Sunday, 6 November 2011

Ain’t about the cha-ching, cha-ching.

I recently bought the Jessie J album. Big mistake. One of those where you’ve heard a couple of good songs - 'Price Tag' and 'Do It Like a Dude' and thought this’ll be fun, only to discover it’s full of ballids (following the new spelling). Worse still, it has the most ear-wrenching earnestness that galls with a self-righteousness and banality ripped off fortune-cookie-wisdom. 'Price Tag' itself has its own 'Where-is-the-Love?' earnestness, but it’s forgivable - if only for the ridiculousness of a pop starlet at the very heart of commercial pop releasing a massive selling single that is ‘not about the money’. You’re laughing all the way to the Itunes store. (Not very far).

Unsurprisingly, this brought to mind the ongoing saga at St Paul’s - a veritable cacophony of earnestness and accusations of cha-ching, cha-ching. The most vocal people have been bawling about the unchristian behaviour of the city-grubby cathedral, whether Christian or not. Incidentally isn’t this typical? Why is it always atheists who bray with the highest spiritual expectations of the church, while also barking with laughter at the hopeless out of date, superstitious uselessness of it? So the cathedral is supposed to be pristine, idealistic, focussed on God and poverty. It is not supposed to worry about income, about balancing budgets and PR. And then a minute later it’s the woeful impractical buffoons who couldn’t organise a piss up in a brewery. Unless it's for bankers.

The criticisms of corruption, naivety, money-hoarding and unworldly don’t sit well together.

But at the heart of this situation is a moral ambiguity, which gets smoothed over with the peanut butter innocence of idealogues, or irritatingly brushed aside by pragmatists. It’s obvious that the cathedral will have a great deal of support for most of the issues the protest stands for. There is a widely held acknowledgement that reform is required, if little sense of what this requires - tacitly acknowledged by a protest that is not making demands and represents a great many issues and interests. The frustration of the former dean was genuine in his protest that the campers wrongly assume he doesn’t get it.

And it’s equally clear that the cathedral works towards many of the same ends. From street level charity to the ethical debates and reports of the St Paul’s Institute, and no less the community building and spiritual support which is the domain of every church. For all this it operates as any other charity or business, requiring, budgeting and planning its income. The crisis brought about by the protest will have thrown all that work into question, as the cathedral hears a little less cha-ching cha-ching.

On the other hand, there are a great many reasons to acknowledge an ethical imperative to support the protest in every way possible. It has raised the profile of and symbolically represented widely held public outrage increasingly echoed by politicians, clergy and the press. The point though is to acknowledge that this is costly. The loss of money will limit the mission of the cathedral. The cathedral community will suffer, people will stay away and there may well be considerable personal cost. It is a complex ethical situation which is not so much about right and wrong but hard choices in a situation of inevitable considerable loss, one way or another.

What is unhelpful in this situation are claims of innocence. One of the oddities is that now the cathedral has backed down from bringing in the guns, the loose canon Giles Fraser has already gone. If he cared so much, why did he not remain to battle in the chapter on behalf of the protesters (as it actually turned out without him)? Did he leave because the matter was simply discussed? Had the bling-ba-bling-ba-bling already become too much? Had he already slipped into the camp to look for Jesus, chuntering “we don’t want your money, money, money”. Who knows.

Regardless, any simple claim that the cathedral should not bear the bigger picture of its own community, local businesses, its income, wider work and supporters is as flawed as someone who claims that the church should simply kick out the protest because revenues are down. Complex situations require careful responses. The soundbites that have abounded about Jesus are just a facile way of caving in to hippy bullshit that slurs all institutions and people with responsible authority as inevitably corrupt. My sympathy here is much more with the Dean who wasn’t too busy washing his hands to acknowledge a genuine dilemma and at 60 has a lot more to lose. He has also managed to free himself from a situation in which public relations appears to have forced the hand of ethics. Not that it isn’t perhaps right to house the protesters - but to be cowed and bullied by the press is weak and ridiculous.

But ethics is never simple. Jonathan Freedland’s excellent take on Downton Abbey contrasts two types of Tory - the entrepreneur and the landed gentry - which he argues is being played out at St Paul’s. The English Romantic view of aristocracy pushes us all into the Granthams corner, spitting at the wicked Murdoch, sorry Sir Richard, just as Fellowes would have us. Here stands the church, dithering at the vaulting ambition of capitalism, surrounded by its inherited furniture. But this is total fantasy. Isn’t it a little hypocritical for us to mock Sir Richard for buying his own furniture?

Equally, the left is splitting more and more in two. On the one hand there is the middle class left of the LRB focussed on identity politics with feminism, postcolonialism, sexuality and the rest. But recently with figures like Maurice Glasman and Frank Field we’re hearing more about the importance of family and women as homemakers to get working-class men back in to work, of stamping out immigration to cut out the great British refusal of “immigrant jobs”. The very real tensions even within our political parties tell out a very real need to address ethical questions at the heart of society. And to discuss them in such a way as avoids the easy innocence of the right-on and the dismissive pragmatism of the utilitarian.

At the end of the day if someone decided to arrange a protest in your front garden you wouldn’t be impressed would you? Even if you agreed with what they were about. I assume the cathedral has an entertainments license for its music so maybe the best thing they could do is to blare out Jessie J on repeat at a trillion decibels. Perhaps that would shift the dirty, dirty, dirty, dirty, dirty, suckas. On the other hand maybe they should take a roll call of bankers on Sunday morning and forming a whip of cords force them all out of the city. Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the pure of heart. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you...


  1. I always pay with love. It means I don't have to buy dinner.

  2. I just went to hear Giles Fraser speak at the Radio 3 Free Thinking festival in Newcastle. He was great, and his position was a lot more nuanced than has generally been credited in the media. He talked about how weird it is when the media idea of who you are becomes increasingly distant from who you actually are; he talked about the importance of the Incarnation and the way it means precisely that God abandoned any pristine-ness to get tangled up in the shit of the world; he talked about the fact that the gift shop and cafe at St Paul's don't actually make money for the Church of England but are franchises, in which real, ordinary people's livelihoods are at stake. He talked about the way that Christianity has spent the whole of its history grappling with the issue of money and what to do about it, and resisted the suggestion that it's just greedy bankers we need to worry about: we all have our fingers in the money-pie; what Jesus has to say about money should worry pretty much all of us. He was great.

  3. I agree - I've always liked his angle and he is consistently one of the few writers worth reading in the Church Times or listening to on Thought for the Day. I find his position odd though in that I don't understand why he resigned when he did. I would have thought that with the influence of Gillian Rose he would have been resolved to maintain dialogue until entirely impossible, which you'd guess would be the actual use of force in this situation. It looks at the very least like an ambivalent attitude to the rest of the chapter. And in becoming a "people's champion" he has really diverted attention from what is a genuinely difficult situation. This may not have been his intention, and he has commented to that effect, but it is certainly a consequence. Did he say why he left? The position is interesting in one respect because personally by removing himself from the chapter it appears as a refusal of difference, while institutionally he is representing difference in the strongest possible terms. I suppose his position seems suspect because he has been clothed as a martyr and one should always be suspicious of martyrs.

    In any case I'm not intending or interested in personally criticising him. I am much more frustrated by the self-righteousness of certain liberal-left positions that keep their hands clean. The Church Times in particular has been full of a lot of mediocre opinion that takes an entirely reductive view of the situation and treats the whole thing as a PR exercise. It does a great disservice to the, I'm sure, principled and hard working staff at the cathedral. Extremes of idealism and pragmatism are both necessarily ideological and this is what is to be avoided. The practical business of running churches, however big or small, is a complex affair.

  4. By the way, X-factor contestants all singing Price-Tag tonight - that made me happy. I'm sure it even brought a smile to Simon Cowell...

  5. Jessie J looks like a brazilian actress - Valentina - Ratinho's program


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