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27 April 2012

God, the Church and the City

God, the Church and the City

Ken Costa is a busy man. But the investment banker, chair of Alpha, the Pentecost Festival and the National Parenting Initiative finds time to talk to Chine Mbubaegbu about the financial crisis, Occupy and how the Church can engage with a world that has strayed from God’s original plan.

When the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral thronged with Occupy protestors demonstrating their dissatisfaction with the state of the financial industry last year, Ken Costa was asked to step in and facilitate dialogue between Occupy and the City.

As chair of London Connection, an initiative started by the Bishop of London in the wake of the Occupy protests, Ken – who has been in the investment banking industry for more than 30 years – helped those on both sides of the fence hear each other’s voices and discover that their hymn sheets were not so different.

"It’s extremely important that there’s an ethical undergirding of the market economy"

“Although the protestors use different language and wear different clothes, the issues they are talking about are some of the things that I talk about with my colleagues in the financial world,” Ken says. “We too are concerned with the markets, the role of shareholders and the environment. These are key things that we are facing and in these dialogues we are tackling some very penetrating questions. The first task is to bring people together.”

Ken, himself the former vice-chairman of UBS Investment Bank and formerly chairman of Lazard International, facilitated a meeting between Hector Sants, the CEO of the Financial Services Authority, and 10 Occupy protestors so that they could hear each other’s viewpoints.

But Ken, who chairs Alpha International, the Pentecost Festival and the National Parenting Initiative, told idea that the financial crisis and the shaking that has followed is not just an issue for the City of London, but one which the Church must engage with.

“It’s very important for both society and the Church to grapple with these issues of what went wrong in the great financial crisis and how we can deal with the aftermath. St Paul’s Cathedral is a dominant landmark over the City of London and an icon around the world. It has a very important role to play in speaking very clearly to the nation and the world. I’m hoping this constructive engagement can be drawn together under the auspices of St Paul’s.”

Despite being well-respected in the investment banking world, Ken is sympathetic to the Occupy protestors, having being involved in protests against apartheid while president of the Students’ Union at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg where he studied philosophy and law before going on to study law and theology at the University of Cambridge.

“I was involved in these protests when I was young because of a passionate desire to see justice established in a very unequal country. So I have total sympathy with the demonstrators because I’ve been on a picket line. I’ve stayed out on cold nights. But I know that there’s something more important we have to grasp which is a relationship that exists between all that we do and everything that God intended us to do.”

Many commentators have tried to explain what caused the global financial crisis dubbed the worst since the Great Depression in the 1930s. The US Senate’s Levin-Coburn Report found that the crisis was “the result of high-risk, complex financial products; undisclosed conflicts of interest; and the failure of regulators, the credit rating agencies, and the market itself to rein in the excesses of Wall Street”.

But for straight-talking Ken, the failure of the financial institutions is ultimately down to one thing. “The major issue is there is a breakdown between ethics and finance. There’s also been a breakdown of trust between the business and financial sectors and the communities in which business operates,” he says.

"If you influence London, you influence the world"

“It’s extremely important that there’s an ethical undergirding of the market economy. The market economy is a great servant and a poor master and it needs an ethical framework so that it doesn’t depart from its moral moorings. The market economy was always based on values but these values have been eroded over the past few years.

“At the end of the day, the relationship that Christians seek to have is based on the original prospectus – the Old Testament and the New Testament. When we follow the teachings of the original prospectus, that’s when we can live an ethical life and be at ease with ourselves and the world around us.”

Ken is certain that the original prospectus is for all people and not just for Christians. It’s why he is passionate about showing that it is only when we tune in to God’s way of doing things that we can find our true calling. As chair of Alpha International, which run the Alpha course now undertaken by more than 15 million people around the world, he is keen for everyone to come to faith in Christ.

It’s also why he is passionate about the Pentecost Festival, which he also chairs, and is eager that it engages the world outside the Church in London. Taking place 18-27 May across the capital, the Christian festival aims to showcase what the Church is all about with a range of events, talks, and visual and performing arts around central London. “If you influence London, you influence the world,” he says. “London is a microcosm of the world’s nations. Pentecost is a very important festival. We’ve lost the public battle for Christmas and Easter as religious festivals as they have been secularised.

“But Pentecost is the birthday of the Church and it has not had much time spent on establishing it as a festival. Therefore, we want the festival to celebrate this event and to celebrate unity and show the Church is alive and is engaging with its society.

The festival will create awareness by meeting people, putting on good discussions, forums, outreach and evangelism within a real festival atmosphere to engage our society.”

Ken Costa

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