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Thursday, 29 May 2014

Money Lenders Invited into the Temple by the Archbishop of Canterbury

This story first reared its head last summer, (The Archbishop of Canterbury, Jesus, Zacchaeus and Wonga), August 1, 2013.  The Right Reverend Justin Welby had recently been appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, and one of his very first public pronouncements started off as a bit of an unfortunate  PR nightmare for the Church of England. His target was Pay Day Lender Wonga, and he rather  put his foot in it by announcing that it was  his intention to ‘compete it out of existence’ by offering alternative sources of credit to poorer people, completely oblivious of the fact that his own church was itself a major investor in Wonga. Whoops! 
Casting Out the Money Changers by Giotto, 14th century.

Now that was a shame, as I have a lot of respect for Mr Welby, and he is uniquely placed to do some real good for ordinary hard-up struggling people who desperately need some financial assistance. He is definitely not your average Archbishop: with a career history including eleven years in the oil industry and a spell serving on the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards, he is possibly better-qualified than most people to comment on ‘sharp’ lending practices. Financial and business ethics have been a long-term interest for him; he has written extensively on the subject, including Explorations in Financial Ethics, and Can Companies Sin?

In his role as Commissioner he gained a reputation for being tough on bankers, famously remarking that the banks served ‘no socially useful purpose'.  He also suggested that senior bank executives were guilty of deliberately avoiding investigating information on shady dealings within their organisations so they could plead ignorance about them later, when the brown stuff finally hit the fan. To be fair, he did temper this by warning against the temptation to act like a lynch mob by naming and shaming individual bankers.

Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury
Nearly a year has passed since ‘Wonga-Gate’, and things have quietened down a bit in the media. The Archbishop has not forgotten his pledge to help the poor: he has been quietly organising and planning and has now put his money where his mouth is, launching a new credit union network from within the church. Starting off by promoting responsible lending in pilots in Southwark, London and Liverpool, the Church Credit Champions Network will train churchgoers and clergy to give advice on debt and other money matters.

The other major player in the new scheme is none other than Sir Hector Sants, ex Barclays boss and former head of the Financial Services Authority. Sants, 58, ran Britain's Financial Services Authority during the financial crisis and joined Barclays at the start of 2013. Suffering from stress, he was placed on sick leave in October that year and left the bank a month later. His new position with the Church Credit Champions Network is unpaid, and will take up about one day a month. Speaking at the launch of the new initiative, he described the Church of England as ‘the best branch network in the country’. ‘A major high street bank has at most 3,000 branches, but the Church of England has 16,000’, he said.

Now, I don't like to boast, but sometimes I amaze even myself. What a flash of inspiration it was, last August, to hark back to the biblical story of Jesus overturning the moneylenders' tables in the temple! I think I must have some psychic powers, because now, in an incredible twist of fate, the Archbishop of Canterbury himself is actually inviting moneylenders into the church!  Who would have believed it?  Don’t worry, Justin Welby hasn’t gone raving mad.  He is inviting them in to help people struggling to make ends meet, not to extort money from them.  Under the new scheme, credit unions are being invited to set up actually inside some churches, but  they will only be offering  savings accounts and small loans to people with low earnings or patchy credit records.   The aim is to build support for community-based financial services and encourage responsible lending and saving. 

In Mr Sants own words: ‘I am confident that the successful implementation of the Church Credit Champions Network will equip churches to be even more relevant to their local communities, and transform the lives of the many people we hope will be served as a result’.

Credit Unions have been around for a while, but account for a tiny fraction of the credit scene in the UK.  They have been steadily growing since the financial crisis, and, who knows, with the full might of the Church of England on their side, we may see a big rise in their influence in the coming months and years.

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