Sunday, 27 November 2011

Stoke Newington Baptist Church, Stoke Newington High Street, 20.11.11

The economic apocalypse is nigh. Don’t fear war, pestilence, famine and death but instead run to your Bible and pray to stop the rise of cuts, inflation, unemployment and debt. Not that all cuts are bad cuts, some cuts can free communities from needless bureaucracy. Inflation is also fine as long as it remains low and stable in conjunction with the rate of employment. Unemployment would not be the end of the world if you have a good welfare state providing financial and social support. Even debts can be solved by low interest bank loans. No, the economic crisis is not comparable to The Book of Revelation as the international news media would like you to believe but this Sunday even God became victim to the global recession.
 God and money have an odd relationship, all men are created equal in the eyes of God but money is often how we attempt to measure a person’s worth outside the dogma of religion. Money is a value system formed long before science knocked religion off its creationist perch and is the longest provocateur to religion. Christianity sees money as an essential tool in spreading the Lords Word but Bible is not so kind towards money. Money appears in the Bible as the tool of the oppressor and the religious prophets are far poorer and humbler in their existence. For example: Jesus is not a rich man- it's essential that he gave everything to the poor and the needy. The majority of non-believers criticism of the church is that they take money from the poor and sell them hope through the promise of heaven.  Non-believers feel uncomfortable at the site of wealthy churches and often think would Jesus approve of such extravagance. So when I arrived at the modest stone face of the  Stoke Newington Baptist Church and entered the fairly rundown interior of the nave my heart lifted that this was a church rich in ways not so obvious to the eye.
The church was filled with understatement; a modest altar, a very low tech projector and a small stained glass window marked the sanctuary out from the collection of black chairs that filled the nave. A few religious decorations hung across the nave’s walls, leaving the colours of beige, brown and cream to blur into one nondescript glow that was strangely affecting. This corporate like conference room had been spiritually converted and despite the placidity of its design it had risen to a higher purpose. The lack of grandeur and glamour did not indicate a lack of care from the congregation but mere signs that life took precedence over material spectacle. The environment should not have been inspiring but the large mixed congregation led by Pastor John Taylor generated a community atmosphere not found in the architecture of government buildings. The service’s ramshackle beauty was typified by the church band, an odd collection of saxophonist, keyboardist, Organist and Violinist; who naturally struggled with some hymns until the late entrance of the resident drummer; a young black kid no older than 14 with low hung jeans, baseball cap and Nike raincoat and who acknowledge nobody as he waltzed up to the kit before he began to pound the drums mid hymn. The music should not have worked, technically it did not work but you could not fault the harmonious joy the audience and band shared. The humble and modest yet still joyful and triumphant congregation of Stoke Newington Baptist Church had spirit for these economically tough times but I was yet to learn the precarious practicalities of their situation.
Pastor John Taylor carried a statesman like air of importance when he spoke with a realist’s modesty. His untypical sermon was not concerned with the spiritual transformative love of Jesus Christ but the practicalities of the church’s annual budget and outlining the amount that would be apportioned for Christmas giving.   Perhaps the sermon lacked the romanticism of the Holy Scripture for the majority of the congregation but I personally found his speech enthralling as I discovered how the church spends its money. The most heart-warming aspect of the church budget was learning that alongside the money given to the Baptist Union, Christian Fellowship schemes and International aid was the name of one family household who needed help after falling victim to hard times (to one of the economic four horseman no doubt).  Charity within a community is something so rare to in fragmented London it filled me with early Christmas cheer. However after Pastor John Taylor asked the congregation to discuss with him during the break any issues some may have, he returned from the break stating no one had talked to him. I guess the community trusted their pastor as they were far more familiar about the church’s spending and would prefer to sing, dance and praise the Lord than worry about how the collection plate is spent. It’s rare that a Church would be so transparent with its budgets yet Pastor Taylor was keen to indicate that the annual micro budget was necessary to contextualise the larger economic problems facing the Baptist Union.
Just like businesses, nations and continents, churches are economically failing. This year the Baptist union ran approximately one million pounds over budget, it can sustain the same deficit next year but if the Baptist Union funds don’t improve in 2013 it realistically will see churches close down and subsequently merge.  A symbol of the economic decline is the Baptist Times (running since 1855) which will be discontinued this year as it loses the church money. Like secular forms of the print industry whose economic interest has declined due to the digitalisation of the media, the Baptist Times is not a viable source to spread the word of God. The prospective changes facing the Stoke Newington Baptist Union did not seem to worry the congregation. A large portion of the congregation were from Africa and particularly Angola, and some elder members had the sermon translated into Portuguese. The congregation were very helpful in explaining that the church had once been predominantly white but in recent years Pastor John Taylor had shared the pulpit with an Angolan minister. As time passed the Angolan minister returned to Africa but the influx of an African congregation survived and integrated. Services went from being held in English and Portuguese to just English. Arguably the unison between the elderly white church members and the new African arrivals is not simply a spiritual meeting but one that is economically formed through globalisation of the 1990s. The church in many respects has already proved its ability to adapt to a changing economic environment so why should they not believe the congregation can overcome such future struggles.
The central reason for the congregation’s resolve is that they have faith in a higher power and The Rapture is a far scarier prospect than the current global economic downturn. Secular society could easily dismiss such faith in higher powers as blissfully ignorant but maybe we should look at ourselves and our own ignorant faith we have put into the financial market. In the most simple and reductive explanation to our current economic crisis  I would state that the crisis in the US, UK and rest of Europe is born out of the ability to trade off debt through credit that is supplied by banks under the guise that the company/country/continent will make a future profit. Clearly the global economic system is not that simple but neither is The Bible which is far more publically renounced than our global financial market.
 The market and the Bible claim to be based on truth, their power comes from a faith based language in which words only have importance if you believe in them. Borrowing and lending is a part of human nature which has offered a practical solution throughout history in building trust within communities (like loving your neighbour or treating others how you wish to be treated) but when you enter the world of derivatives, futures and hedge funds you are creating a language and belief system to legitimise an impractical monopoly. I don’t believe that derivatives, futures and hedge funds are a real solution to our economy but are a fiction that has been given political currency and have been used to enslave the many by the few. Take the last sentence and replace the words, derivatives, futures and hedge funds with the words God, The Holy Ghost and Jesus Christ and you would replicate the a typical criticism the church receives within an atheist media. However God is not making me redundant, The Holy Ghost is not reclaiming my house and Jesus Christ comes for free. To be religious you have a choice but we have no such choice in belonging to our current Capitalist society, we are told this is truth and we must accept. Not even God can escape the four horseman of cuts, inflation, unemployment and debt but at least his followers can sing and dance waiting for a better life. Congregation's belief can make even a small church made from a pile of stones as rich as the kingdom heaven.

Not wanting to patronise the reader but please see below for my biased definitions of derivatives, futures and hedge funds:
A derivative is a contract for payment between two parties that is a dated transaction and has no independent value but whose price is derived from an underlying asset (commodity, stock or share). Controversially a derivative has legal exemptions (in the US) and is an attractive proposition in extending credit despite the value of derivatives fluctuating based on the market.
A Future is a future contract for payment between two parties for a specific asset of standardized quantity and quality for a set price, with delivery of the asset occurring on a future date. In the future the asset may have lost or gained profit so it will always be gamble for the buyer and the seller and never a fair trade.
A hedge fund is a private pool of capital managed by an investment advisor. A hedge fund is only open to investment from accredited or qualified investors. Hedge funds look for trends in the global financial market to trade and their activities vary but they would not be as powerful if derivatives and futures did not exist. Arguably derivatives and futures can be used to counter balance the risk of trading, hence the term “Hedging,” in which the fund has the opportunity to make money from money. 
Personally all of these financial tools have no grounding in reality and merely make money from money or makes money from the belief people have in money, like gambling without the sport. 

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