The Cobbler To His Last

Rowan Williams is to be respected for his scholarship, spirituality and churchmanship. His theological erudition is unquestionable. He gives every indication of being a man of deep prayer. His commitment to the church is clear from his willingness to subordinate his own opinions for what he sees as the greater good of keeping the Anglican communion intact, an almost impossible task.

What Dr Williams is not is an economist or financial expert.

He would not have been my choice for archbishop, but then he is more in accord with the spirit of today’s Anglicanism than I suspect most of us would wish to be. Nevertheless, Dr Williams is entirely suited for the position to which his church has raised him. What he is not suited, equipped or educated for is to pronounce on taxation regulations.

In his recent article  in the Financial Times Dr Williams has called for an adjustment in the UK tax regulations. Whether or not a tax on all financial transactions would be beneficial or not is immaterial. Dr Williams’ views on fiscal regulation are of no more validity and should carry no more weight than that of the man on the Clapham omnibus. It is not an archbishop’s task to usurp the calling of the people of God.

There are no black holes in human experience in which God is not interested or to which the church has nothing to say. This does not mean that the ecclesiastical institution is required to pronounce upon any and every aspect of social theory and political policy.

The church has fallen into the prevailing statist delusion of imagining that the institution constitutes reality. The ecclesiastical institution, or denominational structure, is not the church neither is it the only authentic voice of the church. The purpose of the ecclesiastical institution is to serve and preserve the church, to give spiritual guidance and support to God’s people. The purpose of the organic, living church, the whole people of God, is to be the salt which preserves against corruption and the light which points the way ahead for the world.

When we consider the remarkable achievements of God’s people it is evident that advances in mission, social action and political development have so often been at the instigation of individuals and groups within the body of Christ taking action outwith the structures of the institutional church. Where would the witness of the body of Christ be without the activity of those slightingly referred to as the para-church?

In a previous generation in the UK we had the Clapham Sect, in the USA the abolitionist movement; both changed nations, both followed the demands of the gospel without the imprimatur of the institution. OMF, SUM, OM the initials go on. So often mission, particularly pioneering mission, has been undertaken and accomplished outwith and against the wishes of the institution. Mueller, Barnardo, Hudson Taylor, they and so many others got on with the job to hand without getting ecclesiastical sanction.

Methodists should remember that if the Wesleys and Whitefield had listened to the ecclesiastical authorities their denomination would not exist.

Today the Billy Graham Evangelistic Organisation, Navigators, IVF, Campus Crusade for Christ, YWAM, Street Pastors these are all para-church organisations doing the work of the people of God without denominational oversight.

Individual Christians, following their calling in politics such as Frank Field, Ian Duncan Smith, Alister Burt and many others have achieved more in practical terms than the well meaning amateur politicians who inhabit bishoprics and Presbytery committees.

The ecclesiastical institution has a foundational task; serving the living and active people of God and spiritually equipping them to undertake their practical task. It is not the task of the institution to usurp the function of the people of God.

In our present economic crisis we don’t need to hear bishops or conveners pontificating on fiscal regulation. We need to hear them point us to the living Word who undergirds all existence and points us beyond the FT Index. We also need to hear from Christian politicians, economists, bankers and investment analysts, Christians who have a contribution to make based upon their faith and expertise. Let the cobbler stick to his last.


4 thoughts on “The Cobbler To His Last

  1. Refreshing post Campbell. It would be good to hear churchmen declare the foundational gospel doctrines of creation, sin and redemption for a change! But I wonder if the logic of what you say is that Christian politicians should stick to politics and say nothing about Christ? Surely there is a great need for Christian thinking that addresses political, social and financial issues – that’s indeed what the Clapham sect did. You and I may think that Williams was misguided or wrong, but at least he’s reflecting a widespread Christian view in the public square. I would like to see an alternative Christian response that did more than just tell us to come to Christ and pray about it!

    1. You are of course right Malcolm, we need more than “come to Christ and pray about it.” Perhaps what we need is a flowering of Reformed scholarship in every area of life such as was found in the Netherlands in the latter half of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

      My point is that by channelling everything through the institution we downgrade the role of Christian politicians, economists, bankers etc. and also their ability to be heard and contribute to debate at all levels. That includes being heard about their faith.

      I would listen to Rowan Williams if he were explaining to stockbrokers the application of Luke 12:13-21 the parable of the Rich Fool and the stupidity of seeking satisfaction in wealth alone. Just as I would listen to him if he were to speak to the Occupy protesters about the application of Luke 20:45-47 where Jesus speaks about the dangers of the self-righteous parade of one’s beliefs.

      But if I want to understand the present crisis in the financial world I would do better to listen to Hector Sants, described in a list of the 100 most influential financiers in the UK as “the brains behind the FSA,” and a Christian who worked in the City for 30 years before going to work for the state. Or I could learn from the differing views of Ken Costa, Stephen Green or Baron Griffiths of Fforestfach, all high flying bankers who are prepared to speak about economics from a Christian perspective.

      Perhaps if such high flyers were heard it would encourage the many other financiers and bankers who are Christians to be more open about their faith in the course of their work. If they were it they would be better able to act as salt and light in the banking industry. Over the last few years there has been a growth of evangelical Christianity in the City, but most of it is under the radar.

      We want to create a culture where it is not just acceptable but expected that Christians speak within their various disciplines as Christians. How many Christian politicians feel free to mention their faith in their election leaflets?

      1. Absolutely, though I think the Dutch example may a bit unrealistic. They were still operating in a Christendom culture, where I imagine the Christian narrative was accepted throughout the country and Abraham Kuyper could become Prime Minister. Christians today feel very much on the defensive, and I think we need to fight for a place in the debate as a distinct minority, albeit one which has set the agenda for so long. Actually I think the contemporary Dutch situation has got much we could learn from. As long as we try to wind the clock back and recreate a “Christian society” I suspect we will struggle to gain a hearing, but we desperately need to hear the contributions of the Christians you mention.

  2. Really, it is quite something when a man enshrouded in the pietistic cant of Dr Rowan Williams is commended to the hilt for his manifest spirituality. The man may be as erudite as they come but he is a blind leader of the blind. I doubt very much that he’d hold to the pleanry inspiration of Holy Scriptures, let alone the orthodox doctrines and soteriology of the official Articles of his church. That is why he is incapable of presenting what I suspect would be the very astringent message Christ’s Word would be to the protestors and assorted riff raff outside St Paul’s. Like Would they rejoice to hear that their supreme need is not concerns over material and mamon but to seek first the Kingdom of God? To repent of their anti-God life styles? To render to Caesar what is his? To hear Christ dismiss their claimed concerns as entirely secondary ‘ Who made me a judge or divider over you? Would they believe Him that if they genuinely want a fair and just society the ONLY basis for it and just work practices rest in application of the neglected Old Testament law code? Yes, we yearn for justice but not the specious, godless delusion that proud man cooks up. Utopian anarchists and quasi-revolutionaries really need some clear cut robust exhortation- as do the filthily greedy bankers of course, but let’s not demonise the perfectly respectable ones!

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