Who would have believed not so long ago that we’d have politicians praising an Archbishop of Canterbury for his analysis of our economy and the failings of the banking sector in the UK? It goes to show that since Justin Welby’s appointment, things have changed considerably. Not only do we have an Archbishop with experience of banking and business, but one with more than David Cameron and George Osborne combined. That alone demands respect.
It was fabulous to see the Bible Society putting on an event at Westminster on Monday debating how the banking industry needs to be reformed. It is most welcome to see a Christian organisation hosting this and also that there were so many high-profile attendees. Those on the panel included Robert Peston, the BBC’s business editor; Lord Myners, former finance services secretary in the Treasury under Labour and Dr Paul Mills, senior economist on the International Monetary Fund along with Justin Welby.
Welby’s comments unsurprisingly were the ones that made the news the next day. He did not mince his words when referring to the current state of the economy:
“Economic crises are a major problem when they are severe. When they are accompanied by a financial crisis and a breakdown in confidence then they become a generational problem. Historically, the great failures in banking have led to very, very long periods of recession at best. I would argue that what we are in at the moment is not a recession but essentially some kind of depression. It therefore takes something very, very major to get us out of it in the same way as it took something very major to get us into it.”
George Osborne when discussing Britain’s finances on Radio 4’s Today programme yesterday picked up on the Archbishop’s comments without prompting and openly agreed with his analysis even though he couldn’t bring himself to use the word ‘depression’. Osborne was more than happy to point out that he was the one who had appointed Welby to the Banking Standards Commission that is currently evaluating the effectiveness of our banks.
Ed Miliband was also in agreement Justin Welby an hour later on Twitter, this time on his view that at least one British bank should be recapitalised and broken up into regional banks. This reaffirmed Miliband’s call for regional banks that he had given in a speech in March so didn’t offer anything new, but again it demonstrated a willingness of a political leader to publicly side with the Archbishop of Canterbury. Given that politicians haven’t been overly keen in the past to side with bishops and archbishops (see Iain Duncan Smith’s frustrations over the bishops’ intervention on benefit caps as a recent example) what makes this case different?
It’s partly that being on the Banking Standards Commission has given Justin Welby an immediate understanding of the inherent failings that the banking industry is having to come to terms with. He talks with authority and understanding rather than just opinion based on personal views and beliefs. I believe though, that there is more to it than this along with his previous business experience, although they count for a great deal. Robert Peston in yesterday’s blog on the BBC website asks the same question. His answer is that:
‘The UK’s economic malaise shows no signs of being fixed any time soon by the supposed experts in the Bank of England or Treasury, so there may be a case for looking elsewhere for wisdom – and it is no longer eccentric to argue that what went wrong in the financial system was as much ethical as technical.’
Prior to this comment he explains some of this thinking:
‘Making investors or taxpayers wealthier is not the primary motive of the head of the Church of England.
‘[Justin Welby’s] view is that better banking from an economic and moral perspective requires bankers to have a closer and more personal relationship with customers… He also made the point, which none of the MPs or Lords present challenged, that banks have an obligation to endeavour to be “good” institutions: all companies are social constructs, so the normal rules of morality ought to apply to them; and that may be particularly true of banks, since there is an implicit contract provided by citizens or taxpayers that we won’t allow banks to fail (that contract became explicit in the banking crisis).’
Justin Welby’s advantage is that he comes to the table with little in the way of baggage. He has no shareholders or voters to appease, he can’t be held responsible for the mess the banks created and he doesn’t have a board of directors to go back to when he’s finished making his points. He is also approaching the issue from a perspective that few in politics and the banking industry are; morality and the benefits to society first, profits second. Morality in this case is not some abstract concept and Welby knows it. God has more to say on this subject than many other more ‘religious’ themes. There are 2,350 verses on money in the Bible, compared to 500 on faith and less than 200 on grace. Biblical teaching on money and wealth is just as much about the physical use of it as it is about our attitude towards it. Justin Welby’s recommendations on breaking up larger banks in order to create regional banks and introducing professional banking standards and qualifications may be radical, but he has the freedom to throw these ideas into the public domain. Their focus on ethics and benefitting the customer rather than the institution make sense and offer a way forward that is likely to win favour with the public. We all know that our banking system needs a change of direction if it is going to become healthy again and Justin Welby is painting a vision of how banking can begin to be moved forward from its current deficiencies that is more attractive than what is currently on offer. It’s no wonder people are drawn to it even if the outworkings of such ideas are potentially expensive and difficult to achieve.
Christianity is so often about the big picture. The Bible takes us through from the beginning of time through to the end. It spans centuries and yet we see God’s plan working through it all. Individual believers are united through the global church and the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. There are grand themes of sin, grace, faith and redemption that draw all of us together. We start with these incredible and powerful elements and then bring them down to our individual situations.
It would seem that Justin Welby is looking to apply these principles to the banking crisis and see it through God’s eyes rather than man’s. It is this approach along with his wisdom and growing understanding of the banking system that makes him a potent voice that politicians and banking reformers are responding to seriously. Robert Peston’s blog title, ‘Should bishops run the banks?’ is far from being the ridiculous title that it might initially seem. Once again Justin Welby demonstrates the need for a Christian morality and presence in the halls of Mammon if we want to avoid further financial catastrophes.