The church in the crunch

Following huge losses during the financial crisis, the Church of England should return to the Christ

No-one is immune from the global economic crunch. That includes the Church of England, which has £5 billion tied up in assets, pensions and buildings. When the archbishops of Canterbury and York started to sermonise on short-term greed and the failures of market, they were embarrassed to discover that the Church had been playing the system in pretty much the same way as everyone else.

Initially, things looked good. Due to its share holdings, England’s Established Church gained hugely from rising oil, gold and copper prices, driven at least in part by speculators. In 2006-7 the Church Commissioners, accountable to parliament, set up a currency-hedging programme, in effect short-selling sterling to guard against rises in other currencies. The C of E invested £13 million in Man Group, the largest listed hedge fund manager. It also has a stock lending programme through JP Morgan Chase and has traded debts, in spite of the Archbishop of Canterbury's criticism of doing so exclusively for profit. The Church sold a £135 million mortgage portfolio last year.

Then things went pear-shaped. A week ago the Man Group was down 30 per cent in early trading after its profits slumped, potentially wiping £4 million off the value of the Church's holdings. The Commissioners have announced an average return on investments of almost 10 per cent a year over the last ten years. But most of these are in property and equities, which have taken a hammering as markets have fallen; so future prospects are not rosy. Exposure in banking (HSBC, TSB, RBS, and HSBOS, which has fallen a staggering 90 per cent) and mining (in defiance of ethical advice) is also costing the C of E dear.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The founder of Christianity once pointed out that “where your treasure is, there is your heart also”. Now is the right time for the Church of England to completely re-examine its asset and investment policies and to put its money where its message is. Given the performance of more ethical funds, that would also be a prudent move.

Many church groups are involved in alternative economic practices – co-ops, credit unions, ethical investment, fairer trade, local exchange schemes, micro credit, small loans for development, initiatives for monetary reform and more. Christianity, Judaism and Islam all have a history of critiquing usury, unjust profit from interest, and Jews and Muslims have set up non-interest based lending institutions.

Globally, churches have an opportunity to use their assets in new and creative ways, for economic change driven by human need rather than by greed. What is needed is the will. The earliest Christian communities were founded on principles of seeking to use material wealth for the common good, striving for equality and giving priority to the poorest. Today’s churches struggle to be so Christian, it seems. But as neo-liberal ideology quakes before stark reality, the wages of economic spin are proving deadly rather than ‘realistic’.

Simon Barrow is co-director of the religion and society think tank Ekklesia. He is author of ‘An economy worth believing in’.

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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.