Still lamenting St Paul’s

Why, oh, why, oh why, Lord?

Tomorrow (3 Nov 2011) I’m “preaching” at New College Edinburgh‘s lunchtime communion service (I put preaching in inverted commas because I’ve been advised that 3 minutes is the ideal length of the reflection at this service, which is scheduled to be only 25 minutes long). I was delighted to look at the the daily lectionary and find Psalm 43 as one of texts for the day. With its partner Psalm 42 this forms one of the great laments of the Old Testament.

This means that the folk at New College tomorrow will get a greatly abbreviated and (I hope) more worshipful version of my plea that we stop trying to find someone to blame for our problems and take our complaints to God instead.

This works well for me because today I’m fuming about Rowan Williams’ declaration of support for a “Tobin Tax”. Now a Financial Transaction Tax might be a good idea (although personally I very much doubt it I recognise that some people who are more qualified than I am to have an opinion think it is, outnumbered though I think they are by those other qualified individuals who disagree) but I don’t for a moment imagine that the Archbishop has any relevant expertise.

Most of those who are advocating such a tax are doing so for reasons quite disconnected with any good it might conceivably do. They want it because they imagine it will be a means of dispossessing banks of some of their money and of supporting the “real” against its supposed enemy the “virtual” economy. Now I believe these to be profoundly mistaken ideas in themselves but what’s really getting my blood pressure up is that the Church is joining in.

I could go on at some length about my views of why banking is every bit as real as making tangible things out of other tangible things (“manufacturing”). I could also say that making markets less liquid and taking money out of banks are among the very last things likely to make our current economic plight less gloomy. I might be right about this or I might be wrong. These are matters about which disagreement is possible and widespread among those most expert in the areas of human knowledge that deal with them (and I can’t claim to be among these experts). So I won’t so go on.

These are matters about which debate can and properly should be conducted amongst all those qualified to express an opinion (and I suppose, in a democracy, that’s all of us). I accept, too,  that there’s a moral as well as a technical dimension to these debates, although there is sometimes a temptation on the left to ignore the technical dimensions and to propose ideas and policies without thinking through their probable actual outcomes (which is certainly the case with most of the advocacy of the “Tobin Tax” that I’ve seen).

From the Church, though, one should expect more. One should expect a distinctively theological (in the sense of speaking about God) dimension. This can’t, can it, reduce to a glossing of common morality. It has, hasn’t it, to take account of ideas of providence, of God’s sovereignty and responsibility for the world. Surely we have to at least entertain the idea that God is doing what we see done, however little we might like it.

It seems to me to be a very thin faith that can speak of great public issues without referring to God and which can blame human beings for what happens and absolve God of responsibility, as if God were a lovable but powerless old relation. If we don’ t like what we see why don’t we, like the psalmist ask God “why have you rejected me”? Is it because we don’t really believe that God is active in the world? And if that’s the case what are we doing in the church?

On the other hand this week St Paul’s, under the leadership of the Bishop of London, appears to be recovering from the mess it got itself into in allowing itself to be swept along by the Corporation of London in the legal process and failing to engage meaningfully with those in its precincts.  The constitution of an initiative on ethics in banking led by someone who actually knows what he’s talking about seems like a sensible step, too. But There is still no sign of anything that speaks from what makes the church the church.

For God’s sake let’s talk about God, sometimes, and not just about an ethics that, actually, we get from somewhere else and can’t really ground in anything, even if that talk has to take the form of an accusation or a complaint it would remind us that the world isn’t of our making and our problems don’t necessarily have solutions we could implement if only we were all of sufficiently good will.

Our hope (here “our” means Christians mostly) is in God and nowhere else. Governments (who are at least as responsible as bankers for the chaos), regulators and all the powers and principalities on earth are as helpless as the rest of us in the final matters. It behoves the church to engage with the world and events as they unfold but always on the basis of what authorises and defines it, which its relationship to Jesus Christ, God with us.

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