Paul Flowers: As cronyism & clericalism collide

Like many readers of this column – like many churches and Christian organisations – my money is with the Cooperative Bank. And like many Christians on the Left, the events of the last few weeks have left me feeling pretty shocked and angry.

There are a lot of questions to be answered by the bank and the Cooperative Group, but there are lots of hard issues for us to face too. We chose to invest in the Cooperative because we believe what we do with our money says a lot about who we are and is a fundamental expression of our discipleship. We believe in mutuality, not shareholder profit, and we believe that you shouldn’t make money from things that harm the planet or damage human lives. We believe the Kingdom of God is about cooperation and not competition.

But the announcement last month that ownership of the Cooperative Bank will pass over to private investors led by two American-based hedge funds (these ones referred to as “vulture funds”) left us wondering whether this 140 year old institution will now use our money in any more responsible a way than any other high street bank. And to cap it all this failure seemed to arise from a hubristic acquisitions strategy characteristic of the cut-throat capitalist culture that we thought we were opting out of.

We are left wondering if we were naïve in the first place. Was the Coop Bank trading on our disgust with the banking system, selling us the commodity of ethical finance with the same rapacity as its competitors sold cheap credit? And what are our alternatives now?

Then came last weekend’s Mail on Sunday, opening the floodgates of a tabloid exposé extravaganza about the bank chief, the Revd Paul Flowers. Drugs, rent boys, porn. It’s all there. And we’ll need the dust to settle before any sensible distinction Rev-Paul-Flowers.jpgcan be drawn between what was seriously compromising/criminal activity relevant to the bank’s failure and what simply titillates the banker-bashing, naughty-vicar-shaming sections of the press.

But what is becoming increasingly clear is that, since 2009, the Cooperative Bank has not been led by the right man. With only four year’s banking experience from the 1960s and unable even to give an accurate figure for the bank’s assets, the Treasury Select Committee rightly asked why he was appointed at all. And this is what I want to focus on, because the right people doing the right job isn’t simply a functional human resources question; it’s a fundamental Christian question. Large sections of the New Testament are dedicated to the question of the different jobs people should do and how these roles relate to one another. Ephesians 4 is my favourite, exploring how the different gifts God gives to each can be used together for “the building up of the body… to the measure of the full stature of Christ”.

In the two spheres that Christian Socialists inhabit – politics and church – there are different forces that prevent the right person being in the right job. In politics the biggest problem is cronyism, the promotion of people, not because of their skills or gifts, but by opportunities presented through the network they have managed to cultivate among the current holders of power and influence.

There are forms of cronyism in the Church too, but it most commonly manifests itself as clericalism. One of the greatest modern writers against clericalism is the American lawyer and theologian William Stringfellow who wrote: “That a priest was in any sense more exalted than any other person, in the life of the Gospel in the world, could not be true. And if a priest were that in the life of the church, then it could only betray something profoundly false in the church.” Stringfellow’s use of the word “priest” here should not blind us to the fact that clericalism is as present in the less sacramental churches as in Stringfellow’s own Anglicanism. Stringfellow knew that his vocation was to be a lawyer, a writer and an activist and he had a strong understanding of how his skills fitted into the broader mission of the Church. He understood that Christian vocation must be expressed in different sectors of which finance is one of the most important.

There is much yet to be revealed about Paul Flowers’ appointment. But it seems to have involved a curious fusion of these two cultures that may well be a dangerous trait in Christian Socialism (the Christian Right has long seen banking as an important lay vocation). Flowers was well connected in the Labour Party and this seems to have impressed many who appointed him believing the bank would benefit from a big political hitter. Equally his status as a Methodist minister cannot be irrelevant, giving the “ethical bank” some spiritual endorsement. Cronyism meets clericalism and puts the wrong man in a very important job.

For those of us who believe in the central significance of money as a Christian moral issue, there is an enormous amount at stake in the future of the Cooperative bank and the ethical banking movement. Not incidental to that is how we on the Christian Left think about finance as a vocation and work more proactively to challenge the cultures within our institutions that lead to the kind of misguided appointment that has now so hideously unravelled.


James.jpegRevd Dr James Walters is the Anglican chaplain to the London School of Economic and a member of Christians on the Left

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commented 2013-11-21 19:37:49 +0000 · Flag
Many thanks for this article. I will be staying with the Co-op bank which I joined more than 35years ago. I haven’t come across any main stream bank that comes anywhere near the ethical stand point. The right wing press are going to have areal hard go at the Bank and the entire Co-op movement. They would love to get at each and every progressive organisation. We should hold strong and keep the faith. The Co-op movement is better than anything they have. Dave Stokes, Bournemouth.