Edward Carter: “Capital and the Kingdom – Theological Ethics and Economic Order” by Tim Gorringe

I first read this book shortly after it was published in 1994, at a time when I was starting to explore the interface between Christian ethics and economics. Re-reading it some twenty years later has been instructive, now that this field has been developed rather more and is taken seriously again by at least some of those involved in politics and public life.

The book is set out in four parts, preceded by a helpful introduction in which Tim Gorringe sets out his stall by explaining how he uses Karl Marx as a dialogue partner throughout. This gives a hint as to his own political leanings. Indeed, in his introduction he even locates Marx as standing within the tradition of prophecy (p. xi). This means that Gorringe works essentially with a structured view of society and of economics that draws on Marxist theories of power and domination, rather than something more dynamic or entrepreneurial, and this is the undergirding theme of Part One. However, the theme of ‘narrative’ and economic history is certainly also present here, as part of his general critique of a version of economics that is ‘at the mercy of abstract laws which only experts can fathom’ (p. 22).

Within Part One I enjoyed finding at least two sharp criticisms of Brian Griffiths, Chairman of CEME, and having heard Lord Griffiths’ more recent reflections my sense is that he might now yield a little ground to Gorringe when it comes to the place for Christianity within public policy (see p. 13), while holding fast against the Marxist view on equality and liberty (p. 54). In certain respects, the world that Gorringe describes has changed. I particularly noticed this in his discussion of a living wage, which has now been embraced across the political spectrum in the UK.

Part Two of the book has four chapters that address more focused subjects. The first of these, ‘Work, Leisure, and Human Fulfillment’, sets out a valuable survey of Christian thinking through history on this theme, with the conclusion that ‘true leisure is not utilitarian’ (p. 77), and that both work and leisure are about human realisation. As a stand-alone section this would make good reading for anyone wanting a critique of a self-contained neo-classical economic world-view. However, the other three chapters in Part Two resonate more strongly with Gorringe’s Marxist theme, as they tackle the subjects of alienation, solidarity, resistance, and social justice. Gorringe looks for a ‘rejection of the individualism which divides people and sets them against each other, affirmation that humanity consists in working together’ (p. 102). While this is indeed a hopeful broad vision to set forth, as I read these words I found myself wondering whether it takes seriously enough the way in which entrepreneurial energies operate within the economy.

Part Three is given the over-arching heading ‘The Common Treasury’, in which Gorringe explores the subjects of personal property, inequality, planning and ecology. His general approach is one that advocates a socialist ‘control’ of the economy, and at one point he states that ‘some kind of global planning is needed’ (p. 140). Part Four then consists of a single final chapter, entitled ‘Two Ways’, in which Gorringe mounts a strong attack on global capitalism. It was here that I was surprised but pleased to stumble across a reference to the economist Joseph Schumpeter. His work had been used as ammunition within a 1980s debate between the Roman Catholic bishops of the USA and some prominent Catholic lay people. Reading this section carefully, my impression was that Gorringe brackets Schumpeter with a more general neo-classical take on economic theory, and then summarily lambasts them both. However, I would argue that he has missed something here, and that a more careful look at the contrast between Schumpeterian economics and the neo-classical approach would have been fruitful. In fact, Schumpeter has been taken in a Marxist direction, notably by Paul Sweezy, and I wondered if Gorringe might have changed his line if he had been aware of this.

On almost the last page of the book I then found this sentence: ‘There is nothing intrinsically wrong with enterprise, initiative and ownership. What is wrong is when these are harnessed to profit, power, self-aggrandisement, and inequality.’ (p. 166) As a programmatic statement this felt promising to me, but I struggled to see how large parts of the book itself could be taken to support or develop it. Rather, for Gorringe any sense of enterprise or initiative seems essentially to be subsumed within a Marxist superstructure, and the need for human cooperation to be played out in a society marked by planning and control. In the end, therefore, I found this book to be a helpful foil against which I wanted to put forward different ideas connected to human enterprise. However, as a major contribution in the field of theological ethics and economic theory its importance cannot be doubted.

 

“Capital and the Kingdom: Theological Ethics and Economic Order” was published in 1994 by SPCK/Orbis Books (ISBN 10: 0-281-04773-1)


Edward Carter has been a Canon Theolgian at Chelmsford Cathedral since 2012, having previously been a parish priest in Oxfordshire, a Minor Canon at St George’s Windsor and a curate in Norwich. Prior to ordination he worked for small companies and ran his own business.

Since 2010 he has been a Trustee of the Church of England’s CBF Funds, which has around £2bn of church money under investment. He also serves on the Ethical Investment Advisory Group of the Church of England. His research interests include a theology of enterprise, and his hobbies include board-games, volleyball and film-making. He is married to Sarah and they have two adult sons.