Where is the Church of England’s heart invested?

Abstract

The Church of England has huge assets as well as large responsibilities. In 2009 it lost £1.3 billion through its investments in shares and property. In April 2011 it announced that its assets increased in 2010 from £4.8 billion to £5.3 billion. This paper looks at some of 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. Acknowledging both the good intentions towards ethical practice and the constraints imposed by the legal and Established framework of the C of E, the paper argues that for Christian churches, economics needs to be re-located in the subversive and alternative calling of a Gospel community in an unjust world. It suggests there are many positive ways forward. The paper is authored by Jonathan Bartley and Simon Barrow.

"Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (Jesus Christ, Gospel of Matthew)

Prologue and Introduction: dualism and mixed messages

In April 2011 the Church Commissioners announced that the Church of England's assets had increased in 2010 from £4.8 billion to £5.3 billion. This is being promoted as a tale of good stewardship. But the reality is more complex, and includes some highly questionable decision-making in recent years. The new headline figure is still half a billion below what it was 24 months ago, for example, following the 2009 catastrophe.

This paper was first written two years ago and may be revised substantially later. In the meantime, we invite you to examine the underside of the recent 'boom' year for the C of E (set against the backdrop of partial recovery from global recession, then a huge swing to debat and austerity, and now domestic policies that involve swingeing cuts targeted on the most vulnerable, alongside bailouts for the rich) - and also to reflect on some abiding principles which we believe should guide a major re-think of the ecclesial economy.

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The first half of May 2009 signalled mixed financial news for the Church of England. On the one hand, it proudly announced that public donations for the joint Zimbabwe emergency and development appeal launched by the Anglican Archbishops of Canterbury and York had reached £292,330 [1]. On the other, it also admitted that it had lost a sum almost 4,500 times as much - £1.3 billion – through its investments in shares and property. [2] That amounts to around a fifth of its investment wealth.

But the Church still had £4.4 billion at the end of 2009, edging back to 4.8 billion the following year. [3] To put that it in context, Christian Aid Week [4] with its national programme of events, high profile media campaign and backing from churches and campaigners up and down the country, aims to raise just £15 million or so for the world’s poor. The Church of England, by contrast, has a huge commitment to the chunk of its assets tied up in pensions and buildings.

Looking after people and fabric in a largish institution is no unimportant matter. We do not underestimate the responsibilities involved. Being a Church Commissioner is tough. Interrogating the system should not be about people outside being smug. But the whole package as currently configured raises bigger questions about priorities and alternative possibilities which are too easily (and wrongly) dismissed by those responsible for running the Church’s finances.

The core of the problem is that the Established Church sees its investments primarily in terms of fundraising rather than in terms of core calling and purpose (including economic justice). The Church Commissioners, who are institutionally accountable to Crown, Parliament and ecclesiastical bureaucracy rather than to a Gospel community aligned with the world’s have-nots, have previously stated the aim of making a five per cent profit over and above the rate of inflation for the institutional benefit of the Church of England. [5]

According to their latest annual report [65], that target now appears to have changed – probably due to the threat of deflation and its heavy losses. The Church’s goal now is simply to make as much money as possible in the circumstances. A revealing indicator of what this means comes in a section headed: ‘Funding the Church’s Mission’. [7] The Church Commissioners do not see their investments as part of the Church’s mission, but as something separate that ‘feeds’ it. This dualism suggests not just bad theology but also a strategy based on justifying investment decisions by ends rather than means. As the evidence below demonstrates, these two, if not entirely divorced, cohabit uneasily and antagonistically.

Investment, ethics and moral purpose

It is true that there is an ethical dimension to the current policy. Investment decisions are informed by the Church of England Ethical Investment Advisory Group, established in 1994. The Church does not invest in companies that promote pornography or supply armaments, or where over 25 per cent of group turnover relates to gambling, tobacco and tobacco related products, the manufacture or licensed sale of alcoholic drinks, military equipment, home-collected credit (doorstep lending), or human embryonic cloning.

But in the context of the larger picture, this may still be seen as ‘church wash’ – seeking to provide an outer cleanliness to something that remains preponderantly dubious, or worse. In this sense, the Church of England’s ethical investment policy is a bit like New Labour’s (now ditched) ‘ethical foreign policy’ [8]. A commitment proudly worn on its sleeve but somewhat lacking in substance and always subject to the primary goal of promoting its own interests.

The ethical policy did not, for example, prevent the Church of England investing in Caterpillar, the US company that makes the bulldozers which are exported to Israel and have been used in the illegal mass demolition of Palestinian homes and which are allegedly complicit in the killing of a peace activist and a disabled man. When the Church finally did sell its shares after pressure from, among others, its own General Synod, it stressed that it did so for financial not ethical reasons [9] - thus also revealing that it sees finance and ethics in two categories. That is dangerous and un-theological dualism again.

The Church also has a combined current investment of over £60 million in Tesco and Unilever, two corporate giants who share last place in the ethical ranking of Britain's top 100 companies. [10] Tesco, in particular, has come in for criticism over the exploitation of textile workers in India and in the UK, for driving local businesses out of towns and villages and for using its muscle to secure planning permission despite the strong objections of residents. £23 million is also invested in Nestle, which those involved in the Baby Milk Action campaign say is still breaking the World Health Organisation (WHO) code on marketing.

The Church of England also finds itself at odds with church and development campaigners. Catholic aid agency CAFOD, War on Want, Anglican bishops and the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines have all condemned mining companies such as BHP Biliton, Rio Tinto and Anglo American for their human rights abuses and destruction of the environment. The Church has a combined shareholding of £62 million in these three companies alone.

Housing the future?

The suspect ethical investment strategy is not just limited to equities. The Church’s groundbreaking 1985 Faith in the City report highlighted housing as a dominant theme of the evidence given to the Archbishop’s Commission on Urban Priority Areas (ACUPA). It recorded with satisfaction the Church of England’s long tradition of being both a provider of homes for the poorer sections of society and an agitator for reform of the conditions in which the poor were housed. The commission recommended that Church involvement in housing should in the future be developed through non-profit-making housing associations.

But the reality is that the proportion of its assets in residential property has now halved from 22 per cent in 2003 to just 11 per cent at the end of 2008. This includes the sale of Octavia Hill Housing in London which provided accommodation for key workers on low incomes, such as nurses and young teachers. It brought protests not just from residents but also from MPs, a bishop and Church Action on Poverty and was even featured on the BBC1 'Watchdog' programme, where the Secretary to the Church Commissioners was asked “what Jesus would do” confronted with the choice between people and profit. [11]

The Church now lists instead a number of retail parks amongst its property investments, suggesting to many that its own answer to the policy challenge of the Christian message is to favour alleged (but questionable) pragmatism over deeper principle. Or at least to accept rather than to challenge the constraints imposed by law and statute through the Church’s chosen entanglement with Crown and state.

Economics, impact, integrity and ecology

The fact that the Church does not see its investment strategy – and the whole way money is produced, used, exchanged and distributed – as an integral part of its mission has serious consequences both for others and for itself. [12] What it does with money (and its view that economy is first and foremost about a limited notion of ‘accounting’) clearly has an impact on others, as well as on its own ethical authority – or the erosion thereof. Given its own positioning as a ‘moral voice’ in the nation, when the Church invests in a company, it sends a message that the company and its practices are acceptable, particularly when there is a substantial shareholding. At the same time its interests are clearly tied to the balance sheets of the companies it invests in. As Jesus put it: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart also be.”

The failings of macro policy on finance and investment also undermine worthy micro-initiatives. For example, the Bishop of London, the Rt Rev Richard Chartres, has signed a pledge to severely restrict his flying as part of the Church’s campaigning against climate change. He has encouraged others to do likewise. This is good. But the Church still achieves its goal of profit maximisation when everyone else burns fossil fuels, because its biggest share investments of all are in Royal Dutch Shell and BP (a total of £196 million). In what way is this helping to change the agenda on environment and global warming? In its latest report the Church demonstrates that it is now investing in some green funds, which is a significant step forward. But the overall contradiction remains.

Indeed, as a result of its substantial holdings in oil and mining companies, the Church has also benefited hugely from the speculation in commodities which has brought hardship for the poor around the world. And while it is raising money for Zimbabwe, it is also investing in Tesco, which campaigners say is bringing tons of produce to Britain from that country. While the economy is in meltdown, resources are being siphoned towards an elite and President Mugabe is still restricting access to food.

Dr Vincent Magombe, who is the director of the pressure group Africa Inform International, compared the actions of the retailer to “hungry sharks who are feeding on the carcass of a dead country.” [13]

Financial instruments and economic thinking

There are additional questions to be asked over the financial instruments the Church uses. A few years ago, in order to protect its foreign investments, it set up a currency hedging programme to sell sterling (the British pound). Until recently, it had a substantial holding in the largest listed hedge-fund, Man Group. (This no longer appears on the Church’s annual report, but that may be because the shares are now only worth about 30 per cent of what they were at their peak and so no longer show up as a substantial shareholding). The Church has also been criticised for having a stock lending programme through J. P. Morgan [14]: a practice used for short-selling. The Church also trades in debts: the commissioners sold a £135 million mortgage portfolio in 2007.

Along with its investments in HSBC, Barclays, Royal Bank of Scotland, and Lloyds TSB, this all makes the Church’s ongoing criticism of city ‘bank robbers’, greed, unregulated capitalism, debt and short-selling, ring rather hollow. It also sadly undermines any proposals the Church may come up with for substantial change in a system in which it is itself deeply immersed.

In February 2009, the General Synod of the Church of England had a major debate on the credit crunch and the global economy. The Mission and Public Affairs Division of the Archbishops’ Council produced a thoughtful and significant document [15] which, though it did not really challenge the status quo or engage with the radical thinking of the New Economics Foundation (nef) and the ‘Green New Deal’ economists, [16] amounted to a serious piece of work. However, it is noticable that it tackled the problems of ‘the nation’ and ‘the world’ but said nothing about the oikonomia of the churches and its own financial arrangements, priorities and investments.

The Church’s defence in all this has been that it “has to invest somewhere”, it needs to return a fair profit and it has people, programmes and buildings to finance. It also argues that through its investments it can bring benign influence to bear on company behaviour. The problem is that the only concrete example it has ever produced of this happening in practice was influencing British Airways to change its uniform policy following the row over whether a worker should be able to display a small gold cross. This underlines the point about self-interest taking priority over wider concerns, most noticeably for “the least of these, my brothers and sisters” [17], of whom Jesus speaks as part of a devastating warning to those for whom the cloak of religion and cloaks for the naked are entirely different.

The companies in which the Church invests will also be aware of the Church's focus on self-interest and profit maximisation. This undermines the leverage that the Church wishes to bring. If the Church can not demonstrate any credible alternative investment strategies, the companies will justifiably summise that the Church's threats are hollow. Where else will they invest, if not with them?

From threat to promise and possibility

Rather than engaging its critics on the common ground created by the Christian priority for authentic witness rooted in action for justice and peace, the Church of England’s leaders – and those charged with managing its finances – have often adopted a lofty and patronising tone. They assume that their current policies are ‘realistic’ (according to a very restricted understanding of ‘realism’ [18] which appears to exclude the transformative possibilities of the message the Church is called to announce) and suggest that there are no serious alternatives. [19]

A survey of the world after the latest global crash suggests that this is untrue, both pragmatically and in terms of the principles that Christians should be seeking to incarnate. The shape of the world economy is up for grabs as at no time in recent memory and one vital component of working for change – for a new economics which puts people and planet first – is investing in alternatives and re-doing our ‘household economics’ (a term etymologically related to ‘ecumenism’, the faithful search for unity in the world).

What is needed now is a major audit, re-prioritisation and re-strategising of the Church of England’s finance, investment and economic contribution – both to self-sustainability, to local communities and to justice in the world. The work of the World Council of Churches, the ‘confessional’ process on economics among the Reformed family of churches, and the commitment of Anabaptists [20] globally to redistribute wealth among their own communities and through programmes aimed at social transformation and peace witness – all these require more engagement by the churches in Britain; not least the large and Established Church of England.

In an age of green funds, co-operative banks, credit unions, micro-credit, mutuals, housing associations, (fr)ee-cycling and LETS (local exchange trading systems utilising non-monetary exchange) – all of which are suddenly much more attractive and popular given the financial turbulence of the last two years - there are now more possibilities than ever to choose from [21], and little excuse for evasion, complacency or inaction. [22]

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REFERENCES

This paper was written by Jonathan Bartley and edited and expanded with additional material from Simon Barrow. It is a discussion document preliminary to further policy work on re-thinking and re-doing ‘church economics’.

[1] See: ‘Huge public response to archbishops’ Zimbabwe appeal’ - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/9424
[2] See: ‘Recession wipes £1.3bn from Church of England's assets’ - http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2009/may/13/church-of-england-assets-fall
[3] The focus of this paper is on the Church of England, not because other churches, nationally and internationally, are not important, but because is assets are the largest of any church in Britain and its historic status gives it a major opportunity to model a different approach.
[4] Christian Aid Week - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/news/christian_aid_week
[5] We recognise that the Episcopal and Synodical systems of the Church seek to keep the Church Commissioners accountable to the wider church but they are only able to do this within a limited framework at the moment – as the ethical investment case involving the Bishop of Oxford in 1991 illustrated.
[65] Church Commissioners’ Annual Report (in *.PDF Adobe Acrobat file format): http://www.cofe.anglican.org/about/churchcommissioners/annualreport2008/...
[76] The practical and theological problems concerned with dualism and with church-interest dominated thinking in relation to mission are clearly identified in Professor John Hull’s response to the C of E’s Mission-shaped Church - see http://www.johnmhull.biz/MissionShaped.html See also ‘Kingdom-shaped and Mission-focused’ - http://www.johnmhull.biz/OnReconstructingChristianFaith.htm
[87] See: ‘Government urged to revive ethical foreign policy’ - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/content/news_syndication/article_040422eth.shtml
[9] See: ‘Investors urged to follow Church of England on Caterpillar’ - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/8617
[10] For more on Tesco, Unilever, large companies and ethics, see: http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2005/jan/29/supermarkets.unilever
[11] See: ‘BBC asks Church Commissioners 'What would Jesus sell?’” - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/content/news_syndication/article_060314watchdo...
[12] On the broader questions of economics see: Professor John Hull, ‘On Money and Globalisation’ (http://www.johnmhull.biz/OnMoney&Globalisation.htm), and Simon Barrow ‘Towards an Economy Worth Believing In’ (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/6015) and ‘Is God Bankrupt?’ (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/research/280205prosperity) responding to the Churches Together in Britain and Ireland report, Prosperity with a Purpose. More on the economy from Ekklesia - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/tags/272
[13] Quoted in Judy Finch, ‘Investor forces ethics on to Tesco’ - http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2007/may/14/supermarkets.ethicalliving
[14] See in the Financial Times, ‘Church accused over short selling’, by
James Mackintosh, Kate Burgess and Jimmy Burns - http://tinyurl.com/pvpykz
[15] Church of England, Mission and Public Affairs - http://www.cofe.anglican.org/about/archbishopscouncil/mpa.html The 9-13 February 2009 General Synod included a session on the international financial crisis, in which Andreas Whittam Smith (First Church Estates Commissioner) facilitated presentations with Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach and the Rt Rev Peter Selby.
[16] The work of the New Economics Foundation (http://www.neweconomics.org/gen/) and the ‘Green New Deal’ economists (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/8073) is fundamental to a radical revisioning of economics and re-practicing accountancy ‘with theological resonance’ (Peter Challen).
[17] The phrase is from the famous judgement story in chapter 25 of St Matthew’s Gospel.
[18] On renegotiating the terms of ‘realism’ in relation to ‘realisms’ (plural) and practical idealism, see Simon Barrow, Threatened with Resurrection: The difficult peace of Christ (Shoving Leapard / Ekklesia, 2009) - http://books.ekklesia.co.uk/product_info.php?products_id=2125
[19] Economic alternatives range from the micro to the macro - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/tags/5191
[20] More on the Anabaptist global effort to re-vision the economy of the churches in terms of the Evangel (Good News) - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/content/news_syndication/article_05125menno.shtml
[21] See also: Christianity and the Culture of Economics
by Alan Kreider and Donald Hay (University of Wales Press); Free People: A Christian Response to Global Economics, by Tricia Gates Brown (Wipf & Stock), It Doesn't Have to Be Like This: Global Economics: A New Way Forward, by Margaret Legum (Wild Goose) and The Biblical Vision of Sabbath Economics, by Ched Myers (Potters House) . All available through Ekklesia’s online bookshop - http://tinyurl.com/o9cdwu
[22] This paper has been developed substantially by Simon Barrow from an article written by Jonathan Bartley for The Guardian's Comment-is-Free: 'The Church can invest more ethically' - http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2009/may/15/church-invest...

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THE AUTHORS

Jonathan Bartley and Simon Barrow are co-directors of the religion and society think-tank Ekklesia. Jonathan has worked as a parliamentary adviser, has taught politics and political economy from a radical Christian perspective, has direct experience of markets, finance and share-dealing, and is author of The Subversive Manifesto. Simon 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 ‘Towards an Economy Worth Believing In?’ and ‘Is God Bankrupt?’

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22 May 2009 - with a new prologue on 19 April 2011.