Event Name Sermon given at Matins on the Seventh Sunday after Trinity 2016
Start Date 10th Jul 2016 10:00am

The Reverend David Stanton, Canon in Residence

During my sermons at Matins this month I shall be exploring three quite different books that I've recently read. (a) Addlands (2016) by Tom Bullough: A delightful account of rural life on the Welsh borders. (b) The classic tale of Narcissus and Goldmund (1930) by Herman Hesse; and (c) the book for this morning: Post Capitalism (2015) by Paul Mason.

Mason is probably well known to many of you through his TV news reporting. He's currently Economics Editor for Chanel 4 News.

A book on the economy always reminds us that we can never be divorced from the economic world. How we make our money, is just as important as how we spend it, and of course, good stewardship includes taking care of the economy.

As I was reading this book, an old joke came to mind: A mathematician, an accountant and an economist apply for the same job. The interviewer calls in the mathematician and asks 'What does two and two make?' The mathematician replies 'Four.' The interviewer asks 'Four, exactly?' The mathematician looks at the interviewer incredulously and says 'Yes, four, exactly.'

Then the interviewer calls in the accountant and asks the same question 'What does two and two make?' The accountant says 'On average, four, give or take ten percent, but on average, four.'

Then the interviewer calls in the economist and poses the same question 'What does two and two make' The economist gets up, locks the door, closes the blind, sits down next to the interviewer and says, 'What do you want it to make?'

In his book Mason approaches the economy from a left-of-centre stance, and raises some interesting questions about morality, social policy, and economic policy. Questions such as:

How is capitalism adapting and surviving today? Are there ethical conflicts between self-centred capitalism and Christian morality? How is information technology changing our world of work?

On this latter point he's adamant that the internet, and mobile communication in general, 'has reduced the need for work' and is 'loosening the relationship between work and wages'. He spends much time asking, is IT fundamentally selfish? Does it really mean fewer jobs?

Just like many theologians, he makes the point that if we really care for others and not just ourselves, economic theory is able to respond to this. Indeed he goes so far as to say that morality can very much shape the assumptions of economic theory.

In our current post-Brexit economic situation, his questions are particularly pertinent.

Although he doesn't overtly mention Christianity, there are many parallels with classic Christian Socialism.

I suspect that many people who recently voted for Brexit did so because they felt disenfranchised with their current state of affairs and wanted to protest against the current austerity.

In times of austerity, it's not only the jobs of the lowest paid that are the most vulnerable, but it's the poor who suffer disproportionately. I'm reminded of Disraeli's words: 'the palace is not safe when the cottage is not happy'.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme recently, a lady from the Black Country said she had voted leave but 'wasn't really voting to get out of the union'.

Like many opponents of capitalism, Mason appears unable to decide whether the system will have to get even worse so it can finally change or will have to change—so as not to get even worse.

His critique of capitalism resonates with the widely held and rather diffident view that most Christians have about capitalism: keep it at arm's length and it will look after itself.

For just as the early Christians expected God to quickly usher in his kingdom, they didn't give a lot of thought as to questions like sustainability. And its rather like that for all of us, including economists!

One the one hand we're guided by the life and death and resurrection of Christ, but on the other we're all scarred by perpetually falling short. This should raise some fundamental questions for us:

How should we order society in ways that are consistent with our understanding of God's grace, but also recognising our capacity for goodness and altruism? Indeed how can we order society, when we know we'll fall short of our best efforts and intentions?

Although Mason has bitten off more than he can chew in this book, he does recognise that economists and theologians are actually asking many of the same questions, because both are fundamentally concerned with human behaviour.

From this perspective its not difficult for us to recognise that if people act selfishly in economic decision-making, this will be reflected in economic theory. And of course the reverse is true: economic theory has the capacity to accommodate generosity and selflessness.

At the end of the day, I liked this book because it grapples with the fact that our world is currently undergoing seismic change. It tackles one of the really big questions of our time: namely how can we emerge from economic crisis, a fairer, more equal society?

Over the past two centuries or so, capitalism has seen huge changes: economic cycles that veer from boom to bust, and every time its emerged transformed and strengthened. Surveying this turbulent history, he argues that we are on the brink of such a great change that this time even capitalism itself will mutate into something wholly new.

In the end I don't fully buy his arguments, but I do agree with him when he says that a society is ultimately judged by its treatment of the most vulnerable. This strikes me as being fundamentally biblical and in line with the traditional understanding that having great wealth can be spiritually risky.

There are clearly arguments that can be made both in favour and in opposition to the compatibility of Christian moral teaching and capitalism. Mason's argument against compatibility highlights the ethical conflicts between the self-centred aspects of modern capitalism and the social, loving nature of Christian morality.

He also believes that modern 'western' society provides a stark example of the dominance of the capitalist culture, that's caused such an egoistic approach to life today. He believes that Christian morality has suffered much under capitalism and because of this, has been degraded to the point of being ignored by much of society.

He reminds us all that as both individual Christians and as members of the church we all bear a major responsibility for promulgating our beliefs and opinions, and not least cooperating with other faiths, to identify ways of upgrading the moral ecology of global capitalism.

I found that Paul Mason brings freshness and insight to this moral and economic whole debate. He doesn't have the answers, and in many ways he's not even close, but he's asking the most interesting questions, unafraid of where they might lead.

At times he doesn't seem to know where he is going, but that is part of the pleasure.

Ultimately I'm very happy to recommend this book to you. I found the book captivating, but not wholly convincing.

© 2018 The Dean and Chapter of Westminster

Website design - Design by Structure