Archbishop Justin on the virtues and vices of Mammon
It's awfully difficult being Archbishop of Canterbury - His Grace knows all about it. Not only is the new one busy moving house (does one 'move palace'?), interrupted by a constant stream of people - some stimulating; others irritating - dropping in for coffee, but he decided that in addition to being a husband, father, diocesan bishop, metropolitan archbishop, Primate of All England, primus inter pares of the Worldwide Anglican Communion, Joint President of the Council of Christians and Jews, and chancellor, visitor, governor, trustee, director and patron of a plethora of academic institutions, he'd keep his job as a member of the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards.
So, along with pastoring, writing, leading, visiting, teaching, preaching, governing, directing, patronising and politicking, he's still devoting a hefty chunk of his time to examining professional banking standards in the wake of the scandals of Libor-fixing and PPI-misselling.
It's good to have an Archbishop of Canterbury who's got a proper job in the real world.
The virtues and vices of banking and banks are something of a specialism for Archbishop Justin: he knows what he's talking about. So when he accuses bankers of hypocrisy for continuing to pay their staff big bonuses while insisting they're undergoing a cultural overhaul, you can bank on it being valid criticism based on true observation.
According to The Guardian, the Archbishop fired both barrels at HSBC's Chief Executive, Stuart Gulliver, and its Chairman, Douglas Flint. He said:
"I'm increasingly baffled at the discussion we are having. What is it essentially about bankers that means they need skin in the game (bonuses)? We don't give skin in the game to civil servants, to surgeons, to teachers.'Skin in the game'?
"There's a whole range of people who don't have that. It seems to me that you are putting huge effort into a values-based organisation and yet at the end of the day, particularly for your most senior staff who are most important as regards setting values and culture, you seem to be saying the only way you can motivate them to any significant extent is with cash."
It's a wise theologian who bothers to speak Greek to the Greeks, even if the Hebrews haven't got a clue what they're babbling on about. Talking the lingo is, basically, the best way of cutting through the crap. Here we had HSBC bosses waffling on about 'transforming the culture' of their bank into one of 'courageous integrity', while Archbishop Justin skilfully inserted a probe to establish the precise nature of a culture which feels it has to pay massive bonuses in order to incentivise its employees to be virtuous.
What is peculiar about and unique to banking which requires a low basic salary topped up with cash and shares which can be up to six-times that basic salary?
The Archbishop needled away: "You seem to be wanting the high pay and the bounce at the end. I don't understand the relationship between that and a value-based, culture-based organisation... How do you deal with an internal contradiction which we don't hear in so many other sectors of our society?"
We are concerned here with financial ethics - a banking code of conduct which underpins organisational culture and transcends man's infinite capacity to love of Mammon.
But the Guardian, being The Guardian, focuses on the faults of HSBC and the chronic failings of its bosses. And that's not quite Archbishop Justin's style. He is more than aware that, under pressure, everyone is prone to make bad decisions. He's even made one or two himself. He might highlight the hypocrisies and inconsistencies of bankers and banking - and that might give the Guardian and the BBC a great 'Bishop beats Bankers' sound-bite - but his concern is with the organisational culture and human behaviour which leads to failure. His desire is to mitigate suffering and ameliorate the common good: not throw stones or curse scapegoats.
That isn't, of course, to absolve the sinner of responsibility. But while the media wallow in salacious stories of vice, the Archbishop is trying to inculcate virtue. And he won't get much assistance from the Guardian or the BBC in that pursuit. We are fed a few paragraphs of whited-sepulchre banker-bashing: Archbishop Justin is actually looking at the values of the whole financial-services industry; how market theory relates to taxation, employment, welfare, health and education.
It is important to state this clearly, now, at the outset of this Archbishop's ministry, so that it may be understood, if not remembered. Because the day will surely come (most likely very soon indeed) when the Guardian and the BBC will be joined by the Telegraph in a chorus of disapproval and self-righteous scorn aimed at the next alleged hypocrisy or inconsistency of the Church of England. No matter what the Archbishop's true motives in his desire to see society flourish, we will get self-regarding reports of flawed theology and crumbling structures. We will hear of poor leadership, fence-sitting, fudge and interminable compromise. Vice, vice, vice.
Yes, Archbishop Justin will have a few: he has made mistakes and suffered the consequences of ethical slips. He is not infallible.
But his desire is to serve, with humility, and pursue virtue, with the zeal to effect real change. Don't believe a few paragraphs in a Labour trade rag: the Church of England is about to be renewed with a return to simple principles. The necessary reform of the financial services sector is precisely that to which the Church must be re-dedicated - both must simply serve society in pursuit of the common good. The task is to give an account of love - that 'bond of perfectness'. It is a task which may seem to some to be either superfluous or impossible. There is 'something else' to ethics, and that is the evangelical proclamation. And we shouldn't expect much assistance from the Guardian or the BBC in that pursuit, either.