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Creed or greed: what can the church learn from businesses founded on principles of faith (part 1)?
In this first part of the 'Creed or Greed' series, Nicholas Mayhew-Smith explores what faith-based organisations, including businesses, might offer the church in terms of business practices and models.

Does the church have anything to learn from the business world? ‘No’ might be the resounding answer from a good number of priests, ministers and church administrators.


1. Co-operative Business Models

The co-operative approach to business began in its current form in the mid-19th century, and was influenced from the outset by Christian theology and social concern. It has proved an appealing organisational approach to people and groups seeking to start a business with a specifically Christian remit. It is also a concept that has been adopted by non-religious businesses, such as the John Lewis Partnership in the UK, and has evolved in recent decades into a new sector known as ‘social enterprise’, which is described in this research as a separate category.

The origin of the co-operative movement is commonly considered to be the foundation of the Rochdale Society, set up in 1844 by a group of 28 workers in Rochdale, Lancashire. The influence of Christian thinking, specifically Christian Socialism, is mentioned by some of the publications listed below, but ignored by others. The society effectively still exists to this day, through a series of mergers that have created the Co-operative Group.

The co-operative model has proved to have notably widespread appeal and utility compared with other Christian business models, such as Quaker firms and philanthropic entrepreneurs, which have been most successful in Protestant countries. Co-operatives may also have started in post-Reformation England, but have proved markedly successful in Roman Catholic countries such as Spain and Italy, where their success has inspired a theological reappraisal of the nature of work. The Spanish co-operative Mondragon is cited by many authors as the most prominent example of a Christian co-operative at work, a regional business that has grown to become the seventh largest corporation in Spain.

Management theology

The co-operative model has inspired a range of theological reflections about the nature of work and specifically the power structures within an organisation. Clive Beed and Cara Beed (2009) consider the co-operative to be a theological challenge to the very concept of competition as an organising principle for business. The co-operative structure in their view reflects a Trinitarian model of co-operation, more akin to a family than a hierarchy of one-sided relationships. Biblical teaching is also cited in support of the concept: “none of Jesus’ teachings can be interpreted as tolerating or encouraging competition, but instead advocate cooperation.” Their research also refers to some of the recent Roman Catholic teaching that has helped to raise the status of the co-operative model, particularly Pope John Paul II, who cautioned against competitive principles which embody conflict and are motivated by a desire to eliminate the opponent.