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Features

Unholy assets

Symon Hill

You can tell a lot about the heart of an organisation by where it keeps its treasure - so how does the church shape up to an ethical investment audit? Symon Hill went digging and found the going grubbier than expected...

 

The Methodist Church is going to fail. Not in all its endeavours, but in at least one of them. Two of its aims are fundamentally opposed to each other and cannot both succeed.

Like most churches, the Methodist Church believes that the increase in world carbon emissions should be kept below two degrees. This is the internationally agreed 'safe' limit, to which the UK government is also committed. Along with other groups, the Methodists promoted amendments to the recent Energy Bill to make achieving this target more likely.

Climate scientists have calculated that 565 gigatonnes of fossil fuels can be burnt before the two-degree limit is reached. It sounds like a lot, until you realise that fossil fuel companies already own five times this amount1. They are committed to finding and burning even more. Their promises to their shareholders depend on it.

The Methodist Church has £59m invested in fossil fuel companies.

There are two possibilities. One is that the Methodist Church's campaign is unsuccessful. In this case, carbon emissions go above two degrees, there are widespread food shortages caused by climate change and the Methodist Church makes a long-term profit on its investments. The other possibility is that the Methodists are successful in their campaign. In this scenario, emissions are kept below two degrees, the worst consequences of climate change are prevented and the Methodist Church loses out on its investments.

The Methodist campaign and the Methodist investments cannot both be successful. The success of either depends on the failure of the other.

 

LEFT AND RIGHT HANDS

The Methodists are not alone. So far, the Quakers are the only major UK denomination to have chosen to divest from fossil fuel companies, and this came after several years of internal dispute on the issue2. The Methodist example is only one of the more striking ways in which churches are undermining their aims with their own money.

This is particularly important at a time of spiralling inequality. Over half a million people in the UK are now reliant on food banks. Rough sleeping in England has risen by 25 percent in a year. Many churches are responding by meeting practical needs. Some have rightly spoken out against austerity policies that are punishing the poor for the sins of the rich. Several denominations, particularly the Baptist Union, Church of Scotland, Methodists and United Reformed Church (URC), have condemned the demonisation of poor and disabled people. The Quakers have gone further, resolving to campaign for a new economic system.

At times, Christian comments on poverty and cuts have made it on to the mainstream news agenda. More often, they have not. The right-wing press delighted in reporting on the drug-taking habits of Paul Flowers, the 'crystal Methodist' and former chair of the Co-operative Bank. I suspect many felt more sympathy for him than anger. The Co-op is being sold to hedge funds with histories of exploitation, making it an unethical bank whatever investment policies it retains. This, rather than an individual's vices, is what should really worry us.

I was delighted when the media gave so much coverage to Justin Welby's attack on the legal loan sharks at Wonga. The Archbishop of Canterbury advocated the mass development of credit unions as an alternative. The Sun pictured Welby in a cowboy-style conflict with Wonga's boss, the 'loan arranger'3.

Then it fell apart. It was revealed that the Church Commissioners owned shares in the company to which Wonga belongs. Welby had clearly not known about this and was angry and upset.

When Jesus said we should not let our left hand know what our right hand is doing, this is probably not what he had in mind.

We cannot simply blame Welby. Far deeper structural, cultural and theological problems have resulted in a situation in which every major Christian denomination in Britain is, to a greater or lesser extent, profiting from what it is condemning.

 

ALL COMPLICIT

Arguably, we are all hypocrites. When I backed an event calling for fossil fuel divestment, someone quickly pointed out on Twitter that I would be using fossil fuels to travel there. He was right. It is virtually impossible to live without fossil fuels now, because our society is built around them. I want to be able to choose not to use them, which is why I back campaigns for change that will make this possible. Divestment is a vital tool because it is about using our own power, rather than relying on governments and corporations to use theirs. It goes beyond lifestyle change and can impact directly on economic reality.

We are all complicit in the injustices of the economic system by which we live. Some of us benefit from aspects of it even as we lose out from others. The ethical boundaries are hard to draw. Sometimes, corporations have been persuaded to change their policies by faith groups that are investing in them. Church investors persuaded hotel chains to have their staff trained in spotting signs of human trafficking. The publishing company Reed Elsevier sold its subsidiary business running arms fairs4.

One difference here is that hotels and publishing are not unethical in themselves. It was a particular aspect of these companies that campaigners wanted to change. That's when critical engagement can work. You can't engage constructively with a company whose core purpose is immoral. This is why many churches rule out investments in arms - and why they should be ditching shares in companies that can profit only by burning so much carbon that poverty is multiplied around the world. This must go along with support for investment in renewable energy and government intervention to ensure continued employment for the workers whose valuable skills are being wasted on arms and fossil fuels.

 

WHERE OUR TREASURE IS

Between them, UK churches own billions of pounds in investments. The Church of England has about £5bn in the stock market. There is no doubt that most churches have far more ethical investment policies than your average company or pension fund. This is not something that happens automatically. The CofE ditched most of its arms shares only after years of campaigning by grassroots Anglicans and the Christian Network of the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT).

Comparing churches' investment policies is fascinating. Most combine 'negative screening' (avoiding unethical industries) with 'positive screening' (seeking out particularly ethical options) and 'engagement' (putting pressure on companies in which investments are held to improve their ethics).

The balance varies from one church to the next. The URC changed its investment policy in 2010 to put more emphasis on positive screening5. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Lancaster has particularly strong ethical investment policies that emphasise choosing companies that do well on a range of ethical issues.

 

BRIGHT NOW

Bright Now is a campaign calling on all churches to divest from fossil fuel companies. It was launched in September by the ecumenical Christian charity Operation Noah. Supporters of existing policies rushed to insist that 'things are more complicated than that'. This has long been the battle cry of all who wish to preserve the status quo. They dismiss calls for change as naive, as if only the current way of doing things could possibly be realistic.

Nonetheless, many investment decisions are complicated. Most Protestant churches avoid alcohol investments, but this is difficult when alcohol is so commonly sold. There is something to be said for the Methodist policy that 'investment in hotels or restaurants where alcohol is served as an ancillary activity may be viewed as generally acceptable, while public houses, off-licenses and licensed bars, where it is the primary activity, may not'6.

This is a more nuanced approach than the one taken by many other denominations. Rather than distinguish between hotels and bars, the Church of Scotland simply rules out companies that make more than fifteen percent of their turnover from alcohol7. The same figure is applied to arms, tobacco and gambling. The Baptist Union of Great Britain has a stricter limit of only five percent for these industries.

The Wonga shares made it past the Church Commissioners because the CofE's investment policy rules out payday lending only if it makes up more than 25 percent of a company's business. The same figure applies to alcohol, tobacco, gambling and human embryonic cloning. But when it comes to arms, the figure is ten percent. For pornography, it is three percent. The Church of England thus give the impression that pornography is more than eight times as bad as loan sharks.

GE (formerly General Electric) is a massive company. It is so big that it makes US$4bn per year from arms sales even though they form only around three percent of its business. This means the Church of England may invest in it - and does so. In September, Anglican priests prayed and protested outside the London arms fair on the same day that GE was exhibiting inside8.

 

BETTER THAN STARBUCKS?

It is tempting to respond by changing the rules a bit: lower a percentage limit here, sell a few shares there. Such minor changes might help, but the rules themselves are not the cause of church inconsistency over money. Underlying all this are two big problems. The first is about how we live as Christian communities. Making money to fund church work is one thing. Operating with a business mindset is quite another.

We can get a sense of this problem if we look at church employment practices. Many churches now guarantee their employees a 'Living Wage' (the figure is calculated annually and independently). However, most promise it only for workers employed at national level. Staff employed by dioceses, individual churches and regional church associations are not covered. The Methodists are an honourable exception, promising it to staff at all levels.

On the surface, British Quakers pay their national employees very well. But controversy has broken out over the use of zero-hours contracts for hospitality staff in Friends' House near Euston, a building that is both a conference centre and the Quakers' administrative headquarters. Zero-hours contracts mean staff have no guarantee of work from week to week. At a national level, zero-hours contracts have been criticised by the Business Secretary Vince Cable, whose austerity policies Quakers are campaigning against.

One worker in the Friends' House café says that when staff have challenged the policy, managers have responded with 'reminders of how much better the conditions of work are in Friends' House than in most similar workplaces, such as Starbucks or Costa'9.

Is this the limit of the Quakers' ambitions? To be better than Starbucks?

In a similar vein, the Church of England defended the presence of an arms dealers' conference in Church House, saying the arms dealers would not actually be selling weapons there10. The Salvation Army participates in workfare schemes, through which unemployed people are forced to work without pay or lose benefits, but insist they offer better conditions than those obliged to work for free elsewhere11.

All these statements are true. They are also absurd. Jesus said his disciples would be known by their love, not for being slightly more ethical than institutions around them. For centuries, certain forms of Christianity have been central to British life. This situation is changing, but we have not shaken off the bad habits that it formed. We are largely ignoring Paul's advice: 'Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind'12.

All Christians are part of the economic system. We cannot, as a friend of mine likes to put it, choose to 'live in a field and knit our own yoghurt'. As we have to live within this system, let's do so in a way that points ahead to something better. The first Christians sold their houses and shared their property in common. This may be something to aspire to, but even if we don't make it, we can go further than simply being a slightly more ethical version of a corporate employer or investment manager. It's up to us all, with the Holy Spirit's guidance, to seek to live out church as transformative community.

 

MISREADING PARABLES

The second problem is about how we understand money in relation to God.

Take the 'parable of the talents'. The story appears in Matthew 25:14-30 and in a slightly different form in Luke 19:11-27. The gist of the story is that a rich man goes on a journey and leaves his servants to look after his money (Matthew uses the term 'talents', which was a unit of currency). On his return, he finds that two of them have invested the money and gained interest. He rewards them. The third servant has hidden the money, gaining no interest. He tells the rich man that he was afraid of him because 'you are a harsh man, you take what you did not deposit'. He gives him back his money.The rich man throws him out and, in Luke's version, follows this by having his enemies killed in front of him.

Christians usually suggest that the rich man represents God. Nineteenth century clergy said it showed God will reward those who invest money well. Now it's more common to be told that it means we will be rewarded if we put our skills to good use (this is helped by the convenient double meaning of the word 'talents').

Try reading this story to someone who is unfamiliar with it, without commenting, and ask them with which character they most identify. When I have done this, the response has been 'the third servant'. He seems to be treated appallingly harshly and yet he has the bravery to speak truth to power: 'you take what you did not deposit'.

Why are we so keen to equate the rich man with God? What does it say about our theology if we assume that a rich and tyrannical figure must represent God? Jesus constantly sided with the poor and marginalised, extending his love to all and making clear that repentance for the rich meant a change in the way they used their money (think of Zacchaeus13 and the rich young ruler14). It is unlikely that a first century Jewish teacher such as Jesus would have promoted usury. What if Jesus intended the third servant as the hero of the story? He tells the rich man the truth about himself and refuses to collude with his unrighteous moneymaking.

The parable thus becomes a comment on the sins of inequality: 'to all those who have, more will be given; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away'15.

 

PERSISTENT MISTAKE

The former interpretation of this parable is persistent. Christian investment banker Jeremy Marshall argues that the parable 'points out that banks have a useful role in collecting savings and paying interest'16. On this basis he insists that 'banking is a biblical principle'.

We cannot know just how much financial exploitation has been defended on the basis of this misread parable, but it's certainly played a part. It is quoted by the sort of wealthy Christian businesspeople who have become so close to Holy Trinity Brompton, the church at the heart of the Alpha Course. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Alpha offers an introduction to Christianity that pays little attention to issues of wealth and poverty, despite their centrality to Jesus' teachings.

I am not questioning the faith of these businesspeople. But I am worried about their influence. Holy Trinity Brompton's latest 'leadership conference' involved talks by Christian bosses at Serco (which produces nuclear weapons) and Goldman Sachs (focused on making money for the super-rich). When members of Christianity Uncut protested outside, one attender told them they would have no need to worry about nuclear weapons if they would only go on an Alpha Course17.

To be fair, other attenders were more understanding. The church's vicar, Nicky Gumbel, defended the invitations on the grounds of inclusivity and dialogue. The same justification was made by Methodist Central Hall in Westminster for hosting the annual conference of the United Kingdom Independence Party (who deny the reality of climate change and want to make even bigger welfare cuts than the Tories).

Such justifications are disingenuous at best. Dialogue with any of these people would be very welcome. But they did not attend to participate in debates but to speak at events that promoted their own views and values.

 

WHERE OUR HEARTS ARE

If all this theology sounds up in the air, let me suggest several things that your church can do at local level. It can also call for the national denomination of which it is part to follow suit.

• Move your money from an unethical bank to a more ethical one or a building society.

• Use the tools on the 'Your Faith, Your Finance' website to explore how your money affects the world - http://www.yourfaithyourfinance.org.

• Consider what your services to the local community say about your values; offer solidarity, not charity.

• Divest from fossil fuel and arms companies.

• Ensure you keep control of all your investments (if you have any) and consider each company individually.

• Ensure thorough oversight of the ethics of room bookings in your buildings.

• Strive for equality of pay and conditions among your staff (or something close to it).

• Examine economic issues regularly in sermons, discussion groups and Bible-studies (Church Action on Poverty have some good material for this).

These measures will only be effective if they form part of cultural and theological change. We need to pray for God's guidance, and offer support to each other, to resist conformity to the world. Without this, we will be nothing more than a slightly better version of the corporate investors, employers and conference centres around us.

The alternative is to take the approach of the third servant in the parable, speaking the truth about power and wealth and pointing to a God whose kingdom is not comparable to the kingdoms of this world. It may mean we have to sacrifice large buildings and religious bureaucracies, but we know of the cost to integrity with which these were built. As Jesus said, where our treasure is, there will our hearts be also.

1 Miles Litvinoff, 'Bright Now: Towards fossil-free churches' (published by Operation Noah, 2013)

2 'Quakers to disinvest from fossil fuels' (news release from Quakers in Britain), 8 October 2013

3 The Sun, 25 July 2013

4 For more on these examples and others like them, see http:// www.yourfaithyourfinance.org in the 'Investing' section.

5 'Ethical investment policy statement 2010', United Reformed Church

6 'Alcohol Policy Statement', Central Finance Board of the Methodist Church of Great Britain, 2012

7 'Trustees' report and financial statements for year ended 31 December 2012', Church of Scotland Investors' Trust

8 Sarah Morrison, 'Church of England has up to £10m invested in arms firm', Independent on Sunday, 8 September 2012

9 Anonymous, 'Quakers and employment: Zero-hour contracts', The Young Quaker, October 2013

10 Jerome Taylor, 'Up in Arms: Anglicans furious over weapons event at Church of England headquarters', Independent, 23 October 2012

11 'Response', Salvation Army UK Territory website, 4 March 2013

12 Romans 12,2 (NIV)

13 Luke 19,1-10

14 Mark 10,17-31

15 Luke 19,26 (NRSV)

16 Quoted by Jonathan Langley, 'Should we move our money?', Christianity, September 2012

17 'Standing in the rain for Jesus', Christianity Uncut website, 25 May 2013