So many of what the Bible calls our powers and principalities – those earthly authorities that are arrayed against a human instinct that “there must be something better than this” – have collapsed since 2008, the year of the global financial meltdown.
Parliamentarians were the first to go in the expenses scandal of that year – a low point that they have reprised recently by making the House of Lords a penny arcade for lobbyists. We need no reminding that our banks, architecturally sculpted as fortresses of probity in the Victorian era, have turned out, in a few cases at least, to be casinos run by spivs. The retail superstores have been wolves dressed as lambs, serving up horsemeat dressed as beef. Our utility services have bullied the vulnerable on their doorsteps, when not ganging up on us in price-fixing cartels.
Lately, the Police have appeared more intent on fitting us up as criminals than protecting us from them. Internet search engines have turned out to be searching us. The press has hacked our phones and broadcast celebrities have grotesquely breached the greatest human trusts of all – an abomination that our churches have shamefully shared.
On a beach-head swept by this tsunami of sleaze, PR people stand and still talk about the need for our cherished institutions “to get their message across”. They talk of a return to the pre-2008 economic model of avarice-fuelled growth, as Chekhov heroines speak wistfully of a return to Old Moscow. It is a form of psychological denial – we’re tempted to take them gently by the elbow, as one might a Japanese soldier discovered on a remote Pacific island who doesn’t know the war has ended, and tell them it’s all over.
The bottom line is that the old nostrums – that greed is good, that it is every man for himself, that the poor are to blame for their plight, that wealth can be created by arithmetic alone – no longer stand up to scrutiny.
When I worked for the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, he guest-edited the New Statesman. Outraged MPs wrote to Lambeth Palace telling him that he should “stay out of politics”. This is nothing new of course. When the Church of England published Faith in the City in 1985 it elicited a similarly resentful response.
But Christian witness has arguably been a thorn in the side of secular politics since Pontius Pilate asked “What is Truth?” during a particularly difficult morning at the office. In terms of our intrusion into the politics of the modern world, the liberal catholic tradition channelled the American social-gospel movement in the nineteenth century. By the Second World War, Archbishop William Temple was publishing his Malvern Manifesto with the words: “The Church must announce Christian principles and point out where the existing social order at any time is in conflict with them. It must then pass on to Christian citizens, acting in their civic capacity, the task of reshaping the existing order in closer conformity to those principles.”
No pressure there, then. The role of the Church is to conflict with a social order that departs from a generous worldview – and that is a rubric with some fairly profound implications for those in roles of professional communication. These are the people who seek to re-establish major corporations and institutions of state in positions of public trust, through a discipline that post-modernity dubbed “situation ethics”.
It’s really about the characteristics of the way we communicate authentically. Our communications need to be transformative, if those powers and principalities are in due course to serve the common good (which is really analagous to what some Christians call “Kingdom values”). They need to be disruptive, if they are to have any eschatological effect on the existing order. And they need to be radical if they are going to change the prevailing mindset that anything goes in business, that winning is about having the most when the music stops and that you hang up your principles with your coat when you arrive at the office.
It has to be said that the overwhelming majority of those engaged in corporate communications have failed yet to grasp that this is the way forward, continuing to proffer the dispiriting cycle of corporate lying and then apologising when caught out that got us into the economic and societal mess that we’re in now.
Industry needs a renaissance of its sense of service. Not in the demarcation between manufacturing and service industries, but in the realisation that companies serve not only their shareholders but also their customers, their staff and, ultimately, everyone whose lives they touch.
We need to realise that it doesn’t have to be like this, like it is now. Capitalist free markets didn’t always look like this. There was once a sense of mutuality even in the ownership of joint-stock companies, even we might add “among those dark, satanic mills”. Because, ultimately, there isn’t really a whole lot of difference between the idea of service industry and a servant ministry.