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18 November 2008

The church in the crunch

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

By Simon Barrow

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.

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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’.

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