St Paul's Institute

More wallets, fewer willies

by The Revd Dr Giles Fraser

Posted: 16 Jun 2010

Lord Myners, the minister responsible for City regulation, is so fed up with City greed that he's off to study theology. Good idea, I say; for what's wrong with the City is not going to be addressed by regulation alone. Theology sets the question of money within the much wider concerns of life, the universe and everything. There is no hiding here in the complex details of technical managerialism or narrow legislation. The big questions, of the "What's it all about?" type, require the widest possible lens. And, though many secular ethical approaches have given up on the apparent hubris of the big question - more so since the demise of socialism - this remains the lens through which theology still seeks to examine the world. That is its attraction to the religious and non-religious alike.

The Bible says a lot more about money and wealth than it does about sex. Despite the churches' pathetic obsession with what people do with their willies, we ought to be a lot more concerned with what people do with their wallets. Indeed, many are perfectly happy to accept unquestioningly the apparently plain meaning of anti-gay scripture, yet, when they are faced with Jesus telling the rich man that the only way for him to get to heaven is to give all his money away, they duck and dive and allegorise. But despite this slipperiness, it remains true that the best way to assess what someone believes is to look through their bank statement. Forget fancy words and sermons, money is the way we mean it - or we don't. Money is the sacrament of moral seriousness.

Despite its antiquity, the well-known Old Testament story of the people of Israel living off manna in the desert remains God's object lesson in alternative economics. In contrast to the Egyptian economy, where many had become slaves to the acquisition of wealth stored up in large barns, in the desert God offers food that cannot be stored. Those who gather more manna than they need will find that it has turned to worms by the morning. There is no possibility of storing and hoarding. In other words, there is such a thing as having enough. This is what Jesus had in mind when he advised his followers to live like lilies and birds, who are singularly uninterested in piling up their wealth in barns - or offshore bank accounts.

Actually, he also said that, just as his heavenly father would feed the birds of the air, so too God would feed the rest of us. Yet many starve. Indeed, ardent capitalists can claim that they have done a better job of feeding the poor, creating more wealth than the Nazarene carpenter could ever have dreamed. Indeed one could argue that, through monasticism, Christianity glamorised the spiritual advantages of poverty in ways that have done very little to help the poor themselves. Unlike Judaism and Islam, Christianity has always been a little immature on the subject of wealth creation, being snooty about trade and money-lending yet happy enough to live off the benefits.

All this suggests that the new conversation we ought to be having about money must be triangulated by the demands of wealth creation, our moral obligation to the least well off, and the spiritual reality that there really is such a thing as having too much. This is the territory of such people as Stephen Green, the chairman of HSBC - or, as he is also known, the Rev Stephen Green, Anglican clergyman.

In a few weeks, I begin a new job at St Paul's Cathedral, having a brief for thinking through the cathedral's moral engagement with the great financial centre that surrounds it. Part of the message will be that solid joys and lasting treasure are never going to be found in the vagaries of the stock market. God offers a different sort of riches.

Giles Fraser is to be the canon chancellor of St Paul's Cathedral

About this author

Former Canon Chancellor of St Paul's Cathedral and previous Director of St Paul's Institute.

Jonathan Murdoch - Posted: 19 May 2010

I thought this was a very well written article.

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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.