HSBC scandal also puts spotlight on church leadership concerns

By Savi Hensman
February 10, 2015

The latest scandal to hit HSBC, Britain’s biggest bank, again throws a spotlight on the enormous failings of the finance sector. It is also a source of embarrassment for governments present and past – but also for the Church of England.

New revelations have emerged through various news outlets, including BBC Panorama and the Guardian newspaper, based on leaked files. These show that HSBC’s Swiss arm allegedly helped wealthy clients to conceal huge amounts of assets and to evade taxes illegally.

Earlier, the 2008 international credit crisis had led to widespread criticism of major banks. Then in 2012, HSBC’s role in laundering money for drug barons and terrorists hit the headlines.

By then, indeed from 2010, tax authorities across the world were aware of the information in the files, obtained by Hervé Falciani, an IT expert at HSBC in Switzerland, who then fled to France. But in the UK in particular, the matter was kept quiet.

HMRC (Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs) recovered money owed by tax evaders discreetly, rather than through the courts, and only one was prosecuted. HSBC itself did not face legal action. Meanwhile ordinary people, such as self-employed plumbers, who failed to declare far smaller sums were targeted.

Likewise people unable to pay their TV license fee or a fine, or who were unemployed but did a few hours’ ‘cash in hand’ work to buy clothes or toys for their children, faced the full wrath of the law.

In contrast, the man at the head of the HSBC group was showered with honours.

Stephen Green was chief executive from 2003-6, then chairman from 2006-10. He also chaired HSBC’s private bank in Switzerland. In late 2010 he was made a Conservative peer, and from 2011-13 was minister for trade and investment.

"Either he didn't know and he was asleep at the wheel, or he did know and he was therefore involved in dodgy tax practices,” commented Margaret Hodge, chair of parliament’s Public Accounts Committee, in February 2015. "Either way he was the man in charge and I think he has got really important questions to answer."

He remains a minister of a different kind: a Church of England priest. The archbishops and Development and Appointments Group asked him to chair a task group looking at leadership training. In late 2014 the ‘Green Report’ – Talent Management for Future Leaders and Leadership Development for Bishops and Deans: A New Approach – was produced.

The archbishops were seeking to address a genuine problem. Clergy and lay leaders at all levels have varying levels of skill in carrying out basic organisational tasks, from chairing meetings effectively to staying within budget.

In addition, there are remnants of a feudal culture, overlain with a more modern ‘old boys’ network and lack of accountability, which can be deeply damaging. Appalling failures in child protection resulted in part from some senior clergy’s attempts to act in a way which they thought Christian but was actually profoundly unjust.

However the Green Report was heavily criticised, not least because it was not adequately discussed before some of its proposals began to be put in place. It seeks to develop the potential of current bishops and deans and “clergy of exceptional leadership potential” through programmes run by a business school.

It took a very different approach from Senior Church Leadership: A resource for reflection, issued by the Faith and Order Commission in January 2015, which critically examined theological issues around authority and responsibility.

The Green Report was “unaware of critiques of management, executive authority, and leadership which abound in academic literature, it is steeped in its own uncritical use of executive management-speak”, wrote Martyn Percy (Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, and formerly Principal of Ripon College Cuddesdon) in the Church Times newspaper.

In his view, “Despite the report's stated aspiration to increase diversity in senior leadership (much needed), there seems to be no space for the bishop as scholar, evangelist, contemplative, theologian, prophet, or pastor.”

"The proposals seek to mimic a mode of training that has caused significant damage in the corporate world,” Andrew Lightbown blogged. “I can claim some authority for my observations: seventeen years in the City, holding a MBA and having taught on MBA programmes.”

Successive revelations about HSBC call into question the wisdom of placing Stephen Green in a position of such influence in the church, and in underlining the risk of assuming that worldly models of success are neutral rather than steeped in ideology.

Churches should be willing to learn from what works well in wider society. But they should be wary of too eagerly embracing cultures, structures and values which apparently lead to high achievement but may be deeply flawed – and singularly lacking in the qualities and charisms that ought to distinguish bodies that seek to follow in the footsteps of Christ.

* See David McNair's paper, 'Responsible finance and economic justice', on Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/15786

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© Savitri Hensman is a widely published Christian commentator on politics, welfare, religion and more. An Ekklesia associate, she works in the equalities and care sector.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.