many ways it is far more basic than that, for the entire legitimacy of the Primates response to the Episcopal Church has also been called into question. The argument goes that the Primates have attempted to fashion themselves as an Anglican Magisterium and in so doing have, without consultation, sought to change the nature of our ‘family life.’

The counter argument is of course that the Episcopal Church (of the USA) had no rite (pun!) to change their marriage canon unilaterally. So the Primates ‘had’ to act.

A third interpretation may be, as someone at a church lunch put to me yesterday, that two wrongs don’t make a right. My friend, who is an ordinary member of the congregation, believes that the Episcopal Church was wrong, both in its intention (to broaden the traditional definition of marriage) and its praxis (he believes that some form of liturgical affirmation would be appropriate – we didn’t discuss blessings), but that the Primates were also wrong in their reaction, despite all the pious language embedded in the communique.

He warned of the dire consequences that follow when a powerful group seeks to assume powers that are not rightfully theirs, or to amend the ‘constitution’ without prior consultation.

Getting back to funerals! Frequently, there is a third group of mourners; those who don’t get to express their view, perhaps simply because their view is more subtle and nuanced; less dramatic and somehow distanced from, or drowned out by, those who intent on keeping hold of the megaphone.

This group also tends to be less dogmatic, and because their analysis isn’t headline grabbing their views are seldom sought. After all a eulogy which stresses that Fred or Sue (whoever) was a mixture of the good and the bad stuff, they did their best, sometimes achieving what they set out to but frequently just drifting along doesn’t really do it!

This group perceives ‘the truth of the matter’ to reside between the two extremes, not in some soggy relativism but rather, in a spirit of ‘holy pragmatism.’  And, this group exists big time in the Church, just like it does in each and every family and community. And, lets not deceive ourselves; this group does think things through, reflectively and, ‘theologically.’ And yet, we never ask their opinion (we think we do, and we argue that their views are represented through the synodical processes but sometimes we need to get beyond such processes, or dig deeper).

The line that that they don’t have the expertise and authority to make a contribution, which is sometimes deployed,  doesn’t really, in my view, pass muster. It is the rhetoric of the anti liberationist and a clericalism that refuses to take seriously that most unnerving of principles; subsidiarity.

Before everyone in a position of power and authority gets hot under the collar, please note that I have used the word ‘contribution.’ Surely a healthy church should make some sort of effort to find out what its members really think (or believe)? What other mechanism exists for inaugurating a mature conversation? Or even for teaching and admonishing?

So, it is bizarre that we never put before them (our members) a range of options and ask how they would rank them. Put simply, despite protestations, that the majority of members of the C of E ‘think’ that the status quo should be either retained or amended, we don’t know what our members really think, and one of the problems with those who speak from a  position of power or authority is that they tend towards a preference for making sweeping assumptions. We, the C of E,  should rigorously and systematically test our assumptions (mine included!) Asking the broadest possible franchise to rank a range of possible outcomes wouldn’t, in all probability, provide a definitive outcome but it would give an accurate insight into the general direction of beliefs and sympathies.

There is however a problem that needs to be acknowledged by those in leadership: Not knowing can be infinitely more comfortable than knowing! Assumption can be  the ‘epistemological best friend’ of the powerful.

So why don’t we simply just ask our members (maybe starting by defining members as those on an electoral role -after all having just completed a round of APCM meetings we know the composition of the franchise) what they think about the issues that divide us. Let’s get below the views of the authority figures. It would be a relatively simple process to arrange.

But, ‘fear not,’ it won’t happen, for one simple reason; presumption is so much easier to deal with, for leaders, than fact.

Of course getting to the heart of the matter won’t erase all, or even most, of our problems. It won’t make the family instantly more functional. In the short term it might actually makes things worse.

There will be a lot of shock and horror from all sides about the nature of the results and findings: ‘how could you believe such and such’ will continue to be a refrain of estranged conservative and liberal cousins on both sides of the theological divide. Those residing in that vast spectrum of belief called ‘the middle ground’ will all all likelihood simply keep their heads down and mournfully ask ‘how has it come to this?’ Unless we pass them the megaphone.

For the sake of the Church of England this group needs to be given its voice.

Bishops, priests and deacons may have to live with the unconformable reality that more diversity exists in their pews than they had hitherto presumed or perceived, and that this will impact (for good) the exercise of leadership in both the diocese and local church and, the way the church evolves its teaching ministry. We will need from our leaders a new maturity.

However, as everyone involved in funeral ministry also knows, funerals can be a catalyst for family reconciliation, and reconciliation begins when we willingly extinguish presuppositions and presumptions and allow heart to speak to heart. This is now the Church of England’s urgent task and we need to engage the widest possible constituency in our discussions and deliberations.

It will be messy. And, it will require courage. But the alternative is even worse; the continuation of a long and painful journey to the funeral parlor.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leadership; idolatry and reality.

Do we need to be more realistic about those who ‘lead’ us and, ‘leadership’ as a phenomenon?

If we are not realistic I think that our responses, or attitudes, towards a particular leader are going be either largely dismissive of their capacity to perform the role they have been asked to fulfill or, uncritically accepting that every view they hold and, every aspect of their preferred way of doing things is always appropriate.

I suggest that we ‘followers’ need to be aware of two equally toxic responses to our leaders and they way they perform their roles. We are likely to afford them either too little, or too much esteem.

Too little esteem is toxic in that erodes the platform from which they conduct their leadership. Too little esteem undermines the institution and, institutional processes that led to their appointment (this is not to argue that the institution and its processes are perfect – they’re not!) Too little esteem undermines the office that they hold. And, if we believe that God calls people into positions of authority and leadership in the Church (as the liturgies for ordination, licensing, installation and so forth suggest) then I guess we stand the risk of undermining God’s work?

Too much esteem is dangerous, and toxic, because it either assumes that the leader is infallible, or it projects our preferences onto the leader. Is this a form of idolatry? Too much esteem also runs the risk of letting us off the hook. If we simply agree with everything the leader believes and uncritically mimic their ways of leading then, I think, we are in real danger. We cease to become a community and mutate into a cult.

Communities are places characterized, in part, by difference. Difference in  ways of thinking about the world and its problems and, differences in ways of both being and doing. Of course healthy communities also have stabilizers, to prevent an anything goes culture, but if communities insist on everyone believing and behaving in the same way on each and every issue, they become a modern-day reflection of the first century Pharisaic communities.

If we are honest with ourselves there must be things about every leader, even if we are broadly sympathetic, with their beliefs and characteristic ways of doing things, that irk us (even if only ever so slightly).

There may be several reasons for our feelings of ‘irk’ (is this even a word?). The leader might in some ways be genuinely irksome. Leaders, aren’t as I have already suggested, perfect. But, it could be that our own perspectives and preferences render the leader irksome; that’s not their fault. Alternatively there could be some prior experiences, or set of allegiances, that condition us to find fault and, find it early. When assessing our reactions to leaders, and the concept, of leadership an honest process of reflection may help? As I say without it we run the very real risks of granting too much, or too little, esteem both of which are unfair to the leader and, potentially toxic.

We also need to develop the ability to appreciate the extent to which our spiritual leaders can control events; in management speak this is referred to as their ‘span of control.’ This means we have to develop a realistic view of the world and the system in which the leader operates.

Very few leaders, and Church Leaders in particular, can be expected to be revolutionary either in terms of the results they secure or, their exercise of leadership.

Leadership is in many ways, by necessity, an exercise in beautifully crafted pragmatism. This does not mean that debates should be shut down and idealists silenced. But, it might mean that we shouldn’t expect ‘our’ idealists (or even our best theologians) to sit at the summit of the institution. Most of the Old Testament prophets resided on the margins of the religious community. Pragmatism is much maligned these days, but realistically it is core to the leadership of people and institutions.

In last week’s Church Times two leaders were profiled (well actually three, Andrew Atherstone wrote an article following the ‘revelations’ about Justin Welby’s background) Barry Morgan and Pope Francis.

Barry Morgan, the Archbishop of Wales, has copped a fair bit of flak, from ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ alike following the Church in Wales decision to write prayers (I would argue liturgies) to affirm, but not bless, same-sex unions. ++Morgan comments that:

‘We knew, for some people, this would be a step too far, and for other people this would not go far enough,’ and, ‘we want to affirm homosexual people. I realize that what we have done is LIMITED in scope, but we have done THE BEST WE CAN, GIVEN THE CONSTRAINTS UPON US CONSTITUTIONALLY.’

These quotes show that ++Morgan’s leadership does not operate in a vacuum. They also show that, as with all of us, doing our ‘best’ is important. Best does not necessarily mean perfect, best does not imply keeping each and every follower happier.Best may mean that no one is completely satisfied. For if best means satisfying one group, at the expense of another, what remains is a game where the winner takes all, and this is the way to fragmentation, isolation and ostracization of the loser.

No, we need leaders who do the best they can, within the limits of their ‘span of control,’ and ‘scope of authority.’

What then of Pope Francis? Well, he too is unlikely to have pleased the most militant of ‘conservatives’ and ‘liberals’ in his reflection on the family: Amoris Laetitia. But, according to ‘Pope Watcher’ Paul Vallely Francis has managed to ‘nudge’ the Roman Catholic Church in a new direction. The new direction is partly concerned with a softening of certain doctrinal stances, but has more to do with how the Roman Catholic Church is to be led.

Vallely argues that Francis, through his advocacy of subsidiarity (the principle that pastoral decisions should be made at the ‘lowest’ effective point, and that uniformity of practice is secondary to context), is the first authentic Post Vatican ii leader. Quite some claim! If Vallely is correct, however, what Francis is saying is extraordinary and runs something like this:

‘Even though I am Pope, don’t hold me in too much esteem. My role is to get you all to think and behave according to the context you find yourselves in. Not everything needs to be neat and tidy. My role is not to provide a new set of ‘general rules canonical in nature, and applicable in all cases,’ (this is a direct quote from the text). My role is to get ‘each country and region’ to ‘seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs.’

The point is this: if you are looking for uniformity, neat, tidy, homogeneous solutions, you are going to be disappointed. The world isn’t geared up to such outcomes, and neither is the Church. Only cults and dictatorships are able to achieve universally applicable, neat and tidy responses and, ways of doing things.

Leaders can’t and shouldn’t be expected to sort everything out. We shouldn’t project our own beliefs and aspirations on to the leader for if we do we run the significant risk of either undermining God’s elected representatives, or turning them into an idol. We need to be both realistic and pragmatic in our appraisal of the Church’s leadership. We also need a generosity of spirit which accepts that most leaders seek to do their best and, that the best often falls short of our own, theoretical, standards of perfection.

 

 

The Welsh challenge

The decision by the Church of Wales to offer ‘pastoral prayers,’ for same sex couples will no doubt please, annoy and frustrate.

For many the prayers and ‘liturgy’ offered –  for there can be little doubt that Form 2, shown below reads as a liturgy – will be a step too far, for others it doesn’t go far enough. For pragmatists who believe that the church needs to do something it might do; for a while.

The Church of Wales have tried to be sensitive to the needs of all. In the pastoral letter issued at the same time as the prayers (and the ‘liturgy’), it is made clear that the Church of Wales has paid heed to the communique issued by the Primates at their conference, whilst also making it clear that the Bench of Bishops recognize the integrity, and crucially legitimacy,  of differing theologies of sexuality:

‘Since 2005, the Bench of Bishops has acknowledged that there are a range of views with respect to homosexuality, which have to be recognized as “honest and legitimate differences” within the diversity of opinion in the Church in Wales.’

In the pastoral letter the Bench of Bishops have stressed that the Primates unanimously agreed (but did they really, as Uganda was absent at the time) to oppose homophobia institutionalized through legislation. The ‘pastoral letter’ comes with a challenge and a reminder to other provinces in the communion, reminding them of their communal pledge.

The ‘pastoral letter’ is not, in my view, addressed solely to the church in Wales. And, we need to be clear, for many GAFCON types any move made to affirm or support same sex couples is always going to be a step too far.

The letter makes clear that the Church of Wales expects other provinces within the communion to up their game in the battle against homophobia. I think there is a hidden message in the text which reads as follows ‘we have stopped short of what many regard as the logical and final destination, now over to you.’

So in Wales a twin-track solution has now, it seems, been accepted. Time will tell whether the tracks will be upgraded or left as they are.

Some  in the C of E suggest that a twin-track solution cannot work, presumably because whilst happily accepting that differences can be honestly held, this does not imply that there is theological legitimacy in the divergent views. Those taking this view will presumably be dismayed by the Welsh approach?

My own view, for what it is worth, is that Grace asks us to respect both the honesty and legitimacy of differently held views; but as a ‘liberal’ I would say that, wouldn’t I? I struggle to understand, unless the view is held that same sex relationships are first order and therefore  salvific issues, the credibility of seeking to close off the possibility of a twin track approach. But as I say as a ‘liberal’ on this issue I would say that, wouldn’t I?

So what exactly does the Church of Wales believe about the nature and quality of covenanted same sex relationships? I think Order 2 (below) is most revealing, after all liturgy is ‘doctrine in action’:

Almighty and everliving God: look tenderly upon N and N
Lift them up in joy in their life together.
Grant them so to love selflessly and live humbly,
that they may be to one another and to the world
a witness and a sign of your never-failing care;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit,
one God, to the ages of ages. Amen

Leader: We pray for N and N
Lord, in your mercy
Response: Hear our prayer.

Leader: For a spirit of loving kindness to shelter them all their days;
Lord, in your mercy
Response: Hear our prayer.

Leader: For friends to support them and communities to enfold them;
Lord, in your mercy
Response: Hear our prayer.

Leader: For peace in their home and love in their family;
Lord, in your mercy
Response: Hear our prayer.

Leader: For the grace, when they hurt each other,
to recognise and acknowledge their fault,
and to seek each other’s forgiveness and yours;
Lord, in your mercy
Response: Hear our prayer.

Leader: For the outpouring of your love through their work and witness;
Lord, in your mercy
Response: Hear our prayer.

Most gracious God,
we praise you for the tender mercy and unfailing care
revealed to us in Jesus the Christ
and for the great joy and comfort bestowed upon us
in the gift of human love.
We give you thanks for N and N
who stand before you this day.
Pour out the abundance of your Holy Spirit upon them.
Keep them in your steadfast love;
protect them from all danger;
fill them with your wisdom and peace;
lead them in holy service to each other and the world.

A useful exercise might be to read this ‘liturgical text’ alongside the Preface to the Marriage Service in Common Worship. I suspect that you might start thinking we are talking about roughly the same thing! So here comes my irritation:

The ‘liturgy’ affirms the couples love for each other, it prays that through the quality of their relationship they might reflect God’s love, it asks that the ‘abundance of the Holy Spirit’ might be poured out ‘upon them,’ and that they will be led in Holy Service to each other and the world.’

‘For  the grace, when they hurt each other, to recognize and acknowledge their fault,and to seek each others forgiveness and yours,’ has echoes of ‘for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health….’ It is in other words a prayer for permanence and stability.

If it is all of these things then why, o why, can’t the couple and their relationship be blessed? That for me is a mystery. Or is a master stroke in pragmatism and a real challenge to those opposed to any form of twin track solution?

I think the Church of Wales has gone as far as it can at this stage and should be applauded for doing so. It has also laid down a serious challenge to both the Church of England and the Anglican Communion.

Only time will tell how ‘we’ respond.

Taxing issues; money and morality

Shock horror the super wealthy have been using offshore investment companies based in Panama to avoid paying tax. Who would have thought it?

For me the story is in some ways painfully personal. You see I used to work (until 2006-7) in the financial services industry. I became Managing Director (Retail) of a business that ‘successfully’ diversified away from offering plain vanilla financial products, such as unit trusts, to UK customers, into one that marketed and managed offshore funds for ‘high net worth’ global investors. The financial rationale for our change of track was compelling:

The average annual management charge for a unit trust was somewhere in the region of 1.25%. After all costs the margin we, as the product provider retained, was in the region of .6%.

On an offshore fund ( domiciled, in our case, either in Dublin or the Cayman Islands) we were able to charge an annual management fee of 1.5%, on average, and a whopping 20% of the investment returns. In a good year the combination of the annual management fee and the performance fee might equate to something like a 5% margin. Clients were content to pay such high charges because anticipated returns were high and, significantly, outside of the immediate clutches of the tax authorities.

Offshore investment companies, just to be clear, are not illegal. The morality of these products is open to question – although to my shame I can’t ever remember discussing the ethics of these products – but not their legality.

So how do offshore funds such as the ones we were responsible for marketing and managing come into being and then work? The thumb nail sketch below gives a highly simplified guide:

Well the first thing you need is a ‘product idea,’ or specification. The ‘you’ is normally a U.K. domiciled investment management company (or a French, German, Italian, Spanish, American – you get the idea – one.)

But, the problem is that financial products designed to entice the super wealthy are unlikely to be authorized by regulators in countries such as the U.K. The challenge is therefore to find a ‘domicile’ for these products where the U.K. (or French, German, Italian, Spanish, American etc)  regulators and tax authorities hold no sway.

So, what you do is go off with your bright idea to a firm of lawyers in an offshore financial centre and ask whether they might like provide a corporate structure, a company in other words, to oversee and govern the day-to-day management of the product. Three things then tend happen:

  1. The legal beavers will source a number of ‘independent’ directors, who will  comprise the majority of the board. The independent directors tend to be ‘professional directors,’ and residents in the offshore centre where the company is registered. They normally serve on multiple boards.  The directors will then ask the firm of lawyers to draw up a prospectus and provide secretarial services to the company. Normally a couple of directors will also be appointed from the U.K. company responsible for originating or designing the product. I was a director of the  Dublin based company that provided oversight and governance for a range of funds. Two of my colleagues were directors of a Cayman Island Company.
  2. The offshore company then appoint the company whose bright idea it was in the first place to manage the assets of the company and,
  3. Appoint the same business to market the product – normally through ‘financial intermediaries’ such as private banks.

The offshore company in effect sub contracts the day-to-day management of the investments and the marketing of the product back to the company who devised the product in the first place.

All fees will be charged by the offshore company, with the U.K. company (as the ‘sub contractor’) then being reimbursed for the management of the funds assets (i.e. the annual management and performance fee). It is therefore ‘clear and obvious’ that the fund is domiciled in the relevant offshore centre! Board meetings also take place in the offshore centre, normally at the ‘registered office.’ Further proof that the company genuinely operates from the its offshore centre.

As I have stressed earlier there is nothing illegal in the scenario sketched out above. But, this of course doesn’t make it ethical. Legality does not necessarily equal morality. In fact I would suggest that most of the practitioners involved in these types of products regard the world of finance they inhabit as ‘morally neutral.’ But, are they correct?

Well, I can only speak from my own perspective and over time I came to believe, as a Christian, that the world of high finance can never be regarded as morally neutral. Let me briefly cite three reasons (or theologically reasoned arguments), and one highly personal experience:

  • Money is mentioned more often than almost any other subject in the Bible. Scripture makes it clear that the ‘love of money is the source of all evil.’ When making money, lots of it, becomes your personal motive, when you provide access to products and services which aim to make ever greater absolute returns in the knowledge that such returns are unlikely to attract taxation, it becomes, in my view, difficult to argue that your are not in love with money. Scripture also makes it clear that we should all pay our dues (as a basic duty): ‘render unto Caesar,’ and I can’t for one moment believe that Caesar would have said: ‘Well done, you outmaneuvered me with your clever ideas.’
  • The Christian tradition makes it clear that the wealthy should not be offered greater opportunities just because they are wealthy. The epistle of James makes it clear that God shows no partiality ergo, neither should we. The Rule of Benedict it clear that the wealthy, in the receipt of hospitality, should not be provided with special treatment just because they are wealthy. Is it stretching the point to equate the provision of products and services with the exercise of hospitality?
  • Reason would suggest that when one group of people find ways to avoid paying their dues, governments have to impose higher rates of tax on those who aren’t capable of sheltering their gains (or don’t have gains to shelter). Capitalists like to refer to Adam Smith’s famously invisible hand; the problem is that the invisible hand can just as easily, in the absence of virtue,  be used to perpetuate economic injustice.
  • Experience: I arrived at a place where every time I heard the story of the encounter between Jesus and the Rich Young Ruler I felt as though it was being addressed directly at me, or put another way I was the rich young ruler and my choices were therefore both stark and clear. Love of God or love of money.

I am wary of generalizing truths based on individual experience. I felt that I had to resign and leave the city, which I did in 2006. I didn’t think that I could take the huge financial gains on offer without compromising my soul, but I speak only for myself.

It is clear to me that we do in fact need a healthy and robust financial system, and for me that means one that, paradoxically, ceases to be enamored with wealth for its own sake and the supposed ‘needs’ of the wealthy, and worries more about people, ordinary people, and the ethics of ‘high finance.’ This implies a financial  system that doesn’t encourage those who work in it to ‘forfeit their soul.’ There can be little overall health in a system staffed by the obscenely high paid focused solely on meeting the requirements of the super wealthy, can there?

Finally let’s return once again to the vexed issue of tax:

My late father-in-law once said to me ‘Andrew there is nothing wrong with paying tax; you only pay tax when you are making money.’ Sadly some may regard his comments as foolish. I think he was wise.

 

 

 

 

In support of localism as a theological imperative

The possible, or is it likely, closure of the Steel Works in Port Talbot is a stark reminder of how communities can be highly dependent on a very few activities for their economic and social well-being. In the case of the steel industry blame for the Port Talbot closures has been, and will continue to be, attributed to global forces. Yet, if we look at the changing landscape of British industry over the last few decades it is easy to identify, and lament, the loss of local businesses, and such losses can’t all be rationalized away by reference to globalism.

In the retail sector it is hard, almost impossible, to remain an ‘independent.’ In financial services (my old ‘industry’) building and friendly societies have all but vanished and the financial link between civic institutions and the local population has been jettisoned, on the alter of political ideology. Ideology and idolatry, it seems, are intimately related.

My parents first mortgage was a county council mortgage and as recently as the early 1990’s it was possible to invest in something called a Permanent Interest Bearing Share – these were issued by local authorities and paid shareholders a fixed rate of interest. The capital was used to fund local infrastructure projects. The large provincial cities had their own stock exchanges through which locals could invest modest amounts of money in local businesses.

In order to justify the rubbing out of local institutions and initiatives the story was told that in a world dominated by global institutions all of us would benefit from ‘economies of scale.’ Corporate Executives have been the biggest beneficiaries of these ‘economies o scale.’ In the mid 1980’s Chief Executive Officers (who in those days might have had a really boring job title such as General Manager) were paid on average 14 times that of their average employer and now, well now the multiple is too obscene to quote. (It is over 300 times, on average).

Smaller scale local solutions were considered to be sub-scale and therefore inefficient. The products and services offered by local ‘service providers’ had, we were told, to offer poor value for money. Any form of financial partnership between a local authority and its residents was presented as an expression of undiluted socialism. Since the 1980’s we have all been asked to uncritically accept that market capitalism, presided over by ‘global executives’  has all the answers to all the questions. In theological terms we might label this blasphemy.

And, then in the early years of this century,  business schools up and down the land, and on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, MBA asked students to start thinking about how they might engage ‘Glocally.’ ‘Think global, act local’ became the new mantra to be chanted in each and every defense of an MBA thesis.

The problem is that it is actually a fairly meaningless term, except in this one sense: it surely recognizes that market capitalism on a global scale is not capable of serving the specific and unique needs of  local communities. If it was ‘glocalism’ would not have been invented. Global market capitalism, in order to achieve, its beloved economies of scale will always prefer mass customization to specialized requirements; it can do no less. It looks for commodity products and treats people as commodities in a blandly symbiotic relationship. Clever marketing manages, at least for a while, to gloss over its shortcomings.

So having thrown away local financial institutions, and having decided that local authorities should have no part to play in offering savings and loans products (PIBS and mortgages for instance) we are left with an appalling gap. The types of institutions that animated local communities no longer exist and the need is not going to be met by global institutions.

Thinking ‘glocally’ is fine but when life gets tough, when the something hits the road, the global will always win out over and above the local. Global institutions, and global executives, are simply not incentivized to prize and value the local. (Mind you the Anglican Communion is facing exactly the same problem! Sorry – off the point!)

The principle of profit maximization precludes the notion of subsidy. Money and resources should be deployed to the places where profits may be maximized. Rightly or wrongly that is what market capitalism does, it is what it is set up to do.

So here is a question for people of faith: is this simply an economic problem or is it a theological problem?

I suggest that it is a significant theological problem for community, and the health of  local community, is a distinctive Judea Christian motif. Jeremiah 29, for instance, makes it abundantly clear that the health and vitality of the faith community is directly correlated with the health and vitality of the civic community:

‘But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.’

So as Christians we need to pray for the local community and its welfare. But I think we need to go two steps further, (in order to ensure that our prayers aren’t just empty words): we need to look to support local business enterprises, even I suggest when it would be slightly more convenient or ‘economic’ to do otherwise, we simply can’t just say ‘we wish you well,’  before carrying on our merry way, leaving our ‘economic neighbour’ to struggle on unaided. Can we?

And, we (the institutional church, and its representatives) need to campaign hard for the restoration of local institutions and initiatives.  To be fair Archbishop Justin, through his advocacy of Credit Unions, has given us a wonderful lead. But now we need to kick on!

As one of the few institutions left that exists to serve every community (parish) up and down the land, the C of E should take a lead in campaigning for the types of institutions and initiatives which contribute to the common and local good, for therein may lie our prosperity, or put another way our Renewal and Reform.