European churches increase commitment to social investment

By agency reporter
15 May 2008

The number of churches committed to socially responsible and sustainable investment has increased substantially over the last couple of years, says the Conference of European Churches and partners - citing Oikocredit as an example.

Through investment for social justice churches are already making a difference under market conditions towards just, sustainable and participatory societies. This was the clear affirmation coming from the conference held in Brussels on 6 and 7 May on socially responsible investment.

The conference was organised jointly by the Church and Society Commission of the Conference of European Churches (CEC), Oikocredit and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland. Several examples of churches committed to socially responsible investment using their influence through their investments, shareholder and engagement policies confirmed that churches could influence the policies of companies according to the churches’ commonly held values.

However, as Tor Gull, Managing Director of Oikocredit, put it at the beginning of the conference: “We would like churches to take the leadership in socially responsible investment. We therefore hope this conference will stimulate further debate and concrete action towards investment policies that recognize social return of an investment rather than the financial return only.”

Over 70 participants in the conference from churches and church-related agencies as well as expert organisations from 20 countries reflected on the churches’ theological approaches, criteria for socially responsible investment and best practices.

The participants discussed with organisations that screen investment funds with regards to their social and environmental as well as their business performance. Important insights were also presented by existing church-related networks, which have long-standing experience in promoting and supporting socially responsible investment.

The conference made it evident that churches have a great potential for influencing corporations through their investment policies according to ethical criteria. They have strategic advantages as long-term investors, which link investment policies with moral standards.

Several participants observed that socially responsible investment does not necessarily lead to a diminished financial return – indeed the opposite can be true, particularly over the long term.

For many involved, the conference in Brussels was an important event, which would have been unthinkable five years ago. Many participants felt that the conference had given them lots of new insights and had motivated them to invest more on socially responsible investment.

A number of participants urged exploring inter-faith co-operation in promoting socially responsible investment. But the conference also identified remaining challenges in involving more of the 120 member churches of the Conference of European Churches in reflection and action on socially responsible investment, in strengthening the network between churches and church-related agencies in the area and in working together on criteria for socially responsible investment, investment strategies and impact assessment.

For that purpose, the gathering suggested that the organizers should establish a committee in order to support the ongoing process and to foster the exchange between the churches and the various partners.

“Any church initiative must be based on the values and principles of the Bible,” Metropolitan Athanasios of Achaia (Church of Greece) emphasized in his contribution to the theological reflections, which formed the basis for the further deliberations of the conference. “Orthodoxy contributes with patterns of the last centuries that have captured the mentality of the faithful and of the local as well as the larger communities”, he added.

The Rev David Sinclair from the Church of Scotland concluded: “Economic activity is inherently social and is tied up with the command to love our neighbours.” He then offered the three Biblical motifs of stewardship, of sowing and of incarnation as starting points for further theological reflections on the concept of socially ethical investment.

“As an ecumenical organisation of churches relating to the European Institutions, we have stressed that the process of globalization as well as the paradigm of economic competition must be guided by social and environmental criteria. We are then often asked for an alternative. The conference in Brussels has clearly shown that churches committed to socially responsible investment provide an effective alternative, on which we have to build much more in the future,” the Rev Rüdiger Noll, Director of the Church and Society Commission and Associate General Secretary of CEC summarized the results of the conference.

The Conference of European Churches (CEC) is a fellowship of some 120 Orthodox, Protestant, Anglican and Old Catholic Churches from all countries of Europe, plus 40 associated organisations. CEC was founded in 1959. It has offices in Geneva, Brussels and Strasbourg.

The Church and Society Commission of CEC links member churches and associated organisations of CEC with the European Union’s institutions, the Council of Europe, the OSCE, NATO and the UN (on European matters). Its task is to help the churches study church and society questions from a theological and social-ethical perspective, especially those with a European dimension, and to represent common positions of the member churches in their relations with political institutions working in Europe.

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