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ARC’s celebration of Creation: fit for a Queen

The Independent newspaper, 25 November 2002:

The Queen and Prince Philip amid religious leaders in London at ARC's Celebration of Creation, which marked the Queen's Jubilee

by Paul Vallely – this article was first published in The Independent newspaper, November 16 2002

I bumped into the Queen this week. The event was a gathering of the leaders of the world’s 11 major religious faiths. Its public face was a worldwide religious celebration of her Golden Jubilee, but behind the scenes something was going on which could have far more profound repercussions than anything which has been preoccupying the popular press lately.

Religion, when it is true to itself, reaches in, to the divine, but also out, to the world in which it is rooted. What the 300 monarchs, patriarchs, bodhisattvas and archbishops invited to the Banqueting Hall in Whitehall saw were some glimpses of the transcendent: they were there in the Shinto garden built in the undercroft for the day and in the enigmatic primeval drumming which began and ended the event; they were there in powerful Jewish readings from the Torah and in lilting Taoist poetry; they could be caught from a sublime Hindu dancer, the mime of Mongolian Buddhists, or the haunting Baha’i and Muslim chanting, the powerful laments of songs Jain, Christian and Sikh singers and the naked flame of a Zoroastrian fire ceremony as its sparks flew upward to the hall’s Rubens ceiling. As a haiku in the Shinto garden put it: “A child of a poor family/ stopped grinding rice/ to look at the moon.”

But transcendence counts for little if it does not make its mark upon the world. At a dinner held in Buckingham Palace the night before, and in a meeting that morning before the great celebration took place, things proceeded on a different level. At the meeting there were fewer than 20 people round the table but they included the head of the World Bank, the vice-chairman of world’s biggest commercial bank and some of the key figures responsible for managing the religions’ wealth – which combines to some $7 trillion in institutional investments which, by Citibank’s estimate, amount to, between 8 and 10 per cent of the world’s total market capital. They were there to talk about how that money could be reinvesting in more environmentally and socially responsible areas. Backing the idea, the head of one of the world’s biggest philanthropic foundations told the Queen at the dinner, was like buying a lottery ticket. “It’s a long-shot, but it’s one heck of a prize”.

Those at the meeting think the odds are much better. At the table was Laurie Michalowski, who is the Coordinator of the Socially Responsible Investing Section- for the General Board’s $10bn pension fund of the United Methodist Church in the United States. It is all now invested in ethically sound companies. She works in consort with an umbrella body, the Interfaith Centre on Corporate Responsibility, whose members control the $110 billion assets of 275 religious institutions.

Where church activists once worked through boycotts of unacceptable companies ICCR members use their combined clout to press for change in the companies where they have big shareholdings. They use inside pressures on directors to “push for the good to become excellent”. They have had major successes in altering the lending practices of financial institutions, the Third World pricing policies of pharmaceuticals, and in a range of workers’ welfare and green issues. They push for a “triple bottom line” which is socially responsible, environmentally sustainable and financially productive.

What began with idealism is increasingly looking like realism. “Over the past 10 years returns for SRIs (socially responsible investments) have been as good or better than other stocks,” the meeting was told by Dr Jean-Pierre Sweerts, of Rabobank, a leading Dutch commercial bank. In part there are direct benefits. Such an approach protects a firm’s reputation, and hence market share; it reduces problems with regulators; it cuts energy and materials costs and can enhances product quality; and it raises employee morale and therefore productivity. “But it is also a sign that the firm is run by people who think strategically, not such about that, but about the whole business, which means it is usually better run all round,” he said.

The big boys see money in this. The market will usually only invest in things that bear fruit within five years. If the faiths are going to take a far longer-term perspective – they are considering funding research into alternative energy as an early project – this could be a real money-maker.

“There are few other sources of funds that can be focussed on things like this,” said Peter Dawkins vice-chairman of Citigroup from New York. “Where we can help is by indicating whether something is an investment where, by multiplying the amount you put in tenfold, you can bring the timeframe down from 25 years to 5 years? Or we can suggest whether an idea is something which, however you structure it, will never have the prospect of being a financially productive investment. It will help the faiths work out whether they are embarking on a charitable initiative or a savvy investment strategy.

By building the right portfolio then can have a spectrum of risks.” Dawkins has allocated one of Citigroup’s brightest thinkers on investment strategy and modelling to the project which he says will offer the bank “the chance to make some money and do some good in equal proportion.” Or as another Shinto garden haiku put it: “Come/ see real flowers/ of this painful world.”

Reproduced with kind permission of Paul Vallely

© Paul Vallely


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