The Church and the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS)

By Jonathan Bartley
December 3, 2009

The Church of England has lost a lot of money in Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) over the last two years. Its shareholding is now worth £8.4 million according to the last annual report of the Church Commissioners. The shares were valued at £7 at the beginning of 2007. They are now hovering around the 35p mark - one twentieth of the value - and have contributed to the difficulties that the Church now finds with its finances.

Many in the Church will be understandably hoping for a recovery in the share price, as they will with their other banking shares HSBC (£75m) Barclays (£11.8) and Lloyds (£6.4m). But this is the same church whose leaders spoke out very forthrightly against the greed of the city during the financial crisis.

The C of E is in a awkward position which is highlighted by the current very high-profile argument between the Government (which now has a majority shareholding having bailed it out) and the RBS board over the payment of bonuses.

As John Redwood (not a fan but he had this right) pointed out not long ago, the Church was very quick to condemn banks and city practices after the financial crisis. But where was its voice of caution beforehand, warning about the pursuit of greed whilst the Church was making a 10% annual profit? And indeed, where is that voice now that the economy seems to be emerging from the worst? The church, so apparently ready a year ago to speak out to the city with warnings doesn't seem to have much to say anymore.

There are two justifications that the Church Commissioners offer for investing in banking shares. The first is that they do it to make money. That doesn't hold much water anymore. The other is that their shareholdings give them the chance to influence the banks for good. This has yet to be proved in any concrete way. The nearest they have come was the claim made after the British Airways 'Cross row' that the Church managed to influence the airline's uniform policy, so employees could wear gold crosses.

But the fundamental fact is that by owning the shares, the Church's interests are intimately tied to those of the banks. In the current situation with RBS, when it was announced that bonuses might be curbed, the RBS shares took a 5% hit. The church stands to lose money if it intervenes and urges restraint. Of course, it may be doing so quietly behind the scenes. We may never know because the Church Commissioners are exempt under the Freedom of Information Act. But it certainly isn't speaking out publicly in the way that it was. And that's a shame because in a high-profile situation like this, which is all over the media, the church could be taking a lead.

There was another related situation just last week, when forty leading figures, representing faith groups and church leaders, environmental and anti-poverty campaigners, trade unions, academics, MPs, the author Iain Banks and Body Shop co-founder Gordon Roddick to call on him to transform the Royal Bank of Scotland into a 'Royal Bank of Sustainability'.

It was an issue in which you would think the Church could join, given that it comes just before the Copenhagen climate summit where the C of E's Archbishops are very publicly associating themselves with the cause.

Church of Scotland convenor, the Rev Ian Galloway and Miles Litvinoff of the Ecumenical Council for Corporate Responsibility, were among the public figures who did sign the letter. They told it how it was and asked for an end to RBS' funding of “destructive” projects around the world, contributing to human rights abuses and climate change. But the Church of England was not represented amongst the signatories to the letter.

It is a shame if the church's investment in RBS stops it speaking out publicly about bankers bonuses. It is a tragedy if it stops the church speaking publicly about investment in projects which will, in the words of campaigners, "have untold consequences for some of the world's poorest people".

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