Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Church and business: retail therapy

Here’s a letter that Kim Fabricius recently published in the British church magazine Reform:

I have no problem with the church in the retail park (“Retail Therapy”, Reform March); what I do have a problem with is the retail park in the church in the retail park.

Mega-malls are the cathedrals of consumerism in which bending the knee to global capitalism takes the form of conspicuous and relentless shopping. What concerns me is that the ecumenical chaplaincy at Middlebrook Retail Park, Bolton might simply be the court prophet that blesses such pagan subjection to distorted desire and spiritual restlessness.

I am concerned, for example, that the “calm space where worries can be talked through” sounds suspiciously like what Philip Rieff calls reducing the gospel to “rubber nipple” therapy in the burgeoning “anxiety market”.

I am concerned that so-called audacious conversations with the punter, the staff and the boss may not include the pathologies of shopping and debt, the sin of corporate avariciousness, the smoke and mirrors of marketing and branding, the ethics of fishing-the-bottom (the north shops, the south drops), the economic suicide of protectionism, and so on. Now that would be audacious.

And I am concerned, at source, about the agreement between church and management that presumably sets parameters for the project: is the chaplain free to evangelise, spearhead fair trade campaigns, fight for workers’ rights, etc – or is the gospel in chains?

I hope I’ve got it wrong, and that “retail chaplaincy” has nothing to do with greasing the squeaking wheel of the market economy by suppressing hard theological questions and colluding in the privatisation of faith. (As a university chaplain I myself have, of course, exercised a pastoral/counselling ministry; but I have also felt compelled openly to criticise university management for its obsession with a business model of learning, as well as for its contemptible investments in the arms trade.)

It is suggestive, I think, that when Paul ventured into the market place in Ephesus (Acts 19:21ff.), he caused such a “serious disturbance” (v. 23) over the trade in silver that the crowd rioted and tried to lynch two of the apostle’s companions.

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