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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Leader: The unresolved Eurozone crisis

The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving.

The eurozone crisis was never resolved. It was merely conveniently forgotten. The vote for Brexit, the terrible war in Syria and Donald Trump’s election as US president all distracted from the single currency’s woes. Yet its contradictions endure, a permanent threat to continental European stability and the future cohesion of the European Union.

The resignation of the Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, following defeat in a constitutional referendum on 4 December, was the moment at which some believed that Europe would be overwhelmed. Among the champions of the No campaign were the anti-euro Five Star Movement (which has led in some recent opinion polls) and the separatist Lega Nord. Opponents of the EU, such as Nigel Farage, hailed the result as a rejection of the single currency.

An Italian exit, if not unthinkable, is far from inevitable, however. The No campaign comprised not only Eurosceptics but pro-Europeans such as the former prime minister Mario Monti and members of Mr Renzi’s liberal-centrist Democratic Party. Few voters treated the referendum as a judgement on the monetary union.

To achieve withdrawal from the euro, the populist Five Star Movement would need first to form a government (no easy task under Italy’s complex multiparty system), then amend the constitution to allow a public vote on Italy’s membership of the currency. Opinion polls continue to show a majority opposed to the return of the lira.

But Europe faces far more immediate dangers. Italy’s fragile banking system has been imperilled by the referendum result and the accompanying fall in investor confidence. In the absence of state aid, the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the world’s oldest bank, could soon face ruin. Italy’s national debt stands at 132 per cent of GDP, severely limiting its firepower, and its financial sector has amassed $360bn of bad loans. The risk is of a new financial crisis that spreads across the eurozone.

EU leaders’ record to date does not encourage optimism. Seven years after the Greek crisis began, the German government is continuing to advocate the failed path of austerity. On 4 December, Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, declared that Greece must choose between unpopular “structural reforms” (a euphemism for austerity) or withdrawal from the euro. He insisted that debt relief “would not help” the immiserated country.

Yet the argument that austerity is unsustainable is now heard far beyond the Syriza government. The International Monetary Fund is among those that have demanded “unconditional” debt relief. Under the current bailout terms, Greece’s interest payments on its debt (roughly €330bn) will continually rise, consuming 60 per cent of its budget by 2060. The IMF has rightly proposed an extended repayment period and a fixed interest rate of 1.5 per cent. Faced with German intransigence, it is refusing to provide further funding.

Ever since the European Central Bank president, Mario Draghi, declared in 2012 that he was prepared to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the single currency, EU member states have relied on monetary policy to contain the crisis. This complacent approach could unravel. From the euro’s inception, economists have warned of the dangers of a monetary union that is unmatched by fiscal and political union. The UK, partly for these reasons, wisely rejected membership, but other states have been condemned to stagnation. As Felix Martin writes on page 15, “Italy today is worse off than it was not just in 2007, but in 1997. National output per head has stagnated for 20 years – an astonishing . . . statistic.”

Germany’s refusal to support demand (having benefited from a fixed exchange rate) undermined the principles of European solidarity and shared prosperity. German unemployment has fallen to 4.1 per cent, the lowest level since 1981, but joblessness is at 23.4 per cent in Greece, 19 per cent in Spain and 11.6 per cent in Italy. The youngest have suffered most. Youth unemployment is 46.5 per cent in Greece, 42.6 per cent in Spain and 36.4 per cent in Italy. No social model should tolerate such waste.

“If the euro fails, then Europe fails,” the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has often asserted. Yet it does not follow that Europe will succeed if the euro survives. The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving. In these circumstances, the surprise has been not voters’ intemperance, but their patience.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump