Magazine article The Spectator

Delphic Wisdom for Bankers from the Bishop in the Library

Magazine article The Spectator

Delphic Wisdom for Bankers from the Bishop in the Library

Article excerpt

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. …

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