Home / Christmas / Christmas Message 2011
Share this page

Share an article by email

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.
/ 22 December 2011

Christmas Message 2011

Date: 20111222

Not so very long ago, a short time after the fall of the Berlin Wall, there were those who felt that history had reached its goal. The construction of heaven on earth – without God of course – was in sight. Humanity had attained its destiny with the victory of liberal democracy and market economics. In 1992, one sage, Francis Fukuyama, wrote a book simply entitled “The End of History.”

Yet, with the alarm bells ringing all over the world, we have come to realise that the drama is still unfolding. As a result, the Christmas story seems more vivid this year amidst the encircling economic gloom.

If the past is any guide, the future that is coming to meet us will be full of surprises. Just when Herod the Great felt that the situation was under control by tried and tested political methods, the news arrives of the coming of a rival king, who heralds a different kind of reality.

What happened next, the birth of an infant king in a poor family, is a story for these times. We are genuinely, as Mrs Merkel has said, facing the gravest crisis in the West since the Second World War. If we are to be united and determined in the face of this crisis, we need to hear and receive a meaningful narrative about our civilisation which does not shrink from what is happening but contains the promise of hope.

The question confronting us is how to flourish as individuals and as a community in an age of austerity. If we are to make any contribution to a response it must go beyond a sanctified anti-cuts agenda. We are still borrowing £400 million a day. Painful adjustments in our material expectations are inevitable.

One of our difficulties is that political discourse at present seems to be reduced all too frequently to a recital of economic indicators. While such analysis is essential, it is not sufficient to carry us through the storm.

The shortcomings of living and thinking in such a compartmentalised way were illustrated in a recent City debate about remuneration levels. The first question with which we began was, “do you regard this as a moral issue?” One of the participants immediately expressed his unease at “mixing up finance and morals” since one was a technical question and the other was “very personal”.

It is a not uncommon attitude. However, the Occupy protests outside St Paul’s Cathedral, on New York’s Wall Street and around the world show how impossible it is to live as if finance and ethics are unconnected. Consent for a social and economic order depends on a sense that the distribution of rewards and responsibilities is fair. The anger that results from the erosion of that sense of fairness can translate into discontent which can threaten the whole social fabric. We need not think that our country is exempt if conditions worsen and if youth unemployment in particular continues to rise.

In the recent past some pundits have spoken as if the laws of economics were autonomous and not in principle connected with questions of human flourishing as individuals and in society. In reality the market must serve ends beyond itself. This is why I have asked Ken Costa, a respected figure in the City of London and a committed Christian, to work with me, the St Paul’s Institute and others in an initiative we are calling London Connection. The intention is not to found another institution or to produce another report but to work for a sustainable link between finance and the moral and social fabric. We need to be able to tell the story of how self-interest and the common good are profoundly related to one another.

In a time of austerity it is salutary once more to ask: what shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul? This is not to argue for a “Bible-says-it-all-politics,” which has been out of fashion since our disastrous flirtation with it in the English Civil War of the 17th century. It is simply to recognise that all politics rest on assumptions; myths properly understood, not as fairy tales but as archetypal stories about the human condition. Both our economic activity and our political life must have ground beneath them. Human beings are not just blind globs of idling protoplasm but we are creatures with a name who live in a world of symbols and of dreams and not merely matter.

If we are not only to survive this period of austerity, but even to learn to flourish in it, then we shall have to re-learn a more adequate story of what is precious about human life. The story of the birth of the infant king in a poor family is a good starting place.

About Richard Chartres

The Rt Revd Richard Chartres KCVO was the 132nd Bishop of London from November 1995 until March 2017.

Read more from Richard Chartres

to top