Thou shalt not sit on fences

Academia must follow the Church’s lead in debating ethics, says Malcolm Gillies

December 1, 2011

We love to hate the Church of England. Born dubiously amid Henry VIII’s many wives, it seems ever since to have been in search of its own justification.

In recent weeks, as the Occupy people have been camping by St Paul’s Cathedral, the press has had a field day. Canons, deans and bishops have been caught at loggerheads; Canterbury and London have been depicted as in some ideological boxing contest; and a recent survey on the website PoliticsHome.com elicited comments such as “dithering”, “confused”, “foolish”, “naive” and “impotent” about the Church’s response to its Occupational dilemma.

This is a double misfortune because the Occupy people really wanted to occupy the London Stock Exchange next door. It was capitalism, not God, that they were after. But, hemmed in by the police, the nearest space they could secure was St Paul’s forecourt. Suddenly, triggered by a health and safety ruling, the cathedral itself became front-page news. And remains so.

Recent weeks suggest also why we might love the Church of England, too. Yes, the Church couldn’t make up its mind whether to evict the Occupy people or not. But why? Because, the Church honestly reflected the huge and uncertain debate in society. No, it isn’t clear what Jesus would have done.

At root, this is no longer an issue of whether capitalism has gone too far. Even David Cameron, with his call for “moral capitalism”, would concede that. But more, what do we do right now about the dire effects that super-capitalism is wreaking upon our society and entire nation states? Can we find a way forward, which better aligns self-interest and the interests of broader society? Or simply rebuilds a sense of meaningful society, Big or otherwise?

It was timely that St Paul’s Institute produced an excellent study called Value and Values: Perceptions of Ethics in the City Today, in commemoration of the 25th anniversary of Margaret Thatcher’s Big Bang of October 1986. As Giles Fraser, who stepped down as canon chancellor of St Paul’s, explained in Value and Values: “The Big Bang transformed the financial City from an old boys’ club, dominated by the values of public school honour - ‘my word is my bond’ - into the boiler room of international capitalism.”

“My word is my bond” has, in fact, been the motto of the London Stock Exchange since 1801. The Church’s research, however, showed that only 14 per cent of City financial workers even knew that, let alone what oral contracts actually were. Many more now would recognise two other phrases: “too big to fail” and “moral hazard”. Fraser observes that the City largely just hunkered down in the face of the “credit crunch” of 2008-09, and did largely ride out the storm. Three years on, that will be - should be - harder to do.

Other Church reports and commentaries have been coming thick and fast these days: on welfare reforms, on excessive corporate pay, on the contributions to society of the banks. These stances lack the “do-gooder” approach of old. They recognise the existence of markets, the need for risk, and for regulation. But they successfully place people - ordinary, especially poorer and suffering, people - back in the centre of the picture.

The Church and Capitalism: Reflections and Resources, issued by the Church’s Mission and Public Affairs Council on 7 November, even starts with the Occupy people and their questions, and then moves to an excellent up-to-the-minute explanation of how Christian ethics might engage with economic issues (http://bit.ly/t0HzSQ).

The Church, then, is ethically engaged. And unafraid to enter the fray of contentious debate. That’s what I love. By comparison, then, how engaged are we, in universities? We, the highly priced thought-leaders of society.

When you look back over the past few years, you don’t find too many vice-chancellors or business school deans out there on the ethical hustings. Most provide the more comfortable bookends to debates rather than directly engage in them.

The professoriate, too, is patchily engaged in professing and leading debate, as Times Higher Education points out in a recent leader (17 November), leaving it - like the Arab Spring - for more junior academics and students to make the more vibrant contributions.

The last two Lord Mayors of the City of London, aldermen Michael Bear and David Wootton, have got the message, however, and are seriously engaged with the “Restoring Trust in the City” initiative, while still undertaking their advocacy work for UK financial services.

They have been drawing on our bolder business ethics professors for specialist research, such as that initiative’s secretariat led by professors Paul Palmer and Cliff Oswick from the Cass Business School.

This is more than an issue of corporations, business leaders and professional bodies healing themselves. It needs new research, new ideas and new compacts.

And where are the banks? Well, despite all the bashing, some banks are really trying to rebuild their relations with society at large. At London Met, we see State Street and Standard Chartered working to forge new relations with our students, who are truly tomorrow’s demographic. Masterclasses, mentoring and employer-led problem-based learning enrich the curriculum. These initiatives, brokered by charities such as the Adab Trust, bring together senior banking executives and the youth of “new London”.

Through those direct contacts, trust in the City might yet be restored.

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