Wednesday, 2 November 2011

St Paul's, Occupy London and the need for Repentance

The Christian church has always insisted on the necessity, every now and again, of repentance. Week after week in churches around the world, people are invited to admit their failings and sins out loud before everyone else in words of confession. It is remarkable when you think of it and not a little counter-cultural, to publicly express the fact that you are sorry for what you have done. After all in a culture always eager to find someone to accuse, who wants to stick their head above the parapet and invite the accusing finger of blame? So usually the default position of most of us (not just politicians) is to find someone else whose fault it is, and whatever you do, don’t admit liability.

Thinking about the strange saga of St Paul’s, it seems to me that the whole thing demands some real repentance as the key to moving on, and that in two ways.

I must admit on first sight, I shared some of the misgivings of the St Paul’s Clergy Chapter. If I were the Dean of St Paul’s, would I want a scruffy shanty town on my doorstep every day, spoiling that nice clean plaza outside the cathedral? If the encampment outside the Houses of Parliament is anything to go by, it would be unlikely to leave for years. For any group with unspecific and unrealisable demands, leaving always feels like defeat. I think I would probably also have subtly tried to move them on without too much embarrassment and just hope that life quickly gets back to normal.

That’s the strategy St Paul’s took, and it was disastrous. It made the Church of England look like what (let’s be honest) it often is – an old-fashioned, out of touch organisation, worried about its own life and survival, more concerned with petty Health & Safety rules and the loss of £20,000 of daily tourist income than issues of economic justice and poverty, or connecting with issues that matter to people outside the bubble of church life.

So I repent. I repent of my scornful attitude towards the protesters. I repent of not hearing God’s Word through them. Yes they lack cohesion and have a whole of host of contradictory concerns and unfocused grievances, but it seems to me more and more now they didn’t turn up by accident, but that underneath they are expressing something deeply felt by many, many people. Maybe they even were sent by God to show us, the Church of England for what we so often are – out of touch, deaf to real people’s anxieties and passions, insensitive to God’s voice, especially when he speaks to us through a rough rabble of face-painted peaceniks and anarchists. It is good that the Church seems to be beginning to get its act together with the Bishop of London taking a lead, refusing to take legal action against the camp, and setting up an initiative in ethical finance under Ken Costa, but it has been a chastening experience and one which needs a good dose of proper ecclesiastical repentance.

Yet it is not just the Church of England that needs to repent. Underneath the various agendas of the protesters lies a deep sense, felt I suspect by many people, that what has happened to the economy over the past few years is scandalous. It’s not so much that people hate bankers, or want to do away with the entire market economy. After all the creation of wealth is a vital aspect of a growing society – it has to be created before it can be distributed. It’s more the way in which a whole fantasy financial system was allowed to grow like an over-inflated balloon, with speculative deals involving the re-packaging of debts as assets to be traded when the money did not even exist, all because it made huge profits for certain individuals regardless of the social cost and longer term risks – that’s what went wrong. But even more it is the lack of repentance that gets out goat. A few bankers were named and shamed (Fred Goodwin for one), but how many have come out with a good hearty mea culpa? Where is the public repentance of the City? Where are the voices prepared to admit that they messed up, they goofed, they speculated with our hard-earned cash (or even with cash we never had?) and now it is gone?

Over the next few years we are likely to enter a period of real austerity, even tougher if the double-dip recession hits. Not as tough as Greece, perhaps, but it will not be pretty, with unemployment and inflation set to rise. What has happened has happened. We need to deal with it and there is no magic wand that makes it right overnight. Sending a few bankers to prison might make some people feel better, but wouldn’t change anything, especially if they fight it tooth and nail. What might change the mood is some genuine repentance. The protesters have high hopes for a new world order. But that can only begin with repentance, and sadly I see little sign of that from the financial sector.

Some kind of public act of repentance from those at the heart of the financial world would at least go some way towards getting us on the right track. I’ve no idea what that would look like (isn’t it strange that we have so few models of public acts of repentance?) but it certainly isn’t rising bonuses in the financial industry, Directors’ pay and perks. That doesn’t look like repentance to me. It looks more like hubris. Change always starts with repentance, because repentance makes possible forgiveness, forgiveness makes possible new relationships, and a new start with real hope that things might be different. Repentance in Christian faith is actually a joyful thing, because it is the moment of honesty, clarity and it always opens out a new beginning. Might that be the place where a new approach to ethical finance starts?

3 comments:

  1. Thanks, Graham, for saying some of the things that are long overdue to be said by Christian leaders!

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  2. Sending a few bankers to jail "wouldnt change anything"? I beg to differ. Its precisely because of the way the rich and powerful are beyond the law that has resulted in so much hatred towards bankers.

    If looters stealing a TV in the riots are sent down for 3yrs and investment bankers who destroyed the economy whilst being bailed out by the people and then were rewarded before and after the crisis, with amounts of money most honest working people will never see in 3 lifetimes then surely our claim to being a society run by law and justice is nothing but a pathetically hollow claim?

    I put it to you that a public act of repentence from the financial world would be to own up all those involved in creating this crisis and for our government, you know, that organisation that HTB and its pastorates has its congregation obediently praying for every week, actually being a voice for the people and doing the bidding of the people rather than the elite of society and therefore taking legal action against those responsible with jail time and confiscation of assets.

    I think you are right to imply that C of E is part of the problem by being out of touch but i cant see how you can disassociate yourself from them when you yourself are clearly a integral part of that system.

    We speak fine words of Christianity being for justice and rights and for the poor yet when it comes to actions we dont see many people like Giles Frazer who deserves more praise than anyone in the church right now.

    Christ was for the poor, He was for social justice, his ministry was among the poor yet today the leaders of the church are more concerned with making sure they side with power at every turn. Shameful.

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  3. Thank you for your thoughtful comment on the protest.
    I have been involved at St Paul's about every other day and am part of their liaison with the Cathedral.
    I have initiated a petition to the Archbishops for a National Day of Repentance,Prayer and Action for New Year's Day 2012. This would allow initiatives to begin at a local level whether or not the heirarchy supports it.
    There is an email address at repentance@virginmedia.com
    and shortly a webpage at http://watchman2012.org

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