Acton Institute Powerblog

Rowan Williams on Wall Street

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The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, delivered a talk on theology and economics at New York’s Trinity Church last week. The historic Wall Street church was the site of the Building an Ethical Economy: Theology and the Marketplace conference which promised to “bring together leading theologians and economists to talk about the relationship between economics and Christian belief and action.”

Williams had this to say:

“Inevitably at some point, you have to talk about what level of wealth generation is compatible with the finite setting in which we live.” The global economic crisis, he said, brought to light “unreal forms of wealth generation which simply produce naughts on the end of a balance sheet that correspond to nothing.”

“Theology,” he said, “while it can’t solve specific economic problems, will be at the very least nagging at the vocabulary, nudging at the assumptions.”

And that’s how his talk went — long on literary and theological metaphor (“money is a metaphor like other things”) but precious little on economics. What’s more, there seemed to be no words in his vocabulary that would help him distinguish between competing economic systems or, in fact, help him describe how the economic systems in the United Kingdom or the United States actually work. At some point, economics transcends mere metaphor and goes to work in a concrete way in the world in which people live.

Is the archbishop aware that there has been a jaw-dropping, incredible reduction in global poverty?

World poverty is falling. … new estimates of the world’s income distribution and suggests that world poverty is disappearing faster than previously thought. From 1970 to 2006, poverty fell by 86% in South Asia, 73% in Latin America, 39% in the Middle East, and 20% in Africa. Barring a catastrophe, there will never be more than a billion people in poverty in the future history of the world.

How did this happen? What type of economic system brought this about? Doesn’t it seem as though more than “naughts” are being produced in some of the poorest regions of the world? Is this poverty reduction not an occasion for rejoicing, or at the least singing a few hymns right there on Wall Street?

You can read the 3,600 word transcript of Williams’ talk here, but you won’t learn much about poverty reduction. Or economics.

And how many times do we have to be informed, by people who apparently believe they have discovered the connection for the first time, that the root meaning of economics is from the Greek word οικονομία for household management? Can you see the metaphor coming?

Williams announces that the “isolated homo economicus of the old textbooks, making rational calculations of self-interest, has been exposed as a straw man: the search for profit at all costs in terms of risk and unrealism has shown that there can be a form of economic ‘rationality’ that is in fact wildly irrational.”

Rowan Williams’ visit to Wall Street would have been more educational for him, and more edifying for those who heard his talk, if he had actually spent some time with the people who work in that district. He would have found out that, by and large, they’re not so “irrational” after all. They might help him understand how the world works, and that not everyone who labors on Wall Street, or on Main Street, believes that all human relations “are actually to do with exchange and the search for profit,” as he describes it. He might even find the imago Dei in one or two people who work on Wall Street. But he will only find that Image in real human persons, not metaphors.

John Couretas John Couretas is Director of Communications, responsible for print and online communications at the Acton Institute. He has more than 20 years of experience in news and publishing fields. He has worked as a staff writer on newspapers and magazines, covering business and government. John holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in the Humanities from Michigan State University and a Master of Science Degree in Journalism from Northwestern University.


  • Good post, John.

    By the way, there are many social justice left wingers like Rowan Williams infesting the Catholic Church, too.

    No, that’s not a slam against the Catholic Church (I’m Catholic). That’s slam against the liberal apostasy that has spread like a cancer from the USCCB outwards to the pews. Yes, there are great and orthodox Catholic bishops who still stand by the teaching of Holy Mother Church. But a few rotten apples think exactly the way Rowan Williams does (is that really called “thought” – it seems more like intellectual vomit to me).

    Sorry, I’m bad this morning.

  • Roger McKinney

    John, excellent points! Jim Wallis of Sojourners was at the same conference. I have been visiting the Sojourners blog for several weeks now, learning how they think and generally irritating them a lot. I encourage everyone to spend some time there. I have realized how much we talk past each other. Here are some examples:

    1) Justice—they have their own definition of justice. The traditional definition, which came from the Bible, is that justice is a process. If the process is fair, then the outcome is just. They define justice strictly in terms of outcomes, and outcomes are just only if they are what progressives want them to be. I point out as often as I can that this is a false concept of justice.

    2) Economics—progressives have nothing but contempt for economics. They will use short quotes from socialist economists, such as Keynes or Krugman, but generally consider economics an evil field. They seem to think that the Bible and Marx said everything worth saying about economics. I try to shame them as much as possible for this attitude. Their attitude toward all economic crises is that they are caused by sin, nothing else.

    3) They know nothing about the economics of the late scholastics.

  • Roger McKinney


    4) They have nothing but contempt for the Constitution and the rule of law. They see them as nothing but chains on progress. The will of the majority is sacred and should never under any circumstance be limited by mere principle.

    5) They worship the state. All state officials are good and wise. All private individuals are stupid and evil. As a result, they have enormous confidence in the wisdom of bureacrats to do the right thing for everyone.

    6) The only evil is greed.

  • One wonders what type of education and community produces this kind theological “naught” and pays to keep him around, even elevates him. A dedicated drug dealer knows more about the spiritual life and business/economics than Rowan Williams.

  • Michael JR Jose

    Here in the UK I gave up on the CofE a few years ago as an embarrassingly bad job, some of my best friends are CofE – I pray for them of course. A year or two ago the best the archbishop could do in the economics department was to tell the country in a speech to turn off a light bulb to save the planet. Of course all the papers the next day printed photos of the local churches and cathedrals that are lit up like floodlit football stadiums at night – purely for show, along with his speech. Does he know how many kilowatt hours per day I should use? Do I care for his opinion on this subject? Do any of us? Do I work to pay my bills or does he? If I save on light bulbs and electricity for a decade is it OK to fly off to Cyprus for an extra holiday and burn all the jet fuel in a compensatory splurge? Does he know? Do any of us care?

  • Phoebe Magdalena

    As a “lapsed Episcopalian” I just read your blog with interest and true sadness of heart. But I do not imagine very many American Episcopal bishops would have any more knowledge about economics than the poor benighted English Archbishop. Obviously, continued prayer is required for the Anglican Communion–a once powerful bulwark of Christendom now in such sad decline.

  • Michael JR Jose

    I don’t mind anyone being economically illiterate so long as they don’t preach at me on any topic economic. I think the best thing one can do for the CofE is tell them straight (but with appropriately) what is wrong with them, and to get their attention, point out that their numbers are declining.

  • Dean

    “By the way, there are many social justice left wingers like Rown Williams infesting the Catholic Church, too.”

    Social justice is a primarily Catholic issue. Unfortunately, most Catholics are not familiar with the Church’s teaching on economics and especially economic justice. To be against social justice is absurd–I mean, just read those words! “I am against social justice.” Not only is this ridiculous, it’s anti-Christian. Read the Gospels once more, cleared of your interpretive baggage, and even with the early church and the Catholic church, and tell me that you are against social justice.

    Buzz words are only that. Buzz. And buzzing is always annoying.