3 ways to change the world

By March 14, 2011Business, Theology

Lent Talk, St Luke’s Chelsea, Sunday 13 March 2011

My title for today is The Church on Capitalism. What would be really clever is if I were able to make lots of links to the reading about lost sheep or lost coins. But this is no ordinary sermon, it is the first talk of a series of ‘voices of the congregation,’ so I will not attempt to beat the clergy at their own game. Rather, I want to talk to you about why I have spent the last few years writing a book about theology and capitalism, and why I think you should care.

So here are some statistics for you. Christians are estimated to control $10 trillion around the world, and at least 6% of the world’s investment capital is in the hands of religious bodies. In England, the Church Commissioners alone have an asset portfolio of £4.8bn, while collectively Anglican PCCs spend over £800m a year. In the last Census, 7 in 10 people in England considered themselves to be ‘Christian’ (that’s about 37.3m people), while roughly half of the population identify themselves as members of the Church of England – that’s every other person you meet in the street. Each Sunday, 1 million people go to a Church of England church, and 1 in 4 primary schools are run by the Church of England, teaching 1 million children each year.

So with all this financial muscle, and all this influence, and all this faith, why in the midst of the furore about the Credit Crunch were we the dog that didn’t bark? History has offered us an extraordinary opportunity to muscle in on the marketplace, while it is being weighed and found wanting, to re-shape it to look more Kingdom-like.

So, I want to take this opportunity to ask you to use Lent to focus anew on your responsibilities as an agent in this global marketplace, so that the market you are already creating around you truly reflects the values you would like to see in the world.

We’re used to talking about ‘the market’ and ‘capitalism’ as thought they were ‘out there’ and nothing much to do with us. But whenever we work, we earn, we spend, we save, we invest, or we lend, we send signals about supply and demand out into the marketplace, where they find friends and create ebbs and flows that result in the system we currently have, for good or ill. When we change these signals, the market shifts, subtly, sometimes imperceptibly; but slowly, over time, the market morphs and changes to match supply with demand accordingly.

One example familiar to this parish is the heart-warming story of the Fair Trade movement. While there have been fair trade goods around for some time, in 1998 the market in the UK was worth a mere £17million annually. Thanks to strong support from Christians – from you buying fair trade products from the back of the church at the end of the Sunday service – over the next decade the market multiplied exponentially to reach the £1billion mark last year. Indeed, Traidcraft became a victim of its own success when Marks and Spencers bought up the entire Fair Trade cotton crop a few years ago, then Cadbury switched to fairly traded chocolate, destroying Traidcraft’s own market for these goods. Now, the UK coffee market is about 15% fair trade, which shows that it doesn’t really take that long to transform a whole sector by creating an entirely new segment.

We live in a democracy, but we only get to vote in elections every four years or so, which is a long time to wait to make your voice heard. However, in terms of the kind of economy we want in our society, we vote every time we spend money or switch brands.

The repeated votes of the rich have created a marketplace that doesn’t seem to cater for the poor very much, who would struggle to understand the allure of phone charms or collar stiffeners. The alignment of supply and demand has naturally over time come to favour those of us with the most money and therefore the most votes to cast into the marketplace. While one of the roles of the state is to cast proxy votes for those who cannot speak for themselves, this is too important a Christian responsibility for us to leave it to the government, particularly given our own influence as consumers.

Now I am not for a moment suggesting that you shouldn’t go to Ascot this year, or that you must never treat yourself again. What I am saying is that we are all lucky enough to have an amount of discretionary expenditure, which may not be large, but it is significant if we add all of our mites together.

This does mean checking where your clothes were made, and asking difficult questions about the supply chain and the provenance of your meat, and taking an interest in how your pension is invested. So here are three things you could try this Lent. I should warn you, they are really hard things, like buying flowers, going to the pub, and annoying people.

First, buy local. Research by the New Economics Foundation has found that every £1 spent with a local supplier is worth £1.76 to the local economy, but only 36p if it is spent in a national chain-store. While I like chain-stores too, I love the approach to buying locally that I saw in Cape Cod last Autumn. Their community campaign asked you to identify three local enterprises that you really liked having around, and pledge to spend $50 a month with each of them. This ‘use it or lose it’ philosophy means that the next time you admire that flower stall on the King’s Road, you should support it financially too, lest too many people just admire it, but buy their flowers in Waitrose instead, until it is driven out of business.

I promised you an excuse to take up going to the pub for Lent too. Other than the churches, the local pub is now one of the few places where people mix across the social divide. Even in Chelsea! But like the churches, many are in decline. However, studies have shown that it may only take between 9 and 12 regulars to keep a pub open. So while it is cheaper to buy your Pinot Noir in Tesco, do pop into your local from time to time, if you want it still to be there in the future, even if it’s just to do the crossword in peace.

I could use the same argument to tell you to support your local church. Given that you have shown up to Evensong today, I’d be preaching to the converted, although I’m sure the Treasurer would like me to point out that we are living beyond our means and that we could really do with your reviewing your giving this Lent too. Instead, my third thing is to ask you to annoy a few people. Specifically, those people who invest your ISA or your pension for you, or these companies in which you hold stock. How close an interest do you take in decisions being made in your name? Do you know where your money is invested, and are you confident that your portfolio is clean? You may not be able to launch a full-blown shareholder revolt about executive pay from your living room, but you can ask awkward questions about what ethical criteria are applied to any funds you hold, and how performance is monitored. And as a shareholder you can ask the Board to account to you about the decisions they take, to deliver ‘shareholder value’ that is to your liking.

And while you are plotting shareholder activism, over a local pint, before buying those flowers on the way home, take heart. The maths is in your favour. You may have heard about ‘game theory’ and all the experiments that have been done to try and work out the best strategies for winning. When ‘nice’ players and ‘nasty’ players were pitted together in a grand international and inter-disciplinary tournament, which iterated over time, it turned out that it only took about 10% of the players to be resolutely nice for them to convert the rest of the population over time. You are the salt and the light.

And I think it was Margaret Mead who said: ‘never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.’

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