The Church and (its) wonga

How refreshing it was to see the Church hit the headlines for positive reasons! The Archbishop of Canterbury’s initiative to challenge Wonga and other payday loan companies by using the resources of the Church to support local credit unions and compete them out of existence is bold, imaginative and appealing. It was a shame then when it was revealed the next day that the Church is, if only indirectly, invested in Wonga.

To be fair to Justin Welby he handled the embarrassment this caused very well. And I don’t think the news undermined the power of the original idea. But it does illustrate a couple of significant ways in which the Church neither helps itself nor makes the most of its still considerable resources.

In the first place it reveals the lack of joined-upness, of strategy, of organisation at the heart of the Church. The national Church is composed of a number of organisations – Synod, Commissioners, Archbishops’ Council, Lambeth Palace etc – which are in only the most limited way, on the same page or working to the same agenda. This is bound to ensure that the Church is ineffective and shoots itself in the foot on a regular basis. If you were starting from here you wouldn’t organise the Church in this way, but I’m not proposing a set of structural reforms to address this. The more urgent challenge is to create a framework of understanding that embraces these bodies – a strategy, in fact, which covers basics like what the Church is for, what its priorities are, what the big things it intends to do are. Given that the Church is also a fractious coalition of political interests this would not be easy, but it could be done if the Archbishop was determined enough and led the effort. This would have the potential to move the Church from its preoccupation with using sex to advance party positions to the rather more profitable territory of the call of God on the Church today.

For me this is the important context in which the Church should be considering the other big question that arises from the affair – namely, the way the Church manages its money. It would appear that the question being asked by those who manage it on the Church’s behalf is ‘how can we get the maximum return for the Church whilst minimising the harm we do?’ This leads the investors into a range of very difficult judgements about, for example, whether it is right to have money in hotel chains that gain some of their income from charges paid to watch porn on their TVs. I do not underestimate the difficulty of these real world judgements given the complexity of the modern business world – but for me the initial question is the wrong one. We should be asking ‘how can we use our resources in a way that best supports the mission of the Church?’ This would open up a whole different set of possibilities. We would see the every considerable assets of the Church not as a means of self-preservation but as a means of advancing the Church’s purpose, of revealing the Kingdom of God. It might lead us, for example, to invest give more support to the growing army of social entrepreneurs and social enterprises. Investment for social good is a growing form of investment which delivers profit and social benefit. But there is a bigger point – the Church is in decline but remains asset rich. The wise course is not to use this resource to maintain business as usual but as a way of supporting positive change and new growth. We need to see these things differently, to act strategically and be a great deal bolder. The Archbishop has sounded the right note, but if a lasting change is to be made it needs to link to a rather more comprehensive approach to changing the Church’s way of doing things.

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