Seeking anonymity

In the second of our series on faith in the financial crisis, the Director of the St. Paul's Institu

Each morning at the early service at St Paul’s Cathedral prayers are offered for different groups of City workers in turn. Everyone – office cleaners, financiers, insurance workers, restaurateurs, waiters, street cleaners, builders, and so on – is prayed for. As the credit crunch has bitten harder, so there have been more prayers: those affected are mentioned at the larger services of evensong every night and at the Sunday morning eucharist, attended by hundreds of people. It’s one of the ways the Cathedral can respond to the current situation. Most people don’t know we do it; but we do it, and it’s at the front line of our care.

The atmosphere around the Cathedral in the City, and even more so further east in The Wharf, is strange. There’s a studied air of "business as usual" but the feeling is different. More fear, more uncertainty, less busyness, more reflection. We don’t know who of the many people that come to the Cathedral for quiet prayer are there because of large or small financial worries. We don’t ask people, unless they want to talk, because a Cathedral can offer a great gift to the public: anonymity. It’s a big place and you can mind your own business if you want to. In the mornings, when we open up for Mattins at 7.30, a few people wander in to sit quietly for a moment or two on their way to work. The Cathedral is silent then, and beautiful.

The Cathedral is full of staff, clergy and lay who see themselves as there first and foremost for the people who visit. We are conscious that the City is shaky and that its workers are under horrendous pressure. There is always someone available from our pastoral team to spend time with anyone appearing at our doors in distress. The offices in the vicinity of the Cathedral can ask for passes so that their staff can visit whenever they want to; coming in and out as neighbours, as and when they wish, rather than attend as paying tourists.

The Cathedral is also addressing the broader ethical and social issues arising from the current crisis, seeking to make a serious and challenging contribution to how to emerge from its ravages wiser and better governed. What individual and corporate lessons in business ethics need to be learned? Will financial institutions need to constrain their global ambitions? What should risk strategies look like? What makes for genuine human flourishing? St Paul’s Institute for 21st century ethics is holding a series of debates in October on money: on global institutions and global governance; on the interplay between individual responsibility, rule making and ethics; corporate standard-setting; free markets; and the impact of the credit crunch on the third world. We will bring together practitioners in the financial world, moral philosophers, theologians, social historians and economists, in the Cathedral itself where we can host audiences of up to 2,500 people, for free and un-ticketed events. We can bring together people who wouldn’t otherwise meet - from business, the professions and other walks of life.

We are encouraged by senior figures in the City who advise us that we are playing an important part, as a large religious institution in the heart of the City, in evoking wisdom in the midst of a confusing and frightening time.

Claire Foster is Lay Canon at St Paul’s Cathedral in the City of London and Director of the St Paul’s Institute

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In defence of orientalism, the case against Twenty20, and why Ken should watch Son of Saul

My week, from Age Concern to anti-semitism.

Returning late from a party I never much wanted to go to, I leap up and down in the middle of the Harrow Road in the hope of flagging down a taxi, but the drivers don’t notice me. Either they’re haring down the fast lane or they’re too preoccupied cursing Uber to one another on their mobile phones. My father drove a black cab, so I have a deep loyalty to them. But there’s nothing like being left stranded in NW10 in the dead of night to make one reconsider one’s options. I just wish Uber wasn’t called Uber.

Just not cricket

Tired and irritable, I spend the next day watching sport on television – snooker, darts, cricket, anything I can find. But I won’t be following the Indian Premier League’s Twenty20 cricket again. It’s greedy, cynical, over-sponsored and naff. Whenever somebody hits a boundary, cheerleaders in cast-off gym kit previously worn by fourth-form Roedean girls wave tinsel mops.

Matches go to the final over where they’re decided in a thrashathon of sixes hit by mercenaries wielding bats as wide as shovels. Why, in that case, don’t both teams just play a final over each and dispense with the previous 19? I can’t wait for the elegant ennui of a five-day Test match.

Stop! Culture police!

I go to the Delacroix exhibition at the National Gallery to shake off the sensation of all-consuming kitsch. Immediately I realise I have always confused Delacroix with someone else but I can’t decide who. Maybe Jacques-Louis David. The show convincingly argues that Delacroix influenced every artist who came after him except Jeff Koons, who in that case must have been influenced by David. It’s turbulent, moody work, some of the best of it, again to my surprise, being religious painting with the religion taken out. Christ’s followers lamenting his death don’t appear to be expecting miracles. This is a man they loved, cruelly executed. The colours are the colours of insupportable grief.

I love the show but wish the curators hadn’t felt they must apologise for Delacroix finding the North Africans he painted “exotic”. Cultural studies jargon screams from the wall. You can hear the lecturer inveighing against the “appropriating colonial gaze” – John Berger and Edward Said taking all the fun out of marvelling at what’s foreign and desirable. I find myself wondering where they’d stand on the Roedean cheer-leaders of Mumbai.

Taking leave of the senses

My wife drags me to a play at Age Concern’s headquarters in Bloomsbury. When I see where she’s taking me I wonder if she plans to leave me there. The play is called Don’t Leave Me Now and is written by Brian Daniels. It is, to keep it simple, about the effects of dementia on the families and lovers of sufferers. I am not, in all honesty, expecting a good time. It is a reading only, the actors sitting in a long line like a board of examiners, and the audience hunched forward in the attitude of the professionally caring.  My wife is a therapist so this is her world.

Here, unlike in my study, an educated empathy prevails and no one is furious. I fear that art is going to get lost in good intention. But the play turns out to be subtly powerful, sympathetic and sharp, sad and funny; and hearing it read engages me as seeing it performed might not have done. Spared the spectacle of actors throwing their bodies around and singing about their dreams against a backdrop painted by a lesser, Les Mis version of Delacroix, you can concentrate on the words. And where dementia is the villain, words are priceless.

Mixing with the proles

In Bloomsbury again the next day for a bank holiday design and craft fair at Mary Ward House. I have a soft spot for craft fairs, having helped run a craft shop once, and I feel a kinship with the designers sitting bored behind their stalls, answering inane questions about kilns and receiving empty compliments. But it’s the venue that steals the show, a lovely Arts and Crafts house, founded in the 1890s by the novelist Mary Ward with the intention of enabling the wealthy and educated to live among the poor and introduce them to the consolations of beauty and knowledge. We’d call that patronising. We’re wrong. It’s a high ideal, to ease the burden of poverty and ignorance and, in Ward’s words, save us from “the darker, coarser temptations of our human road”.

An Oscar-winning argument for Zionism

Speaking of which, I am unable to empty my mind of Ken Livingstone and his apologists as I sit in the cinema and watch the just-released Academy Award-winning Son of Saul, a devastating film about one prisoner’s attempt to hold on to a vestige of humanity in a Nazi death camp. If you think you know of hell from Dante or Michelangelo, think again. The inferno bodied forth in Son of Saul is no theological apportioning of justice or deserts. It is the evisceration of meaning, the negation of every grand illusion about itself mankind has ever harboured. There has been a fashion, lately, to invoke Gaza as proof that the Holocaust is a lesson that Jews failed to learn – as though one cruelty drives out another, as though suffering is forfeit, and as though we, the observers, must choose between horrors.

I defy even Livingstone to watch this film, in which the Jews, once gassed, become “pieces” – Stücke – and not grasp the overwhelming case for a Jewish place of refuge. Zionism pre-dated the camps, and its fulfilment, if we can call it that, came too late for those millions reduced to the grey powder mountains the Sonderkommandos were tasked with sweeping away. It diminishes one’s sympathy for the Palestinian cause not a jot to recognise the arguments, in a world of dehumanising hate, for Zionism. Indeed, not to recognise those arguments is to embrace the moral insentience whose murderous consequence Son of Saul confronts with numbed horror. 

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred