Speaking of faith, speaking of inclusion

This Sunday’s Gospel reading is Matthew 15, 21-28; ‘The Canaanite Woman’s Faith.’ Could there be a more fitting gospel narrative for our times?

There seem to be three things ‘wrong’ with the Canaanite Woman. Two of her ‘wrongs’ are given away in the title:  she is a woman and, she is a Canaanite. Her third ‘wrong’ is in having a thoroughly dodgy daughter; so dodgy that we are told she is possessed by an evil spirit.

The Canaanite woman is the archetype of someone whose very presence is unsettling, disturbing, even unwelcome. The Canaanite woman is the sort of person designed to inhabit the saying ‘out of sight, out of mind.’  But, the amazing thing about the unnamed, and therefore shamed Canaanite woman, is that she is audacious, plucky and, possibly, let’s be honest, a bit of a pain in the backside. Oh yes, and she has faith. In fact I would go further and say she has a quality of faith. This quality of faith allows her to do two things: acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah, Lord, and Son of David whilst also saying I too am who I am, and my offspring are just as important the offspring produced by your family and, friends.

At first Jesus seems to say ‘no you are not, and no they are not.’ Jesus appears to be invoking an in-group out-group mentality to the very great approval of his disciples. After all his disciples have complained about this third-rate individual to Jesus in frank and certain terms:

‘Now she’s bothering us. Would you please take care of her? She’s driving us crazy,’ (Message Bible).

It seems as though in ancient biblical times people who were ranked second, third, or even fourth-rate drove the in group crazy! Plus ca change.

However the tables are slowly turned as the woman’s faith compels her to persist with her demands. I wonder how it must have felt for the watching disciples as their friend, leader and Messiah-to-be, cedes to the woman’s wishes? Again I like how the Message Bible puts it:

‘Oh woman your faith is something else. What you want is what you get.’

The disciples who had hitherto been allowed, perhaps even encouraged, to consider this Canaanite woman a worthy and a legitimate candidate for exclusion are forced to watch as Jesus affirms both her right, and her daughters, to be included. The Canaanite woman stands both for those who are excluded and, those who have children who may, on whatever grounds, be excluded.

I reckon the disciples must have been shocked and stunned by Jesus apparent volte face. I wish Matthew had told us something about the post encounter debrief between Jesus and the disciples but there again maybe it is better that he didn’t. Pehaps this is a space that we need to enter into using our imagination?

Perhaps, the questions we need to ask include who are the contemporary equivalents of the Canaanite woman, and, for what contemporary out-groups does the Canaanite woman stand as an archetype?

And,possibly here is a lesson for all who consider themselves to be part of an ever so right in group: those whose faith compels them to seek inclusion based on the straightforward acceptance of who they are before God are not going to stop, again in the words of the Message Bible, ‘coming back’ with their demands.

Perhaps one of the most significant lessons from the story of the Canaanite woman and her faith is that the demands for acceptance, recognition and inclusion, rightfully and rite-fully, in the life of the church, by out-groups whatever the critics may say, stems from one source: faith.





Speaking of wealth and poverty; in praise of Philip North

‘The rich man in his castle, The poor man at his gate, God made them, high or lowly, And ordered their estate.’

Fortunately this stanza from All Things Bright and Beautiful is rarely sung these days. Perhaps, at least at the cognitive and explicit level of reasoning, we no longer quite buy into a hierarchical and stoical theology of existence?  But, maybe, the Church of England at a deep and unacknowledged level does in fact continue to be guided by such theologically poor assumptions?

Bishop Philip North certainly believes that the Church of England seems to have a bias towards the middle class and, wealthy.  Or, more precisely, the churchy and ever so slightly glamorous  home counties set. And, he is very possibly correct.

I have a lot of sympathy with the drift of + Philip’s argument even though I am not totally convinced by some of his analysis or the generalizations he makes. +Philip, for instance, seems to regard poverty as an entirely urban and northern phenomena. I am not sure this is true. Rural poverty also is a cruel, and isolating, thing. Real urban poverty is to be found in Swindon, Slough and Shoeburyness all of which are in the south. Perhaps, I am just splitting hairs?

Bishop Philip’s grand claim is that ‘every effective renewal movement in the whole history of the Church has begun not with the richest and most influential, but with the poor and the marginalised.’ Some have that suggested this, whilst sounding grand, is not true. I think what I would argue that every effective and enduring renewal movement has sought to remove distinctions between rich and, poor challenging the notion that socio-economic stratification is somehow divinely ‘ordered.’ 

St. Benedict famously did this when he wrote that ‘the greatest care should be taken to give a warm reception to the poor and to pilgrims, because it is in them above all others, that Christ is welcomed. As for the rich, they have a way of exacting respect through they very fear inspired by the power they yield,’ (R.O.B. Chapter 53). Turning to a fresher expression of church St. Francis’ theology was also biased not only to the poor, but to the very act of becoming impoverished. Both St. Benedict and St. Francis were educated middle class boys who understood that care and compassion for the poor and the building of communities which eradicated the distinction between rich and poor are a large and significant part of authentic Christian mission and evangelism. Perhaps their confidence was vested in the notion that Jesus was a middle class boy whose very mission was to make the Kingdom of God fully available to all?

Bishop Philip is surely right to challenge the Church of England to invest in mission activities which look unglamorous and where the short-term payback is unquantifiable. He is correct in challenging the Church of England to stop being so impressed by SW1 & 2 models of mission and evangelism. He is impressive in standing alongside the likes of Pope Francis in seeking a a church that is poor and for the poor.” He is prophetic in asking the Church of England to finally and completely jettison a theology which in many ways continues to believe in the unsung line which declares that ‘the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate, God made them, high or lowly, and ordered their estate.’ So here is the question for the allocators of church funds:

Do we (and yes I am part of the collective we) continue to believe at a deep, but unspoken level, that rich and poor exist in a divinely appointed hierarchy of estates?  I suspect that we do and that Bishop Philip is right to challenge some very deeply held assumptions; assumptions that guide some of the Church of England’s most important investment decisions. Finally I suspect that Bishop Philip would endorse the words of Oscar Romero:

‘If we really want to learn the meaning of conversion and faith, if we want to learn what it means to trust other people, then it is necessary to become poor or, at the very least, it is necessary to make the cause of the poor our own. That is when one begins to experience faith and conversion: when one has the heart of the poor, when one knows that financial capital, political influence, and power are worthless, and that without God we are nothing.’ 

As a church we need to stop being so focused on the shiny, the glitzy, the apparently successful and, the contemporary. We need, if we are truly interested in building enduring and effective renewal movements to find ways of learning the lessons bequeathed by the likes of Benedict, Francis, Oscar Romero and, yes, Jesus. If we don’t we might as well start singing once more ‘‘the rich man in his castle, The poor man at his gate, God made them, high or lowly, And ordered their estate.’ 

The investment decisions we – the Church of England – make are ultimately reflections of the theology we prize and, for me at least, that is a sobering thought. Thank you Philip North.





Talking of sin

On Thursday to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the decriminalization of homosexuality the Archbishops of Canterbury and York issued a joint statement. The statement can be read through the link to the Thinking Anglicans website:


The statement, I fear, may well end up causing more heat than light.

One of the things I find interesting is the archbishops willingness to use the word sin. I am grateful for this because sin is the notion at the heart of the long running ‘debate’ around issues of human sexuality, which is a churchy term for homosexuality, for we spend little or no time ‘debating’ heterosexuality.

I was also encouraged by the archbishops willingness to locate sin in both the communal and individual spheres. The communique was right to suggest that legal sanctions against consenting adults are always wrong irrespective of sexuality. Some of the Primates in the Anglican Communion may well feel a little bruised by the reminder of their mutually agreed commitment to argue against criminal sanctions for homosexual acts, however very few in the Church of England, even those of an ultra conservative persuasion, will find the archbishops suggestion that the criminilization of homosexuality is always wrong, immoral or sinful in the least contentious.

But what about individual sin, for this is where the ‘debate’ for the Church of England becomes contentious?

Are the archbishops arguing that homosexual intimacy is always and necessarily sinful? My own reading is that they don’t quite get to this point although they are clearly seeking to appease those who hold this view. Maybe ++Justin and John’s intention is to bring the debate back to basics and simply get the Church of England focusing on a single issue: the nature and locale of sin? As the Church of England continues to wrestle with issues of human (or do I mean homo) sexuality it is possibly the case that two competing, and very possibly irreconcilable, theologies of sin inform those arguing both for change and no change in doctrine and, praxis.

Those arguing for a re-assertion of the historic position believe that same-sex relationships can never be liturgically affirmed because they are always sinful. Same sex relationships are held to be impure and, are a rejection of a divinely appointed notion of binary complementarity. Only heterosexual relationships can conform to biblical standards of purity. Heterosexual relationships entered into prior to marriage are capable of redemption, homosexual realtionships can never be redeemed. The church, under this scheme,  is therefore correct to assert that the only relationships that can be affirmed and blessed are heterosexual relationships. If the church were to introduce liturgies to affirm and bless same-sex couples the institution itself would become corrupt and even sinful. Sin  would be re-located away from the individual (although the individual would remain in a state of sin)  to the institution.

The progressive view is the polar opposite and its (our) charge is a grave one because sin is already located at the institutional level. The argument is that by denying same-sex couples who wish to have affirmed and blessed their intention to unite in  a life-long monogamous, faithful and, loving relationship the church is denying them  that which should be rightfully (and ritefully) theirs according to the standards of distributive justice.

The ‘debate’ is extremely difficult and contentious because the competing sides are informed by different virtues and both regard an erosion of their cherished virtues as deeply sinful. For one side, the conservative side,  the church is currently on the side of morality (just) whilst a group of individuals, LGBTIQ Christians and their allies are either ‘living in sin,’ or endorsing a sinful ‘life-style. For progressives the inverse is true; sin is primarily located at the institutional level.

Whilst I am truly grateful to the archbishops for raising the stakes by introducing the concept of sin my fear is that by having done so they have begun the process of bringing to the fore two possibly irreconcilable theologies.

But, maybe that was their intention?

If the Church of England is to continue as a unified church, albeit with different views regarding the morality of human sexuality, some serious theological work needs to be undertaken on the relationship between purity and justice. Perhaps the archbishops could appoint some Lambeth theologians to undertake such work for the future of the Church of England might just depend on it. A teaching document, such as the one sponsored by the archbishops, that fails to recognize and address the tension between these two theological virtues will ultimately fail to live up to its aspirations.










Speaking of culture, speaking of tradition.

It seems as though the votes taken at General Synod last weekend in respect of LGBTIQ+ issues may be indicative of a general move towards greater levels of both affirmation and inclusion in the ordinary life of the church. General Synod has, in a significant way, started to flesh out, give content to, the notion of ‘radical new inclusivity.’ This is important because if ‘radical new inclusivity’ is to be effective as a guiding motif it can only be so if it has content. A motif without content will ultimately be exposed as a cheap, meaningless, strap-line or slogan.

There has been a conservative backlash to the votes taken at synod with the same lines of argument being repeated to defend the historic position. But, interestingly, the group blamed for the acceptance of these motions has changed. The target of conservative ire is, currently not the progressives (or liberals) but the middle ground, who are blamed for misunderstanding or willfully ignoring Scripture, capitulating to culture and, jettisoning tradition.

Rob Monro has written that: ‘In previous synods, the non-aligned middle, the roughly 1/3 of synod who don’t self-identify as either conservative or radical, could usually be relied on to be social conservative, to be slow to bow to the pressures that political correctness has always brought. No longer!’

Susie Leafe’s social analysis suggests that: ‘In the space of four days, the General Synod of the Church of England have, in effect, rejected the doctrines of creation, the fall, the incarnation, and our need for conversion and sanctification Instead we have said that we are ‘perfect’ as we are, or as we see ourselves, and that the Church should affirm us and call on God to validate our choices. No wonder we do not want to proclaim Christ’s unique identity and significance for all people.’

So it is clear that a rejection of doctrine caused by an uncritical response to contemporary cultural norms and a downplaying of the importance of tradition (as the guarantor of doctrine) are to blame.

But, the problem is that LGBTIQ+ Christians, and a large number of those who stand beside them in solidarity, have been arguing for change and greater levels of inclusion for decades and, decades. It is simply not accurate to suggest that many of those who wish to see change have bowed before the throne of political correctness. In fact many LGBTIQ+ Christians have stood, over the decades, ‘proud’ against societal and, cultural norms. They have dared to be both politically and theologically incorrect. And, yes they have also challenged the church to look anew at issues such as the doctrines of creation and fall, redemption and sanctification, covenant and relationship. You could argue that they have been a prophetic voice. Perhaps the fact that the middle ground has listened not to culture, but the prophetic voice, needs to be recognised and, celebrated?

‘Tradition’ is often used to defend the status quo. The idea being that we, in the Church of England, have no right, or indeed rite, to change doctrine unilaterally. We must remember, so the line of argument goes, that we are but a branch of the ‘One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.’ Whilst it is true to affirm our status as an ‘apostolic and catholic church’ applications to tradition in order to ensure stasis in our own position and, solidarity with other branches of the church that also self-define as ‘apostolic and catholic’ don’t necessarily follow. They don’t follow for two reasons:

First, we have consistently changed doctrine for our own ends. We  only have two sacraments, the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches have seven. We ordain women as bishops, priests and, deacons, the Roman Catholics and Orthodox don’t. Our differences are both sacramental and, concerned with church order. But, both are concerned with doctrine! Doctrine only makes sense as it relates to and is enacted by rites, rituals, sacraments and , liturgies. The guardians of rites, sacraments and, liturgies are those who have official roles in the ordering of the church. Although some conservatives like to separate out doctrine and church order this cannot really work for a church whose creeds articulate that church order is coterminous with doctrine.

Secondly, doctrine in many ‘second order’ (i.e. areas that don’t relate to salvation) areas should be considered provisional. Tradition doesn’t mean acting solely as a curator of historical norms. Tradition, at least according (irony) to that most liberal of theologians Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) should be held respectively, less tradition refuses to pay us due respect:

‘Not everything that exists in the Church must for that reason be also a legitimate tradition; in other words, not every tradition that arises in the Church is a true celebration of the mystery of Christ. There is a distorting, as well as a legitimate tradition…….consequently tradition must not be considered only affirmatively but also critically.’ 

This quote is from Ratzinger’s Commentary on the Documents of Vatican ii. I am not suggesting that Ratzinger is a supporter of same-sex marriage, but I am suggesting that his understanding of tradition is accurate, and it is also worth remembering that the doctrinal changes discussed during the Vatican ii process were seismic in nature.

So let’s keep discussing the way ahead and, please let’s do so free from false understandings of the roles played by culture and, tradition.



Why I will continue to wear vestments

Synod has voted and canon law will now be changed to permit deacons and priests and, presumably, readers to dispense with vestments when celebrating the divine office. Vestments will no longer be required for weddings and, I think, funerals. The decision to dress less formally, though hopefully not casually, will need to be agreed by the PCC and, for weddings and funerals by close relatives.  I think it is a bit odd for the reader, deacon or, priest to ask the family ‘now how would you like me to dress,’ during the pre-funeral visits. It’s not a line of questioning I would be comfortable opening up.

I will continue to wear vestments. I will wear them not because I particularly like them, nor because I have a large wardrobe of them, but because I think, in my context, they are missional. They are missional, in part, because they conform to people’s image of what a priest or minster should look like. I strongly believe that in my context the wearing of vestments makes both me, and the church, more and not less accessible.

When I got ordained a very close friend of mine invited me to meet to chat about faith. My friend was a very lapsed catholic. At the time I remember saying to my friend Phil, for that is his name, that he could have talked to me about faith, bringing any questions he might have had, at any stage during the previous twenty years. His reply startled me ‘look,’ he said ‘when I arrange for someone to come round to fix the boiler I expect them to have a corgi certificate and wear a boiler suite.’ These  two things gave him a high degree of confidence. The interesting thing about Phil is that he is a pretty relaxed character. He is not hung up on formality (in fact when I took his dad’s funeral he dressed very casually) but he did have an expectation that I would dress ‘properly.’ My training, my dog collar, my vestments all contributed to me being more, and not less, accessible to laid-back Phil. I will continue to wear vestments for people like Phil.

I have heard comments recently to the effect that the wearing of vestments is correlated to notions of power and, authority. Or, more particularly, the misuse of power and authority. I think this is a false line of argument. Priestly excess is just as prevalent in chinos as it is chasubles.

Worn with humility vestments help tell the Christian story. The wearing of vestments should not be about self promotion but, rather, self-denial. For sure there are priests who love wearing all manner of dress, but the majority of priests who vest don’t own the stoles, chasubles and even copes they wear.

I own the basics: cassock, surplice, cassock alb, scarf and the cheapest stoles I could buy but, everything else I wear belongs not to me but to the churches in the benefice I serve. The only exception to this is a stole that was commissioned for me, as a gift, by the benefice based on the  hymn ‘All are welcome in this place.’ This stole tells the story of our aspirations. It is narrative in dress and by the way when I wear it in school the children get very excited.

So what I wear at the Eucharist, Evensong, or Matins is not about me, and my desire to self express but about honouring the people I serve. My vestments allow me to meet expectations, with dignity, at little personal cost. So why wouldn’t I wear them? I am a priest, and I want to look like a priest. I want to give people the opportunity to relate to me and talk to me in role. For these reasons I shall continue to vest.

And, by the way, when the bishop comes I do hope they will bring their mitre.

Teaching and teaching documents; some thoughts.

How should we respond to the Church of England’s proposed teaching document on sexuality? I don’t mean the report itself so much as the very notion of a ‘teaching document.’

Some, no doubt, will be delighted that the Archbishops have commissioned a report, regarding it as an opportunity to re-state the church’s historic position. Others will receive it with a spirit of resigned apathy, as yet another document which will slowly find its way to the bottom of the desk draw which contains all manner of documents that might otherwise have been thrown away save for a sense of church induced guilt. Yet others will be holding their hands up in horror at the sheer chutzpah of an institution whose track record on all things sexual they perceive to be pretty rank.

My worry, and concern, is what is meant by a teaching document. It also strikes me that the authors of the report are going to have to confront the very real possibility that in drawing on different sources, and disciplines, they are going to have to deal with competing sources of evidence. Scripture and tradition may well be found to offer different insights to reason (science)  and, experience. In taking insights from multiple data sets the authors will have to confront some stark epistemological choices: Do they assert the hegemony of scripture (and tradition)  over reason (and possibly experience), or do they look for some form of synthesis? In receiving data from a wide range of sources (scripture, tradition, ethical theories, science, experience etc) the authors will need to consider the thorny question of epistemology. They are going to have to ask themselves how truths are discovered, communicated and, validated.

My own view is that the authors of the report are going to need to hold carefully, but with courage, different forms of epistemology. The weight of factual scientific evidence, for instance, cannot simply be ignored or wished away. The sexual equivalent of climate change denial shouldn’t be given too much credence. If the weight of scientific evidence indicates that sexuality is a given then this should be accepted and, acknowledged. Facts must be treated as facts; even uncomfortable facts.

How the facts are then treated is of course a different issue. Facts don’t of course exist just in the scientific realm they also exist in history. It is a fact that the church has for the majority of its history regarded homosexuality as deeply sinful, it is also a fact that for the majority of church history to be anything other than ‘straight’ has meant be designated as ‘intrinsically disordered.’ It is a fact that these views have been largely validated through a particular view of ‘the fall.’ So, one of the urgent tasks of the group charged with writing the report may be to re-consider the traditional notion of the ‘fall.’

Tradition can, in some ways, be regarded as the way the church receives and, integrates into its ways of thinking, relating and, behaving historical facts. Healthy tradition, I would want to argue, is powered by two dynamics: the willingness to accept the ‘good’ things that have been passed down through the ages whilst, simultaneously critiquing the nature of (salvation) history.  Good teachers are in this sense traditionalists. Any appeal to tradition which precludes the right, or obligation, to critique is an unhealthy, reductive, static and, defensive interpretation of tradition. In fact it’s a distortion of tradition.

The proposed report isn’t just about sexuality. It is actually, at a more basic level, about how the Church of England does theology. 

Of course there will never be a universal buy in to one fixed method of doing theology but I do think that is important to acknowledge and recognise that real differences exist and, that the teaching document will in all probability expose these differences. At a recent diocesan synod I was aware that two distinct groups were highly critical of the report produced by the bishops for General Synod. I am of course talking of the (in) famous report that synod decided not to take note of. Both groups believed that the report failed theologically. One group sought to locate  theology as biblical studies (as defined in their own terms), the other group regarded theology as something far more holistic. The teaching document I suspect will be divisive in that it will lean either towards a holistic method, or towards prizing biblical studies above all else. If the biblical studies method wins through tradition will be co-opted in support; a more holistic approach will seek to balance out insights from the different spheres. The report, through the methods it employs, will I think promote disagreement and, may lead to dis-unity. Is this a bad thing? Possibly not in a ‘good’ teaching document.

The report is also about hierarchy and church order for the whole question of the bishop’s teaching role will also be placed under the spotlight. Bishops are charged with a specific teaching responsibility, but what does this mean?

Does it mean that what the bishop says goes? Does it mean that the bishops own view, perspectives and theology must always trump those of the clergy and laity in their diocese? Does it mean that a teaching document is an ecclesial version of a Haynes Manual, designed to instruct, members of the church how to proceed in a given situation? Or does it mean something richer, more nuanced and, designed to encourage deeper levels of reflective learning. 

The effectiveness of the report will be contingent, in part, on understanding what is meant by teaching, or good teaching. I would like to suggest that good teaching must include the following:

  • Accepting as factual that which is factual.
  • Encouraging a spirit of reflective learning fostered by providing ‘learners’ with a different perspectives, some of which will be complimentary and some of which may compete. It is vital that teaching is not reduced to instruction.
  • A level of acceptance by the teacher that whilst their own perspectives may be offered they should not necessarily hold sway. Good teachers (in the humanities and social sciences) offer to their students multiple perspectives. In marking assignments and exams they reward students who are capable of understanding, arguing and synthesizing multiple perspectives. The notion of twin, or multiple, integrities is normal in the humanities. Drawing out and permitting well-considered disagreement is integral to good teaching. A good teacher presents far more than their own exegesis.

All of this leads to a consideration of what is meant by (Church of England) theology in the twenty-first century; sexuality is the presenting issue but the real questions for the Church of England are how we do our theology and, how we hold authority.

Integral to doing authoritative-theology are the related activities of teaching and learning. Good teaching in the sciences always starts with a search for the factual. Good teaching in the humanities fosters the ability to interpret (often afresh) and, reflect. Good teaching in the social sciences encourages the ability to hypothesize and, theorize. Good, authoritative, teaching in theology does all of these things.

Good teaching presents (facts), encourages (dialogue) and, accepts (difference). The fruit of good teaching is validated through praxis.

The purpose of a good teaching document is to inspire, motivate  and challengemaybe even to disturbA good teaching document should never seek merely to instruct, still worse appease (or even reconcile). The effectiveness of a good teaching document is, of course, directly correlated to its ability to engage. 

The ‘target audiences’ for the teaching document should  not be  the ‘conservatives’ and ‘liberals’ who have already come to a settled, and irreconcilable,  view on all things church and sexual – although the temptation will exist to regard these two groups as the primary categories of recipient  –   but instead the apathetic and, those who currently think that church is acting with astonishing chutzpah in producing a teaching document on sexuality. If the church and her leaders engage with and inspire these groups they really will have produced a good, and effective, teaching document. 

It’s a about building a relational economy, stupid.

In Friday’s Church Times the Bishop of Burnley wrote an interesting and thoughtful reflection on the emerging national mood, arguing that ‘it’s relationships and not the economy,’ that people really value.

I agree with much, perhaps most, of his analysis. Of course relationships matter. Christian anthropology has always stressed that life well lived is, by its very nature, relational. Genesis, our foundational Scripture, makes it clear that people are designed to live together in relationship. It is not good for us to be alone, isolated, disenfranchised (Genesis 2, 18). The poet John Donne famously wrote that “No man is an Island, entire of it self; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main.” 

Christians celebrate the importance of relationship through some of our guiding, and relational,  motifs; the concepts of fellowship, communion and, belonging to the body. Desmond Tutu has in recent times brought the African philosophy of Ubuntu – ‘there is no me without you, there is no I without the other,’ to western consciousness. So, Bishop Philip is entirely correct to stress the importance of relationships.

But is he correct to juxtapose the economy and relationships (and to be clear I don’t think he is saying that the economy is unimportant)?

I am less sure, for the simple fact that we all live in an economy and, that we are all economic beings. Economics isn’t just about facts, figures and statistics. It is also about ethics, relationships and, policy. The choices we make about the economy and how it operates are relational and ethical choices. Economics and theology in fact share the same basic agency question: ‘whose interests do I / we serve?’

Before ‘designing’ an economy deeper philosophical and theological questions need to be asked. Adam Smith knew this hence writing both The Wealth of Nations (an oft quoted but rarely read tome)  and, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. The notion of a ‘who’ and, service reside at the heart of all economic decision-making. Of course we could answer the who and service questions by affirming that the economy exists primarily  to serve our own self-interest, in the vague hope that if enough people take this view a ‘rising tide will lift all boats,’ and, that the ‘trickle down effect’ will weave its magic. These were Milton Friedman’s arguments. They have been the guiding ‘ethics’ behind post 1980 capitalism.

I think Bishop Philip is arguing Friedman’s economic theory is outdated. He also, correctly, in my view discounts the ‘ethical theory’ (and Friedman was keen to promote his theories in ethical terms) that self-interest, actively pursued,  leads to  communal and relational benefits. The main  problem with excessive self-interest is that it necessarily leads to a hierarchy of interest; my interests will always take precedence over yours. This in turn leads to conflict between the inhabitants of different economic islands.

My interest, self-interest, always leads to regarding others, as well just that, other. Excessive self-interest erodes relationships, it renders impossible the enactment of ubuntu or Martin Buber’s ‘T -thou,’ philosophy. It is also unchristian. Excessive self-interest  stands contrary to Christian notions of justice, solidarity and service. Excessive self-interest diminishes the value of giving. Justice, solidarity, service and, gift are, I believe, ‘theonomic’ motifs.’ Excessive self-interest undermines sustainable economic growth. It is an uncomfortable fact, widely ignored, that economic growth in the period post the Second World War, has been at its greatest in periods of narrower disparity in wages and, higher taxation. Greater equality does not necessarily correlate to economic stagnation. There is no reason to believe, despite the rhetoric of those who passionately (and uncritically?) believe in the economics of self interest, that less disparity dampens the sort of entrepreneurial flair that the majority of people may benefit from. Innovation and risk taking are hard wired into certain people.

Yes, many people are thirsting for deeper relationships. But, many people also believe that the economy remains of primary importance. They feel that, in a word, the way the economy has been deigned and managed is just plain ‘stupid.’ They feel this because they know that self-interest has not proven to be the rising tide that lifts all boats. To pick up once more on John Donne’s metaphor that the economy has produced a series of islands populated by the have’s, the have not’s and, the barely getting along’s. And, they know that the economic system has already put in place hard border controls.

As a society we need to take people’s economic concerns seriously and, we need to do so in the hope that a healthy and equitable economy will also be good for relationships. We need to understand the importance of distributing economic goods to people on the basis of their needs (Acts 2, 45). We need to design an economy that truly looks after the young and the old, ‘the widows and orphans in their distress,’ (James 1, 27). We need to appreciate the importance of giving, and I don’t mean straightforward redistribution of our cast offs, the things we have already categorized as second best or out of date, but the giving to others of those things that we truly value. We need to take into the heart of our economic decision-making Jesus mandate that we should ‘give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back’ (Luke 6, 30) and, we should heed the advice that ‘if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.’ 

Our Scriptures stress the importance of relationships. They also ask us to relegate self-interest to its rightful place. After all why should we, how could we, relate to others when their primary motivation is their own economic self-interest? Justice, fairness, equity and, solidarity cannot exist where self-interest reigns. The economy cannot work for widow and orphan, the impoverished student and the refugee, the economically marginalized and the homeless where self-interest reigns.

For many people it really is about the economy.