God, mammon and the ABC

The Archbishop of Canterbury told this year’s Trinity Institute that the global recession arose, in part, from a fundamental disconnect between economic activity and morality. His speech comes in the wake of the news that the Church of England will lose about $78 million invested in the largest real estate deal in American history as well as involvement in a controversial mining operation in India.

Archbishop Williams said:

“Economic activity is something people do, one kind of activity among others; and as such it is subject to the same moral considerations as all other activities. It has to be thought about in connection with what we actively want for our humanity,”

Ruth Gledhill watched the lecture via satellite and reports:

Standing at the lectern of the famously wealthy US Episcopal church, which lies at the head of Wall Street, the leader of the Anglican Communion condemned the “straw man” of self-interest.

His theme was that financiers, wordsmiths — in fact anyone in the Western world connected in any way with economic reality — should look at themselves in the mirror and repent.

The Telegraph also reported that

Dr Williams also attacked the “uncritical” way that banks had sold expensive mortgages to those who could least afford it, and packaged them up into opaque financial products.

Bankers had invented “more and more recondite metaphysical, unreal forms of wealth generation” simply to “produce noughts on the end of the balance sheet”, according to The Times.

“The implication is that the most basic relation between one human being and another or one group and another is that of the carefully calibrated exchange of material resources.”

But society based largely on money could not survive and prosper, he said, only one based on love could do that.

The Church Commissioners, which are responsible for the property and financial holdings of the Church of England has to scramble, like all investment managers, to deal with the losses they took during the recent downturn.

“The commissioners are looking carefully at the lessons to be learnt from the loss, as well as from the impact of the financial crisis generally,” [Ben Wilson, senior media officer for the Church of England, told ENS.] “This loss comes against a background of the commissioners’ property portfolio outperforming its peer group by an average of 4.6 percent every year over the last 10 years, and returning an average of 12.1 percent each year.”

The Times reports that part of the response will include the selling off of some of their property holdings.

In its latest published reports and accounts, the Church’s investment portfolio has shrunk by more than a fifth as the financial world lurched into crisisa, nd the clergy’s pension scheme has dived into a £352 million deficit. Echoes there of the Church’s catastrophic £800 million loss on the commercial property markets in the last recession of the early 1990s.

Matters are getting so hot under the episcopal collar that the Church is now said to be selling various bishops’ palaces. Rose Castle, home to the Bishop of Carlisle, is already set to go under the hammer and the Bishop of Durham’s Auckland Castle and the see house home of the Bishop of Hereford may follow.

The Commissioners are taking heat for another of their investment choices. Turns out that the Church of England is heavily involved in a controversial mining operation in India called Vendata Resources.

The commissioners are currently being censured for continuing to invest more than £3 million in Vedanta Resources, an Indian mining group slated by environmental and human rights groups for allegedly attempting to clear out the 8,000-strong indiginous tribe of the Dongria Kondh from their sacred mountain habitat in search of bauxite.

The Church claims it remains an investor because it is attempting to persuade Vedanta of the error of its ways.

Nearly £300 million is also invested in companies with controversial ecological records, such as Shell (its largest single investment), BP and Exxon Mobil, and the international miners Anglo American and Rio Tinto.

Williams told the audience at Trinity Institute, “In a sense that is brokenness, where one sector of the human family says, we don’t believe that the rest of you have any investment in what happens to us. That’s real brokenness.”

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