You Don’t Need Faith To Say You Are Sorry

by .

No apology for the F-word

Last week’s highlight was a thoughtful inter-faith dinner hosted at Magdalene College, Cambridge by Dr Rowan Williams – part of the on-going Responsible Tax project, curated by Think Tank CoVi and supported by KPMG.

The ‘F-word’ has never been far from the surface in months of discussions on responsible and ethical business practice.  Some of the wisest words spoken have come less from business leaders, politicians or activists, but from those for whom faith – of whatever flavour – drives their everyday meaning.

Immediately after the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, while Chief Executives – encouraged no doubt by lawyers and PR advisers – hid in public silence, it was faith leaders who often stepped up to speak what the silent majority already understood.  In time, they encouraged business to (tentatively) find its voice and purpose once again. The Blueprint movement is just one example of this, just as the recent Bishops Letter, “Who is my neighbour?”, is proof that a prophetic voice is still needed to hold business and politics properly to ethical and moral account.

I learned many things in the Magdalene parlour. “Faith” and ”trust” enjoy a shared root – two expressions of the same word. If we want to enshrine trust we therefore need to have faith – a compelling if, for some of us at least, inconvenient logic.

I was surprised at the constant interplay between trust and faith. I had expected the evening to focus heavily on faith but it was the trust issue to which the group returned time and again – expressing expanded versions of my own writing on reciprocal vulnerability. Such vulnerability builds trustworthiness between people(s) and politics and indeed between businesses and employees, customers and civil society. This is why I have called for progressive leaders to metaphorically stand naked, as a demonstration of true vulnerability to those whom they serve.

Vulnerability often flows from humble, genuine apology. “We’re all familiar with how we feel”, remarked one contributor, “when someone says only ‘I am sorry that you feel like that’, rather than apologising outright”. We all know what they mean. Sometimes, only a proper “sorry” will do.

I am a Jewish atheist. Jews do a formal sorry at least once a year, on Yom Kippur. On this Day of Atonement, the shofar (ram’s horn) is blow and the word teshuvah is chanted. Teshuvah means repentance. It would be wonderful if we could fully embed the notion of corporate repentance – a proper sorry for corporate failures and wrongdoing. But, as the group gathered in Cambridge discussed, genuine corporate repentance is invariably out of the question. “Society is pathologically risk averse”, noted one participant. Where lawyers rule, apology shrieks risk and leaves exposure to litigation. Lawyers, propped up by PR consultants trying either to spin or manage the message, thus advise clients never to apologise. We end up instead with a spew of meaningless corporate platitudes and the very unsatisfactory business equivalent of “I’m sorry you feel like that”. Little wonder we suffer from the trust deficit we do today.

The late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries signalled a remarkable philosophical period – an Islamic-led Renaissance in Spain and the death of Moses Maimonedes followed within twenty-five years by the birth of Thomas Aquinas. Eight centuries later, we should remind ourselves of Maimonedes’ vision for defining purpose and Aquinas’ celebration of Aristotelian values and the common good. We still have much to learn from those times – for in between we have seen a constant erosion of legitimacy to lead and, to paraphrase Michael Sandel, (recently at least) a constant blurring of the moral limits of markets. We need better definition of both vision and morality to enable safer backdrops for trust and faith to flourish.

Rabbi Naftali Brawer, CEO of the Spiritual Capital Foundation and a Talmudic scholar, challenged my atheist rejection of my familial Jewish faith. “Of course”, he observed simply, “your work is absolutely guided by your faith”.  This is perhaps why I am so drawn to issues of morality and ethics and by doing what is right. Maybe this has been my own road to Jericho, if not quite to Damascus.


The Faith in Business dinner, hosted by Dr. Rowan Williams, was held under the Chatham House Rule. It is for this reason that specific names of contributors have been withheld. A summary of the evening will appear in due course on




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