Let’s be friends

Addressing a group of laypeople and religious leaders, the Pope avoided controversy and emphasised h

Around midday on Friday 17 September, Pope Benedict XVI addressed approximately 100 laypeople and religious leaders, representing Britain's non-Christian faith communities, including Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains.

It was a colourful affair, with Catholic bishops, archbishops and cardinals in full dress sitting alongside white-robed swamis and yellow-cloaked Zen masters who mingled happily among the darker suits of rabbis, imams and turbaned Sikhs. Among this wonderful mosaic of religious dress there was not a secularist in sight.

And, in the absence of secularists, the Pope clearly felt among friends. Introduced by the Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, the Pope listened as the Vatican was commended for its contribution to interfaith understanding. According to the Chief Rabbi, "today is a celebration of difference". The Pope listened carefully and nodded.

A Muslim leader, Dr Khalid Assam, followed and talked about how faith binds creation together. Again, the Pope looked pleased.

So far, so good! It was his turn. He walked to the lectern, appearing tired, like an elderly shepherd, and spoke in a low voice. We all strained to listen.

His words were familiar to people of faith. He was in his comfort zone. No need to condemn secularism here.

Beginning with a discussion on the meaning of life, he depicted God in search of humanity, as much as human beings are in search of God. Our duty as men and women of faith is to live peaceably together and jointly steward God's creation, he said.

In his only mention of Vatican II, he said that the Catholic Church placed a high value on dialogue with other faiths. In turn, the Church expected reciprocity, notably freedom of worship and practice in all countries. The remark was directed at Muslim countries that deny Christians the right to worship or to build churches, and other citizens the right to convert to Christianity.

This was the only point of potential controversy, though in my conversation with Muslims present it was not mentioned.

The Pope completed his short address by calling for face-to-face dialogue, where faiths face one another, creating a shared, but inward-looking bond. He also called for side-by-side dialogue, where faiths stand together but face outwards, unified in a common task.

In these words, he echoed the writings of the Chief Rabbi, focusing not on condemning secularism, but on respect and the need for all faiths to work together.

How he envisaged this happening, he left to another day and probably, I suspect, to another pope.

Dr Edward Kessler is executive director of the Woolf Institute, Cambridge, where he studies relations between Jews, Christians and Muslims. He is contributing a series of posts on interfaith issues raised by the papal visit.

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.