The pitfalls of investments by churches

Andrew Brown writes in The Guardian on Welby, Wonga and the moral dilemma of financial investing:

The person with the greatest cause to be angry about the discovery that the Church of England had profited from an investment in Wonga at the same time as the archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, was denouncing the firm, is the man responsible for the investment, Andreas Whittam Smith, and the Church Commissioners.

The essential point here is that the commissioners did nothing that could reasonably be called wrong. They invested in a venture capital company which in turn invested in Wonga – but that was something neither party could have predicted when the investment was made. Nor was it a large one by their standards.

Yet the archbishop has been doing some wonderful grandstanding to imply that this would never have happened on his watch. You can’t blame Welby for this. He has played a weak hand with considerable skill and clearly established in the public mind that loan sharking is a social evil which Christians, and the Church of England in particular, should try to destroy, and not just denounce. Since one point easily overlooked about his policy is that the church itself won’t put up any money, he is entirely right to keep attention directed elsewhere. I’m not being sarcastic. The amount of money required to run a credit union is immense, and the Church of England does not have it.

Giles Fraser thanks God that the ABC is even trying to do something about pay day loans:

“Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who have sinned against us.” The familiar words of the Lord’s prayer, right? Except, in the earliest Greek manuscripts, the word isn’t sins, it’s debts. “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” That is how the King James Bible renders the Lord’s prayer, though it still feels clunky when used in church.

But it feels even more clunky in the context of the whole Jesus v Wonga debate. The archbishop may want the church to have a greater role in supporting credit unions. But what sort of a lending model can be sustained when the mission statement of that organisation has the forgiveness of debts at its heart?

OK, to be fair, it’s not the church that will be doing the lending on the Welby plan. The idea is for the churches (who have more outlets that the banks) to offer their facilities and human resources in support of credit unions. And it is credit unions that will be doing the lending. But even so, the church does have serious historic issues with money and the advent of a capitalist archbishop serves to bring these to the surface.

The Episcopal Church has a Socially Responsible Investing committee that aids the church and diocese to have a responsible investment policy:

The Episcopal Church has influence on society that is much broader than our physical numbers. The church has extensive financial assets – over $300 million in trust assets; $8 billion in clergy retirement funds; and another $3.6 billion among our parishes and dioceses. Importantly, the church endeavors to make a difference with its money – by investing in socially responsible ways.

Socially responsible investing dates back thousands of years. In biblical times, Jewish law laid down many directives about how to invest ethically. Jesus said more about money and its right use than about anything else except the Reign of God. In the 18th century, religious groups in the United States placed restrictions on their investments (including loans) in companies engaged in distilling, tobacco production, and gambling facilities.

The Episcopal Church has made socially responsible investments at least since the 1960s – and we continue, following a trinity of avoidance, affirmative action, and advocacy.

Avoidance: Not investing in companies whose activities are contrary to our social and moral values.

Affirmative Investing: Investing in institutions that can provide financial resources to underserved communities.

Advocacy: Voting proxies and activism that focus on constructively influencing corporate behavior.

The tools for making money and making a difference with our money have never been more readily available. Wall Street did not develop products that reflect their clients’ social, ethical, and environmental values until the religious investing community asked for them. We ask for this because we want to ensure that our investments incorporate our social and moral values.

We invite you to learn about what the church does and how you and your parish might participate in this ministry.

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