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Dethroning Mammon. Archbishop Welby on money and grace

Dethroning Mammon. Archbishop Welby on money and grace

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As I am reading this book, I learn that the Church of England Investors Group has just used an open letter to warn the 350 biggest companies on the Stock Market that it will vote against what it considers to be unjustified executive pay deals. 

This is a big deal. The Church Investment Group has form here, voting against two–thirds of remuneration reports that were proposed last year. The Group incorporates 58 related charities and organisations alongside the established church. It manages a total portfolio of around £17bn. It is not to be batted aside as petulant clerics.

Taking money seriously – or, rather, taking its abuse seriously – has been one of the hallmarks of Justin Welby’s archiepiscopacy. This is not to say that his predecessors were oblivious to the topic, or that the Church has only just jumped on that bandwagon. Neither of these is remotely true. Rather, Welby, drawing on his own financial expertise as treasurer of an oil company, and acutely conscious that the public narrative around Christianity was depressingly (and unreflectively) focussed on human sexuality, has made particular efforts to make the subject his.

The latest result (if you discount the open letter) is the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book for 2017 which unusually is written by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Dethroning Mammon is short, readable and acute. In six chapters, each drawing on one or two biblical stories (the lion’s share from John’s gospel), Welby dissects what Mammon can do to us and what Jesus can do to Mammon.

The personification is central. Not only is the book “essentially a personal thinking–aloud”, as the author puts it, but the topic is one in which money persistently threatens to depersonalise, to turn persons into manipulable – or, worse, expendable – objects. Personifying money or, better, wealth as Mammon, as Jesus does four times in the Gospels, helps orient the discussion away from abstract figures to human ones. Mammon erodes our humanity. Jesus rebuilds it.

Welby begins with sight, specifically the idea that “seeing correctly” is a “spiritual discipline” without which we are in danger starting in the wrong place, of mis–valuing what is of true value. He proceeds through mis–measurement (“what we measure controls us”) and erroneous ideas of possession (“what we have we hold”) towards the light of gift (“what we give we gain”) and joy (“what we master brings us joy”).

Throughout, the Archbishop engages in detailed scriptural work – texts are central to his chapters, never afterthoughts – as well as personal anecdotes, while occasionally venturing onto more overtly economic and political grounds. If the book doesn’t quite cohere, it is because this is an awful lot to cover in a very short space, the author continually tugged in different directions: the personal spiritual re–formation of a conventional Lent book on one side, the vast, impersonal economic forces that make money such an intractable issue on the other. Ultimately, the book’s heart is in Lent and in our personal tussles between Mammon and Jesus, but this reader at least always wanted to hear more about the impersonal and structural issues that vex us to today. Maybe that’s for the next book.

Such criticism notwithstanding, Dethroning Mammon is an admirable contribution to the re–narration of Christianity in the UK, less concerned, in spite of what critics claim, with what people do in the bedroom than it is with how they behave in the boardroom.

Nick Spencer is Acting Head and Research Director of Theos (@TheosNick)

Dethroning Mammon. Making Money Serve Grace by Justin Welby is published by Bloomsbury (2016)

Image available in the Public Domain.

Nick Spencer

Nick Spencer

Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, including Magisteria: the entangled histories of science and religion (Oneworld, 2023), The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable (Bloomsbury, 2017), The Evolution of the West (SPCK, 2016) and Atheists: The Origin of the Species (Bloomsbury, 2014). He is host of the podcast Reading Our Times.

Watch, listen to or read more from Nick Spencer

Posted 9 February 2017

Ethics, Finance


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