Banking Advice From Britain’s Businessman Archbishop
By HARVEY MORRIS
Justin Welby knocked at the door of Canterbury Cathedral prior to his enthronement on March 21.
LONDON — The Church of England was once known as the Conservative Party at prayer.
That was before new generations of priests and prelates began asserting their independence from the British establishment by reminding politicians of all parties of their duty to the more vulnerable members of society.
Justin Welby, appointed only last month as Archbishop of Canterbury, has already set the tone for his leadership of the Anglican Church with trenchant comments about the Conservative-led government’s handling of the economy and criticism of the country’s bankers.
As my colleague Alan Cowell wrote for Rendezvous this week, the Right Rev. Welby used an address on Monday to offer a somber assessment of the country’s economic woes and to warn that it would take “something very, very major” to shed them.
The archbishop followed up with comments broadcast on Saturday criticizing a “culture of entitlement” in the City of London, Britain’s financial center.
During an interview with the BBC, he urged a reform of the banking sector that would require bankers to undergo formal professional training and pass exams.
Politicians have become used to being preached at by members of the Church on issues that are arguably beyond their competence. The difference this time is that the archbishop can claim to know what he is talking about.
He was an oil company executive before he came to the priesthood relatively late in life. A member of the House of Lords – the upper house of the British Parliament– he also sits on the parliamentary banking commission.
Among those who welcomed his contribution to the economic debate, Vicky Beeching, a broadcaster and theologian, posted on Twitter:
The archbishop defended remarks on Monday in which he suggested Britain was suffering a depression rather than a recession, although he acknowledged he might have upset the government of Prime Minister David Cameron.
“Sometimes feathers get ruffled,” he said during the BBC interview with George Parker, the Financial Times political editor. “I mean — that’s life.”
The archbishop and the prime minister both went to Eton College, the prestigious school which has traditionally turned out leaders of the British establishment. But, as Mr. Cameron was jokingly reminded last year when he endorsed the prelate’s appointment, there are very different kinds of Old Etonian.
“His distinguishing feature and most valuable asset is his former career in the oil industry,” George Pitcher, an Anglican priest, wrote last November. “Welby is clearly a man who knows how corporations work.”
His background prompted the question this week — evidently only partly in jest — whether bishops should run the banks.
Robert Peston, the business editor of the BBC, said the archbishop had highlighted ethical aspects of the financial crisis in his proposals for reform, in which he had stressed the importance of bankers having a closer and more personal relationship with their customers.
More specifically, he has called for a major unnamed bank to be broken up into regional banks that would be closer to their local communities.
“Economic crises are a major problem when they are severe,” Archbishop Welby said on Monday. “When they are accompanied by a financial crisis and a breakdown in confidence then they become a generational problem.”
Answering his own question about whether anyone should care what this man of the cloth thought about the banking sector, Mr. Peston wrote, “The U.K.’s economic malaise shows no signs of being fixed any time soon by the supposed experts in the Bank of England or Treasury, so there may be a case for looking elsewhere for wisdom.”
What do you think? Should church leaders, whatever their expertise, intervene on issues of government economic policy? Or should they limit their preaching to the pulpit? Let us know your views.