The other day, a woman complained to a local newspaper about the decline of the UK High Street. Superstores and internet shopping have forced out many traditional businesses. In their place we see rows of other kinds of shops: second-hand, betting, kebab and pawn, half a dozen of each on a short stretch of road. But the poor still need to be fed and clothed.
The grandiose old banks, like the grandiose old churches, have been boarded up or put to other use. More popular, down-market versions – Pentecostal missions and loans-till-payday bureaux – have taken their place, sometimes literally.
Archbishop Welby of Canterbury, with a career in business behind him, not to mention a well-known Biblical precedent, now has it in for these money lenders. He recently declared financial war in a very public way on a company called Wonga. Unfortunately for him, it was straightaway discovered that the Church of England has itself been investing indirectly in the same company. Naming Wonga, the Archbishop not only embarrassed himself beyond all understanding, but also offered to that business the heaven of free publicity. We assume, rightly or wrongly, that he targeted Wonga before all the other companies because their business is the biggest, and that it is the biggest because it is the most efficient, which means it is the best place to go if we need some quick cash. The heaven of free publicity. If I irk the Archbishop, can he give it to me?
Mammon and God have long been twins. The Virgins Money and Mary. Not many businesses have property portfolios and multi-national interests as vast as those of the Church. There have been shops in cathedrals for decades, but now you have to pay just to walk inside these great, stone monuments. For Canterbury Cathedral, the entrance fee is £9.50. At Salisbury Cathedral they charge £10 per adult, with a family ticket of £27 for “two adults and one, two, or three children.” That’s right. Unplanned charlie number four will have to empty out his piggy bank, or wait outside.
Presumably, that other heavy monument nearby would not have fallen into ruin if, for the last five thousand years, visitors had been asked to pay the current £8 entrance fee. Not quite so long ago, in a different temple, Christ overturned the tables of the money changers. Perhaps someone pulled the same stunt at Stonehenge, but the authorities followed his advice, and things went downhill from there.
Sooner or later we all pass our solstice. Things shut down. Post offices now rent space in pharmacies. There is a plan to put police desks in post offices. They’ll be dispensing more than justice soon. To combat pay-day loans, the Archbishop is allowing user-friendly credit unions to operate on church premises. Why not go further and open up branches of the Church inside the money lenders? It’s true, one day some visionary capitalist might come along and overturn the altars, but companies like Wonga don’t need to put the Church of England out of business. It’s performing that task very well by itself with a growing canon of controversies which now include the announcements of its leader.
Meanwhile, let us venerate the miracle of interest. Receiving it is just like a Virgin birth.