The Use of Money
by Mark Wilsher
24th September 2009
Artist Mark Wilsher explores the links between John Wesley's famous speech and Bristol's Cabot Circus development.
The worlds of religion and politics have long been intertwined. Nevertheless it still comes as something of a surprise to discover such specific and down to earth advice about employment and financial matters in John Wesley's 18th century sermon The Use of Money. The full text is an examination and unpicking of Luke 16:9, in which Christ advises his flock to "Make unto yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness". Money may frequently be made by unrighteous means, and put to dubious ends, but that is no reason for the pious to spurn it as an evil in itself. As Margaret Thatcher was to regularly quote from the sermon over two hundred years later, "Having first gained all you can, and secondly saved all you can, then give all you can" (she sometimes forgot this third part). This three-part formula, known to scholars as Wesley's Trilateral, is the means by which the spiritual touches on the pecuniary, the mechanism through which church and capital collide with the aim of diverting as much money as possible towards the intentions of the former. But it is important to note that a well-intentioned end result in no way justifies the employment of dubious means along the way. Wesley was quite clear about this in his sermon, work should not impair the body and must allow adequate time for eating and sleeping (in order that we are fit for worship each morning). He advises against working with molten lead or arsenic, and any job that involves too much writing, especially writing standing up for long periods. It should not break the law, defraud the king, hurt our neighbours, cause us to mix with bad company, undercut other businesses, poach their staff, or impair anyone else's health through selling "spirituous liquors", or their minds through sinful taverns, play-houses and places of "fashionable diversion". With these caveats in mind, we are free to go out and "gain all you can" through honest industry.
The New Room's location in the heart of Broadmead's many shopping streets and plazas seems anachronistic at first when you stumble onto its peaceful courtyards. It was spared significant bomb damage in the war, just one window pane breaking while the area around it suffered badly. The post war regeneration of Broadmead was just another in a long succession of changes to the heart of Bristol that have most recently culminated in the £500 million Cabot Circus development. In fact John and Charles Wesley chose the central location of The Horsefair among shops and businesses precisely because they wanted to reach the working man. John Wesley had initially been brought to the area by George Whitefield in order continue his practise of "field preaching" to large crowds at Hanham Mount. Although reluctant to do it, Wesley soon realised that it was a good way to reach those who would never attend a more ordinary church. The active social mission of Methodism is an extension of this tradition that continues to this day, getting involved in the community rather than waiting for the community to walk in though the door on a Sunday. It is evident in the advice on what types of occupation to avoid as much as more overtly political interventions like Wesley's influential 1774 essay "Thoughts upon Slavery".
It would be all too easy to look at a glossy development like Cabot Circus and take a purely negative stance. Surely this great juggernaut of a shopping centre development is an example of speculative capitalism in its full glory? The controlled simulation of public space spread over three newly created streets, complete with fully grown trees, open to the elements but carefully manicured and patrolled to eliminate undesirable activities. How different from the bird-filled trees and windswept grasses of Hanham Mount. It is a very contemporary "use of money". But equally contemporary is the rise of the Corporate Social Responsibility agenda that leads property developers like Hammerson and Land Securities plc to put time and money into the communities in which they operate, taking care to build up long term relationships with those who will, ultimately, be funding the whole operation with their spending power. In the case of the Bristol development the companies set up skills training programmes for unemployed people in order that the local pool of workers grows to match the new demand for staff, unknowingly following Wesley's injunction not to poach workers from other businesses. Local charities are supported every year as well, meaning that the business is giving some, if not exactly all it can. And then of course there is the simple fact that people need work, people need clothes, people need the one thousand and one different things that it is possible to buy. Somewhere between the responsible corporate agenda that makes businessmen give to charity, and the Methodist concern with living in the real world, there must be a middle ground where "honest industry" has its rightful place.
Just two minutes away from the plate glass fronted boutiques selling everything you might need for an aspirational lifestyle, the New Room is kept open by a small army of volunteers who act as guides and welcome visitors from all over the world. These people choose to give their labour freely because of their beliefs. But goodwill alone is not enough, there are always repairs to make, bills to pay. As the leader of a large international organisation, Wesley's journals are full of practical details of financial matters that are familiar to everyone. "In two or three days two hundred and thirty pounds were subscribed. We immediately procured experienced builders to make an estimate of the expense". Wesley earned considerable sums in his lifetime through selling books and "penny tracts" and gave all of it to the church, leaving just a few coins and silver spoons when he died. He did not spurn money, but used it enthusiastically to pursue ethical aims. The relationships between commerce, religion, buildings and the public spaces we create are alive with contradictions that we must all learn to negotiate and live with as we follow our own ethical paths.
Mark Wilsher is an artist, curator and writer currently based in Norwich. His practice incorporates, sculpture, drawing and performance.
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