Friday, September 26, 2008


The churches now have a major opportunity to re-think their economic strategy. But both they and the politicians face a language crisis in seeking to do this, quite aprt from institutional inertia. We've all been convinced for too long that "there is no alternative" to the current pattern of globalisation that has taken economic hold of our minds as much as our world. Not so, but it is a hard job to go against the money stream. Among other things today, I've updated Towards an economy worth believing in.

When Ekklesia pointed out yesterday lunchtime that the Church of England's finance managers had been involved in the very speculative short-selling the archbishops had just roundly condemned, we didn't immediately realise how big the story would go. (See the news overview here and the Google news trail here.) After all, the main focus is on the world credit crisis and its domestic impact, the 'global impacts local' angle. Unsurprisingly, the media picked up on the 'negative' angle: "church accused", "hypocrisy", etc. But while the tendency of Christians to preach virtue to others while not examining their own behaviour too carefully remains a problem in this and other areas, the real issue is that this presents a positive opportunity to look at the "global economy of the churches", the alternative values we can and should be enacting, and the contribution this could make to necessary larger arguments about the reform of regulative financial systems, the operation of markets, and so on.

This is a profoundly theological issue, because, as Jesus is recorded in the Gospels as having pointed out: "Where your treasure lies, there lies your heart also." Indeed, Rowan Williams was correct yesterday to pinpoint the issue of idolatry at the heart of the current system: the attribution of ultimate worth and value to things that are purely instrumental and should have no such claim to control our lives. Both the economic and spiritual issues are raised in the detailed paper I produced in 2005, Is God bankrupt? This was a response to an ecumenical report which tried to get the British and Irish churches to "cosy up to the market" in a way that was just as simplistic as some alleged earlier ecumenical attempts to dismiss markets completely. There's also a summary of issues and initiatives involving church and economy, called An Economy Worth Believing In.

A slightly enhanced variant of this piece is on my Ekklesia work blog here. Plus a post on Williams, Marx and 'Red Tories'.

Thursday, September 18, 2008


Somewhere in the attic of my life there is a postcard depicting Wall Street in the 1930s. A penniless worker is holding out his hand to a worried looking banker. The speech bubble reads: "Lend us a dime until the inevitable downfall of the capitalist economic system, eh guv?"

Of course the current banking and stock exchange panic is no laughing matter. It will cost jobs, livelihoods and much else besides. Plus it will be the most vulnerable who suffer most, as always. Fairness doesn't come into it when blind forces collide. Many of us have been saying for years that an increasingly boundary-less and virtual money economy dependent on gambling, avarice, manipulation, febrile 'market confidence' and a basic disconnect from the actual productive economy (let alone actual human needs) is unsustainable in the long run. But that doesn't make the current massive jolts funny.

The overall picture is not totally apocalyptic, but it is very, very serious. Neoliberalism has failed and global capitalism needs fundamental change. As do the people who have come to be gods and priests in it, and those who have turned it into a secular worship space: "Thou shalt have no other products and desires but Mine."

Years ago, some of us imagined the day when capitalism would collapse and the world would be taken over by left-wing paper sellers with no idea as to what to do next, other than to flog the next edition. Times have changed, state socialism is dead, markets rule. But the moral, spiritual and practical critique of the dominant global order remains vital for a viable future.

That is what Marx, who in some ways turned out to be the last of the great Hebrew prophets, was about. His dream was turned into a living nightmare by Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin. They, plus a fatal non-religious Messianism, ecological blindness, bureaucratic dehumanisation, the creation of militarised state machines, and a lack of understanding of the contradictions of human nature.

As a totalising theory of action, Marxism was found wanting and failed appallingly. As a cogent reminder that unfettered capitalism can be monumentally destructive, Marx and his plural critics remains vital. We need to re-imagine an economic future not based on greed and might, or the world will continue to devour itself.

Yes, I know. You've often wondered if I've asked myself that one. Actually I don't spend that much time on the web or in the blogsophere (it just seems like that!), but it is undoubtedly true that the internet has changed the way many of us think, write, work and interact in a massive way -- for good and ill. One discovers the fuller reality of that when it is taken away from you. So my recent (relative) quietness has been partly due to connection and server problems, which I hope will be rectified after trips around the West Midlands, Scotland, London and then Devon. Meanwhile, my work environment has mainly been... J. D. Wetherspoon's pubs. Yup, they have free wi-fi, not bad coffee, a good cheap veggie breakfast and a music free atmosphere. Even rolling news on the telly. If only they paid their staff better and went fair trade. But that is something I have been discussing with them. Can't avoid smiling at the irony, though. When I worked for a Church of England agency some years back, there was a nearby hostelry which called itself The Office. Now, temporarily, my office is a pub. Sort of. Cheers, y'all.

Friday, September 12, 2008


It is many years since I took much of an interest in the internal affairs of the British Labour Party (which I'm not sure really exists anymore, anyway), but today it has been a hard issue to avoid - with a junior minister being sacked for saying she thinks a leadership contest should be allowed to focus the debate over Labour's future. (That was her position over Brown's original 'coronation' too, and who can now say she was wrong?)

But the main point for me is as much about process as content. To put it bluntly, does anyone in the government understand quite how shameful and grubby their treatment of Siobhain McDonagh looks - and, indeed, is? Ms McDonagh, who comes across as pleasant, thoughtful and principled, wrote what was in effect a private letter expressing her views to the chair of the Party. First, someone leaked this, and then she was immediately sacked - although she had to learn this fate from a journalist who had cornered her outside parliament, because the PM's office could not be bothered to tell her, or spitefully chose not to, before making it public. Talk about "the nasty party". Then a Labour spin doctor dismissed everyone who would like to see a more open conversation about the future and about Gordon Brown, who opinion polls suggest is heading for oblivion, as "a ragbag of malcontents". So that would be impeccable loyalist McDonagh, would it? Plus leading local government luminary Graham Stringer, and a former Home Secretary?

Disagree with them as the PM's allies may, this level of utter contempt sends out a clear message to the wider public about the degeneration of Labour as a moral force for change. As a token of 'mainstream' party politics in this country, it also dissuades many - me included - for wanting much to do with it. The whole system needs reshaping. Good on Siobhain McDonagh for having the courage (and good grace) of her convictions. She might be a Blairite, but above all she's decent and honest. What a refreshing change.

Thursday, September 11, 2008


"The only dream worth having ... is to dream that you will live while you’re alive and die only when you’re dead ... To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or to complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never to forget." - Arundhati Roy from her book, The Algebra of Infinite Justice. [Courtesy of]

Tuesday, September 09, 2008


“Instead of being so eager just to reform others, let us also make a serious effort to bring about out own transformation.” - Dom Helder Camara

“We can move in the direction of justice, but if our personal relationships don’t become more human, we haven’t moved in the direction of the reign of God and, in the long run, we will discover that our point of arrival is just another form of tyranny.” - Arturo Paoli, liberation theologian

Sunday, September 07, 2008


"The sudden assertion of human criteria within a de-humanising framework of political manipulation can be like a flash of lightning illuminating a dark landscape" - Vaclav Havel , writer, philosopher, activist and ex-politician

"Respect for the people’s word need not mean approval for whatever they say. Any criticism becomes constructive when based on a fundamental attitude of respect and listening." - Clodovis Boff, Brazilian theologian

Friday, September 05, 2008


Among the books I have been reading for intellectual and spiritual refreshment over the summer is Theology for Pilgrims, by Nicholas Lash (Darton, Longman and Todd, 2008), which collects together more stimulating essays from the former Norris Hulse Professor of Theology at the University of Cambridge. This includes perhaps the best response so far to the philosophical and forensic confusions of Richard Dawkins' thinking about God and religion, and many other gems. I will do a full appraisal at some point, but I am glad that Robin Ward has flagged up the book in a short review published this week in the Church Times.

He declares: "These essays intrigue, illuminate, and convince with their watchful, waspish eye for imprecise thinking and tendentious assumptions. Whether you are a curial cardinal, an atheist evolutionary biologist, or a complacently establishment dean, make sure you verify your references: if you don’t, be sure Professor Lash will." This is true, but there's also a warmth, humanity and thirst for hope here, and in all Lash's writing, which elevates the soul as well as challenging the intellect.

One of Nicholas Lash's major themes is that we fall at first base if we try to think about the reality of God in terms of some kind of "object" within or attached to the universe, something which many polemicists seeking to "prove" or "disprove" God simply take for granted. The transcendent God who grounds all being and becoming cannot meaningfully be conceived of as a member of a category of things called "gods", he explains. I have unpacked this in my paper What difference does God make today?, and more briefly in The God elusion and in Three ways to make sense of one God - which is partly in debt to Lash's earlier thinking about the fabric of historic Trinitarian formulations.

Theology for Pilgrims "exposes the crisis in our thinking about God which is at the root of our misunderstandings and mistakes about science and politics, ethics and economics, life and death" says the blurb on the back. It does just that. And it has some great stuff on Diderot, Foucault and Joseph Conrad.

Monday, September 01, 2008


Here 's my piece on OpenDemocracy's 'Our Kingdom' ("a conversation on the future of the United Kingdom") website: Changing the agenda on faith schools. It seeks to show why Accord is not simply "more of the same", as some of our pre-emptive critics are suggesting, but a new direction in the debate and in the practical possibilities. There's also an article from me on Guardian Comment-is-Free, more on the immediate need for change ("Granting privileges and exemptions to any one group builds barriers rather than bridges in the education system").

During the summer break, I was involved with others in developing the launch of a new coalition, Accord, which is seeking to help change the character of the public debate around faith schools -- to focus on the case for community-wide rather than selective schooling, and to move away from overheated rhetoric towards attention to specific policy proposals on admissions, employment, curriculum, inspections and assemblies.

It all began to hit the media on Friday, after the Jewish Chronicle decided not to honour the embargo. There have been some interesting responses, and some extraordinary. The official Accord launch press conference is in London today. Unfortunately, I can't be there to speak in person as I am still recovering from a fever and viral infection. Among those contributing will be Adam Hart-Davis, the scientist, author, photographer, historian and broadcaster, and Alison Ryan from the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), which has a very good position paper on the issue.

You might not think that arguing for non-discrimination is controversial, but it is. I am being published on Guardian CIF (where a debate has been set up), OpenDemocracy, Liberal Conspiracy and Wardman Wire (covering the main political bases). On Ekklesia I have written A Christian case for Accord. There are also statements from clergy and others, plus some documentation. After the initial flurry, I will largely cover this on my work blog on Ekklesia, when that gets going again later tomorrow.