You may have gathered from last week’s column that I’ve been cruising the Med in search of fresh subject matter. It’s the sort of cruise that includes a programme of lectures, and the star turn on that front has been the Bishop of London, Dr Richard Chartres, enjoying a change of pulpit after his much-praised sermon at Lady Thatcher’s funeral.
I had been struck by a passage in that address about the ‘prior dispositions’ required for a healthy market economy: ‘the habits of truth-telling, mutual -sympathy and the capacity to co-operate’. So as we steamed across the Ionian Sea I sent a note to the bishop’s cabin asking whether he’d care to elaborate, and he agreed to meet me in the library for tea (this really is a posh boat).
‘Here I am, in the springtime of my senility,’ he began his first lecture, ‘too old to be Archbishop of Canterbury, too young to be Pope.’ Sonorous voice, towering height and evident depth of scholarship mark him out as a high priest even if you don’t know what his day job is. The droll sense of humour comes as more of a surprise.
He’s a City resident — ‘between Strada and Yo! Sushi’ in the Old Deanery of St Paul’s — but has never really been noted for his scrutiny of what the City does. I put it to him that the church has only now found a coherent voice for the financial crisis in the person of Justin Welby, and that the Occupy protest on his doorstep two winters ago merely revealed muddled thinking and yet another split in the clergy, with several high-profile resignations from St Paul’s. Chartres himself was accused by the left of being a puppet of City interests and by our own James Delingpole of being a ‘surrender monkey’ for taking chocolates to the campers at Christmas.
In a benign, bishoply way, he bridles at the suggestion he has ever been other than consistent on wider issues of economics. ‘For about 15 years I said repeatedly that the prospect of growth without limit, with no end in view beyond the process itself, was unsustainable and a frail foundation for any civilisation. But for a long time that caused no resonances, nobody was listening.’ He’s right: if his message was heard at all, it was understood as an espousal of green causes rather than a criticism of bankers and profligate governments.
The City is only a fragment of his diocese, but the impression of Chartres as a grandee above the financial fray belies the fact that he has been ‘intimately involved’ in investment matters for many years — deputising for the Archbishop of Canterbury as chairman of the governors of the Church Commissioners, who hold £5 billion of assets and were accused in the past of mismanaging them, particularly in real estate. The property portfolio came right in the end, but Chartres’s longstanding concern was that ‘we were spending tomorrow’s money today, over-promising on pensions and torturing our asset base in order to do so’. Now, he says, they have achieved ‘intergenerational equity’, distributing less while preserving more for the future.
Restraint and awareness
The essence of his theme is ‘restraint and awareness… respect for the proportionate and the limited’. The City wasn’t aware of the anger it provoked, he says, because bankers live in their own reinforcing circles and compartments. ‘I don’t resent the Occupy episode. It was a form of street theatre, and theatre is a very powerful medium.’ And it brought the two sides of the argument into a kind of dialogue: ‘It’s so important that unlike lives should encounter each other.’ The St Paul’s Institute, under his former chaplain Canon Mark Oakley, is taking that work forward.
But Chartres clearly thinks it’s an uphill struggle. ‘The economy is our god today. The movements of the FTSE and the Nasdaq are recited like versicle and response, but we have no idea what it means, it’s as opaque as a Latin mass. We demonise individuals for the Libor-fixing scandal, but what lay beneath all of it was a collective madness… a sort of frenzy which represents a suppressed fear of death.’
Can preaching overcome this sickness of mind? He’s not confident it can. The market economy will rediscover the principles sketched in his Thatcher sermon not by ‘the invocation of abstracts’ but by ‘an accretion of wise living together so that the abstracts become embedded in a narrative, and ethics can be turned into ethos’. One problem is short-termism, both in the trading culture and in the tenure of senior executives: ‘We can’t have moral order without sustained relationships.’ Shortness of institutional memory is unhealthy, too: the City has forgotten a time when good deal-making meant leaving something on the table for the other fellow, rather than winner-take-all.
Approaching 65 after an unusually long innings at number three behind Canterbury and York, the bishop’s bon mot about being too old for promotion doesn’t really seem to hint at pique, though plenty of admirers were disappointed on his behalf. He thinks Justin Welby’s outsider status and business background bring an opportunity to change the church’s agenda definitively, shifting it away from ‘this false narrative of division and faction’ (over gay marriage, women bishops and the rest) to one that is about compassion for those suffering as a result of the financial crisis and about inculcating responsible economic behaviour. As for his own role, ‘I’m staying on to help him.’
In holiday mode, Richard Chartres is less the establishment prince-bishop of his media image, more the philosopher--mystic. Presiding at shipboard communion, he wears an Orthodox bishop’s encolpion in place of a pectoral cross, and in another lecture he declares his ‘fellow feeling with the priests of the ancient world’. Closing our mellow conversation, he observes that the financial world needs to absorb the wisdom of the temple inscriptions at Delphi: ‘Nothing in excess’, and ‘Know you are mortal.’