LONDON — The leader of the world's Anglicans, whose church has been swept up in the conflict between bank-bashing protesters and the finance industry, has backed a so-called Robin Hood tax on financial transactions as a response to the global economic crisis.
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams said "it was time we tried to be more specific" in finding answers to the vague demands represented by protests outside St. Paul's Cathedral in London, a demonstration inspired by New York's Occupy Wall Street movement.
"The protest at St. Paul's was seen by an unexpectedly large number of people as the expression of a widespread and deep exasperation with the financial establishment that shows no sign at all of diminishing," Williams wrote in a commentary published Wednesday in the Financial Times.
"There is still a powerful sense around — fair or not — of a whole society paying for the errors and irresponsibility of bankers; of messages not getting through; of impatience with a return to 'business as usual' represented by still soaring bonuses and little visible change in banking practices."
The transaction tax, often called a "Tobin tax," was proposed in the 1970s by the late James Tobin, an American economist and Nobel Prize winner. Williams said a low tax rate — 0.05 percent on each transaction — could raise more than $400 billion globally each year.
The European Commission supports the tax, estimating that it could raise €30 billion ($41 billion) a year, but the British government has firmly opposed it, preferring a direct tax on bank assets.
Williams called for a "robust" public debate "to probe how far the government's preferred option will guarantee the domestic and international development goals central to the 'Robin Hood ' proposals."
Williams wrote approvingly of three proposals offered last week by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace: separation of high-risk investment banking from retail banking; recapitalizing banks with public funds; and a tax on financial transactions.
"If religious leaders and commentators in the U.K. and elsewhere could agree on these three proposals, not as a fixed agenda but as a common ground on which to start serious discussion, the struggles and questionings alike of protesters and clergy at St. Paul's will not have been wasted," Williams wrote.
The British Bankers Association opposes a transaction tax, arguing that unless it was applied worldwide it would harm the financial industry in higher-tax countries.
The archbishop's call for a transaction tax drew a lukewarm response from the bishop of London, Richard Chartres, who is now leading St. Paul's response to the hundreds of protesters occupying tents outside the cathedral.
"Well, he (Williams) is an intellectual of European standing and I'll certainly read what he says with great attention," Chartres said in an interview with The Guardian newspaper.
"He has studied the subject in some detail and, like any other citizen, it's a totally legitimate thing to do."
The Anglican church was caught by surprise when demonstrators against corporate greed and banking excess pitched tents outside St. Paul's on Oct. 15. They had hoped to protest in front of the London Stock Exchange, but were evicted from the private property and moved on to the nearby cathedral.
Since then cathedral officials have appeared uncertain how to respond. They at first welcomed protesters before asking them to leave; closed the building on health and safety grounds then reopened it a week later; and announced legal action to remove the tent city before suspending it and promising dialogue.
The cathedral's dean and a senior priest have both resigned over the mishandled crisis.Comment on this story
The Corporation of London, the local authority for the cathedral and surrounding area, also has suspended plans to evict the protesters, and the campers say they are prepared for a long stay.
"The church has changed its position with regards to a camp being on its land, which means that we have had to rethink as well," said Stuart Fraser, the corporation's policy chairman.
He said officials were meeting protesters for the first time Wednesday, "and we will take things day by day."
Associated Press writer Jill Lawless contributed to this report.