Church investments in the spotlight again

Yesterday I did a 12-minute discussion pre-record for BBC Radio Scotland on the issue of church investments: should Christian churches not be putting their money where their mouth is in terms of ethics? That was the way the question was posed.

The programme concerned is 'Sunday Morning with Cathy MacDonald' on 17 July 20011. This is now available on BBC iPlayer for a week (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b007wbls) - the segment begins at 1 hour 1 minute into the programme.

The other guest in the conversation is Ewan Aitken (http://aitkensedinburgh.blogspot.com/), former leader of the City of Edinburgh Council, current councillor for Craigentinny/Duddingston, an ordained minister of the Church of Scotland, Iona Community member, and Secretary of the Kirk's Church and Society Council.

The brief was for us to tease out the issues and tensions around church investments, and I hope we did that. It was a positive but probing discussion - and from that point of view made a change from the kind of 'faux confrontationalism' that is strongly in vogue down south (with the heat increasing the nearer you get to London).

The starting point was, not unsurprisingly, the Church of England's to-ing and fro-ing about its News Corporation shares, and the contrast between the way decisions are made south of the border (and in the Established Church) and what does, or might, happen here in Scotland.

In the News Corp case, the Church of England Ethical Investment Advisory Group wants to use its £3.8 million as a lever for change following the NoTW phone hacking scandal - with divestment the stick and continued investment the carrot. But then up pops First Estates Commissioner Andreas Whittam Smith, cautioning against any "hasty" withdrawal of funds - because Murdoch might move assets out of Britain (and, sshhhh, the dipping share price might recover).

This little cameo illustrates most of what's wrong with the way the Church of England (and others) operate in the financial arena. First, it seems rather extraordinary that the deep malaise in the House of Murdoch apparently only gets noticed (or taken seriously) when something blatant and illegal happens. Many of us have been smelling something rotten for a long time. Indeed, in my journalistic capacity I was a veteran of the 1985 'battle of Fleet Street', and a little part of it rather portentously called the Wapping Theology Group.

Second, the "influence through investment" obfuscation is exposed as wafer-thin once more. A few million quid is peanuts to the Aussie-turned-Yank mogul, one hardened fellow journo suggested to me. Quite so. And the notion that "because it's the C of E, they will jolly well have to sit up and listen!" is sheer Christendom-fuelled hubris. Small holdings in large conglomerates rarely give the moral leverage the investment managers like to claim when seeking to justify taking dosh off shady characters. Something similar applies to the Methodists' attempt to square honourable environmentalism with pocketing the carbon-based proceeds of oil giants.

Third, in comes what we might call 'the Whittam Smith gambit'. Ethics is all very well, but financial pragmatism must come first, dear boy. This mindset seems 'logical' and 'realistic' because a fundamental dualism is at work (bereft of any substantial and effective belief in a God who raises the dead, apparently). The economic activity church fund managers gamble with is regarded not as something within the core of the church's mission, but something rather separated from it that remains essentially neutral in moral terms and funds the 'real' work. So questions of root economic justice get relegated below the need for 'a good return'. Jesus reminded us that "where your treasure is, there wil your heart be also." All praise the FTSE 100 and pass the collection plate, then?

The fundamental issue here is that Christian churches and institutions need to move away from 'ethical policies' which are mainly about trying to 'filter out the worst' while going for a profit - that is, 'damage limiting' in areas like alcohol, tobacco, pornography and - if we're lucky - arms and overtly exploitative industries. Instead they need to shift towards the notion of seeking, with a Gospel mandate, to invest in the good.

In other words, churches as communities with both resources and interests (not just abstract 'assets') have to start to think of themselves as economic actors seeking to change the way economy is done for the good of people and planet, rather than coy, second-hand 'investors' seeking to live religiously off usury and proceeds of the past.

This is a much larger question than 'ethical investment policies', and I will reflect a little more on later...

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© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. He has held senior positions in the ecumenical movement and the Church of England, has studied development economics, has worked in business publishing, and has written the reports ‘Towards an Economy Worth Believing In?’ (2008) and ‘Is God Bankrupt?’ (2005). Along with Jonathan Bartley he wrote the research essay, ‘Where is the Church of England’s heart invested?’ (2009) - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/research/church_of_englands_investments

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