From the TUC

Clerics must choose their words carefully

17 Feb 2009, by in Economics

This blog doesn’t do God. I have no idea about the religious beliefs or lack thereof of most of my fellow contributors – the subject has just never come up.

But bishops have been speaking about the recession, and that is something on which we do have views.

Most controversial has been the Bishop of London – who was reported as saying “redundancy can be good for the soul“.

“Sometimes, people seem to be relieved to get off the treadmill and to be given an opportunity to reconsider what they really want out of life. One of the great implications of this turbulence for us is to re-boot our sense of what a truly flourishing human life consists of. The ‘CrackBerry’ culture is dangerously addictive and switching off from it is notoriously difficult.”

Before Christmas the Archbishop of Canterbury got into an argument with the Prime Minister about whether we should give the economy a fiscal stimulus. The Times reports

The Archbishop of Canterbury found himself embroiled in an unseemly war of words with the Prime Minister today after questioning the morality of Gordon Brown’s fiscal stimulus package and likening it to an “addict returning to the drug”.

Dr Rowan Williams made the comments in an outspoken pre-Christmas interview with the BBC in which he portrayed the credit crunch as a welcome “reality check” for a society that had become driven by unsustainable greed.


The battle for the moral high ground commenced when Dr Williams complained on Radio 4’s Today programme that the country had been “going in the wrong direction” for decades by relying on financial speculation to generate wealth rather than “making things”. The downturn might, he hoped, force people to rediscover the virtue of patience.”

And at the weekend in an interview the Times describes Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor as saying that “recession may be jolt that selfish Britain needs” – though it has to be said that he doesn’t appear to use those words anywhere in the words quoted in the interview – which does not get into the same controversies as his C of E colleagues. Indeed it is hard to disagree with this:

“It’s the end of a certain kind of selfish capitalism,” Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor said. “This particular recession is a moment – a kairos – when we have to reflect as a country on what are the things that nourish the values, the virtues, we want to have … Capitalism needs to be underpinned with regulation and a moral purpose.” 

(Though there is much I would contest in some of his other views.)

It is easy to see where this moral critique comes from. You do not have to be a theist to worry that we have become a society where your worth is measured by your wealth, and your identity defined by what you own.

No doubt some highly stressed people who lose greed-driven city jobs may come to see redundancy as a blessing in disguise if they find a more worthwhile job – and indeed VSO report an upsurge in enquiries.

But most people who lose their jobs in this recession will not be ‘crackberry’ owners. The crisis may have started in the City and the world’s financial districts, but the Woolworths workers who have lost their jobs – to take just one example – are not escaping from the rat-race, but going from secure, if not that well-paid, employment to life on a very inadequate level of dole.

Whether we like it or not – a lot of our sense of self-worth and identity comes from our paid employment. The health – both physical and mental – of the unemployed suffers. Relationships end. Suicide and criminal activity become more likely. Many people never really recover.

I am sure that church groups are playing their part in helping and assisting the victims of the recession – and indeed are joining with the TUC in backing the Put People First march in advance of the G20 summit. It’s entirely likely that some media outlets have not properly reported what was said. And no-one should be simply defined by their employment – as unions recognise in our campaigns for better work-life balance (and it’s work your proper hours day next week).

 But the tragedy of redundancy far outweighs any benefits.