Christina Patterson: Thank God ethics is a messy business

We're lucky to have a state religion which doesn't tell you what to think, or who to hate, or how to vote

Related Topics

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 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 programme 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 per cent 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.";

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper

£23000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small, friendly, proactive...

Recruitment Genius: Photographic Event Crew

£14500 - £22800 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developers - .NET / ASP.NET / WebAPI / JavaScript

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Software Developer is required to join a lea...

Austen Lloyd: Corporate Tax Solicitor - City

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: A first rate opportunity to join a top ranking...

Day In a Page

Read Next

After Savile, we must devote our energies to stopping child abuse taking place right now

Mary Dejevsky
A ‘hugely irritated’ Sir Malcolm Rifkind on his way home from Parliament on Monday  

Before rushing to criticise Malcolm Rifkind, do you know how much being an MP can cost?

Isabel Hardman
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower