Faith & Reason: Mutuality - not a mess of pottage

'We are all really responsible for all,' teaches the Pope. Paul Vallely welcomes the decisive vote of members of the Nationwide building society to retain its mutual status.
It was, said Brian Davis, the chief executive of the Nationwide, a victory for competition. This week 70 per cent of the members of the building society voted against a proposal to turn it into a bank. A vote the other way would have netted them windfalls of thousands of pounds of the kind which members of the Alliance & Leicester, Halifax, Woolwich, Northern Rock and Norwich Union gained when they voted to relinquish their mutual status earlier this year.

I cannot speak for the other 1.35 million people who voted No. But I have to let Mr Davis know that it was not the promise of lower mortgage rates or higher savings rates which prompted me to cast my vote in that direction. To me it is not so much a victory for competition as for mutuality.

Mutuality is a deeply biblical concept. It is there in the Old Testament notion that we are our brother's keeper and in the New Testament ethic that we must love our neighbour as ourselves. It is woven deep into the fabric of the commonality of purpose of the people of Israel. It is there at the heart of Christian theology: relationship is integral to the very identity of God according to the doctrine of the Trinity. It is there in the body of Catholic Social Teaching which a succession of popes have developed over the last century with its notion of the common good.

It is, said Pope John Paul II in the encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, "above all a question of interdependence". Solidarity, he said, "is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say, to the good of all and of each individual because we are all really responsible for all".

By contrast there is no theology of windfall. The manna from heaven was a symbol of subsistence. It could not be stored up. It rotted after one day. It spoke of an ethic of sufficiency, not excess. It is harder to imagine anything further from the indulgent inflation-fuelling consumer boom of our present windfall fever. Its theology is that of Eighties individualism which elevated greed into a virtue.

A related papal concept, assimilated from liberation theology, has been the notion of "structures of sin" - oppressive systems like the arms race, unfair trade or Third World debt which force individuals to act immorally because not to do so might result in them going under too.

The mutual society, by contrast, must be a structure of grace for it assists its members to do good for others whilst benefitting others. It transforms the commandment to "love your neighbour as yourself" into a mechanism of sound finance. The argument for demutualisation is improved efficiency. Yet by remaining mutual a building society can offer lower mortgage rates and higher savings rates because, unlike banks, they do not have shareholders demanding dividends: the demutualised Halifax is raising its variable mortgage rate to 8.2 per cent from next month while Nationwide is increasing its rate to 7.85 per cent. But, while preserving the self-interest of the strong, mutuality also offers help to those in need, promoting dignity, self-reliance and self-esteem. It is not a jam tomorrow or reward-in-heaven theology but one which tells us that the kingdom can be with us now.

The between-the-lines argument is not improved efficiency, it is improved profits - and profits which are acquired by stealing the accumulated wealth of our parents and grandparents. But they do not belong to us. We hold them as stewards for future generations.

No doubt such a notion would be fanciful to the large number of "carpet- baggers" who last month, in the hope of future windfalls, deposited money in the remaining mutuals creating the biggest inflow of new cash into building societies for more than a decade. (The Nationwide took in pounds 1.3bn in new money - a rise so dramatic it was forced to suspend all new account openings). But the concept of inter-generational responsibility is far from illusory to anyone who believes in the communion of saints or understands the Genesis story of how Esau was induced to sell his birthright for a mess of pottage.

I like to think that the 1.35 million members of the Nationwide realised this. And that the pendulum really is now swinging away from the ideology of individualism and back to the theology of community.