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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Boris Johnson is right about Saudi Arabia - but will he stick to his tune in Riyadh?

The Foreign Secretary went off script, but on truth. 

The difference a day makes. On Wednesday Theresa May was happily rubbing shoulders with Saudi Royalty at the Gulf Co-operation Council summit and talking about how important she thinks the relationship is.

Then on Thursday, the Guardian rained on her parade by publishing a transcript of her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, describing the regime as a "puppeteer" for "proxy wars" while speaking at an international conference last week.

We will likely never know how she reacted when she first heard the news, but she’s unlikely to have been happy. It was definitely off-script for a UK foreign secretary. Until Johnson’s accidental outburst, the UK-Saudi relationship had been one characterised by mutual backslapping, glamorous photo-ops, major arms contracts and an unlimited well of political support.

Needless to say, the Prime Minister put him in his place as soon as possible. Within a few hours it was made clear that his words “are not the government’s views on Saudi and its role in the region". In an unequivocal statement, Downing Street stressed that Saudi is “a vital partner for the UK” and reaffirmed its support for the Saudi-led air strikes taking place in Yemen.

For over 18 months now, UK fighter jets and UK bombs have been central to the Saudi-led destruction of the poorest country in the region. Schools, hospitals and homes have been destroyed in a bombing campaign that has created a humanitarian catastrophe.

Despite the mounting death toll, the arms exports have continued unabated. Whitehall has licensed over £3.3bn worth of weapons since the intervention began last March. As I write this, the UK government is actively working with BAE Systems to secure the sale of a new generation of the same fighter jets that are being used in the bombing.

There’s nothing new about UK leaders getting close to Saudi Arabia. For decades now, governments of all political colours have worked hand-in-glove with the arms companies and Saudi authorities. Our leaders have continued to bend over backwards to support them, while turning a blind eye to the terrible human rights abuses being carried out every single day.

Over recent years we have seen Tony Blair intervening to stop an investigation into arms exports to Saudi and David Cameron flying out to Riyadh to meet with royalty. Last year saw the shocking but ultimately unsurprising revelation that UK civil servants had lobbied for Saudi Arabia to sit on the UN Human Rights Council, a move which would seem comically ironic if the consequences weren’t so serious.

The impact of the relationship hasn’t just been to boost and legitimise the Saudi dictatorship - it has also debased UK policy in the region. The end result is a hypocritical situation in which the government is rightly calling on Russian forces to stop bombing civilian areas in Aleppo, while at the same time arming and supporting Saudi Arabia while it unleashes devastation on Yemen.

It would be nice to think that Johnson’s unwitting intervention could be the start of a new stage in UK-Saudi relations; one in which the UK stops supporting dictatorships and calls them out on their appalling human rights records. Unfortunately it’s highly unlikely. Last Sunday, mere days after his now notorious speech, Johnson appeared on the Andrew Marr show and, as usual, stressed his support for his Saudi allies.

The question for Johnson is which of these seemingly diametrically opposed views does he really hold? Does he believe Saudi Arabia is a puppeteer that fights proxy wars and distorts Islam, or does he see it as one of the UK’s closest allies?

By coincidence Johnson is due to visit Riyadh this weekend. Will he be the first Foreign Secretary in decades to hold the Saudi regime accountable for its abuses, or will he cozy up to his hosts and say it was all one big misunderstanding?

If he is serious about peace and about the UK holding a positive influence on the world stage then he must stand by his words and use his power to stop the arms sales and hold the UK’s "puppeteer" ally to the same standard as other aggressors. Unfortunately, if history is anything to go by, then we shouldn’t hold our breath.

Andrew Smith is a spokesman for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can follow CAAT at @CAATuk.