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Thank God Ethics Is a Messy Business

"The events of the last couple of weeks," said the Archbishop of Canterbury, "have shown very clearly how decisions made in good faith by good people under unusual pressure can have utterly unforeseen and unwelcome consequences."
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On Monday night, the banner had gone. There was still the banner saying "This is what democracy looks like" and the one saying "Corporate greed is a health & safety issue" and the one saying "Capitalism: it's crucifying the public purse." But the banner I'd seen the day before, the one at the foot of the steps of one of the most magnificent buildings in London -- the one saying "What would Jesus do?" -- had gone.

You can sort of see why. Jesus, apparently, would have had a frantic fortnight. Jesus, in fact, would have been knackered. Jesus, according to the protesters, would have been with them, nursing decaff soy lattes in Starbucks, chatting to journalists, chilling out in the music tent, or maybe chanting in the "meditation and prayer tent" in front of the Buddhist shrine. He'd have been taking part in the "general assembly," which is a kind of discussion group that takes place on the steps of the cathedral, and seems to go on all day.

Jesus would also, apparently, have told police to go away and stop harassing the protesters, but then got a bit worried by what the lawyers were saying, and then got a bit spooked by a health and safety report, and then decided that it was better not to take risks and close, for the first time since the Second World War, the cathedral. And then He might have felt a bit bad about that, and worried that He wasn't looking welcoming, and so He might, not being anywhere near the garden of Gethsemane, have sat on a bench in the grounds of the church and, after praying for some guidance, decided to resign, and announce it in a tweet.

Jesus, according to a vicar on the Today program yesterday, would have opened the doors of St. Paul's and turned the cathedral into a kind of giant Glastonbury. Jesus, according to other vicars, including, apparently, the Bishop of London, would have wanted things to be calm and orderly, and for everyone to co-operate with the authorities, and for parishioners to be able to come to a quiet place to pray. Jesus, according to journalists who don't normally worry themselves too much about Him, would have been very, very cross. He'd have seen the dog's dinner that men in cassocks were making of what could have been a brilliant PR opportunity, and He'd have wept.

There weren't, it has to be said, too many tears among the protesters on Monday about the three clerics who had resigned from their jobs, after what started off as Local Hero turned into something a lot more like The Life of Brian. "They've got their class interests," said one. "Their board of trustees is 70 percent bankers," said another. "We're sick of everyone talking about the Church," said another. "This isn't about the Church."

No, the protests outside St. Paul's aren't about the Church, but for something that isn't about the Church, there's been really quite a lot of talk about it. There's been really quite a lot of talk about Jesus, about what He might do, or not do, or have changed His mind about doing, and there's been quite a lot of talk about an institution that most people think only ever gets worked up about whether men in frocks are allowed to have sex with other men. An institution whose services are attended by less than a tenth of the population. An institution, let's be honest, which most people think is a joke.

But one man I spoke to was impressed. "I have the utmost respect for people like Giles Fraser," said a man called Jow on the steps of St. Paul's, a man who, it turned out, was losing revenue from his freelance secretarial work in Edinburgh to join the protests. Here, it's true, was a man who appeared to do what he thought was the right thing, and then do something else he thought was the right thing, but later thought was the wrong thing, and who decided, before anyone asked him, to take responsibility for the wrong thing. Here was a man who clearly had what the people who caused the economic crisis didn't seem to have -- something called a conscience.

"The events of the last couple of weeks," said the Archbishop of Canterbury on Monday, when the Dean of St. Paul's followed the example of the Canon, by announcing his resignation, "have shown very clearly how decisions made in good faith by good people under unusual pressure can have utterly unforeseen and unwelcome consequences." This may be another way of saying that it's a God-awful mess, but it's also true. Most of the things that go wrong in the world are created by people who mean well, but make a mess of it. Most of the politicians who failed to regulate the banks meant well, but made a mess of it. Gordon Brown, for example, wanted the jobs and tax revenue and growth. But he didn't, like pretty much everyone else in the world, know what he was dealing with. We mostly don't, until it's too late.

We don't actually know what Jesus would have done about "light-touch regulation," or if He would have thought that little packets of debt sold on were a bit like loaves and fishes. We don't know if He was pro-tents or pro-lawyers or pro-police. We do know that He was quite keen on shaking things up, but He wasn't always all that good on the detail that would replace them. He also didn't stick around to see it through.

People who think they do know what Jesus would have done, or what God thinks about sex or clothes or financial policy, tend to be the people who call for the silence of people who don't agree with them, the people, in fact, who start wars. Since we seem, in this country, to have to have the nonsense of a state religion, we're lucky to have one that doesn't tell people what to think, or who to hate, or how to vote. If the result is a bit of a muddle, well, which ethical issue isn't? It was St. Paul who said that we see the world "through a glass darkly." He knew that it was the people who see it with brilliant clarity you should distrust.

Yesterday, St. Paul's decided to suspend its legal action against the protesters, and to start a new "initiative," headed by the Christian investment banker Ken Costa, "reconnecting the financial with the ethical." The doors of the cathedral, said the Bishop of London, were "open to engage with matters concerning not only those encamped around the cathedral but millions of others in this country and around the globe." It had, he said, "the opportunity to make a profound difference."

Maybe it will. Maybe it won't. But maybe what it will do is remind us of what that freelance secretary on the steps of St. Paul's called, in an email he sent me from his tent, "the need for a commitment to moral restlessness." The need, he said, to "never rest secure in the knowledge that you have, you know, nailed it."

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