Caroline Humphries reports on the recent London Quakers dialogue event
Britain Yearly Meeting 2012 asked Friends to ‘stand in the Light, pray for the emergence of a “good economy”, and practise our opposition to the current system: in our lives and in the deeply spiritual process of putting our money in better places’. Friends from across London gathered at Friends House on 16 March to attend a London Quakers dialogue event on ‘Money and Morality’. They came with a broad range of agendas: to get a better understanding of economics, to network with Friends who might be interested in setting up a social enterprise and to learn more about ethical banking. They also came to share their experiences and look for ways to take practical action.
The event hosted three key speakers. Judith Moran, of Quaker Social Action (QSA), addressed the issue of changing our mindset about money – values, beliefs and assumptions. Danielle Walker Palmour, of the Friends Provident Foundation, explored the question of the right use of money. And lastly, Richard Murphy, of the Tax Research UK, spoke on the theme of putting money back in its box.
Judith Moran of QSA explained that helping people on low incomes to manage their money is a matter of winning hearts as well as minds: ‘none of us like being told what to do’. Challenging the audience to recall our first memories of money, she showed how our attitudes to money are bound up with our emotions. Changing our habits is not simply a case of learning new practical tools. How we make financial decisions may be linked to how openly money was discussed at home when we were young, or how comfortable we feel discussing it with our families.
Judith highlighted the importance of ‘respecting the dignity and the agency of the people we work with’ and QSA’s Made of Money project does just that. It enables low-income families to talk, listen and learn about money, debt and financial distress, and to ‘find solutions to the issues that affect their lives’.
The financial crisis and double dip recession has sharpened minds to picture alternatives to the current system. Danielle Walker Palmour, of the Friends Provident Foundation, explained how the charity’s focus has shifted from aiming to redistribute wealth to tackle inequalities in a system that is perceived to be ‘working’, to funding radical research and initiatives that will altogether challenge the current system that is now recognised to be ‘broken’.
She spoke about the injustices of a financial system ‘that works for most people, but doesn’t work for everybody’ in a world where ‘financial systems are not optional – they are infrastructure, like roads and water and electricity’ and those excluded are sidelined from being full members of society. Like Judith, she emphasised that how people feel is vital to any solution working. And for financial inclusion to be meaningful the solution needs to enable user choice and control.
Richard Murphy, the final speaker, argued that money alone cannot fulfil all our needs. Richard, who was a founder of the Tax Justice Network and author of Over here and under-taxed. He emphasised the pressing need for money to be ‘put back in its box’. He set out his theory that everyone can strive for fulfillment in each of four dimensions: material, emotional, intellectual and spiritual (or sense of purpose). We all have needs in these four areas, and we can all move towards achievement of our full potential. However, he warned, material over-consumption limits the extent to which we can grow and fulfil our potential in our other dimensions. If we are continually preoccupied with making money, it takes away from our time and energy to spend on our families, our relationships, our vocations, our learning and our wellbeing. ‘I do not believe we can over consume and then carry on achieving the same emotional, intellectual or purposeful fulfilment,’ he explained. ‘Why? Because we are finite.’ Besides which, we have a duty ‘to leave the planet in at least as good a condition for future generations as we inherit it’. Resisting social pressure to accumulate more and more is not easy. There needs to be a critical mass of voices calling for change.
The speakers were warmly received and followed by an enthusiastic question and answer session. Questions focused on what practical action we can we take to create change. John Courtneidge, a Friend from Bromley Meeting, made a personal plea for support as a Labour party candidate contesting a City of London election to encourage more democratic openness in the City. One audience member pointed out that ‘the average income of the top twenty per cent in this country is seven or eight times that of the bottom twenty per cent’. There was strong recognition that money is not the only resource with value and that people with very little money often have lots to give to their communities.
The speakers urged us to inform ourselves further through a wide variety of resources: The Equality Trust, the Story of Stuff Project, The Spirit Level, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. They emphasised the importance of challenging the dominant narrative by writing a letter to the local paper, joining a protest or calling in to a radio phone-in discussion.
This call to action reflects a momentum within Friends which is gathering across the country. Young Friends are actively considering ethical investment and how Quakers at all levels – individual, local, area and national – can be encouraged to invest resources to create the world we want to see. Quaker Peace & Social Witness (QPSW) is developing a web-based resource (Your Faith, Your Finances) to launch at Britain Yearly Meeting in May. This tool aims to support Friends and Meetings to make faith-consistent choices about our personal and collective use of money.
It is also running a seven-week ‘Economic Mythbusters’ online course (deadline for applications is Monday 22 April) in partnership with the New Economics Foundation, to explore new ideas for creating a more just and sustainable economic system and to challenge the ‘economic myths’ that obstruct these from being realised. Meanwhile, members of the Quakers and Business Group are setting up a Quaker bank, with a view to bringing Quaker values to the world of finance and develop a strong ethical alternative.
Westminster Friends have held workshops on economic justice, which considered the complicity of high street banks with the arms trade and the speculative ‘casino-style’ banking that fuelled the financial crisis. The Meeting is hosting a joint event with the Move Your Money campaign on Wednesday 17 April at 7.45pm to explore the ethical alternatives and the practicalities of making the switch. Laura Willoughby, chief executive of Move Your Money, describes how ‘moving banks is like breaking up from a relationship’ and the event is therefore aimed to support Friends to share their joys and fears! It will take place after Meeting for Worship at 6.15pm and is open to everyone.
A centred space
Recognising the powerful emotions that money can bring up, the Art and Spirituality Network led a reflective workshop following the Money and Morality speaker event to explore ‘how money fits with your values using silence, speech and kindergarten-simple arts and crafts activities’. The session was welcoming to those of all artistic abilities and none, grounded in contemplative silence and supportive sharing. The collages, sculptures and drawings that resulted reflected a range of responses from anger and frustration at the system to joy and peace in nature, relationships and spirituality. One participant asked, poignantly: ‘Why are footballers paid four times more than teachers?’ One pointed to ‘disturbed habitats’; another exclaimed that ‘money can be good (for us too)!’; another simply: ‘let there be light’.
In the turmoil of recession, unemployment and financial crisis, perhaps this is the greatest asset Friends have to offer: a centred space for exploring and reflecting, remembering our true values in a money-focussed world and sharing our strength and hope to journey forward.
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