Project Canterbury

Churchmanship and Labour
Sermons on Social Subjects Preached at S. Stephen's Church, Walbrook.

Compiled by the Rev. W. Henry Hunt.

London: Skeffington and Son, 1906.

"The City of God"

Sermon XXII. Building the City.

By the Rev. Conrad Noel.

"He that hath not given his money upon usury, nor taken reward against the innocent. Whoso doeth these things shall never fall." Psalm xv. 6, 7 (P.B.V.).

NOW I would ask you at the outset to examine for yourselves whether or not the statement I made yesterday is true, first of all that Usury means Interest in any shape or form, that until quite recently the English word Usury simply meant Interest, neither more nor less, and that at the time of the translation of the Psalms and of the Bible, that word was the translation of what in the Latin and Greek and Hebrew meant "the taking of interest," whether it were a penny or ten pounds. Secondly, I would ask you to examine my statement that the undivided Church universally and unanimously condemned all taking of interest until the fifty or one hundred years preceding that very disastrous but absolutely necessary break-up of Christendom, the Reformation, I say "disastrous" because we all feel that although the thing was necessary owing to the very corrupt state of affairs, yet it has separated one part of the Christian world from the other, and the fulness and richness of the Christian tradition in which we live has been lost. That fifty or one hundred years immediately preceding the Reformation is universally acknowledged to have been the most corrupt period of the Christian Church, and Churchmen came to hold lax opinions on the subject of usury among others. You can hardly take Christian teachers of just that particular period as guides on any great moral issues; but although they were lax on the subject of interest, I think you will find, if you examine the matter carefully, that it is perfectly true to say that they would have allowed nothing like the interest-taking that dominates the modern world.

I would like you also to examine my statement, its accuracy or otherwise, that the condemnation of interest is as persistent a note in the writings of all the Christian teachers down to that age as is, say, the mention of the custom of fasting Communion. And I would like you to ask yourselves if you are going to follow the Christian tradition on the matters of fasting Communions, or, say, the wearing or not wearing of Vestments, whether you ought not to be quite as careful to follow the tradition with regard to these wider matters which must, whatever may be our opinions on the other questions, be regarded by good Catholics as very much more important.

I would ask you further to consider whether what I said is not true, namely, that this laxity about interest-taking curiously coincides with a change in the religious world, a change which withdrew religion in idea, and then in practice, from the whole of man's life, and made it merely an affair between the soul and its God, an individualistic private affair; and that it was just when whole realms of life were being left out of account by religion that this laxity in practical affairs came in.

Then, lastly, would it not be well to ask ourselves this, whether, before we are kind to our fellow-men, it is not our duty to be just to them?

An enormous number of very serious and very clear thinkers in our own age, of all classes, believe that a society built up upon interest, upon the money-lender, the income-taker, is an unjust society, and that laws which allow money-lending or income-taking do really allow, to use a rather crude word, the theft of some of the produce of labour produced by the mental and manual labourers, and that the person who is living on income solely, without making any return, is, as Ruskin pointed out, either a robber or a beggar.

Yesterday, I referred you to the Church, because I believe as Church people you care very much about the universal Church tradition on the subject. But I imagine that although you would attach great importance to that tradition, and to that universal teaching, you will possibly feel, and rightly, that your own reason must be appealed to in this matter, and that we must re-examine the whole question of interest for ourselves.

Now, how are unearned incomes derived?

Take the case of a young man, perhaps twenty-one years of age; we will call him Gabriel Smith. He inherits a certain acreage of land which he sublets to a farmer, and after all deductions he draws £200 rent a year from it, clear profit. He also has left to him a sum of £5,000 after deducting all death duties. And this money is reinvested for him in a railway company, a boot factory, and in a gold exploration and land company, and we will say that in this latter company is invested £1,000. For this investment he gets no return for the present, but the remainder, the £4,000, brings him in, after deducting income-tax and everything else, just £160 a year.

This £160 a year rent on industry added to his £200 a year rent on land, makes £360 a year on which he can live. He is thus enabled to live on his income, a very modest one, and out of which he will not be able to get many luxuries, but it is enough for him to live on. This money he gets from lending his land and his capital, hoping, not as Christ said, for nothing in return, but hoping for ^360 a year in return, with the possibility also hoped for, of considerably more arising from that rather speculative £r,000 put into the land exploration company.

Now this young man, Gabriel Smith, may be a scamp, or he may be an admirable fellow, perhaps a little of both like most of us; in a word, an honest, but rather colourless person. He may be humble, and pleasant to deal with, upright and honest according to his lights; he may be conceivably better than any single artisan in this country, for the artisan may or may not be a somewhat arrogant person, and Mr. Gabriel Smith may not be at all arrogant. But this has nothing whatever to do with the fact that his business is that of a money-lender, or usurer; it makes no difference to that, except of course in that he is a perfect gentleman, and gets what little work there is to do in connection with his money-lending done by an agent or rent collector, and does not soil his own hands with it!

Now surely it is an interesting question for us to consider, why the universal Church condemned--I do not say that man--but the growth of a system of society which makes the Gabriel Smiths possible. Surely as Christians we ought at least to ask ourselves that question before we praise that system, and are perfectly content to let it go on.

Now let us examine first of all this exploration company. I will quote from the Pall Mall Gazette in 1891, taking a certain land company which will serve as an illustration of thousands of others:

"The annual general meeting (of a certain company) was held this afternoon at Winchester House. The Chairman proceeded to move the adoption of the report. He said that since the last meeting practically nothing had been done; they were waiting for more prosperous times--they were an exploring and land, not a mining company--with a view to inducing others to form subsidiary companies for working the property. At the present moment the formation of companies was practically a dead letter, and it would be useless to point out to promoters where operations could be carried on as they would be unable to raise the necessary funds. They had reduced their expenses to the lowest possible limit, the directors having foregone their fees, and the total amount being only ,£400 a year. They were waiting for better times and the advent of railways before endeavouring to work the riches they believed were contained in the 156 square miles of territory which they now possessed,"

Now the Church Fathers, and the Schoolmen (the leading thinkers of the early Christian Church) would have asked, and did ask, in similar cases: What work was Gabriel Smith putting into that venture? How was he expecting to get his money from it? Well, what is. the work of Gabriel Smith? His work is to wait. He waits--for what? For labour of mind and hand, for mental enterprise and manual labour to develop that land. He has secured a little bit of it, and he says: It is impossible for you to earn your living without working, and without land. I will secure land, and as you work that land, or those mines, you shall pay me a toll upon which I shall live. You may be hungry, you may have to overwork and be underfed, but I shall not do any work, and am going to be overfed.

That is the way in which the universal Church used to look at these questions.

Now look again at Gabriel Smith's rent on land. He does no work here either, none whatever. (I am not talking now of a landlord who owns certain cottages and happens to be a good landlord and keeps them in proper repair, and so on; all work that a man does, whether with his mind or his hands, ought to be properly paid for. It is not a question of one class against another class, there is no question of that, and the Church never meant that. All work, all good, honest, productive work ought to be properly paid for).

You might have a state of society in which it was thought well to pay mind work the same as hand work, or you might, on the other hand, think that the most absurd thing to do. That is not the point, the point is that there are very many people now taking toll, living on a tax which they are legally able to take on productive work performed by others. And, therefore, you have this extraordinary state of things, namely, the idleness and overfeeding of a certain class, and the sweating and underfeeding of another class. And no amount of tinkering with the thing, no amount of simply being kind will do any good. As I said before, there is a sort of charity, of almsgiving, which curseth him that gives and him that takes, and no amount of that kind of thing will put this evil right. We must go down to the foundations of our City of God, and get them right first.

Well, to go back to Gabriel Smith, it is the same with his boot factory and his railway shares. He puts no work into either of these concerns, and yet he is able to draw money from them in the form of a toll, a tax, a levy upon the industry of mind and hand performed by others. The amount in his case is not considerable, but remember that this five thousand pounds and that little bit of land make it not only possible for him to live in idleness, but also make it possible for his son, and his son's sons to do so in perpetuity.

But people say, you cannot get on without capital and land. Of course you can't, but you can get on without the Gabriel Smiths, and you cannot get on with him, that is the difficulty. Of course, if you, the people who work with mind and hand, consent to keep these people, your paupers, beggars upon your charity, well and good, but let us know that you are doing it. And first of all let us face the situation. You cannot get on without these primal things which God gives you, any more than you can get on without air. Some day in England you may possibly have laws which will enable some people to withdraw air from the general use of the community, and to charge a small rent for it--very well if you like to have it so; but in those days idiots will go about saying you cannot get on without the air lords, for air is capital; but any baby can see that you (i) cannot get on with landlords, factory lords, air lords; (2) cannot get on without land, factories, and air; (3) and can get on with these things much better, without having to support the monopolists who have withdrawn them from the common use.

Whence does the income of the income-taker come?

In a large number of cases it comes from rents on land or houses which have been inherited. If we trace these things back to their original source, we find that the land in the first instance was either stolen from the community by an ancestor, or was bestowed upon him by an irresponsible king for some service, often the reverse of useful, or he has taken it from the monasteries, which did perform a good deal of real hard agricultural work, or the nation gave it to him conditionally on his raising troops for the service of his king and country in time of war (and he generally goes on taking the land when he has forgotten all about the troops!) Or supposing (and this is rather a far-fetched supposition) that he had some righteous title to the land or capital in the first place, we must not lose sight of the fact that he has no title apart from the law, and this gives him no right to settle upon his heirs for ever this power to live in idleness, to live without working--I do not say without work, for nobody lives without somebody's work, and all interests and rents are ultimately paid by labour. John Stuart Mill, who was not a very revolutionary person, but simply a clearheaded economist, says this: "The greater part in value of the wealth now existing in England has been produced by human hands within the last twelve months."

Land and capital are the prime essentials, without access to which the propertyless man cannot labour, and therefore cannot live. By an artificial arrangement, an ancestor, by fair means or foul, secured a portion of these primal necessaries, not that he and his descendants might work them themselves, but that they might withhold them from the workers until they should agree to pay them a perpetual toll for access. The law has secured to you and your heirs the power to dictate to the propertyless man whether he shall live or die, whether he shall work or starve. And we are obliged, more or less, to close with the income-taker on his own terms. It may be, of course, that the man who first got together the family fortune acquired it fairly, but can a service that he rendered to the community fifty, one hundred, or a thousand years ago, by any possibility have been of such enormous value that the present generation and generations yet unborn be legally obliged for all time to keep his heirs in idleness? Can the service of any single individual constitute a fair claim upon society for all time? That is what people are asking now--what hundreds of people who live upon such incomes are asking themselves. They want to live a clean life, and they cannot get away from the suspicion that while they patronise the poor they are living upon incomes derived from the pockets of the poor, and that the working-classes are poor because of the tolls they are compelled to give the people who live in big houses. We may yet live to hear a middle-class cry addressed to the workers: '' Curse your charity, we want work!"

Now you cannot go back to the middle ages, you cannot put back the clock, and here we are involved in a network of anxiety. Our modern commercial prosperity, so far as it is prosperity, is built up on this system. Surely the only thing we can do is, not to upset the whole arrangement, not to try and go back to an earlier and primitive state of society, but to try by a readjustment to right the wrong. Surely these people, if they could clearly see their position, would admit that it was not just or right of any man to live without working. And they would admit that it would be just that they should, I do not say necessarily, withdraw even one of their investments, but that they should be taxed by the community which earns and produces the wealth; that a community tax should be put upon their incomes so as to get back into the hands of the people who have produced it that wealth which they themselves have created.

It is, therefore, I should say, not by going back to the past, revolutionising industry, but by going on and using means to re-divert the money which has been diverted from its proper channels, back again into those channels, and by applying such money to the service of the community which produced it, not in the interests of one class, but in the interests of the community as a whole. This, of course, may be done in what way you like, but admit the principle, and do it.

Then you will find that the foundations will once more be right; justice will once more be done, then we can go on to benevolence and charity.

And if in time to come we find that our children or our children's children are not able to live in idleness, but must be brought up to a trade, may I, in conclusion, quote the words of a not too revolutionary authority that says that it is good to bring up our children to learn and labour truly to get their own living "in that station of life to which it shall please God to call them."

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