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Was something missing from under the Dome?

by The Rt Revd Dr Peter Selby

Posted: 26 Jun 2013

It was really inspiring, a true climax to the series of Dome debates organised by St Paul's Institute on The City and the Common Good. For the series of three large events and three seminars to be written up and evaluated will take time - and so it should. When you put on a series with such distinguished speakers, large audiences and complex topics you do well to put some distance between yourself and the excitement before you say anything at all definitive about the significance of the events. And the team of us who guide the affairs of the Institute will do just that, and over the coming months will put a report together so that what happened - which is recorded on the website already - can be reflected on and make (one hopes) a more longstanding contribution to Christian reflection on the economy in general and the financial sector's contribution in particular.

All that is by way of saying that this short piece is not that report. It is written from close up, an unashamedly personal reflection, the property of nobody except myself, and therefore of a person still marvelling that we have reached a point that we can bring 1,500 people into the Cathedral to talk about - banking. If Mervyn King's hope was that we would soon get back to the place where banking was appropriately boring we've certainly not got there yet. When we do, we may expect that invitations to CEOs of large banks, to an Archbishop, to the BBC's economics editor, to academics of repute, to campaigners for justice will be politely but firmly declined as they find more interesting things to do. One day it will be like that; but not yet.

We have discovered, it seems, that banks wear big boots, and can still be too big for them. If we learned nothing else in the years since 2008 we certainly learned that banks could be very interesting indeed, too interesting for comfort. Apparently we can't be doing without them - even if at times we can't be doing with them either. And we knew, if not the content, then the likely headline-grabbing themes of the report of the Tyrie Commission, another sign that banks are, for the moment, alarmingly interesting.

But it wasn't the detail of that document that had to remain hidden from the crowd gathered in St Paul's, and whose absence was somewhat disturbing. In fact the absence of the Commission's recommendations was something of a blessing, since it meant that speakers and audience alike could keep their eyes on the bigger picture - or at least most of the time.

The really problematic absence was not the hundreds of pages of paper. The real problem was that we could not allow ourselves - or so it seemed - to consider what it was that had given banks such inflated importance. We'd tried to talk about that in the previous session, when we considered the nature of 'good money'. If what banks did was look after our money - our personal money, the money of our employers and the money of the public authorities that serve our needs - why then they might return to being the boring characters we associated with the task of being our local bank managers - morally impeccable, imbued with wisdom and common sense, well equipped to protect us from ourselves and from undue risk-taking. But it's a while since they were the architectural symbols of solidity, my personal strong room down the road. The security is now high-tech and has to be, the banking hall airy and welcoming, and in terms of the literature on display a place of opportunity.

So what was missing, but not really missing - the elephant in St Paul's? Some conversation about ourselves as stakeholders not just in the bank we choose to do business with - that dimension was certainly there, and the exhortation to 'move your money' was among the most memorable aspects of the evening, and perhaps the key to keeping the big players on their toes more than any regulations or cultural shifts engineered from the top.

But even that still leaves the most difficult, the biggest, question to be explored. If banking is to become boring again, it will be because we've stopped holding out expectations of big prize money for us as individuals and as a society. Growth as a goal was still left too little criticised, perhaps because that would have needed an Independent Commission to look at ourselves and our expectations, and nobody is about to set up one of them. But if you decide to look at banking not from a boardroom chair but sitting in St Paul's looking beyond the distinguished speakers to the altar you are committed to exploring where all this leaves me, my standard of living, my aspirations.

The problem about coming to a church to look at these questions is that even if - as I believe - we need quite radical systemic change (what the Archbishop would undoubtedly see as a more organic vision) is that you can't in the end walk out without some sense of having been personally addressed. I'm not a banker, and wouldn't know how to be. And I can see bankers are going to have to change in some of the ways which the Commission advocates and which our series on What kind of City do we want? has explored. But I shall have to ask the question implied in the activity of worship which is what St Paul's is for - and that question is, how will my life to change if 2008 is not to happen again?


About this author

The Rt Revd Dr Peter Selby is the former Bishop of Worcester. Following his role as part of the Interim Directing Team from 2012-2014, he continues as an adviser to St Paul's Institute.


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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of St Paul's Institute or St Paul's Cathedral.