Moving the C of E beyond its arms company shame

While Anglican priests have been prominent among those opposing the DSEi arms fair in London this week (9-14 September 2013), the largest of its kind in the world, the official silence from the Church of England has been deafening.

That is hardly surprising, given that it was revealed over the weekend that the Church Commissioners (who, because the C of E is established, are answerable to parliament) have invested up to £10 million in one of the world's largest arms firms, General Electric -- a company that supplies systems and technology for unmanned drones and jets to conflicts around the world.

In a fabulous piece of casuistry, this is declared in accordance with an "ethical investment" policy, because it is less than 10 per cent of the corporation's business. Never was St Paul's injunction about the difference between the spirit and letter of the law more appropriate, or indeed Jesus' warning that "where your treasure is, there your heart will be found also."

Among those in the media critiquing the investment, the policy and the official ecclesiastical obfuscation it has produced are two Ekklesia associates - the Rev Dr Keith Hebden, an Anglican priest, and Symon Hill, a Quaker and Baptist-shaped Christian. Both have faced arrest this week for protesting in the name of the Gospel against the Defence and Security Equipment International exhibition (DSEi). They have put their bodies as well as their words on the line, and have used as a prime tool in exposing corporate wrong-doing acts of prayer and worship -- those characteristically Christian activities by which our true allegiance and commitment is known and expressed.

The contrast between this brave pastoral and prophetic embodiment of the church and its remote, bureaucratic institutional face is very noticeable indeed. It creates a gulf between proclamation and practice which does immense harm to the core mission of the Church, which is to demonstrate in word and deed the life-transforming message of Jesus.

The Campaign Against Arms Trade, responding to the Independent story about the Church's investment in militarism (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/church-of-england-has-up-...) summed up the problem and the solution very succinctly.

CAAT, which has supporters from all faiths and none, declared: "GE is undoubtedly an arms company – why else would it be exhibiting its wares at one of the world's largest arms fairs? If the Church is committed to following an ethical investment policy, it should drop the GE shares from its portfolio and invest it in companies producing more ethical and beneficial products, including renewable energy technologies."

This statement told the truth without varnish (unlike the excuses emanating from the Church Commissioners). It identified the problem of having an investment policy which sees reputational damage limitation, rather than actually doing good, as its priority. And it gives practical advice on how an economic policy of investing in people and in planet is the right way to go.

That change of direction requires not just a change of mind but a change of heart (what the gospel calls metanoia, repentance), and in all probability a move away from being a state church policed by commercial and political demands which make an alternative ecclesial economic policy difficult if not impossible.

It is a huge shift, but an achievable one, involving some £5 billion worth of assets. Ekklesia has commented and advised on it a number of times over the past ten years, not least in our research paper 'Where is the Church of England’s heart invested?' (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/research/church_of_englands_investments), published in 2009, updated in 2011.

There we pointed out "the difficulties and contradictions of the Church's investment and finance policy, particularly the dislocation of financial decision making from integral mission and economic justice, which is both practically and theologically deficient."

That gap between rhetoric and reality, which needs bridging not 'minding' in the way that the Church Commissioners as currently constituted do, has shown itself several times recently - on carbon investments versus environmental responsibility, and tellingly over the C of E banking on loan sharks while talking about out-competing them (something of a fantasy, by the way, but at least a dream in the right direction).

Some years ago, I and a colleague were asked to lead a workshop on evangelism (announcing Good News) for a group of ordinands at an Anglican theological institution. As a prelude to discussion, we e showed a filmed exchange between atheist comic and activist Mark Thomas and a representative of the Church Commissioners, who was being challenged over the C of E's arms investments.

Midway through that filmed exchange in central London, a mocked up missile passed by the window, bearing the slogan "GEC Marconi: making the world safe for capitalism and Jesus." The poor Church Commissioners' spokesperson was not in the least amused, calling the stunt "tasteless". Thomas asked if it was not in fact the Church's investments which was the real issue of taste here, rather than a display designed to expose it to scrutiny. It was a painful, poignant moment.

The question we posed to the ordinands' class was this: "In that exchange, who was the evangelist? Who was making the Gospel most visible and applicable - the atheist comedian or the church representative?" It produced intense, honest and fruitful debate about the Christian message and what it means to live it with hope and integrity in a world torn apart by greed and violence.

We were never invited back to teach on that Church of England training course again, but I hope and pray that some of those who wrestled with these questions can use their influence to call the Church they love and serve back to its true vocation in these matters.

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(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. From 1991-1996 he was an adviser in adult education and training in the Anglican diocese of Southwark. Follow him on Twitter here: @simonbarrow

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